Gaming Made Me: Nathan Grayson’s Violence

By Nathan Grayson on January 9th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

I don’t think violence is necessarily bad. But I do think – especially in gaming – that it’s highly misunderstood, and I argued as much quite recently. But what can we do about that? As ever, I’m erring on the side of reflection and transparency. So here we are. I’m Nathan Grayson, and I was made by violence.

Walking down an unfamiliar San Francisco street one night, I passed some people. I didn’t feel overly threatened or anything. They were just other humans meandering down a junked-up road, and it was dark.

But then I started fantasizing about what would happen if one of them attacked me. Details gushed out of my brain as though from some enraged thought-volcano.

First, I’d knock the guy unconscious. Knee/knee. Up against a wall, face/mid-section, one/two. Crack, crack, crack, crack. Knees and clinches offer control. Basic self-defense. Doing what’s necessary. But that’s not where my mind stopped.

Eventually, he’d wake up. It probably wouldn’t take long. Maybe I’d break an arm while he was out. Or stomp a hand into a tangled mess. Perhaps something more drastic. My next thought was teeth. One by one. Crack, crack, crack, crack. Because maybe this hypothetical assailant had hurt other people before. Badly. Maybe he deserved to suffer.

As my fantasy faded and I saw the eerily empty street in front of me again, a crystallizing moment provided two epiphanies. One: That is fucked up.  Two: In my head, the vision had been of a stylized videogame action sequence. The camera angles, the satisfying heft of each strike, every crunchy splat of sound, each whistling note of blood. Even the role I’d placed myself in – that of some twisted arbiter of relentless, necessary justice – was one I find myself drawn to in games and other media.

The thing that struck me most, though, was that it all rushed in so quickly. So automatically.

—-

One day in elementary school, a teacher pulled me aside from a couple friends I’d been chatting with. I grew up scared to death of disapproval, so I desperately avoided stepping out of line whenever possible. This, then, was terrifyingly atypical.

“You talk about death and killing a lot,” he said. “You really shouldn’t do that so much.”

—-

I was one of those kids. Games – many of them quite violent – were a part of my life from the word “go.” I actually had a conversation with my mother about it very recently. I don’t think she really knew what I got my hungry little hands on back in my single digit age, but I don’t really blame her for it. My young life hardly revolved around games or other potentially violent media. I was always expected to achieve good grades in school, get involved in various extracurricular activities, be reasonably social, engage in a constant ideological war with “You must be this tall to ride…” signs.

Games. I couldn’t see the ones and zeroes yet – the thin, easily twisted puppet strings and smoke-and-mirror hallways that held each illusion together – so it all felt so real. No, no, not in the “Pikachu tells me to kill” way out-of-touch politicians dream about, but I thought I was gazing through some rainbow lightning technomagical window into another world.

Around the ripe old age of seven, I became obsessed with Warcraft II. Obsessed in the strictest sense of the term – in that unfaltering, unquestioning childlike fashion we all wish we could recapture and hurl in the general direction of our wildest hopes and dreams, resulting in a froth-and-spittle enthusiasm explosion. I spent months playing and replaying the campaign, making my own maps, imagining new scenarios, wishing I was a badass ogre mage, poring over official art, and – perhaps most impressively – making my own. These were full-blown artistic endeavors, too. My Sistine Chapel was a series of me-sized paper recreations of pretty much every unit in Warcraft II. To be clear, I mean that they were my height. Gleaming, glorious, blood-soaked warriors of suitably imposing stature. My paper dolls were not to be trifled with.

I embarked on similar projects with the likes of Diablo, Goldeneye 64, and Doom – all before I was even ten. I drew pictures of men being shot in the head (and, naturally, given my still-maturing comedic repertoire, the groin as well), people losing limbs, weapons caked in rust and blood, and many other things of that nature. I thought it was all so damn cool. But I also don’t think violence was necessarily the core of the appeal. Sure, it might have been the hook, but I was ultimately reeled in by a desire to bring these places and characters and sights and sounds to life. I so badly wanted to make them real that, well, I tried. And in doing so, I made them my own.

—-

Veins throbbed in the teacher’s neck like worms crammed in a can. He was purple, bellowing anger. One of my classmates wouldn’t stop talking. He hurled a marker in the student’s general direction and then stormed out of the room.

Later, I found out he went on to have another, similar episode, only it ended with a steel chair instead of a marker. Thank goodness chairs don’t fly very far.

—-

Christmas Eve, I am thirteen. I receive the then brand new Dragonball Z: Budokai as a gift, and rush up the tinsel-and-ornament-strewn stairs to play it. After cruising through the story mode’s early bits, I confront the series anti-hero Vegeta. And I die. 29 times.

I know this because I started keeping count, and I remember the exact number to this day because I got so angry. I shouted, kicked, hurled the controller, bit the controller until my teeth hurt, went on extended diatribes about how stupid my character was, ranted at the game for being unfair, and just generally, well, lost it.

I’ve always had a temper. Over the years, I’ve become better at controlling it, but games have a way of bringing it screaming to the surface. Sometimes, I cool down quickly. Other times, my mood’s ruined for hours. There’s just something about constant, repetitive, out-of-my-control failure that presses my buttons far beyond any sort of breaking point. I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it. So it makes me act violently – at least, in the moment, anyway.

But there’s a certain absurdity about it, you know? I mean, it’s just a game. And when I pull back and examine what I’m doing, I feel like I’m watching someone succumb to ridiculous road rage in highway traffic. It’s not fun, but worse things have happened. So it just looks… silly.

For me, though, gaming rage and road rage really are two sides of the same coin. Futility is the root of those temper tantrums – not the inherent aggression of shooting a man or (gasp) turning a wheel. I think the maddest I’ve ever been at a game was Mario Party. Because seriously, fuck random star handouts and sudden, impossible come-from-behind comebacks and everything Luigi loves and stands for. When I hold a controller, I want control. If that expectation is denied – whether I’m behind a keyboard-and-mouse or a steering wheel – I don’t take it well.

Are my reactions problematic? I’m not entirely sure. But I’ll take hitting a controller over a person (or, er, a car) any day of the week.

—-

I remember walking into the locker room and being shocked at just how much blood there was. Granted, the near-blinding white tile made it stand out all the more, but still: could a human head really hold all that blood?

There’d been a fight. At my tiny private elementary school in suburban Texas, those never happened. Well, almost never. I don’t remember being disturbed by it, though. Just curious.

—-

I’ve never gotten into a fight. Not a real one, anyway. But I love hitting. It may very well be one of my absolute favorite things in this world.

Like many starry eyed nerdlings, I was first attracted to martial arts because Ryu, Ken, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and all of their furious-fisted ilk wailed on my imagination until the brain damage was molded in their image. Basically, I wanted to punch and kick and produce whaling harpoons from my wrists. (Incidentally, I was Scorpion for Halloween one year.)

In middle school, I clumsily fumbled my way into a gi and tried my feet at Taekwondo. I was never a particularly athletic child, but martial arts just stuck. I loved the purity of it all. I didn’t need to worry about complicated rules, having crappy aim, or getting screamed at by umpires or vampires or however baseball works. It was just me and one other person. And we’d hit and hit and hit, and whoever hit better won.

Granted, there was a bit more to it than that, but it was all so satisfying and immediate. It felt amazing – my brain basting in a stew of its own chemicals and each blow rattling off cheekbones and rib cages – in between getting punched in the nose all the time. And training was just like Everquest, only a million times better. Each day, I’d grind until I cried blood and sweat tears, but progress – though slow – was obvious. Tangible. Addictive. Little by little, I was becoming strong.

But I wasn’t just hitting bodies. My training partners became my community. My family. We’d train for hours each day, and then we’d go out and watch UFC cards together or descend upon smoothie stores like some kind of protein-powder-lusting plague. I had friends, I had an outlet for my feelings, I had a work ethic.

I had a home.

—-

“The new kid’s slacking,” one of my seniors at my Taekwondo gym whispered to me. “Spar him extra hard.”

I did. I hurt him so badly that he had to sit out for the rest of the session. And it was fun.

—-

He looked so surprised. Shocked, even. Zone of the Enders 2 on PS2: the main character had just been shot. An alleged ally stabbed him in the back, and he just sort of floated there, baby planetoids of his own blood orbiting around him in a space station’s low gravity. His face was a mask of fear and pain. Eyes wide. Helpless. Scared. Dying.

It was the holiday season, and my mom, my sister, and I went out to lunch with my grandparents later that day. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That face. That scene. I had no appetite. Months later, thinking of that scene produced the same effect.

I still haven’t finished Zone of the Enders 2.

I’m glad. If growing up with games had desensitized me to the ramifications of violence, pain, and death, experiencing that scene from an M-rated game suddenly put it all in perspective. Was I too young for Zone of the Enders 2 when it first came out? Absolutely. But, in retrospect, I think I needed it. For a lot of reasons.

—-

Recently, I was talking with a friend about life and perspectives and extremely well-informed (and attractive) viewpoints on early modern philosophy. Eventually, that brought us to the topic of humor and how it manifests in different people.

“Yeah, I’m pretty whimsical,” I offered. “You know, prone to winding, ridiculous flights of fancy and all that stuff.”

“Hm?” he grunted back, chewing on my statement for a moment. “I don’t know. I always thought your jokes were pretty morbid, all things considered.”

—-

I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. Usually, it’s cancer. Everything’s cancer. Last year, I nearly missed my best friend’s college graduation because I was certain I’d found something in my chest. I wanted to cancel my flight and go home. I spent the night before wide awake and sick to my stomach. I was so, so, so scared. I cried a bunch. I called my mom at 4am and she talked me down a bit. But I was so sure I was dying. This was the end. I was going to waste away into an empty husk of dead skin and mulched bones, and my precious consciousness would fade into nothing. Forever.

I’ve never been more terrified in my entire life.

The world’s a horrifying place. To hear some people tell it, everything’s out to kill us, and death’s primed – coiled, snake-like – to strike at any given second. In many ways, my life hasn’t really gone out of its way to disprove that point of view, either. I’ve had a fairly pampered existence in the grand scheme of things, but even then, I grew up in a world of easily enraged authority figures and peers, constant fear that “the terrorists will win,” pain, disease, shootings, paranoia, sadness, and war. Meanwhile, the unending information barrage of the modern era ensures I never have a chance to forget about those things. Don’t get me wrong: I love living in these times. I love life. I’m happy. But I’m also afraid, because let’s face it: there’s so much to be afraid of.

I think I seek out violence because I’m so scared of death. I crack jokes about killing and death, I laugh in the face of over-the-top murdersplosion action movies, I listen to all kinds of exceedingly angry music, I’m addicted to fight training, I have all these empowering, in some cases sick fantasies. I surround myself with violence. Because when I do it that way, I’m in control. I can explore it. It’s mine. I own it.

And, as ever, in the game.

—-

In spite of the ups and downs of my relationship with it, I personally enjoy violence. I really do. It’s empowering. It’s intoxicating. It’s fun. But it’s also one of the scariest things in the entire world, and what’s even scarier is that – if I lost control, if my temper beat the teeth right out of my conscience – I could inflict it on someone else. I’ve done it in my head a thousand times. It’s not even hard. I’m human. On some level, it’s natural.

When I walk down those dark, nearly naked streets, I’m most afraid of my fantasies. Afraid of myself.

But there’s a voice, a whisper, a lingering tickle between my ears that tells me to stay in control. I mean, duh. I have to. That’s the way it’s always been. Over the years, games have told me a lot of things. They’ve told me that violence looks cool – some without even attempting to demonstrate potential consequences. Others have beaten it into my brain that death is an awful, awful thing to be feared above all else. But most of all, games have taught me that – at the end of the day – I’m accountable. If things go horribly awry, it’s probably because I – the player, the human being – fucked up. I can’t blame the situation or the heat of the moment or someone else, and I certainly can’t blame videogames.

Violence is natural, but so is control. To conveniently write off or forget either one of those facts would be a horrible abomination of a folly. No matter how constricting the situation, my actions are ultimately my own. Sometimes, I take pride in that. Other times, I dread it. And when I’m walking alone at night? I’d say it’s probably a mix of both.

I think that’s how it should be.

, .

168 Comments »

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  1. rockman29 says:

    Towards the end it seemed like the writer is completely mad, but luckily at the end he puts it together that it’s his responsibility to control. To be honest before that last paragraph I was kind of frightened about the writer. It sounds like a pathological desire to hurt, no less.

    I am glad you keep it in control and I hope it stays that way.

    I used to draw pictures of cars driving wildly and running over hazard signs and all that when I was a kid too, not so frequently though. But every time I did I was so judged for it. I just thought it was exciting. It wasn’t ever that I wanted to really do it myself, but I just found the idea of a car maneuvering through tiny streets and hitting poles and post signs while evading police cars was just exciting to see. All inspired by the cover of Driver: You are the Wheelman on PS1.

    I also used to have a fascination with how realistic the enemies in MGS2 looked on PS2. I pretended like they were real Russians I was fighting against and real enemies. I pretended like hurting them was real too, because they would die and bleed on the floor and fall into lumps realistically and I could drag them and stuff them into lockers realistically. They felt like real companions (though not) in this little MGS2 world that was just so awesome to be a part of. I wish more games were like MGS2 and 3 where characters felt like they were there and the environment felt real. Not just because it looked real (especially back then) but because you could interact with them more than just shooting. They could be scared, they could work together, they had their patrol routes, they coughed and sneezed, some had headphones on, some were more stubborn than others in giving you items, and all sorts of things…. and they could also discover you and you could shoot them and end them… or not. That was the best.

  2. The Smilingknight says:

    Nathan… I would like to ask you (and many others) and make you think about something.
    Only, dont give the answer to me. Give it to yourself.

    Do you like violence when your ass gets kicked?

    If you dont…as any sane human would not, you should ask yourself is it violence itself that you actually like.

    I aks this not to make some simplistic point like “hey, then dont like violence and become a pink fluffy pony”. But to maybe make you take a different look at the core of it and maybe increase your understanding of it all.

    The thing is… the rage and violence are often first kinds of tools we use as outlets for many problems and many things, as kids. And that can last a long, long time.

    But the problem is that we – because of such a long time of exposure to this – get addicted to it. In the full sense of the word. Just like a junkie gets completely and utterly addicted to heroin.
    It provides satisfaction, pleasure, release, appeasement.

    And the problem is worse and heavier and harder to clearly understand and ultimately harder to break free of – the more one person is genetically and physically disposed for it.
    Of course.

    It is nature and nurture both. Different degrees in different people.

    Therefore – understanding it fully, honestly, being conscious of its paths and tricks – is of utmost importance.

    Fully understanding this truth and all the little lying excuses and embellishments we so sneakily invent for the things that please us can be a scary experience.

    It can leave one feeling empty in a terrifying way. (yes, just like a junkie feels when going cold turkey, or being forced to do it suddenly).
    But if there will be ever a next step forward, any discovery of bigger, better, fuller, larger things – this bad empty, horrifying phase must be experienced.

    It is certainly not any kind of an end.
    Nor will the “violence” ever completely go away.

    It will become less of a master and more of a slave. More under your control, then you under his.

    And that path you already understand and have moved onto by yourself.

  3. Muzman says:

    There’s still a lot of “If you think it, you are -this- close to doing it” lurking around here (mostly in comments), which I don’t think is true at all. It’s a difficult case to make, scientifically speaking, but violence, real acts of destruction to another person, has a special place in our hearts/brains that even the most vivid imagination can’t touch in most cases. As time has worn on this has become obvious to me and I think it’s true of the vast majority of people. You can imagine the worst shit there is all day long, draw pictures of it, write lurid fiction about it, you can play at it to the point of breaking ribs and drawing blood, and that still is no predictor of how you will behave when ‘shit gets real’ as it were.
    The common sense relationship we apply is ostensibly fair, and we are a culture that takes great delight in damning people for their thoughts as though they are reality. But what seems like a short, logical hop, is actually a vast emotional chasm once you see it up close. Only a few short personal glimpses are enough to tell me this, as well as the way people mostly come out the other side (Oh so many cultural fantasies about steely people who are undaunted and untouched in the face of ‘what’s necessary’. They’re so rare they are virtually non existent and probably actually crazy. This is a good thing.)

    So, yeah, as unconvincing as it would be to most who worry about the violent thoughts of others, it is just that – thoughts- and the real thing is further away than we think in a special box most of us can’t touch.
    There’s an interesting discussion to be had about what ‘a culture of violence’ might allow us to give a pass to in wider society. But on a personal level the connection isn’t as strong as common sense would often have it.

  4. 0over0 says:

    A couple of points to make:

    1) We create media, it does not create us. Is there a link between media and violence–absolutely. But it’s because we as a species are violent. It is a part of us. Would the world be a better place were it not? Probably–I can’t really say. But it is not something that we can simply wish away and as Nathan points out, you can either learn to control it, let it control you, or be afraid of it (as he still is of sickness and death).
    I think many of us also engage in what are, in truth, illusions of violence in order to give ourselves a false sense of control. That idea of imagining “I’d crush that guy” if I allowed myself or if he starts something. The truth is, and as many who have practiced martial training of any sort will tell you if they’re being honest, that you don’t know. You might begin to, then trip on a rock. You might not be the only one who’s trained for years. You might kick his ass…if he were alone, but he’s got friends you didn’t see behind you. There are a million things that can go badly at any moment of life and we realize that–when we stop and think about it. Stopping to think about that sort of thing can lead to fear and a desire to call our mothers and cry and worry and stay in bed all day.
    It’s much easier (and more productive) to engage in a power fantasy that at least gives us the illusion of control, but the truth is that we have very little control over our lives or much that happens in it. That is the allure of media–that illusion of control, and it’s most simplistic and easily imagined version is through violence–literally taking direct, physical control of a situation with nothing more than your bare hands.

    2) There is a strong correlation, I think, between martial arts (and many athletic activities) and gaming. Just think about it. You engage in repetitive actions for long periods of time. After a great many of those, you get a *ding* reward. After which, you engage in a slightly more advanced form of that action repetitively–and you continue *dinging* your way forward. There’s a lot to be said for minutely measured and rewarded progress, something that doesn’t occur in a lot of activities, but it does occur in gaming and many sports.

  5. Grape says:

    Oh, wow.

    Oh, holy shit, what a douche.

    What a massive, Earth-shattering fucking douche.

  6. SilverDrake says:

    Interesting read, all things considered. To be honest I wasn’t really amused until found out author is into martial arts.

  7. MondSemmel says:

    Thanks for that article, Nathan. I could empathize with quite a bit of what you said, though I have never done martial arts and am in any case not strong enough to really hurt other people.

    That said, sometimes the censors in my brain get a bit queasy at my thoughts. Only temporarily, but still…I understand your perspective on violence much better than before.
    Also, writing that article was quite courageous, so kudos for that.

    I’m amazed at the commenters who have the chutzpah to criticize you, personally, for its contents, though. As if they never ever did anything wrong…