In this essay, I reference articles by Amanda Phillips and Jill Stauffer and discuss the complex questions they raise about the disconnect between virtual and actual violence.

Amanda Phillips describes the mechropolitical* implications of “ragdoll physics”. In video games, ragdoll physics describes the manner in which a lifeless body falls and lands. Oftentimes, this motion is rather exaggerated compared to real life; the corpse may fly backwards before falling, flail its limbs, or simply appear relatively animated as it settles on the ground. While the motion maintains relative realism, it certainly is, to some extent, entertaining. This is where the topic becomes important to discuss: the dramatization of death in such a manner provides a secondary incentive for killing, past the main objective of such a game. It also allows a player to manipulate or abuse the lifeless body after a successful kill. These actions, which are certainly unthinkable outside of a gaming setting, are enabled and incentivized by such physics. Violent games do not directly lead to violent thought and actions, but that is not to say that these forms of violence and death do not have complex resonances outside of the gaming world. 

The American public needs to separate fiction from reality.  Video games encourage quick reflexes and rapid, successive shots upon seeing an enemy. If you do not act in such a manner, your character will likely be killed. Games also reward players for a successful headshot with a quick kill, more points, and a rather dramatic animation. This prioritization differs greatly from reality; in arms training, people are taught to aim for the chest rather than the head, and to not shoot to kill upon reaction. Yet, these qualities promoted by games are being seen in cases of the murder of unarmed POC by police: the multiple bullets to the head of Michael Brown or the twenty bullets that killed unarmed Stephon Clark this year (2018). Such tactics are fully unprovoked, but reflect the reactions and reflexes required in games. Whether a conscious choice or not, the concept of shooting to kill, and furthermore, overkill, is central in the issue of police brutality, and is likely linked to the fictional tactics of games.

Jill Stauffer describes the disconnect between Americans, particularly white Americans, and the atrocious acts of violence and terrorism committed both in the past and in the present. This group views the world through a very particular lens, imposed by misinformation either from the media or the self, favoring ignorance as an easier truth. Stauffer explores two seemingly distant but in fact analogous topics: modern drone warfare and settler colonialism, the continued inhabitance by colonizers of land taken during colonization. 

Drone strikes are unmanned bombings, controlled by soldiers sitting far from any battlefield; the sensors that exist upon the drone are carefully and purposefully selected. The soldier cannot see the “familiar geometry” of an area with homes and families, streets and windows. They can only see a rather unhuman view, a top-down perspective, almost resembling a video game. The soldier, the general, the media, and the American viewers cannot see the crying mother who lost her child or the physical destruction of what was once a home; they only see a mission accomplished. Lacking the perspective of an innocent civilian in one of these areas who has to wonder if the drones buzzing constantly overhead will kill someone today or next week, there exists a concrete disconnect between the American knowledge of civilian deaths and the empathy that such a topic should evoke. “Familiar geometry,” is necessary for many to feel related to an atrocity, and lacking such familiarity leads many to remaining ignorant and complicit.

A more tangible depiction of this disconnect can be seen in the game Killbox. The player chooses to be either player one or player two, uncertain of to where each option leads. As player two, the player is a brightly colored orb, able to move around a simple three dimensional village. There is no clear objective; rather, the orb simply can move around the area, traveling through happily colored fields and interacting with orbs of equally bright colors.

A faint mosquito-like buzzing in the background grows until a drone drops a missile. The screen loses the happy color contrast as the player’s character recoils from the blast. As panicked orbs sprint to the wounded or attempt to flee, another missile hits, and the game ends with a top-down view of the destruction.

 

If the player choses to play as the first option, they gain control of the drone. Viewing the scene from above, all orbs appear in muted hues, and the scene lacks vibrancy and dynamic nature it possessed in the prior scenario. It feels lifeless, static, and disconnected. If the player had not yet seen the civilian scenario, they may not even be aware that the orbs are living and the town is alive. The player is tasked with locking on to the target, unprompted to the destruction that is to follow the choice. After dropping the primary, the system takes over and drops the secondary missile: the human played their role in confirming the target, and human input is no longer required. The game ends with a number of casualties: no identities – only a number.

The act of targeting someone in a drone strike very much plays out like a game. It is impersonal and disconnected. As the operator can only see that which is intended, the empathy is taken out of the action. It would not be a stretch to say that such a set-up may even feel fictional. Again, this conflict between fiction and reality must be addressed. Just as fictional violence can influence the manner of actual violence, actual violence depicted as fiction has unimaginable consequences. Dehumanization is fictionalization, and fictionalization leads to death.

*The virtual politics of dying, often visualized in exaggerated and theatrical ways, in relation to the real world

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