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Analysis: M.I.A.'s Born Free, And Violence As A Tool
Analysis: M.I.A.'s Born Free, And Violence As A Tool
May 28, 2010 | By Kris Graft

May 28, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Columns

[Inspired by British songwriter M.I.A.'s explicit video for the song Born Free, Gamasutra senior news editor Kris Graft says violence is a powerful tool that is typically taken for granted in video games.]

A small S.W.A.T.-styled tactical team, sporting riot gear and sleeve patches of the American flag, breaches an apartment building. This death squad ransacks the building room by room, at one point interrupting a naked, overweight couples' lovemaking session. They're frightened.

The tactical unit wrangles up young red-haired males from the building, forces them onto a bus at gunpoint, drives them out to a desert covered with mines and makes them run across the minefield.

Beatings with nightsticks precede slow-motion depictions of one young boy getting his brains blown out at point blank range, and a short time later, another boy is vaporized as he steps on a mine.

The scenes are from UK artist M.I.A.'s recent video for the song Born Free. Now I'm thinking, "Why can't video games be more like this?"

The images from Born Free shock the viewer, but as violent as the images are, I don't consider them gratuitous. Watching the video reminded me of the power of violent depictions and how they can make a lasting impression.

But violence has become so comfortably ingrained in video games that game designers often don't leverage it as the powerful tool that it is -- it's a commodity now. Meanwhile, gamers absolutely don't expect violence to be anything but gratuitous, or for it to carry any meaning or purpose beyond shallow spectacle.

The Born Free video, directed by Romain Gavras, carries messages about racism, police brutality, fascism, nationalism and even the subject of violence itself. When the video was pulled from YouTube, it became about censorship. It portrayed all of those messages in nine minutes via a non-interactive video. Imagine the ideas an interactive game can lead the player to explore over the course of several hours.

Last year, perhaps the most talked-about depiction of violence in video games was the "No Russian" scene from Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, in which you played a double agent who mows down defenseless travelers in a Russian airport using machine guns.

While rather shocking to see this in a video game -- you don't see such a realistic depiction of violence against innocents very often -- it didn't have the impact it could have had, because there was little character development leading up to that pivotal moment.

The player is practically plopped into the scenario, handed a gun and told to do something heinous. The scene may have had some purpose in propelling the story, and the fact that it did come out of nowhere did illicit a short-lived "wtf am I doing?!" feeling, but it held little lasting meaning.

BioShock was one game that got violence right -- the act of causing physical harm was integrated seamlessly with an overarching theme of control and enslavement. You could not have one without the other. Violence permeated the gameplay as well as the story, and the blood and gore had purpose for the lead character, the world and the story. When you find that your acts of violence weren't of your own volition, you're stunned.

Team Ico's Shadow of the Colossus is another game that exploited gaming's violent tendencies to great effect. Colossus lures gamers in with a typical story about love, but what really becomes central are the "enemies" that you must kill in order to preserve that love.

After you encounter the third or fourth colossus, you begin questioning your violent acts: What gives me the right to stab these beasts to death? Does my want for love outweigh the importance of the existence of these ancient creatures? No matter what your answer is, Colossus never forgets that it's a game, and you must keep killing. The whole time, you're asking yourself "Why?"

There's still room in video games for gratuitous, meaningless violence. Sometimes it's just about fun. I don't need to contemplate why I step on Goomba, or deeply consider a Fatality. I don't need to weep when I see a space marine fry a zerg with a flamethrower. Violence can be about the sheer shock and the spectacle, and that's entertaining too.

But it can also be more than that. Violence can serve as a vehicle for story, character development and meaning. Maybe it's time to stop taking this powerful tool for granted -- I guarantee gamers won't see it coming.

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Tim Haywood
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I watched a TV show recently where a women said,"I am sorry but I cannot accept any form of entertainment that involves Killing."

I admire her strong position even though I do not accept it. I think fantasy violence where humans are up against monsters, aliens, super natural spirits, zombies etc. is excellent escapism and great fun. But in recent times I have become less happy with violence in games between people.

The cynical part of me feels that the MIA video is just there to bring attention to their act rather than a proper racism message. The head shot didn't need to be in the video for it to send the same message - I got the point when they had finished grabbing the people and taking them away.

Doctor Who did exactly the same message in the episode where people are taken away on a truck and Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) was crying, its said everything it needed to say, without a head shot in sight. (can't remember the episode name)

But getting back to games, MWII has not been bought by me, and won't be - I don't agree with the moral direction of what it considers entertainment. Its not just the "No Russian" part, but all of it - I don't agree with killing people. (as a form of entertainment)

But here is the interesting thing, if it was zombies killing people, I'd be fine with it - because its fantastical - but American troops verses (whoever they choose) in a game - is a massive turn off.

Don't get me wrong though, MWII is very well made, and I do applaud them for trying to do some challenging moral content. Its just not for me, and I'm not that sure that message really needs to be delivered via the art of gaming.

agostino priarolo
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Wow, but the first time I played Modern Warfare 2 I managed to finish the airport scene without shooting at a single civilian and cop. It took ages but I did it.

Maybe that was the challenge, to not shooting at any civilian while under cover and you failed at that?

Kris Graft
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Hey agostino,

I personally think that "No Russian" was meant to be almost like an interactive cut scene rather than a challenge. Even the few armed cops are no challenge for you and your cohorts who are all sporting automatic weapons.

And while I don't think that part had quite the impact that it could have, I actually purposefully shot _over_ civilians heads. I didn't shoot a single one on my first playthrough. So separate from MW2 as a whole, I think the segment was successful in the respect that it put you in a pretty uneasy position where you could choose how to act.

Mathew Kumar
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Something you might find interesting about Garvas' video for Born Free is that it's a (ginger) pale imitation of Peter Watkin's 1971 film Punishment Park (;) and in fact in comparison I think the M.I.A. video is in fact a pointless attempt to shock without any of the value of the work it sources.

However, I think the song, in particular its use of Suicide's Ghost Rider, is pretty great. The video, less than its influences, the song, perhaps more.

Mike Smith
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Vile and dehumanizing

jaime kuroiwa
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That video was pure pandering; there was no depth or message there. Violence as "a powerful tool?" In this case, it was a powerful tool in advertising, that's for sure.

As for violence in videogames, it should always be an OPTION, not a necessity. You can't "use" violence unless you're aware of a non-violent alternative. That being said, none of the examples "got violence right."

Kris Graft
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Hey Jaime,

I actually disagree with violence "should always be an OPTION, not a necessity." I think the use violence can have just as much if not more of an impact when it is sewn in tightly with the gameplay, story and characters. [*Spoiler but you all know*] I found that Andrew Ryan ordering you to beat him to death, for me, had a greater impact than, say, having the decision to shoot or sneak in MGS4. Not saying that choice is bad at all, just saying I disagree with the use of the word "always." Choice is great, but if someone can craft something really compelling that sets me down a straight path, that's good too.

Alan Stevens
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I can't help but think this is nothing but another person pointing their finger at America and blaming us for all the worlds woes. Its easy to pick on America, we're the guys who seemingly have everything and take advantage of it. So often we look past the atrocities of others countries because we somehow expect that from them and don't care when it does happen.

Neda Soltan was shot dead in the middle of a street in Iran by the government, yet there are no music videos for her or all of the other Iranians being slaughtered. What about the riots in Greece? That country is literally apart at the seems, but lets not pay too much attention to that.

The video is nothing but shock. What does it teach you? You can't trust SWAT teams? It certainly doesn't teach you that violence is horrible, only that the SWAT (or by proxy, America) is filled with murderers. At least video game violence is honest. It is meant to feed the hungry masses. We as humans crave violence to a certain level, even if its not in the form of one person killing another person.

Renan Rennó
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I think she is just trying to shock and make people talk about violence and those issues. And trying to make money out of it.

Oh, and let's never forget: VIDEOGAMES ARE TOYS!

Antonio Blázquez
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Sorry for the rest of americans, but reading the comments from Jeffrey Parsons or Alan Stevens I'm getting the idea that you have the culture of an australopithecus. Jeffrey you have not moral learning and if you have a bit of culture you must know that self guns property is forbydden in Europe(not like in america where all have the right of having a weapon even whitout education). For sure you can't point in a map where is Greece. The worlds economy has been close to colapse because of American economy fail and please don't piss from those who invent democracy 2000 years before America was discovered. You are a society in decadence because your foundations are supported in ignorance. You haven't riots in America? Then you are a Zombi society because Your social rights are the poorest in occident and here in europe we will fight any goberment who tries to cut our rights and I'm proud of it.

Relating to the post, games have to give always some teaching. Here is my reflexion. For exploiting the violence power is necesary to put the player in a situation where the only way for survive or rescue the princess(lol) is violence.

This was well made in splinter cell double agent, when you were surrounded by terrorists and you had to kill your boss for getting the confidence with the terrorists necesary for saving the world fron an inminent massive attack(you had no choice Sam..). I think they do well also in SC:Conviction because there was no real need for killing the boss of the coup(but other way there was a emotional war inside Sam) and they give you the choice.

About MW2, the "No Russian" Scene was one of those where the only choice was to kill inocents, if it would be well made the real terrorist should kill you for no shooting like them. It's a war game, not infiltration, the game would be the same without that scene, it was only made for propel the game emotions.

I agree that there's always other way for fun else than gratuite violence and games like GTA are just that, a epic gratuite violence title.

Mathew Kumar
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Ginger isn't a derogatory term. I have ginger hairs in my beard, I don't know what else I'd call them, proud-Scottish-ancestry hairs?

Kris Graft
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I think your proud-Scottish-ancestry beard hairs make you look distinguished, Mathew.

Adam Bishop
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I thought the point being made by the video was pretty simple and hardly aimed at shock value. The police/soldiers in the video are American because the whole thing is an allegory for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in which Americans were the primary aggressors. The point of the video is to show how appalling the action of Western troops in those countries has been by transplanting it to a situation far more familiar to people in Britain, the U.S., Canada, etc. Apparently when it's done fictionally to people with red hair in a Western looking country it's meaningless shock value, but when it's done to real Arabic people by actual soldiers and private military companies that's OK.

To get to the point of the article, I think video games and their interactivity could be an extremely effective medium for communicating ideas about violence in the real world, but it could only happen if games were to be made that deliberately limited violence and had an actual message that was worked not just into the game's narrative, but its gameplay as well. In fact, I'd love to play that kind of game, and I'd quite like to see them made.

jaime kuroiwa
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I can see where certain violent scenes can be crafted to have more emotional impact. In the case of Bioshock, though, the fact that you had no control over Jack during that sequence completely ruined the moment.

MW2, BS, and SotC don't offer an alternative to the violent act. In most games, your character is either violent by design, your hand is forced by the designer, or you're stuck in limbo until you commit a violent act. In all those cases, acts of violence were not handled properly. Powerful, sure, but they all feel contrived.

I remember a scene in (I think...) the first Splinter Cell where Grimsdotter orders you to kill a female informant -- although she helped you throughout the level -- within a 5 second window. If you've played the game non-violently up to that point, that moment becomes much more powerful. Fortunately, you can choose NOT to shoot her, and you'll quickly realize that your decisions are not black and white.

I apologize for using the word "always," but, considering the technology present in games nowadays, violence doesn't have to be the answer anymore.

sean lindskog
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Quote: Jeffrey Parsons

"A British musician and a French director try to make an idiotic point about violence using characters wearing American flags. How trite. No wonder their societies are bankrupt and constantly convulsing in riots, and you can't walk their graffiti-scrawled and trash-covered streets without being mugged, stabbed, or shot. "

Holy crap dude, taking a video by 2 people and using it as an excuse to trash talk two entire countries makes you look like a total asshole.

Jeremy Reaban
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The ironic thing is, this pretty much really happened in the US. A young girl (7 years old) named Aiyana Jones was killed by a SWAT team in Detroit. (First set on fire by a grenade, then shot)

The thing is, it wasn't racism. They got the wrong floor of a duplex. It was because the police were in a rush (and showing off) for a TV show. The First 48 on A&E.

So rather than making a bold, courageous statement, I think the artist and director are part of the problem - the glamorization of military style police tactics by the entertainment industry. Even supposed negative images like this video often do the opposite.

Kris Graft
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Yo Jaime,

Of course, I see where you're coming from. I suppose the reason that I did choose BioShock and Colossus as examples is because they played with the fact that gamers _are_ conditioned to act violently in games, and both of those games took that convention of violence and, I think, turned it upside down to provide something surprising and thought-provoking for the player. But you're also right -- the choice of being violent or not can also be a powerful way to convey an idea, I won't argue against that.

Point is, violence in games is a commodity. Your example is good too! For me it's not really an issue of linear vs. choice, rather the lazy way that violence is often handled.

Mark Harris
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Sean, it's no different then the video attaching American flags to the "police" uniforms. This isn't a video about police brutality, it has a direct message to convey about the US. I imagine they want an inflammatory reaction.

Regardless of how I feel about their use of our national symbol in their video, we do live in a free society and they have the right to make known their agenda. Adam mentioned that it is allegory for the wars in the Middle East. War is a dirty business, and unfortunately unjust things happen when engaged in one (or two). If those events are occurring that is lamentable and should be dealt with accordingly, but I would hesitate to extrapolate this type of behavior onto the entirety of our military forces engaged overseas. It seems unilaterally unfair and unjust, much as the behavior of the "police" in the video.

Adam Bishop
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I've been curious for a while why Bioshock gets such huge praise for challenging the idea of the player just doing what they're told when the first Metal Gear Solid game had virtually an identical plot twist and came out nearly a decade earlier. It's not as if no one played Metal Gear Solid either! To be honest I never really felt as though Bioshock had much to say about violence and like most people once I realised that it didn't matter whether I saved the Little Sisters or not the impact of that decision was lost on me too.

On the other hand I think the Metal Gear Solid series has done a far better job of making me think about the role of violence in games because the message and the gameplay have been wound up far more closely. The whole point of the games is to *not* be noticed, and the themes found in the narratives dovetail with that quite nicely.

A more recent game whose violence has been impactful is Heavy Rain. By heavily limiting the amount of violence in the game (aside from one extremely misplaced scene), the violence that is there seems more meaningful. A story about a child killer placed in a game where the player is constantly shooting everything that moves in the head loses a lot of its emotional impact, but a game about a child killer in which most of the characters are peaceful, regular people is much more engaging.

Antonio Blázquez
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Thanks sean lindskog, it's good to see that i'm not the only one who thinks that saying that is a asininity.

This video takes a very recognisable group of people like terrorists, and they are forced like if they have made an outrage the day before. If you have a bit of imagin it's how islamic people must feel after 11S. The ending exploding with a mine it's just that, a chilling final that shocks you.

Benjamin Delacour
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"Ginger" jumped the pond overnight during the airing of a South Park episode. Due to the use of the word in the show (featuring segregation and hate of pale white redheads parelleling that of the Jews, if I remember correctly), I'd say it's primarily a sarcastic or mildly deraugatory word now. It can also still retain it's normal, color-based meaning, which I imagine it will return to with time.

Joseph Khemphoud
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Romain Gavras is well known for depicting violence, here is another videoclip made for "Justice", a french electronica band ==>

There's no special message in these videos, it's all about violence and that's all. There is nothing to understand, just behold the violence expressed through people just like any other form of expression.

You don't have to say whether it's good or bad, just watch.

Jonathan Lawn
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Just in case anyone comes to this late ...

"Ginger" (pronounced the same way as Great bell rINGER) is a standard playground insult in the England. I guess it may once have been anti-scottish, but I don't think there's any hint of that now. It's significant because it persists into adult comedy precisely because its clearly a completely random group to be rude to. People might think you're being serious if you say you hate/loath/pity anyone based on age/skin/size but they know you're being deliberately unreasonable if you pick on gingers.

Because of that I'm pretty sure they've been picked here to point out that there isn't necessarily a good reason why a group gets picked on. They are pure victims.

Similarly the US flags are not particularly to pick on the US, but to make it clear that this can happen anywhere. Don't think that your country is immune. Just using white police in a video could lead to us mentally writing this off as the Balkans, or somewhere else but not here, whereas the point is that it could be here. Be repulsed, and don't be complacent.