The Enemy Problem
It all started with the gladiator games. Ancient Romans had no trouble embracing their violent tastes, finding the games both exhilarating and entertaining. But even the most celebrated combatants were still slaves, soldiers of conquered armies or criminals. The audience didn't mind seeing people eviscerated because they were barely considered human. The Middle Ages saw misery meted out to everyone besides the upper class (thanks Christianity!) so entertainment wasn't quite as high on the priority list. But an interesting thing happened during the Enlightenment; because of secular humanist philosophy, people started to value human life much more dearly. And therein lies the problem.
Psychologists call it "cognitive dissonance" - believing one thing and doing another. Instinctually, we all love to see and experience violence. But rationally, we've all agreed for centuries that human life is sacred. So how do we resolve this dissonance? We create games like football and rugby; still very violent but with lots of padding. We watch races like NASCAR, claiming that the only draw is the driving skill on display and not the occasional, horrific crash on the track. The fact is, we haven't resolved the dissonance. We've just managed to convince ourselves that we've evolved past it. Bullshit.
Video games provide a very interesting prism through which to study this love/hate relationship with violence. Just like the gladiators of old, enemies in games need just the right amount of "kill-ability" without us actually picturing them as real human beings. It used to be much simpler; a game developer could just color one set of pixels blue and the other set red and call the red pixels whatever he wanted. It could have been called "Schoolhouse Rampage" (pre-Columbine), and it wouldn't much matter to the player because, viscerally, the graphical limitations kept us from empathizing with the enemy.
As graphics technology boomed during the 2000's, it became harder and harder to watch as your in-game character mowed down increasingly life-like enemies. After the initial outburst of laughter from my first time grabbing a North Korean soldier by the neck and hurling him away like a ragdoll in Crysis, I began to have a negative Pavlovian response to the thought of doing that again. Why? Because the graphics so clearly showed a helpless man, his face mere inches from my own, knowing he's about to die. It isn't anger or animal viciousness on his face. It's terror. And suddenly, it's no longer fun, it's upsetting.
Developers have seemingly realized that there is a fine line between the state of enjoying violence and being turned off by it. So, once again, how do we resolve the dissonance? Regressing graphics technology is out of the question, as is regressing our moral development as a society. The best we have come up with is changing the nature of the enemy we fight in games, dehumanizing them to the point where it's okay to feel giddy as we cut through them with a chainsaw.
For a while there, the only antagonists we could come up with were Nazis and aliens. Why were these two so easy to latch onto? Nazis have, and will always be, one of the most easily identifiable symbols of Evil, especially in the modern era. After all, what is worse than a genocidal army bent on world domination? But just as elementary schools across America have painted Native Americans as peace-loving hippies with no concept of ownership (kids, read a real history book!), we have also accepted it as fact that all soldiers in the German army were evil. Obviously that's not the case, as most didn't know about the death camps and were simply following orders on the battlefield. It's ironic that we despise those death camp guards for dehumanizing their Jewish brethren, and yet here we are, dehumanizing all soldiers with a German uniform in order to make ourselves feel better as we shoot them in the head or blow them up with tank shells.
Of all the dissonance solutions, aliens are by far the biggest cop out. Not only have we never met an actual alien, but we have no idea what they would even be like. The odds are extremely low that they would appear humanoid. But that hasn't stopped game developers from taking essentially a human form, stretching it out in various ways, throwing a pig nose or wolf ears or dripping serrated teeth on it, calling it an alien and telling us to have at it. Because aliens can look like whatever we want them to, they will always be "the other", and therefore, they will always be safe to hack apart or incinerate in our masochistic fantasies.
Just as we dehumanize Nazis from our past, we also dehumanize people in our present. I'm speaking of those that Westerners consider backwards or savage. Currently, top on the list are Arabs and other Middle Eastern nationalities (usually unnamed) that are presumably Muslim. It's obvious that of the billion Muslims around the world, only a tiny fraction of them are violent. Yet, the very fact that I'm nervous about writing on this topic is evidence enough that that tiny fraction has an enormous impact on all of us, gamers included. We latch onto that terrorist image of them while busting down doors in generic, virtual Middle Eastern settlements. Likewise, developers have been riding a very fine line of late, wanting to give players the realism of modern day struggles while trying to be aware of accidentally enflaming anti-Islamic, post 9/11 sentiment among its audience, or worse yet, becoming another target on the growing "fatwa" list. When all is said and done, however, players have no trouble assuming the roles of Taliban and American GI, happily sniping at each other in Medal of Honor. It's only when the target becomes American civilians in an airport that we start to get a little queasy.
With American civilians off the table, and American soldiers being an even worse choice (at least when dramatized in a single-player story), can Americans ever be the target of a player's bullets? Yes, but only in a very specific instance. What do most self-loathing Americans cite as our #1 flaw? Capitalism. So bingo-bango, you have your enemy: the PMC (private military contractor) soldier. Now, when Sam Fisher has to silently put a bullet through the eye of some grunt, there's no guilt involved because A) the poor sap is an American and since we are also American (or at least from a Western culture), we can't get tagged as racist for enjoying it and B) he's part of a, presumably evil, corporation. He's not fighting for our freedom or the American way, he's fighting to make a buck so… screw him! Unless, of course, you think that making a buck is the American way. Wait, now I'm confused, why am I shooting this guy? He actually seems like a decent fellow.
Of course, what discussion on dehumanized enemies would be complete without the latest fad to saturate the market: zombies. These undead hordes have all the benefits of being both human and not human at the same time. They are the perfect embodiment of our mental dichotomy. And they do something else that's not possible with the other enemy faces - they allow us to have our cake and eat it too. After all, up until ten minutes ago, Bob was a kindly, albeit scared shitless, survivor of a mall-complex zombie outbreak in Dead Rising 2. You had every intention of escorting him back to the sanctuary safehouse and that intention was enough to satisfy the part of your brain that claims to abhor violence. But then Bob had to get bitten or infected or whatever nonsense "turns" you and now you have to kill Bob. You tell yourself you don't really want to kill him, that you have to because he's now a mindless savage, but deep down, you enjoy it. Be honest, the entire time you and Bob were fearfully hacking your way through zombie crowds, you were just waiting for him turn on you so you could have another proper boss battle.
So is there an easy answer to once and for all resolve this cognitive dissonance? I seriously doubt it. Our love of blood and gore will forever be at odds with our moral philosophies. And since we can't seem to let go of our animal nature, the best we can hope for is to quiet our guilty conscience by tricking ourselves into thinking that we are just killing "the other", not actual, relatable people. The one thing I can say for certain is that we should not be afraid to call a spade a spade. I almost never watch NASCAR, but when I catch it flipping through channels, I most certainly hope for an exciting, fiery crash. And so do you.