I didn’t kill him. He got in the way of my bullet
The discussion about violence in video games shifted with the release of the trailer for Hatred (link), a brutal romp focusing on the execution of civilians. The game’s subsequent banning and unbanning from Steam resulted in a plethora of articles about the nature of violence in video games and the medium’s various approaches. One such article by Shamus Young (link) suggests violence in Hatred is more odious than Grand Theft Auto as GTA provides a justification for murder whereas Hatred does the opposite. I suggest that, for the same reason, Hatred has the more honest approach to violence.
First, let’s cover Young’s argument. In his article, Young seeks to address Hatred’s defenders who claim that Hatred’s killing of civilians is on par with a game like GTA as it involves the same bloody mayhem of seemingly innocent populations. Both games include large numbers of civilians who are subsequently massacred by the player. Young argues this is a superficial comparison that ignores the very real differences between how the games’ approach civilian violence. He sees two key differences: justification and encouragement. Whereas GTA provides some justification in the form of making civilians snobbish, racist, superficial jerks, Hatred goes the opposite route. Hatred wants the player to know that its innocent people that they’re killing. Hatred is a game explicitly about murdering people who don’t deserve it while GTA gives the player a reason. Interestingly enough, when it comes to mechanically encouraging the player to kill people, the roles are reversed. Whereas killing people is the sole goal of Hatred, it’s only an option in GTA. In short, Hatred wants you to murder people in the worst way whereas GTA makes it feel like murder is okay, but not required.
I find Hatred’s blunt approach to be the more honest of the two. Hatred draws a clear line at the horror of shooting innocents and then asks the player to cross it. It never hides the fact that the player is asked to kill blameless individuals with families and lives which puts the onus of enjoyment on the player. GTA’s approach obscures the reality of what it allows the player to do. By turning all potential civilian targets into unsympathetic jerks, it tries to gloss over the nature of the act of killing them. Its okay to kill these people, the game says, they deserve it for a variety of negative social traits. Of course, most would say that being an objectionable person does not merit the death penalty, but GTA uses the personalities to obscure the nature of a shooting spree. It provides a fig leaf that the player can hide behind so that they don’t feel bad when they engage in atrocities. Hatred makes its morals clear while GTA tries to trick the player into breaking theirs.
GTA takes a similar side approach to encouraging the slaughter. While it is true that the GTA series rarely makes killing noncombatants a mission goal, it does find plenty of ways for them to be caught in the crossfire. Gunfights and car chases take place on open streets where stray bullets abound and the sidewalk is often an additional lane. The obfuscation mentioned above works with this method of gameplay to reduce the inhibitions of the player and encourage them to use all options available, regardless of the body count. Again, Hatred takes the more honest approach. The death of civilians is deliberate and encouraged without the attempts to hide the repercussions.
In the end, much of the objectionable misdirection of the GTA series feels like a response to the reality of open world game design. Civilian lives are necessarily cheap where the open world acts as a level and obeying traffic rules is a chore. GTA happens upon its violence whereas Hatred focuses directly on it. While I think Hatred has the more hoenst approach, GTA’s style is far more playable. I can ultimately write off the people on the streets as mindless bots. Hatred may be more honest, but it tries hard to make sure I don’t forget that its people I’m killing. That doesn’t sound like fun to me.