Great though video games may be, it’s awkward when someone accuses them of a borderline-fetishist interest in violence. That’s probably because it’s true. High scores are often dictated by the number of headshots you can pull off, whilst combat itself is one of the most common activities you’ll find within the medium. I’m not suggesting this causes the social issues you’ll read about in many tabloid newspapers (their scare-mongering can be painfully uneducated, frankly), but it does make me wonder why we gravitate so strongly toward fighting in media. It’s definitely a conversation worth having.
This was brought to mind by For Honor, Ubisoft’s quasi-historical action-game released last month. Set in a fantastical kingdom populated with Vikings, medieval knights and Samurai, it focuses on the rigours of melee combat. In fact, the setting feels secondary to that adrenaline-rush you get from crossing blades with an opponent. It revels in the chaos of war.
Yet this I can understand: there’s an element of chivalry, skill and prestige associated with hand-to-hand combat. Mastering the sword takes years of practice, a truth I can verify due to of my own clumsy bumbling in a medieval swordplay class. I suppose it’s an ego-boost too, a desire to be dashingly heroic like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow.
Not that this cool-factor is restricted to Dark Age weaponry. The same could be said of modern action movies where the hero must foil an evil plot or seek revenge. Although I’ve not yet seen it, I’d imagine John Wick 2 is a good example. We admire the lead’s talent, athleticism and casual nonchalance whilst putting the world to rights: they always know what to say or do. It’s wish-fulfilment in its rawest form, a representation of the hero we yearn to be.
This escapism also helps genres such as fantasy endure. The Lord of the Rings features a war against demonic forces, for example: the protagonist is their world’s only hope, an empowering scenario that (in the case of games, at least) makes us feel special. Moreover, there’s little grey-area to speak of here. We can blow off steam without worrying about the morality of doing so. Orcs and White Walkers don’t encourage much sympathy, after all.
Violence in the likes of horror is harder to justify, of course. Perhaps it operates in the same ball-park as crime fiction: besides upping the stakes, earning our revulsion is a good way of making your villain more intimidating. Additionally, it forces us to worry about consequences within the plot. Game of Thrones does this superbly. The unexpected – and often hideous – death of its characters leaves us on edge. Nothing is sacred, no-one is safe and anything could happen. The show is much more gripping as a result.
That’s the opinion amongst some professionals, anyway. Researchers from universities across the world (via Psychcentral) suggest that audiences might be “drawn to violent content because they anticipate other benefits, such as thrill and suspense”. As noted by Anne Bartsch from the University of Augsburg, it’s possible that “depictions of violence that are perceived as meaningful, moving and thought-provoking can foster empathy with victims, admiration for acts of courage and moral beauty in the face of violence, or self-reflection with regard to violent impulses”.
As such, it’s nice to know that our interest in violence (and violent video games) isn’t because we’re terrible people deep down. Well, for the most part – I’m quietly fond of the Star Wars prequels, so maybe I should retract that statement…
Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.