Arms race

The thing I think I’ll remember most about this summer in northwest London is the constant sound of gunfire. Fortunately it’s all from video games.

Civilians die by the hundreds in Gaza, Syria, and countless other conflicts, but in the “realistic” MMORPGs, the casualties are mainly if not exclusively other players. The bombed-out hellscapes are a given. It feels almost innocent.

But while the teenagers played war, Rachel and I watched all four seasons of Game of Thrones, which our mutual friend Jean Morris — a fan of the show — aptly described as “adrenalin porn for aging hippies.” The graphic violence and frequent nudity and sex did feel gratuitous, though the show was gritty in many other ways as well. What we perceive as realistic helped the supernatural elements from seeming too wildly improbable most of the time. It all added up to good, escapist fun.

But last year on Facebook I remember Dylan Tweney pointing out in reference to Game of Thrones that the drug cartels in Mexico are also fond of putting enemies’ heads on pikes. It made him uncomfortable, he said, that we would take pleasure in such a spectacle.

What does it say about us that we are so entranced by violence… and that we conflate graphic violence with realism? Perhaps there’s some law that states that the grimmer the world becomes that one is trying to ignore or escape, the grimmer the escapism too must become. Perhaps we are locked in a new kind of arms race: between reality and imagination. But if so, is another world still possible? And do the still, small voices of a greater-than-human, numinous reality still stand a chance?

4 Replies to “Arms race”

  1. Hmm. I was deliberately concentrating hard on the knitting through the violence, don’t forget. And many of the gratuitous female full-frontals. It’s the politics, character development and relationships that interest me.

    However your piece makes me realise there is little evidence of artistic endeavour, unless we count the costumes. And one very bad bard. Or, in the larger context, the series themselves, so beautifully filmed.

    I imagine it’s possible that the taste for violence, as well as horror and the positively pornographic dwelling on suffering in the news media, have similar psychological roots and talk to our need to feel someone else is worse off than we are. And think of Bosch!

    Re the effect of violent video games, the jury still appears to be out:

    1. I guess I’m less interested in the behavioral effects of video games than in the way that violent narratives in general might shape our sense of what’s possible. It will be interesting to see who or what ultimately triumphs in GOT; part of what holds my own interest in the show is the way in which it serves as a very intense critique of power politics, in the same way that Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven questioned the whole cowboy ethos. (And they each have a memorable scene of a guy being shot on the crapper.)

  2. Yikes, outed in a secret vice. I think Dylan has a good point and I’m uncomfortable about it. But still I watch. I guess what I also think is that my life is full of frightening and mutilating things of a less tangible kind that I can scarcely cope with from day to day (both the pain and sadness of my personal failures and losses and the dreadful events seen and heard in the news media that are brought so close, but that we are entirely powerless over) and that violent, dramatic fictional stories have an important function as a cathartic metaphor for these. I guess the strong characterisation, terrific acting and high production values of GOT effectively hold my attention for sustained periods while I do that cathartic processing. Maybe. I dunno.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I think you’re right about the importance of catharsis. Also, I should make clear that GOT wasn’t necessarily the best or most grievous example of a violent TV show to make my argument — but then, I wasn’t really making an argument, just musing out loud.

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