First Person

First Person
Crossing the Line in Spec Ops

Dennis C. Scimeca | 28 Aug 2012 11:00
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If you saw that in the theater it was probably one of the most horrific things you'd ever seen on a movie screen and heard over a theater sound system. The cacophony of noise hammered at you while men exploded and picked their arms up off the beach and screamed and died. The opening of Saving Private Ryan is no more real than a videogame. It's based on a real-life event, and if you know this it carries a ton of emotional weight, but even if someone wasn't aware of the historical nature of the subject matter, the power of that scene ought to remain, anyway. It's a brutal, if dramatic, presentation of the horrors of war.

Now imagine someone in the audience who really wasn't aware of the historical nature of the scene, maybe a teenager who hadn't paid attention in history class. All they know is that they're going to see a war movie. They're laughing at the insane special effects, turning to their friends and saying "Damn! Lookit that dude with his arms blown off! That's crazy!" and just watching the movie as if it were any other source of entertainment. We might look sideways at that teenager and think they were a little off because clearly the scene is horrific and they're having way too much fun watching it.

Modern Warfare 2's No Russian mission forces us to observe the slaughter of civilians at an airport but doesn't force us to partake. I partook. I turned the mission into a sport, seeing how many people I could kill or trying to beat the AI-controlled terrorists to the punch. I even walked over to wounded, still-moving civilians and shot them in the head to up my kill count. My wife was horrified. I thought it was funny. And I'm only now willing to admit just how fucked up that was because I've looked at my decisions in Spec Ops and realized that it's just as fucked up that I still don't feel any remorse for what I did in that game, as well, and I need to know why.

I think the answer is that if I allow this state of affairs to worry me I'll be spending my time in military shooters noticing the violence and the gore and thinking, "Oh, my God this is awful," instead of paying attention to the job I'm supposed to be doing. I don't play military shooters on Normal because I can shrug off damage and ignore my ammo counts and blow off taking cover and playing smart. I start on Hard or Veteran because I've been playing these games for years and I want to keep pushing my skills. That's the fun of it, engrossing myself in the kinesthetics and the skill challenge.

That also means that I don't really register when I snipe a guy and his head blows apart like a ripe melon, and those graphics are getting chunkier and more realistic every year. I don't really think about it when I drop explosives on a group of bad guys and their limbs go flying off and they scream as they burn to death. I barely notice when I slit the guy's throat and the blood spurts out because I'm focused on the next corner, the next room, the next encounter, and making sure I play it cool and calculated and smart because I want to play it right. I want to get into that state of flow where I'm one with the game, and I want to stay there.

What Spec Ops: The Line asked me to do was question whether or not that's okay, and it isn't about coming up with an answer. It's about not dismissing the question anymore, and being open to the possibility that maybe something is fucked up about all this. I don't think having proof of real-life consequences is necessary to warrant taking the question of videogame violence seriously, but there's one real-life consequence that I know I've suffered. I don't think I'm capable of talking about this in an objective fashion anymore.

I may be able to temper my knee-jerk reaction to questions about whether videogame violence is problematic or not, but I may only be able to understand the "problem" at an intellectual level. I'm not sure if anything other than the most clearly offensive and inexcusable virtual violence could even make an impact on me anymore, and the fact that this doesn't really worry me at all is precisely what I ought to find worrisome.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. You can read some of his other musings on his blog, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

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