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Numbers tend to lose their significance at times. Earning $50,000 a year is considered a low number. 200 people are killed in a fire and people barely blink an eye. Numbers have a tendency to distance themselves from what they represent. No matter how big a million may be in real life, in the page it may take up all of half an inch of space. It's easy to see a large number and compress the true value to the space of what it takes to write the number on a page. I realized this in relation to video games when I decided to look at some stats a few months ago.
I play a lot of Halo: Reach and Halo 3. I enjoy the series very much, as do millions of other gamers, and if asked I will always place Halo as my favorite gaming series ever. As a very cool feature for the series, an internet-connected console with a registered Windows Live account has access to an amazingly detailed online stat-tracker. The program will record every kill made, every death, every level beaten and much more. So, out of curiosity, I decided to go through the three major profiles I have played online with Halo: Reach and to a limited extent Halo 3 and add up the total number of kills I have made. And then, when all the numbers were added up, I paused.
Over the course of almost a year of Halo, three months of which I lacked an Internet connection, I have killed 16, 291 representations of a living being. I have killed the entire population of high school...seven times and then some. I have personally ended the lives of almost a fifth of my hometown. In other words, I have killed a lot of people in that video game, and there’s probably another two thousand unaccounted for. This made me take pause for a moment, reflecting on the industry I love so much in contrast to the thousands of virtual avatars whose lives I have ended so happy.
Gaming is a violent hobby, at least virtually. Let’s face it, combat is the number one attraction for a lot of gamers. Over the years, the photorealism and simulation accuracy of these games has increased astronomically. Killing has become something of a grotesquely refined art for millions of gamers.
Now, I am not anti-violence in video games. I am no crusader for whitewashed games that present a smiling face to the world, pretending that violence doesn’t happen and never will. Violence is natural, and without it a lot of species would find daily life pretty difficult.
Violence is also, put bluntly, a lot of fun (in video games, at least). The fact that Call of Dutyregularly tops sales charts establishes that pretty handedly. Even games that may not seem to be combat-centric feature violence in a mitigated format. I’m fairly certain that mega-game Angry Birdrevolves around the core tenet of birds flinging themselves in a fit of suicidal impulses at walls to murder pigs under the weight of the subsequent unbalanced masonry. The visceral thrill of violence is second to none in gaming, a medium that revolves around visceral experiences more than any other.
Violence always has been, and always will be, absolutely central to the video game industry. War is a favorite experience for many gamers, including myself. The next time I sit down for a few hours with Halo or Red Dead Redemption I will, like many gamers, happily commit small-scale genocide without a second thought. But perhaps it is appropriate at times to remind yourself of just how easy violence can become.
Allow me to relate another tale of violence that prompted a moment’s thought in me. I had the pleasure of playing Rockstar’s brilliant Western experience Red Dead Redemption recently, a game that delivered hours of immersive entertainment. The game also features a stat-tracker similar toHalo’s, albeit in-game and somewhat shallower. Like Halo, Red Dead Redemption tracks the number of poor souls whose lives ended at the prompting of your lead-tipped bullets. About two hours into the game, I had recorded about 30-40 kills. Ten hours later, I had about 600, and I still had ten hours to go. By the end, the number was likely well over a thousand.
The thing about that which made me take note when I usually ignore those numbers was, perhaps, the environment provided by Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar has a pension for creating brilliant, open-world simulators that have, at times, been criticized for being almost too realistic, something you don’t hear much from gamers. Considering the realism provided, and the usually plausible interactions with characters within the game, the fact that your character walks around with more blood on his hands than almost anybody in recorded history without the populace fleeing in mortal terror every time he walks through town is a little unbelievable. In the real world, regardless of intention, 600 murders by your own hand is considered at least a little inhuman.
What astonished me was the ease with which the blood had pooled at my feet without me noticing. In my focus on that next target, that next enemy, I had failed to notice the sheer number of targets I had actually killed. It made me think of the ease with which such a concept can translate to real-life. I am not saying gaming makes killing easy, I am saying that similar principles apply to someone committing vast quantities of murder, like genocide. It is easy to pretend your enemy is faceless, distant, and above all, 'not you', leading to the normalization by which the murder of your enemy becomes simple and routine.
Here are a few statistics regarding people and killing:
-Staff Sergeant Albert Waldron holds the record for most confirmed sniper kills by a US Marine at 109.
-The greatest female sniper of all time is reportedly Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet sniper with 309 confirmed sniper kills.
-Simo Häyhä, nicknamed “The White Death”, holds the record for most sniper kills by any one person in any major war with 505 confirmed kills and potentially 200 more unconfirmed.
(A picture of Simo Häyhä, the greatest sniper in any major war)
-Dr. Harold Shipman, also known as “Doctor Death”, murdered 218 proven victims over the course of 23 years, though the number may be as high as 250, making him the greatest serial killer in modern history in terms of confirmed murders.
(A picture of Harold Shipman, the greatest serial killer in modern history)
-A trio of sisters purportedly poisoned over 600 people in Italy from 1633-1659.
It makes me think about what I play and do for fun when I realize I have killed many, many more times than these people. Every death in real life means the end of somebody's life. Their hopes, dreams...they cease to exist in this world. And video games make sport of this fact. Yes, it is only a virtual avatar with no soul, no real life. But it is a simulation of an act with real meaning and real impact.
My purpose here is not to attack violence in games. My purpose is not to suck all the joy of shooting up virtual avatars. My purpose is not to be some condescending voice of morality about violence. I love shooters. I love guns. I enjoy combat in video games, and will eagerly mow down waves of Covenant the next time I hop on Halo. But perhaps, just every now and then, it is appropriate for gamers to stop the bloodbath, if only for a moment, and think on just how many ‘bad guys’ they’ve killed without realizing it, just as I paused to think about the 16, 291.
A short documentary video on Simo Häyhä. The voice-over isn't appropriate, I think, but the content is fine.
The trailer for the popular 2007 shooter Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a war simulator.
The first ten minutes of the famous D-Day sequence from Saving Private Ryan which I feel is one of the few depictions of war that comes close to truly conveying the gravity and horror of war.
Lastly, here is a link to my Bungie.net account, on which my current kill total for my profile on Halo: Reach may be located.
P.S.: This blog was written to share an experience I had regarding violence in games. While I enjoy violence in video games very much, there are aspects of it that I believe sometimes are undervalued or under-examined.
Also, since my last blog (which attacked the Catwoman DLC policy featured in Batman: Arkham City), I have regained Xbox Live. However, my original opinion still stands that this is a poor attempt to control a product. The original blog can be found here.