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Questioning Our Moral Boundaries
by Jorge Albor on 02/22/12 02:07:00 pm   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.


This article originally appeared on

I watched Jackie Estacado grab a man by the feet and then literally rip that man’s spine out through his anus, and I think I liked it. Afters hours of playing The Darkness II, I have disemboweled and torn to pieces so many screaming men that I fear for my sanity. Have I grown so accustomed to wanton slaughter that ripping someone in half evokes only a momentary shock before fading into the backdrop of video game violence? Now might be a good time to reassess that question of video game violence and gore in particular before we let gradual technological progress sneak moral questions past us while we remain fixated on the light show in front of us.

To be fair, there is a comical element to the ludicrous dismemberment portrayed in The Darkness II. Enemies all look like clones of each other and therefore lose their semblance of humanity pretty quickly. The mutated and mask-wearing opponents also distinguish themselves from regular human beings, making their messy and violent passing a little less disturbing. The game is also rendered in non-photorealistic cel-shading, giving everything a sketchy comic-book feel, distancing itself from our own moral universe. 
Its art style and over-the-top violence places The Darkness II in the realm of exploitation cinema, using its ludicrous gore to elicit shock and laughter. Digital Extremes, the developers behind The Darkness 2, should feel honored to have their game compared to the likes of Kill Billor Dawn of the Dead.

Of course, The Darkness II has nothing on the brutality of the Sawfranchise and the remarkably popular sub-genre of horror known as torture porn. Frankly, I find the Saw series, and by extension Final Destination and films of that ilk, repulsive and completely unrewarding. They lack any of the clever juxtaposition of themes established by slasher films like Psycho and Friday the 13th. Of course the violence inThe Darkness also fails to establish any intimate connection with the game’s narrative. Why then do I find one more appealing than the other?

Do you think that the Romans found gladitorial combat entertaining for the same reason that I might enjoy ripping a helpless gangster apart inThe Darkness, or for the same reason, that some game players willingly purchased Saw: The Video Game? At one point in mankind’s history, we gladly watched men and women killing each other for sport. For the most part, these gladiators were low on the social hierarchy. The best warriors died a “good death,” welcoming the killing blow and dying honorably. They showed viewers the proper way to die, a death they could admire. Yet even in death, gladiators were treated as socially pestilent. Their bodies generally ending up in cemeteries separate from others, most without tombstones to mark their passing.

There are no good deaths in The Darkness, no final redemption for the hordes of disposable enemies. Perhaps in the violent eradication of so many digital lives, our own troubles and lingering fear of death becomes trivial, silencing for a moment the persistent call of et in Arcadia ego. These horrific but frivolous deaths could be healthy.

Or the psychological numbing could do more harm than good.

Even the glory of gladiatorial sport reinforced the era’s political and social hierarchies. The games were lavish affairs in which money was made, political power was flaunted, and diplomatic relations were consummated along with all the seduction and the deception that that implies. There is money in the violence of games as well and norms that we reconstruct and come to expect. To what extent am I becoming a consumer of blood sport? Gladiatorial combat was once popular and is now detestable, can we shift back just as easily?

I ask this question here not to join the tired and misinformed fear mongers in the media and in the conservative community that are concerned about video game violence, but instead, to make some time and space to reassess the moral implications of the violence that I so readily—and hungrily—consume. Considering the pace of technology, I can easily foresee a day when my Kinect recognizes my “thumbs down,” and I watch with a thirst the three-dimensional splatter of a photo-realistic warrior’s final moments. If that day comes, I want to know if I made the transformation critically and self-reflexively, without abandoning moral questions in favor of passivity.

I know this issue of violence in games is an ongoing and controversial subject, so much so that many of us just ignore questions of violence and morality all together. Regardless, when engaging in extreme digital violence, we brush up against our own moral boundaries. I have no qualms about playing The Darkness 2, and I would never suggest that those who love gore are morally bankrupt. However, I know that I have a personal moral line and that this line is not set in stone. My boundaries and opinions shift constantly and subtly. Given the pace of technology and the ongoing role of violent media in our culture, I fear that this line will be pushed ever closer towards Roman-era spectacle without my notice. If any form of violence in media raises moral questions, then we should confront these moral questions now and never let this subject rest easy.

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Roger Tober
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I think the question is, when will we get tired of gore and move on to deeper experiences? I got tired of it a long time ago.

Craig Ellsworth
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In my experience, the moral line is very clear: is the death/gore real, or fake? I have no trouble mowing down millions of photo-realistic people in a game, but if someone loses a tip of a finger in real life, I have to resist the urge to puke.

Even when I watch some viral video, and my brain can't tell if it's real or fake, my stomach can. There is some quality to real gore that I'm not consciously aware of, but which my body knows instantly. It could be the way a person screams (victim or friend of the victim) which cannot be accurately captured by actors, or it could be the blood itself which cannot be accurately recreated with special effects, or any number of other factors, or a combination of them.

In Roman times, the Gladiators really were killed, so that is a line which has shifted. Today we have sports where contenders beat the stuffing out of each other, but death is not the intent. I love watching MMA fighting, but if someone actually breaks a bone, I cringe. But if I'm watching Saw and Carey Elwes cuts his foot off, I keep chewing my popcorn.

I think other people have their lines, and to some those lines may be movable and bendable, but mine is pretty clear, because it's not even about morality; it's about what my body naturally finds revolting.

If most people share that same or similar sentiment, I think we don't need to worry about fake gore desensitizing us to real gore. For Western Civilization, the Gladiator days are gone; we don't kill for entertainment anymore. Now we just need to work on ending killing for ideologies, land, prejudice, revenge, drugs, etc.

Jorge Albor
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That's a really good point. While I you're right, the gladiator days are gone, I'm not sure the reason they watched it in the first place is. My concern is that my own moral boundaries are probably more fluid than yours, and I want to be wary of crossing them unwittingly. Even now, I can safely say I am less shocked by violence. Who knows if that's a good thing.

Also, the ideologies and prejudice thing is spot on, and I think could work just as well in this article in place of violence. I wonder if I cringe as much when my digital enemies seem inspired by racial stereotypes.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Aren't these two different subjects though - disgust versus morality? I am not scared of people, even those crazy teenagers, becoming desensitized to violence if it simply means they don't throw up when they see it, as long as it doesn't cause them to somehow think that violence is the answer to most solutions. Being less shocked by violence could be a good thing; if you are in law enforcement, it can keep you stable in tense situations so that you can better help people. In that regard, I am more concerned over why the violence happens in entertainment than how gory it is.

Caulder Bradford
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You're bringing up a valid point, and one I tend to contemplate from time to time myself. I think the underlying issue is yeah, what draws us as consumers to these kinds of violent interactions in games, because after all, if no one enjoyed this kind of content it would not be present in our entertainment. I think at the end of the day it is entertainment, but at the same time I would not pass off all forms of interactive violence as "harmless fun" as some might. Though if this is damaging to our psyche in some way, I suspect it's not in the ways we would think maybe...

Interesting topic!

Joshua Darlington
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If you are looking for an example of excessive fantasy carnage in ancient culture, perhaps take another look at the Homeric epics. The Iliad is intense.

Bryce Walton
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"Considering the pace of technology, I can easily foresee a day when my Kinect recognizes my 'thumbs down,' and I watch with a thirst the three-dimensional splatter of a photo-realistic warrior’s final moments."

It's already been done on the Wii version of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. The motion control for the infamous Force Choke was holding down the Z Button while holding the Nunchuk upside down. All you have to do is extend your left thumb, and you become Caesar, squelching the life of some poor Stormtrooper.

Matthew Mouras
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and just because I took a Latin class in high school and found it interesting, I'll chime in and say that thumbs down actually meant "let them live"... Thumbs up? You weren't so lucky.

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Mark Ludlow
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I'll play a violent game if it's fun and challenges me, but I'll still generally avoid them if I think they go too far for the sake of excess rather than adding to the experience. Despite saying that though, if you give me a gun and a horde of enemies and say "survive" then I will gladly, run, gun, and slay while having fun. Put in a moral choice system though, and unless I'm particularly trying to get the "Evil path" achievements, I will most often choose the morally "Good" choices.