I have a great many fond memories from my childhood to look back on and sigh nostalgically at: playing at picnics with my next-door neighbour on summer days out in the front garden, learning how to ride a bicycle on an empty basketball court with my dad as the sun set, and my infantile wonder and reverence at the glistening spouts of virtual blood spouting from the necks of my vanquished enemies.
Yes, one of these things is not like the others. Despite having two wonderful, well-meaning, vigilant parents (and two more father figures in the form of my protective older brothers), I was able to get my prepubescent hands on any number of graphically violent video games. With eyes like saucers, eager thumbs and a good amount of disbelieving laughter, I regularly consumed violent video games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Mortal Kombat: Deception away from the disapproving eyes of my guardians.
Given the fact that the media, throughout the years of my life, has screamed itself hoarse with headlines like “KILLER OBSESSED WITH VIOLENT VIDEO GAME GOES ON RAGE-FUELLED RAMPAGE WITH HAS EVERYTHING TO DO WITH SAID GAME AND NOTHING TO DO WITH SADLY NEGLECTED MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES” (I’m paraphrasing, obviously), the fact that I haven’t grown up to be a raging sociopath has come as a little bit of a shock. An article that our very own Fredrik posted on his Facebook page recently cleared up this unresolved issue for me: a longterm US study recently found that there are no discernible links between violent video games and violence in society.
However, I can’t help but feel that articles and research like these barely scratch the surface of the relationship between developing brains and violent video games. I’m of the increasing suspicion that, far from merely having no negative effect on me, my formative days spent playing games that glorified and aestheticised violence actually had an actively positive impact on my nascent identity and intellect.
Firing up Mortal Kombat: Deception was, undoubtedly, a fairly staggering experience for a 12 year old girl who had only just left her Barbies behind. I’d played Tekken previously, but the sheer, unadulterated gore of Deception’s fatalities and hara kiris was something quite different. It was, however, utterly mesmerising in its shocking aesthetics, its sheer creativity and imagination. It never made any pretense at being disturbingly realistic – one of Bo’ Rai Cho’s fatalities is to light someone on fire using his farts, for god’s sake – and used its gushing fountains of blood to full dramatic and almost comedic effect every time one fighter was so much as poked by another.
Using the game’s option to turn off the blood just never seemed like an option to me as a young player – I did turn it off but found it an extremely odd and discordant experience. I was cognisant of the fact that the blood and gore was effectively the dry ice of the Mortal Kombat stage, and enjoyed the hyperbole and drama it lent to the game. To be honest, the only thing that vaguely frightened 12 year old me about Deception was Mileena’s terrifying fanged face leering at the camera after she had won a fight, but even that fear was largely superseded by my fascinated theorising about how her boobs managed to stay in her costume.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was also a favourite of mine; I always played it with my cousins, who owned the game and were always just as excited as me to delve into the fictional world of Vice City. With all the enraptured enthusiasm of kids sitting around the campfire, we’d sit around the computer screen, our angelic little faces bathed in artificial light, as we’d work together to beat the snot out of NPCs and acquire hidden weapons with the most impressive and bloody results.
It does initially seem unsettling when thinking back on my younger self clamouring to play games with particularly graphic violence, but the more I consider my present self, the more I realise the direct and positive impact these games had on me. Every time I would sneak away to play MK or GTA, I knew that I shouldn’t be doing it, and so I would constantly question myself: what is it that’s so cool about this game that I have to play it? Is it only because of the violence? Is it just because I’m not allowed to? Why is this game rated an 18? Am I a bad person if I enjoy it?
As a kid with a conscience, I was continuously evaluating, re-evaluating and justifying my own morality with regards to the media that I was so determined to consume. I was learning to tell the difference between the fictional violence in games as entertainment; as stress-relieving in aesthetic form, and the real violence affecting people’s lives that I would see every evening whilst watching the news with my parents. Violent video games were really my first tangible exposure to the concept of things not simply being black and white, of forming my own opinions and theories even though they differed from others, of analysing and being very aware of why I was choosing certain types of recreational media.
Violent video games also created a strong sense of fellowship with my two cousins (one of whom was inspired to obtain a job in the computer tech industry because of his love of video games), taught me to move my fingers and my mind at lightning speed to execute combos (Grade 6 piano hollaaaaa), and pretty much handed me a lifetime guarantee of not being squeamish when I would as an adult come to be faced as with the gruesome accidents and ailments of drunken friends.
The most important skill playing violent video games helped me hone, however, was the aforementioned rationalization of my own morality and identity as a consumer of violent works of fiction. These video games quite literally handed me the controller and gave me agency, the choice, to play through the concept of violence, evaluate that choice, and then work out what made it tick as a fictional medium. I’m now at university writing a thesis on the theme of disembowelling as an artistic device in literature. Violent video games were the operating tables upon which I taught myself how to dissect presentations and interpretations of the most divisive art, and for that, I can only thank them.