Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Violence, part 5: Its role in art

At least as far back as 1915, there has been concern over the graphic violence depicted in film, as evidenced by the "Plea for the art of the motion picture" that prefaces D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.  It reads, in part, "We do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue--the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word..."  D.W. Griffith, as video game enthusiasts would do around a hundred years later, was recognizing the double-standard his new medium was being held to.  While the clearly violent works of Shakespeare and Holy Scriptures were held in high esteem, his works were in jeopardy of state censorship merely because they were new.

D.W. Griffith's "Plea" that precedes Birth of a Nation
The reasons for questions about the moral implications of experiencing works made in new artistic medium all boil down to the same thing--that while the violence may be depicting something already depicted by an earlier medium, the new medium is much more successful in its depiction.  New artistic mediums are a double-edged sword in this regard.  The reason for their rapid embrace by the public is exactly the same reason concerns over graphic content arise: they are simply more graphic.  Graphic violence is considered a kind of pejorative in today's litigation-addled world, but artistically it's nothing but a compliment.  To depict something more graphically than what came before is the entire goal of art.

The real problem with video games is not that the violence keeps getting more graphic--it's that game developers are only working with one type of violence.  The mediums that came before it, meanwhile, are now adept at graphically depicting many kinds of violence.  Even in violent films, the main source of conflict is not the physical violence that classifies it as "violent" in the popular imagination, but something less apparent that the movie attempts to bring out through tangential forms of violence.

This is how art works.

In the oft-referenced "violent video games" such as GTA or God of War, there are indeed multiple forms of violence being depicted, but typically only the most basic form--the harm one human being visits upon another human being--is actually part of the gameplay.  The emotional violence, the intellectual debate--all the other forms of violence common in other forms of media--are usually restricted to the meta-game structures of a video game, such as the cutscenes or level art.  Many gamers feel like the "story" is reserved for such things as the emotional violence related to the video game, not the gameplay itself.

So the goal of video games is not to find out how to make compelling works that do not involve violence, but to find ways to make ignored forms of violence more graphic in the gameplay itself.  Perhaps this will eventually lead to games in which all of the violence could be classified as "hidden violence," which players may not recognize as violent, just as we do not recognize sound waves hitting our ears as violent.  But the point is that we will not reach that day by decrying the use of violence to create compelling drama, but instead by embracing the power of violence in expression.

In the last part of the series, I want to explain how I think debate over depictions of violence in any art form is a distraction--the "spinning top" from end of Inception.  Indeed, our discussion should be about violence and how graphic it should be, but not the violence that occurs to the characters in a work of fiction; rather, the violence that occurs to real people who make the art and the real people who interact with it.


Ava Avane Dawn said...

One can make things easy and just replace symbols and introductions to a game while keeping mechanics very much like the mechanics of a game that is undoubtedly about violence as most perceive it:

Looking forward to your next post! Who would have thought programming could equate to weaponry?

One more interesting game which could be interesting ground for analysis for hidden violence:

Anonymous said...

"decrying the use of violence to create compelling drama"

That is not what is being decried. It's not "the use of violence to create compelling drama " that is being decried, but the use of violence for what is essentially pornographic purposes... i.e., just for jollies.

The problem is that censorship of these "violence-as-porn" games might cause more interesting artworks to become more difficult to bring to an audience... so I definitely agree with your plea for lack of censorship. (Then again, it is my opinion that almost nothing should be censored, and that people just need to HTFU :))

A nonymous reader.