“That’s a bit violent, son.”
That was my mother, approximately two weeks after the first Doom was released on what we seasoned gamers lovingly refer to as Shareware. It sounds like a wholly foreign concept now but Shareware was great – in this case it meant a third of the game completely free, downloadable from bulletin board systems, with an option to purchase the rest of it if you liked it.
The violence? Doom’s riotous chaingun: a spinning, whirling bullet spewing cannon that fired alarmingly powerful bolts of lead at the oncoming legions of Hell. Zombied soldiers – once comrades of the player character – diced up into chunks at my hands, a tap of the mouse button enough to end their miserable, shambling (second) lives. Thinking about it, my mum was probably right.
Technically, of course, my actions were simply triggering functions and routines that made other variables change their contents. There were no undead hordes, there were just arrays of records that told the game engine where to position sprites that vaguely looked like bad guys. Once ‘dead’, their sprites were replaced by ones that looked like gooey blobs, and the player moved on.
Is that violence? Is an interchange of lines of code and a few pixels anything to get worked up about? Distilled down to first principles: no, but back in 1993 as a young man who thought he’d discovered the future in this frankly all too realistic virtual reality, it was absolutely violent. It was dark, scary, dangerous, bloodthirsty, sweaty, euphoric. It was amazing.[videoyoutube]Thankfully, I’ve emerged from my youth as something approaching measured and balanced. I don’t dream about Cacodemons and I don’t visualise shooting the endless torrent of drivers that don’t indicate with a BFG – instead, I’ve found that quite the opposite has happened, whether from time-enforced maturity or just thinking about my actions I don’t know, but I now find it a lot harder to pull the trigger.
Now sure, demons from another universe are easy in-game cannon fodder – I’ve no qualms with dispatching bug-eyed aliens or eight legged monsters with whatever arsenal I have handy.
But watch me playing the first level of Battlefield 3 and you’ll see me wince a little as bullets leave my pistol and oncoming enemy soldiers recoil – if I don’t, they’ll shoot me and it’ll be game over, but if I do, their space in the PS3’s memory is overwritten by somebody else’s temporary presence until the RAM is required elsewhere. That’s all it is, but it doesn’t always feel like it.
It’s like I need a clear motive, a reason. In that train sequence you have neither – yes, it’s an insert from a later level when it’s all somewhat clearer, but when thrown into a situation that has no clear exposition and the onus is on the player to make the first move, there can be a momentary, uncomfortable air of confusion and anxiety. It only lasts a split second and it’s gone, but it’s there.
When I was younger, sniping Goldeneye’s enemies from afar, or drilling the head of one of Turok 2’s miscreants with the Cerebral Bore was a joy. The latter in particular was a real talking point, one that now seems rather antiquated and safe, but back then I thought the Bore was the business.
Nowadays it’s all shotguns and AK47s – real life weapons and real life scenarios to fire them in. Players are expected to behave like soldiers on a real battlefield, at least in a very disconnected, alternate sense, and games that revolve around abandoned space stations inhabited by teleporting masses of evil are few and far between.
If those soldiers on the train in Battlefield were human controlled – enemies with real thought control and purpose, firing is easier. I know they’re a real threat, they can think for themselves, and chances are they’re better than me at the game – so I need to take every chance I can.
Self defence, perhaps? Is that the difference?
When they’re computer controlled there’s always a fraction of a second’s hesitation – a pause – before the trigger is pulled for the first time. It’s why I’m not great at first person shooters (or, as they were known when I was a lad, Doom clones) and it’s why I’d rather battle the Chimera than the Russians.
It’s because the decision to cause violence is mine and mine alone, the computer’s only acting on a set of predetermined control points that loosely pass as what we’d normally term AI.
Whether or not the exchange of harmless data inside computer code can be classed as violence is largely down to the individual, of course. To my mother the pulpy mess of claret coloured alien skin clearly was very much violence; Doom’s hardly realistic, though, and she was probably more bothered by the noise the chaingun was making than the death it was dealing out.
Now though, nearly two decades later, I dread to think what she’d make of modern games.