Gaming Made Me: Nathan Grayson’s Violence

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.

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