With the recent killings at Charlie Hebdo (12 dead) and the atrocities committed by Boko Haram (as many as 2,000-plus dead) and also the arrival of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated biopic of Chris Kyle in “American Sniper” (160 confirmed kills) into theaters, I’ve been thinking more about the meaning of mass killing in video games.
This is a tired topic, really. The industry has endured scrutiny of prolific video-game violence and no concrete studies have proven that players are more prone to causing mass shootings. I know I’m not. But as I’ve been playing more and more first-person shooters, I’ve wondering how many pixelated villains I’ve killed over the past 25 years. I won’t include squished Mario Brothers’ turtles or punched-out ninjas. I’m only going to count bodies I’ve put holes through with either a rifle or a knife. My best guesstimate would be a little more than a million. Seriously: Calculating the thousands of hours spent gaming and the hundreds of levels I’ve replayed, the total is that high.
I’m not boasting here, I’m confessing. Yes, I’ve killed over a million fake bad guys. Some of them were faceless, 16-bit mercenaries and some were characters with family members who, throughout the course of the game’s narrative, took care of me when I was too sick to stand. Some deaths meant more to me than others. Some felt absolutely cathartic.
Death in games is always different. Smart game developers have used this to their advantage when eliciting an emotional response, no better illustrated than in “Call of Duty 2.” I remember playing side by side with a friend through a scene where you are undercover as a terrorist. You and the group of terrorists enter a busy airport and you have the option to shoot unarmed civilians—you can either walk along with them with your finger off the trigger (not participate in the mass shooting at all) or slaughter dozens of people. It’s totally up to you. Choosing to participate or not doesn’t affect the storyline at all. That’s probably the most interesting part. The effect is devastating. In shock at the proposition, I popped a few shots. I wondered if this was actually happening, if this was really part of the game. I killed innocent people. Mothers with luggage and sons drinking sodas. That was one of the few times in my game-ified life that I was ashamed of my ever-tallying score.
Too often, killing in games becomes offensive in its routine banality. This is where I have a problem with the latest installment of the Far Cry franchise, “Far Cry 4,” which I just recently finished. In the previous game, “Far Cry 3,” I believed in the motivation of main character Jason Brody, whose family and friends have been kidnapped and/or murdered by a psychopathic warlord named Vaas. One minute you’re skydiving out of a plane, the next you’re in a cage, staring at your brother’s dead body. As you progress through the game, your transformation from thrill-seeking vacationer to trained killer isn’t subtle, but it’s convincing. And by the end of “Far Cry 3,” after you’ve killed hundreds of people to free your last living brother and friends, you’re a hollow shell of yourself.
Sadly, this isn’t the case in “Far Cry 4.” What is missing in “Far Cry 4” are relatable consequences and motivation. Most important, the emotional impact was missing for me because I wasn’t convinced the main character, Ajay Ghale, cared enough. One minute he was trying to scatter his mother’s ashes, the next he was leading a rebellion. When I play as Jason Brody in “Far Cry 3,” I always felt a little bad for him. This poor bro, someone who’d invite you to a ballgame and buy you a beer, transforms himself into an assassin. You know he’s constantly questioning if he can become as ruthless as his enemies. This never happens in “Far Cry 4.” The simulated killing of on-screen “bad guys” means nothing to me unless the developers are smart enough to make me confront meaningful death. Jason showed real remorse. Ajay didn’t.
And there are larger concerns. Would I let my child play a video game where you shoot real-looking people? “Grand Theft Auto” and “Battlefield”? No. They can do that when they have the ability to articulate what it means to kill in a fantasy environment—how it makes them feel, how it changes their relationship to other people, if it means anything at all. I’m 35 years old, and I’m still struggling to understand what it really means. Am I less empathetic because most of these deaths mean nothing to me? No. Am I more prone to violence? Absolutely not. In the end, to me, video games are games. I play them to escape reality. Sometimes I understand reality better after I’ve played them.
But thinking about this boggling number—over a million kills—I can’t help but feel a little weird. This abstract number that hangs over me. I deplore violent death. I’ve written novels that both highlight the injustices of mass killing (“Falcons on the Floor”) and also novels that avoid violence as an easy plot device. When I write a character’s death, I cry. These are real people to me. “American Sniper” Chris Kyle is famous for his 160 kills. He and those 160 people are the ones I feel the most for. They are all dead. Forever. I just hope, when I pass the controller to my son or daughter, that I can teach them the difference between pixels and real people. Maybe he or she can teach me a few things too.
Justin Sirois is the author of “So Say the Waiters” and “Falcons on the Floor.” He lives in Baltimore and loves games.