Shakespeare, Murder and Video Games

image from videogame, a rendition of Shakespeare's Hamlet quote, “…the devil hath power To assume a pleasing shape“…the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape”

(Hamlet, act 2, sc. 2)

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist with a creative talent. A critic of video games, she analyses how women are therein portrayed, and how the implicit messages are diffused to players at large.

The lady caight media attention for having been forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University, after the school had received an email threatening to carry out “the deadliest shooting in American history.” The message said that “feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge.” He signed the email as Marc Lepine, the name of a man who killed 14 women, most of them female engineering students, in a mass shooting in Montreal in 1989.

Anita Sarkeesian canceled the talk after being told that under Utah law, campus police could not prevent people from bringing guns. A remarkable statement, considering that school shootings and massacres have become almost routine events in the world of America’s educational system. And that many schools maintain constant police presence on the premises, under the Orwellian label of EAR (External Assistance Resources).

Still, I would have archived the news as a curious but quickly-forgotten event, were it not that, the next day, there was yet another school shooting. This time in the small town of Marysville, Washington, with two victims and three other fighting for their lives in a hospital.

Capable of resisting anything but temptation, the temptation was too strong not to attempt connecting yet another school shooting with the threat to the social analyst in Utah. And with the messages conveyed to players at large by sundry video games.

The temptation was strengthened when, on reading about the feminist’s research, I came across a particularly bloody video game. It includes images gruesomely similar, almost identical, to pictures of ISIL’s so-called militants, while they ready themselves to cut the throat of their (real, non video game) victims. Online.

I confess my total ignorance about video games, other than being told that they are a multibillion dollar ever-growing industry. Therefore, for some of the details described, I must rely on the findings of Anita Sarkeesian, the analyst in question.

There is a simple Shakespearean reason why video games are attractive to youngsters (and probably to many adults), “Things that move sooner catch the eye than what not stirs”(1). Coupled with the sense of vicarious participation and of fictional influence on the fictitious events.

Many will say that video games are, as the name implies, just games, just entertainment. A similar reasoning applies to the thousands flocking to Las Vegas to gift their money to the casino industry. And to wonder at the costly and spectacular reproductions of “nature” – an artificial volcano, artificial Lake Como, artificial Venice and artificial Paris.

The message, cleverly unstated, reaches to a man’s subconscious, which, as we know, is richer than his vocabulary. “Look – the artificial wonders seem to say – you are now in a world that is both real and unreal. You are a live actor in the game of make-believe. Do not be a stiff, come to us and enjoy the pleasure of forgetting who you are while we pander to your fantasies. Maybe your fantasies could even become reality and your life will finally be a dream. You have nothing to lose. It is just a game, it is just fiction.”

But giving the soul to the devil in temporary consignment, knowing we can get the soul back at will, has proven historically an unreliable practice. Comes a point when the distinction between fiction and reality is lost and so is the soul. Witness the thousands who lost it, along with their money, ending in ruin.

In Las Vegas, or other similar establishments, we are dealing with adults, as minors are prevented from gambling.

Video games, as far as I know, do not involve gambling, but give free reign to suggestions similar in nature to those of Las Vegas, but often worse in content.

Young spectators fix their eyes upon the characters with close attention.  They are unconsciously drawn, by observing the characters’ behavior to regulate their practices, should they be engaged in a like part. And if the part does not exist, a youthful fantasy can easily create it.

Crime, vice or both, when shown, should trigger disgust, or at least they used to. But, from what I gathered, in video games they don’t. And if adults can confuse reality with fiction, for youngsters it is even easier. Right and wrong lose their color.

In the Marysville shooting, the victims were mostly women. And, if statistics are true, every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States and, on average, more than three women are murdered by their boyfriends, husbands, or ex-partners every single day. Therefore, the role of women in video games – the researcher calls them ‘tropes’ – is perhaps worth being aware of.  Here is a brief extract,

The Damsel in Distress: A female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own.  The rescuer is a male character and the rescue operation is usually accomplished via kidnapping, but it can also involve petrification, a curse or demon possession. Traditionally, the woman in distress is a love interest of the rescuer; princesses, wives, girlfriends and sisters fill the role. The plot of the “damsel in distress” is akin to Snow-white and the seven dwarfs.

Damsel in the Refrigerator: A combination of the Women in Refrigerators and of the Damsel in Distress tropes. Typically, it happens when a female character is (brutally and gruesomely) killed at the beginning of a story, but her soul is then stolen or trapped (in a refrigerator), and must be rescued or freed by the male hero. Time travel or some other form of resurrection may be involved in bringing the women in question back from the dead.

Disposable Damsel: A variant of the Damsel in Distress trope in which the hero fails to save the woman in peril either because he arrives too late or because she has been dead the whole time.

Euthanized Damsel: A combination of the Damsel in Distress and of the Mercy Killing trope. It happens when the player character must (brutally and gruesomely) murder the woman in peril “for her own good”. Typically the damsel has been horribly mutilated or deformed by the villain and the “only option left” to the hero is to put her “out of her misery” himself. Occasionally the damsel in question will beg the player to kill her.

The actual list is long, as video games are produced literally by the thousands. And with increased computer-processing power, the characters acquire more and more the appearance of human actors, blurring the distinction between animation and the stage.

Because of the audience they address, video games are entertainment of the mind for minds usually poorly furnished with ideas, and therefore susceptible of impressions. Minds often not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy. Or not informed by experience and consequently open to direct and indirect suggestions.

Says Anita Sarkeesian, “The use of sexual or domestic violence, as a form of scaffolding to prop up dark and edgy environments, has become a pervasive pattern in modern gaming.”

Here is but one extract from a video game dialog,

100-EYES (presumably the villain): Are you here for the whore?
MALE HERO: I have your money. Let her go!
100-EYES: No! Take it up with Caesar (another villain)!

Besides the women kidnapped, mutilated, tortured, disfigured or placed in the refrigerator, video games often display a subset of background, passive female characters.  Their sexuality adds a gritty or racy flavor to the game – they function as an environmental texture while titillating (presumed) eterosexual male players.

There was also another email threat for Anita Sarkeesian at the University of Utah. The message was signed with the name of Elliot Rodger, a young man who committed another school shooting at UC Santa Barbara earlier in 2014, killing 7 people and injuring 13.

Rodger’s “manifesto” used almost the same video game language, anti-women, antifeminist and deeply misogynist. His video declaration, uploaded shortly before the massacre, said,

“On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB (University of California at Santa Barbara), and I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blonde slut I see inside there.”

He blamed women for throwing themselves at “obnoxious brutes” while rejecting him, the “supreme gentleman.” In his Facebook page, Rodger wrote about his taste for the expensive things in life. Several “selfies” showed him driving his BMW, and he listed luxury clothes, Bentley and Aston Martin cars as his “likes”.

There you have it, money, sex, power, luxury and unrecognized self-exceptionalism, mixed in with  videogame-come-true language.

It would be useless and actually somewhat pharisaic to draw moral lessons and conclusions from the preceding notes.

As I write this, the motives for the Marysville shooting are still unknown. In any event, I think the video game industry needs something new. I am waiting for a game in which, for a substantial fee, sons and daughters of the onepercenters may actually use video game software to drone-kill a live goat-herder in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia or wherever “American interests are at stake” – to use the language of the Supreme Commander and of those whose position throws glitter on their crimes.

As I said, it would be pharisaic to draw moral conclusions. Because man is not governed by good intentions, but solely by the laws of the social order in which he is placed. Whoever wants to change a man, first of all must change social conditions. And changing prevailing social conditions goes fiercely against the law of the land and the spirit of the times.

Furthermore, we know that the current parliamentary system is a fiction designed to secure power to ever-the-same social groups – the same who, directly and indirectly, promote the video game “kill” mentality at large, however hypocritically they may deny it.

(1) Troilus and Cressida

In the play. Hamlet has still some last minute doubts that the Ghost may be a creature from Hell, rather than his own father.

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