Gaming’s Greatest Monsters Aren’t on the Screen

Games Features Monsters
Gaming’s Greatest Monsters Aren’t on the Screen

I have a rubber bracelet in a jewelry box in my spare bathroom. It’s a cheap trinket from last year’s E3, black with red letters on the side. I got it at a demo event for Evolve, a first person shooter that came out last year. The booth attendants were handing them out to organize the waiting line into two opposing groups, the Hunters and the Monsters. The game, an asymmetrical team shooter, is set on an alien planet, where a group of Hunters seek to colonize the new environment following the destruction of their own. In the process they encounter aggressive alien life forms, creatures who violently object to their presence and destroy their settlements as they consume local flora in order to evolve. Referred to as Monsters, they’re the game’s antagonists, vilified not by the context of their perspective, but by their hostile response to a new threat in their environment. There, in the weak lighting and thick carpets of the booth, my fellow gamers and I divided ourselves according to our preferred play style, donning our labeled bracelets appropriately—Hunters on one side, Monsters on the other.

Unlike most convention swag, I haven’t thrown the bracelet away, mostly for kitsch value. There’s something deliciously rebellious about wearing the word Monster on your wrist. Something about it reminded me of my punk days in high school, my patches and buttons and pins adorning my jean vest like thorns on a rose. Not ready to part with it, I threw it into a dusty corner near the sink, where it often glares at me while I wash my hands.

I’ve read a lot of research, studies and various educational materials on the psychology of game design, spent countless hours writing about the unique relationship between personal identity and virtual avatar, the effects of participatory entertainment on that relationship, and how it affects social perception of our hobby. Underneath the webbed layers of intellectual jargon and philosophical theories lies the simplified, obvious observations that have plagued gamers for years: violence in fiction abounds, but the only medium that asks us to participate is videogames. And that’s why non-gamers criticize us. It’s why sometimes they’re afraid of us. They know we are acting on anti-social impulses that cooperative society asks us to repress.

Of course, their fear relies on a faulty line of thinking facilitating the assumption that attacking a person or idea in a videogame is the same as doing so in real life. And that’s a byproduct of careless or lazy game design, wherein the virtual avatars acting as a stand-in for a person becomes a stand-in for an idea or belief system. Cultural, philosophical or physical differences are weaponized as reason for conflict. What is used as a shortcut to enable the player’s ability to quickly identify targets becomes accidental propaganda, asking us to accept that these avatars are our enemies, simply because the developers told us they were. We have to trust, blindly, that the perspective of the developers who orchestrate our narrative experiences are in fact trustworthy.

As a result, our participation, even in a fictional scenario, is still threatening. They cannot see our cognitive dissonance, our justifications, the mechanisms held in place that prevent us from crossing the line from virtual to reality. Our part in the game protagonist’s decision making process comes off as condoning the actions contained therein; after all, if we don’t agree with murder, then why do it even in a consequence-free context? Suddenly, we seem like monsters.

Are we monsters? Our victims aren’t real. If they were, we wouldn’t enjoy it. But often the battles we fight in games aren’t physical anyway. They’re battles against ideologies, against feelings, and opposing convictions, things that are as real in the virtual as they are in the physical.

And maybe that wouldn’t be so much of a problem if more people were aware of it. But for whatever reason, videogames are defended as the most mindless medium of entertainment, its audience demanding the right to absorb them passively and free of context, without intrusion from politics or consideration of the wider culture. But nothing exists in a vacuum and despite our protestations, our impact still exists outside the bubble of our denial. Our stubborn unwillingness to accept the level of influence the surrounding world has on us and others—does that make us monsters?

Our virtual enemies have no option but to fight us. They’ve been designed and programmed to. The only variable in the equation that has free will is us. We are the only ones given a choice. And yes, the people and creatures and monsters and bad guys we design and code and give a range of motion to, despite our obsessive attempts to make videogames more life-like, aren’t real. But we created them just to destroy them.

And that, right there. That’s what makes us the monsters.

Holly Green is a reporter, editor, and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.

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