Thinking Points (III) – What Is Fetishised Violence?

I mentioned in the first Thinking Points article that video games are being held to be inadequate in their handling of “serious” issues by the media at large. These criticisms, though, do not appear to have stopped. Makers of games are weighing in now, and the negative media attention simply cannot be escaped – it is from broadsheet newspapers, and critics of other media. The latest complaint is that the trend for lavishly-depicted acts of violence as shown in many titles at this year’s trade fair E3 “fetishise” violence; turning it into something the viewer should take pleasure in.

Today, in The Guardian, an article entitled “Does The Last of Us Fetishise Violence” was featured; it covered this debate about what manner of depiction of violence in games is “acceptable.” In doing so, it attempted to define what the “fetishising of violence” actually is thus:

“Gone is the fetishised military action of Call of Duty and its ilk – replaced with raw, improvised violence. It is the stuff of desperation rather than professionalism.”

This definition is, I think, a flawed one. By associating “fetishised violence” with “military action” it fails to adequately consider the issue in order to support its idea – that The Last of Us is in some way a “better” depiction of violence than Call of Duty. Why is “improvised violence” less “fetishised” than “military action?” I would argue, if anything, the opposite is the case.

Glorified military deeds as depicted in Call of Duty are a modern equivalent to the hero myth; the soldier-hero felling the foe in droves with his trusty weapon, winning the war. It’s King Arthur beating up all and sundry in the name of God. It’s Biggles flying his plane to save the day. It is not per se fetishising the violent deeds that are performed but the entire ethos of soldiering. The act of representing your people, your ideology and most of all rightness in the face of the enemy. This is undeniably also problematic in its own way; patriotism is not as important to the modern mindset as it was in the past, and the nature of warfare changing has made simple “right and wrong” conflicts rarer, but it is not, for the most part, celebrating the violence itself. Fighting is a means to an end to achieve victory and the viewer/participant is free to form their own opinion about the justness of the war.

On the other hand, this is a description of sections from the preview of The Last of Us:


“But here things seem different. When Joel throws a Molatov cocktail at two enemies, burning them to death, Ellie shrieks, “Joel?!” in disbelief. After every confrontation, the duo are shocked and breathless until the survival instinct kicks in again.”

Surely this, a focus not only on the violence in graphic detail but also on the response to it, is more fetishistic? By drawing the viewer’s attention to single acts of graphically depicted violence, rather than the chaos of a battlefield, and making the decision to fight and kill one made consciously by adding “player choice not to fight”, attention is drawn to the nature of the act that is not subtle or complex. The more graphically a violent act is depicted, the harder it becomes to argue its value as challenging violence in general unless the narrative is shaped around this. If one argues that graphic lingering on the deaths of others is a statement against the fetishism of violence, then surely graphic horror films are the ne plus ultra of this line of thinking? Yet there, the violence and graphic depictions are pure titillation. Furthermore, celebrating animalistic survival instinct and violence as a “tough call made to protect yourself” (from enemies who surely are only doing the same thing) is just as problematic – not less problematic – than the heroic soldier fighting for what he believes in against enemies doing the same.

In conclusion, this is not setting out to claim that the military FPS is not problematic in its depiction of soldiering and war, and it is not setting out to claim that graphically depicted violence cannot act as a stark display of the consequences of someone’s actions – instead it claims that the lingering on death and the celebration of single acts of brutality is simply its own kind of fetishising of violence unless it is clearly set in a negative context. Simply having an NPC act horrified at “doing what must be done to survive” is not considering consequences of violence; it’s trying to create a simplistic conflict in the player of “I had to do this not to fail the game but I should feel bad about it.” Reducing the debate to this level is not helpful in determining whether games can seriously and challengingly depict questions like the consequences of killing.


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