So here I am, just taking a baseball bat to random beach bystanders in Grand Theft Auto V, a pastime made even more enjoyable since the game's "blood update" was introduced. Then there I go, slaughtering an entire orc stronghold in Skyrim, avenging nobody in particular, leaving no man or beast behind. And finally it's off to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, whereupon to sow the last of this season's wild oats by plowing through an entire airport full of innocent bystanders. What a night!
Mindless ultraviolence, to be sure, but stained with actual blood, the way all the great action movies once were. And are no longer, alas: I left a screening of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the action movie of right now (beside the just-out Mad Max: Fury Road), having gazed in befuddlement as CGI cities rose and fell without a hint of crimson to spoil the happy affair. I'd entertained similar thoughts while watching X-Men: Days of Future Past, Live Free or Die Hard, Godzilla, and The Expendables 3. In all of these pictures, vast swathes of the planet are annihilated, yet the victims, if they're seen at all, suffer only the slightest of flesh wounds.
The results, as bemoaned by an increasingly vocal minority of film critics, are absolutely ludicrous: Die Hard's John McClane can't drop his F-bomb catchphrase, Godzilla can blow up dozens of planes only to have the heroic pilots parachute to safety à la those Cobra henchmen in the G.I. Joe cartoons of the 1980s, and even hard-R throwback franchises like The Expendables suddenly have their hunky headliners blasting away with red and blue lasers. And of those R.L. Stine-y, tween-oriented "thrillers" in which shaky cams and bumps in the night have replaced the buckets of viscera once favored by the likes of Peter Jackson and George Romero… well, the less said, the better.
The explanation for this shift in tone and content is the vast profit potential that flows from the attainment of the PG-13 rating (the US equivalent of the UK's 12A), an "almost all ages" label devised by the Motion Picture Association of America during the early 1980s in an effort to placate Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom director Steven Spielberg. The MPAA's criteria for this rating are contradictory, weirdly puritanical, and therefore thoroughly all-American: Sex and anything more than "brief" nudity are out; one "sexually-derived" expletive is acceptable (so make it count!); "persistent" violence is okay but "realistic" violence is verboten. Basically, you can kill billions, and as long as it's off-screen or thoroughly unrealistic, you're all good in the neighborhood—but don't you dare drop a double-f-bomb or let too many nipples slip. Then your sordid little picture is receiving an R rating, and good luck cracking the list of all-time highest grossing films with that albatross around your neck.
By way of contrast, examine the lists of best-selling PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Bloodbaths abound, including several Call of Duty offerings, Grand Theft Autos four and five, and the PS3 exclusives The Last of Us and the main Uncharted trilogy. And for all this unavoidable blather about Avengers: Age of Ultron—that film has occasioned so many "is it misogynistic?" think-pieces you'd need a moral compass to navigate them all—worldwide video game revenue across all platforms now exceeds filmed entertainment revenue. But of course, when a game like Grand Theft Auto V or Watch Dogs is written about in the mainstream press, it's often to note how irredeemably, unapologetically violent it is.
To which I must reply: yes, of course they are. That's the bloody (pun intended) point, insofar as there is any point at all. Minor quibbles aside, the stories are no better or worse than their Hollywood equivalents. Grand Theft Auto V isn't Absalom, Absalom!, but it's a darn sight better than Sly Stallone's latest entry in The Expendables series. Skyrim, for all of its unnecessary reading and tedious ambling around, is nevertheless a better walking simulator than the even more interminable The Hobbit trilogy. Oh, and to nod to Jesse Ventura in Richard Donner's Predator (a great hard-R film of the sort we'll never see again), in these games everybody has time to bleed.
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The arguments about violence in games are so easy to make, because many designers jut their chins out and say, often in gorgeously rendered graphics, "Come at me, bro." And you can come at them, of course: You can make perfectly valid critiques about how these games desensitize players to violence and how they perpetuate various ugly stereotypes about women and minorities. But you can come at every entertainment product made in First World culture this way, only most aren't half as honest about it: Fox News alone, with its endless stumping for the Iraqi and Afghan wars and stockpiling of vapid blonde anchorwomen, is a leading offender on all counts.
Then we have these toothless, spineless PG-13 films. Marvel Studios, with its empty and consequence-free multiverse of interlinked narratives, has crafted a story far more disgusting than even the most ghoulish developers at Rockstar Games could devise. In Marvel's world, where bad guys fall dead without bullets lodged in their chests and half of New York City can collapse without overtaxing a single ambulance, we viewers encounter the ultimate vulgarity: a world in which violence not only doesn't hurt, it doesn't matter.
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Compare this, then, to video games that, even as they desensitize you, force you to feel something. No human endowed with reason—which, philosophically speaking, would be no human at all—could engage in acts of virtual mass murder for hours on end without at least some reflection on these activities. The visceral reaction provoked by a critic like Anita Sarkeesian suggests that, regardless of your position vis-à-vis her claims, you have one. You've thought something about what she has to say; or, at a minimum, you've thought more than nothing. You might feel guilty or aggrieved or supportive of your games, but you feel—your hundreds of hours with these works have left you with something to say. How many people left Avengers: Age of Ultron, this purposeless CGI mishmash, caring one way or another about the exploits of its lookalike himbo leads? Grand Theft Auto V, which makes you consider mass murder in a way that few other forms of entertainment will, sits in the gut like a Guinness; Avengers, all speed and fury signifying nothing, is as evanescent and unfulfilling as Diet Coke.
And so it goes with big-budget video games, which remain relevant in a way that big-budget movies once were. Their designers still give a shit, even if it's about rendering an atomic bomb blast in all its brutal majesty, and they're able to make significant bank in the process. The best all-ages fare, such as Yacht Club's Shovel Knight and Nintendo's Super Mario 3D World, transcends the Pixar Formula in a similar manner: for those game creators, there is no one path the truth, no single business model to be multiplied ad infinitum until reluctant viewers refuse to indulge another paint-by-numbers blockbuster.
In every case, gamers are treated, if not as full-on adults, at least with a modicum of respect: You can handle this trip to the strip club or this suicide mission to stop the Collectors or this airport massacre, they're told. Gratuitous violence, owing to its in-your-face visibility, is a topic we can discuss. But blue laser beams, parachuting-to-safety pilots, and no-harm-done PG-13 apocalypses? "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."
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