[C]ultural narratives matter, and that mindlessly contributing to harmful cultural narratives is harmful.
In much the same way that my daughter is learning about Santa through passive cultural osmosis, other children are absorbing the dominant cultural narrative that glorifies rugged individualism and violent hypermasculinity because that’s how cultural osmosis fucking works. Games […] that mindlessly replicate depictions of hypermasculine violence without making even the smallest effort to be critical of that violence are contributing to the cultural background radiation that informs our lives.
–wundergeek on talking about Santa.
I’ve always liked hyper-violent media–videogames, comic books, and so on–and I also produce… maybe not hyper violent media, but certainly violent media, so for most of my life I’ve been right at the forefront of the “violent media doesn’t cause real-world violence!” brigade.
Except now I’m starting to think that soundbyte is a lie.
Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t believe the consumption of violent media on its own causes violence. Most people I know, after all, read and watch and play the same stuff I do, and they’re a pretty pacifist lot. But I think it’s getting harder and harder to deny that the proliferation in popular culture of what wundergeek calls “rugged individualism and violent hypermasculinity” has no effect on, if not individual violence per se, at the very least the social acceptance of violence–often lethal violence, at that–as an all-purpose problem solver.
This, incidentally, is why I can’t enjoy superhero movies any more. Avengers, and Pacific Rim were the nails in that enjoyment coffin; when your country has spent the better part of a decade engaged in a series of endless foreign wars, it starts becoming uncomfortable to realise all your popular entertainment has the plotline, “These people look funny and Hate Our Freedoms… let’s nuke ’em!”
Not to mention Tony Stark’s body count in Iron Man 3 because holy shit do you remember when superheroes killing someone used to be a Big Fucking Deal that would cause issues and issues worth of, well, issues?1 Because I sure as hell do. But nowadays we go to the cinema and laud white male vigilante violence and then wonder why so many young white men seem to think the mass murder of their “enemies” is a laudable solution to their life’s problems. ((For the record: no matter how many brown people Tony Stark blows up, he’s still a raging alcoholic asshole who has trouble maintaining even the most minimal friendships. Funny how people tend to… gloss over that one.))
And if Tony Stark is bad, then Generic Random Square-Jawed Videogame Protagonist Du Jour is inevitably worse. How many people does the game want you to kill to get to the end of its flashing quest trail? Does anyone even keep count any more? “It’s okay because they’re bad!” Really? Is it? How do you know they’re bad? Because the mechanics of the game allows you to kill them? You realise that thought has some kinda… fucked-up implications, right? I mean, really, really think about it. It’s fucked up.2
Like I said, I like hyper-violent media, both as a producer and a consumer. I’m not going to stop Killing Ten Rats anytime soon. But, increasingly, I think it’s important to at the very least take a step back and look at some of the fucked-upedness in the messages our media is sending us.
It’s okay to love something critically. Really, it is.
- Hell, this is why the GRIMDARK superhero deconstructions of the 1990s–the Alan Moores and the Warren Ellises of the world–exist in the first place. People tend to forget that the “point” of hyper-violent superhero comics like Watchmen and The Authority is to show the hypocrisy in the Silver Age ideal of the superhero pacifism. These comics are violent and bloody because that’s what vigilantism leads to. It’s not politely tying “bad guys” up and leaving them for the cops to find; it’s straight-up murder because some guy in a cape thinks you did a bad. There’s an unfortunate trend for modern comics adaptations–I’m looking at you, Marvel Cinematic Universe–to keep the “whee violence!” element while conveniently glossing over both the visceral reality of injury and the social commentary on just how fucked up the entire fantasy really is. ^
- There are some games out there that sometimes make a half-hearted attempt to deconstruct this. The Dragon Age series, for example, has done it with regards to both darkspawn and demons. However the mechanics of the game itself–where Kill Everything is the solution to 99.9% of all encounters–make the narrative efforts at deconstruction… fall a little flat, sometimes. ^