Primal Rage: Catharsis and Violent Video Games

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The effect of video games on our conduct and personality has often stood as a hotly debated topic. Some point to the adverse effects of playing games like Mortal Kombat or DOOM, while others to the benefits of playing something like Minecraft. Certainly it can be said of video games that they serve as brain training for aspects such as puzzle solving and lateral thinking, one can equally hold them to be a cause of ‘social isolation’ for example. In short, games have never been universally adored or despised for their effects on us.

As a medium, gaming has gone through as many levels of scrutiny as any other. The same zealots and Luddites that sneered at the television or the moving pictures are the same people who refuse to rate video games as anything beyond childish distractions. Regardless of your particular view on the importance of gaming or it’s potential, it would be absurd to deny that gaming has evolved far beyond the days of PAC-MAN; gaming now-a-days can be argued to rival the ability to tell a story as well as any movie can. The medium itself has become far more accepted universally as well, where it began as a fringe movement of computer nerds and young children, people of all ages can – and do – enjoy a wide variety of video games.

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The idea of catharsis has existed for a long time. Originally exposed by Aristotle, describing the effect art can have on our ability to express emotions in a safe environment, or to experience emotions or themes that we otherwise might not be able to. Gaming to a small degree does allow people to experience themes such as the Second World War, the great battles of ancient and medieval history as well as modern warfare. The carnage and brutality is conveyed in such a way that the horrors of war become all too real, showing the briefest of windows into what it must of been like to have actually have fought in those battles. The opening scene from Saving Private Ryan is able to move and horrify us to the realities of total war, showing the loss of life, the chaos and the random lottery of life and death that optimised the beaches of Normandy. Games such as Call of Duty II and Medal of Honour: Allied Assault captured a similar feeling to Saving Private Ryan, but put you in the driving seat of trying to survive against the odds. I remember the initial feeling of helplessness as I attempted to make my way up the beach, shells exploding all around me, and machine-gun fire tearing apart my fellow men. It was an emotive experience; an experience that in some sense humbled to me to how inglorious and pathetic such conflict made the standard soldier seem to be. A man simply trying to survive the storm of fire with no where else to go but into the maelstrom.

Conversely, it can be argued that video games can trivialise real combat or real warfare. No one would be able to compare an experience in a virtual world to that of true experiences in major conflicts, as the threat of death is merely a set back rather than a final sacrifice. A game differs from the experience conveyed in a movie or that of a book as the player has to succeed in order to progress to the next chapter. The occasional player character death dotted around gaming media certainly gives some weight behind the gameplay, but does little to cement the themes in such a way that it can truly represent the horrors of war. Enemies are merely obstacles to be overcome, rather than fellow human beings. The impact of ending another person’s life is lessened by the sudden ping of an achievement being unlocked.

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One of the commonly held beliefs around video games is their ability to help us to relieve stress and aggression in a constructive way, or at least in a safe environment. Blasting through waves of opponents or the adrenaline rush of winning first place in Gran Turismo have plausible links to elevating mood and calming the nerves. For those in society who feel marginalised or ignored by the mainstream have found an outlet for creativity and expression in the realm of gaming, but that is besides the point of catharsis. Furthermore, the very notion that violent video games can be used as stress relief only opens us to the next question: should they?

I am not in anyway against the production, sale or playing of violent media in any form – within reasonable means – as it can be an enjoyable excursion into the darker side of the human experience. But to go as far as to label violent games as a release for actual violent thoughts or inclinations is bordering on endorsement of said violent thoughts. People are able to relax playing all manner of computer games, from puzzle platformers to virtual card games, but there is something altogether different about venting frustration in a violent manner. Giving in to aggression and indulging in it – even in a seemingly harmless virtual arena – is laying the ground work for potentially damaging conflict resolution. For example the slamming of walls or shouting at a partner rather than addressing the root of the anger in the first place. Effectively, venting frustrations in life by acting in a hostile way should not be championed but instead something to be looked upon as a failure to connect with the true problems one is faced with.

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Is this to say that all violent video games are a bad influence? No, not at all. Violent video games have their place in the medium alongside any other and can be enjoyed healthily. The problems arise when attempting to prize the benefit of playing violent games for stress relieving purposes. Simply by making anger an acceptable emotion to indulge in via the proxy of gaming, as opposed to tackling the things in your life that are making you consistently angry.

Compare a game like that of Call of Duty or Battlefield to that of This War of Mine. This War of Mine does not in anyway sugarcoat the conditions of the many who live in war-torn parts of the world. You control characters who are trapped between soldiers fighting a bitter struggle; whose chief task is simply to find food and shelter and hope they can survive through the hostilities. The events of the game and the choices one has to make in order to simply make it to another morning are not easily forgotten. I would certainly recommend anyone who is less than sympathetic to the plight of Syrian refugees for example to take a look at the title, as it shows in a coolly honest way what war is like from a civilian perspective.

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Art has the potential to move and disturb us, but most importantly it can stir emotions within us that we perhaps did not know that we had before. It is important to safeguard those who might well not be able to distinguish fictional violence from that of the real world, as this is obviously a potential disaster in the making. It is equally apt to note however that gaming is able to portray themes more effectively than other media due to the very interactive nature of the medium itself, such as that in This War of Mine.

It is the interactive element that forms the key to video gaming as being the potentially greatest cathartic medium. Having to make tough decisions and take responsibility for the outcomes pulls you from the audience and onto the stage yourself in certain cases. You do not watch an action hero mow down a group of bad guys, but instead pull the trigger yourself throughout an entire game. It is not an actor that has to portray the weight of a decision to come down on either side of a pivotal moment in developing plot, but instead the player who is made to decide. The potential for tension and emotional investment is practically limitless and so makes gaming a very interesting proposition for those who wish to move an audience like no other.

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As the Illiad and the poems of Wilfred Owen stood once as great pieces of art that allowed for cathartic experience, so too does video gaming. For good or ill, as the medium progresses it is likely that more and more engrossing games that force difficult choices or discuss difficult topics will be released. In the end, it is up to the gamers themselves to be able to distinguish the fictional from the real and the poor representations from the respectful ones as this will only improve the experiences to be had in narrative driven gaming as a whole.


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