Houses on fire, screams in the background, heavily-armed, swastika’d soldiers and flame-spewing, mechanical beasts swaggering around.
“Monsters did this.”
“Not monsters – men.”
So starts the latest trailer to Wolfenstein II. The trailer itself is a gory, expletive-filled affair, but it deflates itself right off the bat. It fails to live up to its own rhetoric within the first few seconds.
Because right after that opening line – “Not monsters – men” – a Nazi soldier turns around to face the audience. But is he a man? No, he wears a gas mask and he’s covered in body armour. He could be a robot for all we care.
And I mean just that – the trailer is basically just one kill-shot after another, and it becomes clear really quickly that you don’t get to see the face of a single man you kill. They’re all wearing masks in some form or another along with full body armour, but it’s weirdly easy to delimb them or fill their squishy bodies full of bullet holes, with fountains of red stuff to confirm your righteous kill.
Or take For Honor, a recent male power fantasy game from Ubisoft (don’t get me wrong, I’m an avid consumer and I find it hugely entertaining). An hour or so of gameplay will make it very clear that not a single person you fight in this game has their face uncovered. Everyone is wearing a mask or a full-face helmet.
Which means – and here’s where it gets perverse – it gets disturbingly fun to watch the execution animations. In For Honor, whenever you land a killing blow in a certain way, you can choose to execute your downed opponent. Just the other day I was practicing with a new fighter, the trident-armed Gladiator. Practice makes perfect, so I kept fighting a low-level computer-controlled opponent. I kept dodging his clumsy blows, and kept performing the execution move. And as I watched my character for the hundredth time (alright fine, tenth) knock his opponent to the ground, plant a foot on his belly, and roughly shove a trident right through his chest cavity while he squirmed like a fish, I jolted awake and realised – damn, I’m starting to enjoy this.
Disturbing enough – but what made it worse was this: I realised I was buying right into the developer’s marketing. It’s so damn easy to execute, delimb, decapitate and straight up murder someone when you can’t see their face (Ridley Scott actually addressed this in the infamous decapitation scene in Gladiator – he chose to give Maximus’ unfortunate opponent a porcine, full-faced helmet to make the decapitation more acceptable). I found it disturbingly enjoyable watching my downed opponent squirm because he had stopped being a human being – he was just a masked mook for me to murder.
Which is weird, because why are these male power fantasies like For Honor and Wolfenstein stopping just short of selling us the whole deal? Why do they promise the fantasy of killing people without consequence (because they’re Nazis, etc), while making it abundantly clear that nonono we don’t want you to kill people with faces, we want you to kill masked mooks because who cares about them? Wouldn’t it actually be more empowering to let the player look his worthy opponent in the face before killing him, thereby proving himself the better man? Why not take these games to their full logical extent and show us that yes, killing, delimbing and decapitating people with faces has consequences – you’ve ended a human life, and you can see the immediate consequence on the man’s face?
Because this weird moral cowardice – selling a power fantasy without going the whole way – is actually how these games developers make money. If it’s made abundantly clear to me I’ve just killed a living, breathing man (and notice how in Wolfenstein the enemies are usually called Nazis, not Germans), maybe, just maybe, I’d think twice about playing more (I actually recall in the first Call of Duty how shocked I felt when I shot a German soldier and saw his eye-bulging-death-mask-of-a-face as he lay on the ground). But if I’m desensitising myself into murdering a faceless lump of meat, why, I could do this all day! And that’s precisely what helps action games sell.
And what are they selling? They’re not selling the idea that violence is scary and therefore to be respected. They’re not even selling bloodlust. They’re selling an addiction based on a teasing but hollow illusion – execute this one, it’s easy and there’s plenty more where it came from.
To hell with that.
Seriously, to hell with that.
Because I’m slowly, subconsciously teaching myself to become a consumer of flesh, a literal sarcophagus, while slowly also teaching myself to shit all over the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of the human body. And if that process sounds familiar, that’s exactly the mental process that makes pornography such a successful business. Women who demean themselves on camera aren’t people, they’re meat. People with bad ideologies aren’t people, they’re meat. People who just so happen to be on the other side of the battlefield – they’re not people, they’re meat. And it doesn’t even matter if you see their faces or not.
But like all addicts, I’m probably not going to stop anytime soon, and to hell with high-minded rhetoric. I still find For Honor hugely entertaining. Am I slowly becoming the faceless murderer of faceless mooks that I’m controlling in these action games? Am I teaching myself that the human body is for my consumption and pleasure, not for honouring and protecting?