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Let's Get Real about Fatherhood and Video Games
by Greg Pollock on 07/19/13 03:39:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The Last of Us has, as any serious video game should, attracted its share of critique concerning the representation of women. I'm not going to try to adjudicate that conversation--while I admire much of what the game does I am loath to be one of those horrible dudes who shuts down difficult conversations about gender--but it touches on a parallel topic I can talk about. The central relationship in The Last of Us of is not romantic but paternal, casting the video game mechanic of "shoot a guy before he shoots you" within the father-daughter relationship. While there are perspectives on this discussion I am not equipped to discuss, I can tell you about the part I am: what it's like to be a father to a little girl. 

My daughter--our first child--is six weeks old. I am insanely in love with her. I, like most dads, would do anything for her. I would kill for her. Or die for her. I'd drink my urine so she could have the last of our water. Whatever--I'd do anything for her. Realistically, I have to do something much worse. I go to work and don't see her enough. At the end of the day I have to remember how precious our time together is when I'm already tired and irritable and painfully aware of the conversion rate between my mortality and her access to healthcare and education. There are difficult things that a dad does but they are more grueling than gruesome.

 Poetry is a perennial companion of humans because it gives us a medium for expressing the intensity of love, a thing that defies everyday language. Fatherly love is like that too. But the trend of serious video games--well, a trend of Western culture over the last few thousand years--has been to communicate intensity of feeling and the failure of language through metaphors of violence. When we try to complete the sentence, "I love you so much that--" we don't have to land on an expression of violence. That is a habit, one that is both cause and effect of the violence we do outside of metaphor. Maybe you would walk five hundred miles, and then walk five hundred more, to express your love. Maybe you'd change a bunch of diapers or stay awake all night to make sure she's breathing in her sleep. Maybe you'd suffer the break between language and love without striking out to prove that it exists. 

This is the beachhead on which stories--told through video games or other means--break one way or the other: do they require that men express love as violence? Blockbuster video games are so monoculturally dedicated to first person shooters that it is easy for an observer to conflate "video games" and "shooters," but there are already millions of other ways to engage players that don't boil down to putting a dot at the right place at the right time. Even Day Z, a brutally realistic zombie survival game, subverts its shooter origins by placing survival so unflinchingly at its core that you can never merrily blast your way out of your problems. Do that and you're low on precious ammo: a new problem. There is no pre-existing narrative there to catch you, and so you return to the kind of slow, patient, anxious work that is the real expression of care.

It's not that I don't enjoy shooters with dad themes. No, I really like the feeling these games give me. I loved the first two Bioshock games in which you rescue afflicted little girls and either save them or harvest them for resources. When I annihilated the bad guys attacking my little sisters it felt great. That feeling is intoxicating. I can understand why violence is so seductive as a shorthand for paternal love. But, like, come on dude. You don't want your kid living in a world where everyone else is waiting to express their love of family by killing yours. (And here I can't help thinking of the murder of Trayvon Martin). It's fun as hell to mow down splicers in Bioshock but that pleasure is completely unrelated to the actual joys of being a parent.

Everything I've said so far applies equally to a child of any gender. At the point where the imagination turns back into reality--where, for example, the fantasy of honorable defense becomes the killing of an unfamiliar youth--gender and race matter again. Zombies aren't going to attack my daughter, but statistics show that it is frighteningly possible a man will. So I am wary of enjoying too much the pleasure of righteous violence when I know that there is another side to it, and that women have historically--and currently--been on the side opposite me. 

I don't want to play a dad sim, and I'm not attributing to video games the kind of sorcerous power that animate pig's bladder Wayne LaPierre thinks they have. Video games are part of culture. They don't exercise demonic mind control but they also aren't separate from the reproduction of ideology (I'm looking at you, gun culture). As both a game developer and a dad all I'm asking is that fatherhood--or if we want to get crazy, masculinity--not be cast as the ability to kill a guy on the tv. Dadding is not that simple or easy. It, unlike most shooters, is not a game for teen boys. I believe in video games as a medium capable of examining complex experiences like parenthood. I think we have nailed down the part about wanting to defend our kids. Now I'd like to see us represent the experiences that dads really get to enjoy.

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Ramin Shokrizade
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I like to thnk big. I'd go as far as to say I'm paid to think big. If you believe that the planet has hit its cap as far as how much total animal life it can support (I would suggest that due to pollution, climate change, and habitat destruction the cap is collapsing fairly rapidly) then you can see that any time you add life you taking it away from someplace else. Thus by having your daughter you have traded her life for something else's life. It is not unrealistic that you will continue to make this choice daily, consciously or unconciously, for decades to come. We do our best to make these choices invisible so that we don't have to think about them. In post apocolyptic games all of this nicety is removed and we have to do our killing for ourselves instead of paying others to do it for us. This is both exciting, and to some extent more honest. You are pulling the trigger every day in defense of your daughter and something else is losing, it just becomes a lot more obvious in video games of this type.

t b
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"You are pulling the trigger every day in defense of your daughter and something else is losing, it just becomes a lot more obvious in video games of this type."

Life is not a zero sum game. It's like saying that if you plant a garden in your back yard, a desert appears somewhere to maintain the balance. Things aren't that simple. The garden requires some resources, sure, but a healthy ecosystem can support more life than an unhealthy one given the same amount of resources - think of flash floods through a desert versus rain through a healthy forest.

Ramin Shokrizade
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tb, while plant life is not a zero sum game, animal life essentially is due to the finite and virtually fixed amount of bound nitrogen which they require to make cells. Humans are adding a small amount in the form of fertilizers, but the haphazard way this enters the ecosystem can be very disruptive (ie algae and jellyfish blooms). It is fair to treat animal life as having an upper limit though as I pointed out I think that cap is decreasing.

Sorry I did not intend to derail Greg's fine article. I probably should not let my GF show me PETA videos before I go to sleep.

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Greg Pollock
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Ramin, I've read many of your articles and feel honored to have a reply from you! It's a fair point that the life of a human entails an expense to be borne by other types of beings. However, it's not as binary as "one life for another life." Some choices do more damage to other beings. Driving a Hummer a mile has a different carbon footprint than riding a bike (or walking). Factory farmed meat requires more resources and suffering than a comparable vegetarian meal. To expand on that example, I think it is overly broad to paint all resource consumption as "pulling the trigger" in the same sense as pulling a trigger to shoot someone. Different methods of resource production entail different degrees of violence and suffering. It is possible to have the same outcome (let's say, a steak on the table) with different degrees of suffering for the animal and people who made it possible. Flattening all of those variations into the idea that all life is equally violent removes the possibility of ethics.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Greg, we are in agreement and I certainly do not mean to justify violence in games. I completely agree that there is demand for less violent games and as such I should have pointed out that I agree with the message you are trying to send in this OP. I just see parallels in nationalism (I will do anything for my country, because it is better than any other country) when people say "I love this one organism and will do anything to protect it at the expense of other organisms". I'm sure that sounds harsh, but one of the cool things about games is that we can actually practice the unimaginable as if it was really happening.

Recently I was working on a game with a meat-based economy. Meat was the currency. We found that while vegans were comfortable with this concept, the omnivores on the development team were horrified. This seemed upside down, but it was because the omnivores very carefully don't think about the food chain. If you had a post apocalyptic game where it truly was realistic, I think reproducing in photo realistic quality the process of gathering and preparing food would probably scare people more than killing zombies or other food competitors.

In the spirit of your original article, I think it would be great if a game gave players the choice between violent and non-violent solutions to difficult situations and let them play it through the way they wanted to. It seems to me that most games only give the violent option, implying that this is the only way to deal with adversity. After all, the point of being in a post apocalyptic world game is to enjoy seeing what it would be like in a world without rules. Having the developer just put rules in that force you to act violently kind of defeats the purpose.

Paul Marzagalli
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Ramin, "I just see parallels in nationalism (I will do anything for my country, because it is better than any other country) when people say "I love this one organism and will do anything to protect it at the expense of other organisms"."

You would be quite pleased by "The Last of Us", then.