Torture Porn: The Game (Yawn)

Torture Porn: The Game (Yawn)

I don’t mean to sound bleak here folks, but the world is full of poison and propaganda. Both are often cloaked in noble rhetoric or obscured by innocuous intentions. Manhunt 2 was released last week, and while I don’t think it’s the new face of evil, I do think it’s the digital equivalent of candy cigarettes.

For those unfamiliar with the Manhunt series, it is Rockstar Games’ attempt to make Grand Theft Auto look as inoffensive as Q-Bert. It’s the story of a man being hunted for sport through a dark world mixing elements of Nazi doctors, S&M sex clubs, and government prison camps. The game’s anti-hero fights back with a brutality rarely seen in videogames. This past summer it was banned in the UK because as David Cooke, director of the British Board of Film Classification said, “Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing.”

I’m no friend of censorship, and whatever objections I may have to the Manhunt series, I would never say banning it is an appropriate response. The BBFC’s response is a classic example of the double standard that is applied to video games. Torture porn is a popular film genre that, while growing increasingly stale, remains quite profitable and increasingly gory. Wrap the grotesque savagery of Saw IV in an R rating and it’s ready for global distribution. Yet, Hostel director Eli Roth recently said that he has yet to make a crossover for videogames because all the studios he approaches think his game ideas are too violent. So while film studios lap up Roth’s carnage carnivals and the MPAA doesn’t blink, game studios are rejecting his ideas as too disturbing, and the BBFC is banning less brutal games. Yeah, that makes sense.

Part of the reason for the double standard, I think, is that we are much more used to hearing film directors bejewel their slop in pseudo-intellectual sophistry. We are not as accustomed to the same deceptions in video games. In Hostel Part 2 we watch a young woman “strung up upside down, naked, and sliced slowly to death with a scythe while a nude woman sits below her, rubbing her breasts and crotch with her pouring blood.” And yet when Roth describes the film as “very much more of a feminist film than anything,” some people actually buy that. Le Monde newspaper actually named the original Hostel the Best American Film of the Year in 2006 because its depiction of three frat boys being tortured in Eastern Europe was an incisive critique of American imperialism. I think they were just making fun of American culture.

When, however, a critic varnishes a videogame with such high-minded nonsense, the general public (rightfully) takes it as absurd. I read this quote on IGN.com, “The original Manhunt was practically a commentary on entertainment, with the premise being a highlight on the most extreme form of personal amusement: one man struggling for survival with a sadistic director capturing his every move for a series of snuff films.” For the newest Manhunt (which reviewers are saying is both less brutally violent and less entertaining) one writer went even further, “This isn’t a series of random bloody tantrums–it’s a calculated study in what drives a man to madness and to what extremes he will go to discover the truth.” A calculated study? Yeah, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a quiet mediation on the forgiveness.

Another game with bombastic rhetoric is Army of Two, a forthcoming release about a duo of masked mercenary superheroes. “Army of Two should help PMCs,” said Woodie Mister, a former Navy SEAL and current PMC operator for an undisclosed company who consulted with EA on the new game. “PMCs do a job that nobody else wants to do. They’re willing to put liability on the line. Some governments out there aren’t even doing that. The way Army of Two portrays the PMCs is the way the top tier operators perform on the field in the real world.” I’m sure the game will stick closely to the reality of life as a private military contractor and provide some great PR for Blackwater. I’m also looking forward to 2009’s Reconstruction Tycoon, in which players assume control of Halliburton and try to bilk the taxpayers out of as much money as possible while building military bases and calling painted rubble progress.

I’m disappointed that these games don’t deal with their themes in a mature and interesting way, but I’m actually hopeful for the future. It takes time for artists to learn how to use a medium seriously and artistically. Novels, television, and movies all began as sheer mindless escapism. Today, well, today they’re only 95% mindless escapism, and the other 5% is emotionally rich, intelligent, and inspiring.

Army of Two addresses a serious issue that could be explored in a video game. The use of mercenaries in Iraq (and in New Orleans after Katrina) brings up a number of complicated issues. America wants a lean, all volunteer military that can fight multiple wars at once. That’s not possible without the use of military contractors. Well-written narrative could draw extensively from reality and provide in-game context that could teach players about global issues. The stories of PMCs going wild and randomly killing civilians could also be in the game—not as a playable mission, but as part of the story. A level that was relatively easy at the beginning of the game could be much more difficult later because the brutality of PMCs has enraged the public. Finally, while contractors are paid enormous salaries and are far better equipped than enlisted soldiers, their contracts practically place them in serfdom. They have no long term medical coverage if injured, their families receive no compensation if they die in action, and Blackwater can actually sue the families of deceased for a number of reasons. This too could be in the game, presenting a somber note to the Game Over screen.

Manhunt fictionalizes an even more incredible set of topics. From the IGN review, “[Manhunt 2] appears slightly influenced by The Manchurian Candidate as well as fellow titles like The Suffering. While I won’t give away any plot spoilers, the story covers everything from mind control and personality manipulation to secret medical projects, mental flashbacks and internal behavioral struggles. Mind control, personality manipulation, and secret medical projects are a real part of American history. From the 1950s until the 1970s, the CIA ran a top-secret project called MKULTRA. Doctors around the US, and DR. Ewen Cameron at Montreal’s McGill University subjected patients to hypnosis and the most horrifying treatment trying to discern ways to destroy and rebuild the human mind. Their discoveries are in use today as “extreme interrogation methods.” Why fictionalize this? Manhunt 2 could have been about a victim of these CIA experiments searching for revenge. The protagonist’s story could have been fiction, but it could have taken place within a historically accurate context.

It is good that we are starting to see realistic violence in videogames too, instead of the usual muscle-bound mega hero mowing down robotic villains. I think America’s Army is a deranged piece of propaganda that teaches children the Army is essentially an extreme sport and it’s in-game deaths are clean as shooting clay pigeons. “They’re just filthy terrorists son; they don’t even bleed like us.” Making violence seem painless is dishonest and degrading.

The French film Irreversible has the most brutal rape scene I’ve ever seen, but it does not use it to merely titillate the audience. The grotesque savagery of this excruciatingly long scene (a nine minute continuous shot) can forever change how the viewer thinks about violence on and off screen. It makes rape change, in the viewers mind, from a terrible concept, to a visceral abomination and creates a memory that is recalled every time one hears of the crime in real life. The movie also does a brilliant job exploring an example “what drives a man to madness and to what extremes he will go to discover the truth.”

I disagree with the perspective of one IGN reviewer who wrote, “The first [Manhunt] was spectacular because of its brutality and its over the top nature. When you have a character that walks around with a pig’s head on and his genitals hanging out on top of the bloody or violent kills, you’ve got something that is literally ground breaking.” That’s not groundbreaking; it’s the continuation of a tired trend.

I do, however, recognize that even exaggerated hyper-violence can further serious storytelling. The Japanese film Suicide Club opens with a row of thirty schoolgirls holding hands jumping in front of an oncoming subway car. Heads burst like water balloons and blood pours over the track. And the movie’s horror escalates from there. But there is also a steady stream of existential introspection. The violence shocks the viewer’s mind into a receptive state. The brutality is so disorienting it makes introspection easier. A videogame could do this. Manhunt could be a calculated psychological study of a desperate man’s search for identity. I just don’t think Rockstar wanted to make that game. They wanted to make a game where players could use a pair of pliers to rip off an enemy’s genitals. Then the censors took that away.

Because the player has agency, videogame violence also offers the potential for something films cannot do: real empathetic education and therapy. As conservative pundits, and pop psychologist like Dr. Phil have noted, playing Manhunt is not just watching sadism, but actually enacting it. Players on the Wii physically perform the brutality—swinging a curvy white remote to imitate swinging a mace at someone’s head. Or jamming a syringe into a nurse’s eye. Or decapitating a leather-masked S&M slave with a shovel. On the surface, this prospect is incredibly disturbing. This type of role-playing, however, is going on in therapy sessions around the world every day.

Leonard M. Shaw MSW, ACSW wrote, “The Gestalt therapy process puts things in the now. Instead of talking about your father, you imagine he is in front of you and talk directly to him. You do not talk about your dream, you imagine you are in your dream and describe it with “ing” verbs like it is happening right now. To relive a traumatic event, you describe it with “ing” verbs as yourself at the age at which it happened,” Victims of sexual or physical abuse role play the experiences that traumatized them and then role play the situation in an empowering way. They pretend to kill their attacker.

They also role play as their attacker, and pretend to be killed by themselves. The practice is somewhat controversial, but is grounded in Freudian theories of “soul death” and practitioners describe dramatic, rapid recoveries. Victims release their anger and frustration in scathing torrents, instead of letting it smolder on the inside. While pretending to be the person who abused them, they learn empathy for their attacker, and come to peace with the experience. The therapy is not right for everyone, but for some it brings relief from years of mental anguish or a return to normality after years of feeling emotionally dead. The danger to role-playing humanity’s dark side, however, can be seen in an anecdote from Rob Zombies’s film The Devil’s Rejects. “When, during filming, the actor playing the most sadistic of the psychos became traumatized by what he had to do, Zombie reportedly told him, ‘Art is not safe.’” But play and therapy, by definition, are supposed to be.

I do not think virtual gestalt therapy will be knocking Manhunt 2 off the shelves in the near future, but there is the possibility for videogames achieving a greater good. We will have violence in videogames as long as we have violence in society and I think the way to deal with it is not through censorship or blurring cut scenes. We need a more mature attitude towards such themes in videogames. We need game designers pushing the envelope not simply by heaping on gore or inventing new ways to let players create suffering. Eli Roth has remarked “I’d love to see us get to a point where you can make a movie and not worry about the limits of the violence. Then I think they’d get so violent that people would get bored of it.” That’s a really pathetic and unimaginative goal—for movies or for games. That’s a really depressing vision for humanity’s artistic future. Something has gone tragically wrong in society when depictions of torture are simply boring.

Instead, I would like to see videogame makers try to use violence in more creative ways. Not more creative types of violence, more creative uses of it. How can a violent videogame teach us about real life violence? How can a violent videogame excite, but also create real fear of violence? Perhaps most importantly, how can a violent videogame instill players with the idea that violence creates irreversible consequences. Games are useful because they provide safe spaces for people to play with dangerous ideas. There is no reason future designers cannot create experiences that are alternately pleasurable and painful, and the player can be wiser at the end.

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