A Game Is Being Beaten

The trend in video game design is to comment on violence by asking players to perform violence. But could there be pleasure in performing consent?

A popular approach to ­video-game design is to “think about the verbs.” Interactive entertainment should be verb-led, some say, and the way to make a good game is to think about what the player does. In many games, you have to do the things it wants you to do whether you want to or not. If you don’t like it, as the saying goes, just don’t play it.

Games have a heritage in simple verbs. Remember the stuff you played at friends’ houses as a kid? In those games, you’re a guy. You jump on that guy, you grab the thing, you beat the boss. Lots of people spent hours in a basement yelling things like get that guy, get him, and trying to win the prize at the end of all the verbs: often a woman, locked in a castle, imprisoned in an ice crystal, bound with rope, tied to a wall, a scaffold, a set of shackles.

When you think about classic Nintendo platformers and Capcom fighting games that way, they seem sinister, but the context of the verbs back then was almost always playful and surrealistic: “That guy” you jumped on was a blob two-stepping in inexplicable bright sneakers, or a ­robot bat. You went down drainpipes or blew whistles in order to travel. In adventure games, where the primary verbs are things like talk, read, and examine, cartoon characters produced cups of coffee, large power tools, or small furry animals from a nebulous “inventory,” invisible on their person, to use on other characters. It was too absurd and abstract to be real or even realistic.

Realism has always been one ambition for video games, in so far as “realism” has been code for “better graphics.” There’s a school of thought that imagines fraternity dorm-level “gritty realism” is mature, that “adult content” necessarily means high-res breasts wobbling to the laws of impossible physics. Despite even the occasional well-­directed effort to upscale the context for game verbs, the verbs themselves rarely change. Maybe instead of a guy—a sprite in a hat and suspenders—you’re a space marine with a gripping backstory toting a picture of his wife across a blood-splashed, war-torn landscape. But you as the player are still doing the same limited things. Run, jump, shoot, get.

One of the great game-design questions of our present day seems to be whether video games need to concern themselves with genuinely mature storytelling. And if the answer is yes, as many creators think it is, then the question becomes how to deliver it within the familiar lexicon of a relatively narrow range of known verbs. Even the best large-scale commercial efforts straddle a bizarre line: The urgently sincere facial-mapped performances of real-world actors are superimposed on ridiculous sci-fi plots; long sequences of emotional music agonize over deaths the player thought little of pulling a trigger to cause.

Some games unspool cinematographic narrative sequences that occasionally pause to confront you with a blunt invitation: Press a certain button to do something, to do a verb. Quantic Dream’s 2010 PlayStation 3 game Heavy Rain directly aimed to encourage the player to more meaningfully inhabit verbs—the result was the player could help their wife put dishes away or push their child on the swing, but they could also fail to do it, awkwardly fiddling and swiveling controls as a stiff-faced mannequin attempted to coordinate the simple, everyday task. In a now infamous scene, the main character loses his son Jason in a shopping mall and must run around calling for him. On the screen is a prompt that tells you how to do this: “Press X to Jason.”

The beloved game 2007 game Portal traps players in a room and won’t let them exit until they throw a silly cube accessory into a furnace. There’s just no other choice. Even though it was an extreme send-up of the ways agency is often limited in games to serve a narrative purpose—and its intentions were comedy—fans remember the cube with poignant fondness, like a shared cultural touchstone. It’s even sillier than it was in the drainpipe days.

Still, sometimes the simple act of allowing the player agency over a verb—reinforcing the fact they have to push the button themselves—can be powerful. In Metal Gear Solid 3 the player knows from the beginning of the game that their character’s mission is to confront and defeat a beloved mentor. In the game’s final sequences, after the player successfully wins the fight and they have their final conversation, the main character stands in a field of flowers, aiming a gun to her head. Watching this, you wonder if maybe the character can’t see it through. And then after a pause, you realize that you, the player, have to finish the job. To do the verb to kill. Technically it’s the only time the game leaves you no recourse but to do it, and the act of pressing that button feels like a powerful moment.

Released in 2007, BioShock similarly dictates that the main character’s defeat of his evil father needs the player to pull the trigger. Just like in Metal Gear Solid 3, there is no mercy option. To continue with the game, the player needs to bludgeon an aging little man again and again, as he quails and stumbles before our eyes. The game aims to make a few provocations about genuine choice and agency in games and in life, and that moment of confrontation is critically hailed as a success to that end.

Unfortunately, in the video-game business, where financial risks are high and the idea of taking influence from outside beloved gaming, comics, and sci-fi culture is often scorned outright, when something seems to “work,” is popular, or oft-discussed, it will surely be repeated. Making the player do an awful thing to push them into having a real, grownup emotion or moment of enlightenment is now a worn gimmick; another popular one is the surprise, you’ve been evil all along “twist” that often confronts players late in the game with the horrible realities of whatever it is the game has been instructing them to do.

Rockstar Games’s Grand Theft Auto series appears to pride itself on giving the player opportunities to commit violence without shame or constraint. The newest game, last year’s GTA V, is a technical marvel, where you can race the daylight driving across a jaw-dropping simulacrum of Los Angeles, dirt-bike to a mountaintop, and take a selfie with the sunset.

It’s so marvelous, it seems fair to expect it to be a little smarter. Fans excuse the series’s casual misogyny, lazy racism, and generally gross parts by calling GTA a “satire” of the world’s ugliness, but acting out traditional power relations on easy targets and caricatures of people lost its teeth long ago. The pretend talk radio that airs in the game’s cars satirize the moral panic about violent video games while you drive around running over pedestrians—it’s the same “clever wink” at its own edginess that the franchise has been performing for more than a decade.

GTA V decided to try to amp up its lurid, Mountain Dew–flavored edge by including a torture mission. Playing as Trevor, the kind of conventionally repellent, stained sociopath that South Park fans are liable to find really clever, players have to use hammers, pliers, waterboarding, and other instruments of coercion against a subject suspected of concealing terrorist insurgents.

Forcing the player to do such gruesome acts is probably intended to be some kind of self-contained statement on ugly U.S. blemishes like Guantánamo, but the game can’t pull it off. There is no consequence for completing the act; the player simply moves on to the next mission. You could theoretically avoid the mission, warily circling the game’s main infrastructure in your car like a fly in a trap, flicking against the game’s invisible boundaries and awaiting the end. The only other choice is to shut the game off. It is a quintessential act of senseless violence in a medium that often loves to be senseless, to go unexamined. Game violence has no relationship to real-world violence, many fans argue, because games are unreal, unbelievable.

Independent designer Merritt Kopas makes games about bodies, gender, and sexuality. When she heard about the GTA V torture scene, she thought: “Well, something really edgy would be hitting someone who wants you to hit them…. where you want to do that.”

What troubles Kopas about game violence’s role as the red label that supposedly signals “adult” isn’t the gore and the excess, the torture sequence, the carving skulls open with “skyhooks.” She plays few commercial video games and seems unconcerned with the episodes of moral panic that bubble up around game violence every time there is a school shooting in America. It’s not that games are too violent, she suggests; it’s that the violence isn’t meaningful: It refuses to explore the genuine consequences of inflicting harm. And crucially for her, all these button-pressing forced verbs, these supposed narrative teaching moments, are one-sided and nonconsensual.

After the flurry of vaunted dialogue, debate, and occasionally self-important critical analysis surrounding GTA V’s gimmicky torture scene, Kopas quietly self-­published a small, text-only game called Consensual Torture Simulator for $2 on Gumroad. In it, a mutually affectionate couple enjoys a night in. You play as the domme in their kink relationship scene, scratching, flogging, caning, and performing other acts of consensual physical violence on your submissive girlfriend. Both partners have decided to explore the goal of making the recipient of the violence cry.

The player character must periodically rest, as much to recover their own strength as to comfort their partner, emphasizing the communication and care that is essential to consensual bondage and violence play. Kopas told me she wanted to challenge the common view of the dominant partner as a mere “dispenser” of sensation, the unflinching catalyst for the submissive’s spiritual revelation, by showing the physical and emotional challenges of topping so intensely. Kopas wanted to illustrate the way the dominant role has to push its comfort zone, to hit someone who wants to be hit, as hard and as often as the recipient desires.

Exploring domination through the design of video games makes sense: Both involve role playing, scene-­setting, communication, and rules.

If we accept that the trend in game design is to at least attempt to comment on violence by asking the player to perform violence, Kopas’s bold addition of consent to the conversation is a crucial development. It feels subversive, too—the most popular vision of the independent game scene tends to be a predominance of nerdy white dudes making cartoonish, masochistic platform games. This time the imprisoned woman isn’t just the end of the game; she’s the whole thing. Last year in The New Inquiry, I wrote about women and minority gamemakers using new, free tools and self-publishing to disrupt the traditional landscape with sophisticated self-expression. Kopas takes this a step further by daring to ask for money for her work, a step that still feels new and complicated for many minority artists.

Video games treasure their gritty realism, their edgy violence, their “adult” graphic depictions. But games as a medium are about action, reaction, and impact. What if creators broadly accepted that consent—the verbs to want, to say yes, to truly accept, to agree—could be more interesting or provocative? Games have been tying up and imprisoning cartoon women for as long as anyone can remember. Isn’t it time they asked first?

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