Commentary Violence

Video Games, Violence, and the Black Lives Matter Movement: How My Hobby Became a Trigger

Shonté Daniels

People are killing all around me, in real life and in games, and sometimes it feels like I can't escape it.

As a child, I reveled in the power video games placed in my hands, especially since in my experience being young and being Black were oftentimes synonymous with being powerless. It’s easy to feel in control when killing fake enemies leads to higher scores and, the prized goal, winning.

But over the years I’ve noticed games, specifically mainstream titles, haven’t evolved. Game developers, more often than not, use violence as the primary source of conflict rather than in more productive ways such as to show its dangers. An almighty player is allowed to kill because it’s assumed bloodshed is needed in order to win. And lately, that narrative has done nothing but remind me how real the violence in games can be.

While I never really minded the violence before (mostly because I’ve played games for years and have grown accustomed to it), living in a time of civil unrest, when there is no shortage of articles on the victims of state-sanctioned violence, has raised my consciousness level while playing games. Even when games, movies, or other modes of entertainment try to be just a form of escapism, such activities can easily jolt you back into reality with their gunslinging story lines. In that way, the escapism becomes too real and no longer enjoyable. That is what happened to me recently when I watched a preview of a new game entitled Hatred.

Hatred is a violent shooter for Windows PC from Polish company Destructive Creations. The game features a nameless protagonist whose sole purpose is to kill as many innocent people before he is killed himself. It’s brutal because, according to a statement from Destructive Creations website, the team was tired of the “politically correct trend” in games and wanted to create a game that rebelled against the current state of games. Specifically, the creators are opposed to the feminist community in gaming who wish for more diversity, less violence, and more narratives from different people.

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Except Hatred fits snugly in the middle of gaming culture. It’s not different from the norm nor innovative. Upon its release, Hatred was temporarily the top-selling game on Steam, a popular online game store. The game beat Grand Theft Auto V, a game that lets players kill civilians (though that is not the entire premise of the game), and Counter Strike, which is a multiplayer shooter that pits teams against each other. Hatred is a cog in another boring violent machine, and as the ratings begin to pour in, it’s evident gamers don’t even find it appealing. And yet I can’t quite ignore it.  

Though I’ve known of Hatred for months, the game didn’t have an effect on me until I watched the trailer. The trailer triggered something in me that made me push my laptop away and want to instantly forget about the intense amount of gore I’d just watched. It was the same feeling I had when I heard about another Black person who was found dead after an altercation with a cop. I usually suppressed those feelings, but these were so intense I could no longer contain them. I felt a whirlwind of sadness, anger, shock. In that moment, I decided to stop thinking about Hatred and play Mario Kart instead, because Mario Kart’s colorful, childish, and doesn’t force players to kill. Even harming a character with a banana peel is optional.

Admittedly, having such a visceral response to a game was new to me. Games have been my go-to form of entertainment since childhood. And since so many games rely on killing as a plot device, when I play one that makes me kill other people, I don’t usually bat an eye at the “kill-or-be-killed” type of violence.

But only recently have I come to truly understand that this “kill-or-be-killed” mentality isn’t just in games. In fact, the phrase seems to exist in the minds of violent cops who are supposed to protect people. According to a recent Washington Post investigation, close to 385 people have been killed by police just in the past five months, and, as the analysis points out, police shootings are still underreported. In real life, the powerful are killing the powerless without question.

People in the civil rights movement are tired of institutional racism and naïve ideology that prevents violent cops from ever being questioned. But even then, when Black people and protesters shout “Black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace,” when they demand justice, their cries are ignored. The killing has continued.

Since slavery, Black people’s suffering, including our mental health care needs to cope with the damaging effects of institutionalized violence, have been ignored. As Nia Hamm stated at Ebony, mental illness like depression or anxiety was seen as a weakness, which “often resulted in a more inhumane lifestyle including frequent beatings and abuse.” Slaves internalized their suffering so they could survive. And like our ancestors, many Black people today are internalizing their suffering to try to live peacefully. Black parents give their kids “the talk” to prevent provoking cops from turning violent. But Black lives are still ending. Being among the many bystanders who watch the videos of police brutality and follow the growing list of names feels like confirmation of how little power I possess to make change.

As I write this, I am trying to break my own silence on the ways violent games hurt me emotionally. Hatred put me in a state of depression because of its disregard for human life. The game is not the first of its kind, but it was the first one that helped me to see how irresponsible developers are when it comes to death. People are killing all around me, in real life and in games, and sometimes it feels like I can’t escape it.

I also understand it would be impossible to stop all games from being too violent. The relationship between death and games will not go away. Even the earliest tabletop games were based off of war. And to be sure, violent games don’t beget violent actions by players in their real lives. Hatred will not create serial killers.

Yes, I could ignore Hatred and refuse to play it, but refusing to play any game that allows for humans to kill other humans stops me from playing a long list of titles. And ignoring the problem is exactly what not to do when dealing with mental wellness.

But games could be so much smarter with how death and killing is incorporated. Sunset, a game by Belgium team Tale of Tales, is a game surrounding a military coup in the fictional city of Anchuria, Argentina. Housekeeper Angela Burns is trapped in San Bavón because of the war. Violence is all around her; the player can see explosions and fighter planes through the windows Burns cleans. Yet Burns is distanced from the action. The apartment she cleans becomes her escape even though she also cannot escape. The weight of the war is still in the game, even if the player is not directly in the middle of it.

Just like Burns, I’m in the middle of conflict that surrounds me both in the real and virtual world.

Many people in the gaming community can easily dismiss Hatred as just another boring shooter, but I can’t ignore it. So to cope, I’ve decided to make myself more vocal. I’m not keeping my distress to myself. Whether through writing or speaking to loved ones, I am openly admitting that something is wrong. I can’t change games, and GamerGate has proven that any change made always will be fought. I do see changes in games, especially among the independent scenes, but as of now games like Hatred will always be top-sellers. But like the Black Lives Matter movement activists, I will continue to speak up until I am heard. While mainstream developers may be stuck in their ways, there are a huge group of smaller creators who will listen to people like me and help the industry move past its stubbornness to change.

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