Your Daily McMaster: violence in the machine

, | Features


There are certain issues in gaming that ebb and flow like the tide. People will argue and fret over whether games are art or if the ratings system is effective or whether or not there’s a 7-9 scale. One of those common subjects of dissection is whether or not violent gaming desensitizes the player, making human life cheap and giving birth to a new generation of young killers. I never took much of a stance on the subject outside of knee-jerk reactions to criticism of my beloved industry. That all changed during one standard workday a few months ago.

After the jump, the rat before the storm

I work in IT for a local university and I like my work. I’m not in love with it, but it’s different enough each day to keep me satisfied. I come in, drink a cup of coffee and then begin working on whatever may need fixing for the day. There’s also a lot of down time, which I also like as it affords me time to keep up with my reading and writing while allowing me evenings for gaming. A few months back we had a bad storm and spent most of the day in the office. I spent my morning reading my favorite gaming sites. The topic I stumbled upon that day was “violence in gaming.” That old chestnut. Most articles on the subject demonize gaming using the same basic argument – children, inundated with violence from games, become desensitized to death and cruelty. In this industry, when we hear this, we roll our eyes but there’s certainly something to it. If you see something, time and again, you start to accept it as the norm. It’s a logical argument that, to most people, makes a lot of sense.

Being a university, my workplace is very sensitive to bad weather and the overall safety of its staff and students. Around 3 o’clock we received word that we needed to go home early as there was a large storm coming. I happily packed up my stuff and headed out the rarely used back stairway. I opened the door into a film about the armageddon. The sky was black and wind was whipping around. The air smelled of ozone and rain. It was like a scene out of a first person shooter set right before an alien invasion. Checking to make sure my bag was sealed, I stepped out into the elements to head to my car. I was hurrying across a forgotten courtyard behind one of the older, seldom-used buildings on campus when I spotted a splash of red, out of place in this drab, grey world. On the ground before me was a dying rat.

I looked above and noticed a walkway. The wind had been kicking up pretty high and the rat must have been tossed off and fallen. It was still alive but it looked like its legs had broken in the fall. It was breathing heavily and looked afraid. I meant to make for my car as the storm was intensifying, but I couldn’t. I stood there frozen, staring down at a dying creature. The look in its eyes made my heart lurch. Thus my internal struggle began. My first thought, as it always is with any hurt animal, was to take it to a vet. That was pushed immediately aside when I pictured bringing a dying city rat into a clinic. Easily dismissed. I moved on to option two – put it out of its misery. I looked around for something to use to kill the poor creature. I found a brick and picked it up. I even raised it a bit in the air, but in the end I couldn’t do it. No amount of zombie killing prepared me to take the basest creature’s life. The rain was starting.

I dropped the brick and stood there again, staring. The rat’s little chest was heaving like crazy and I felt my eyes start to mist. I was angry with myself. I couldn’t stop this animal’s suffering because I didn’t have it in me. I had to do something. I took a piece of cardboard and scooped the rat up. I found a overhanging ledge that would provide some relief from the rain and nestled the little guy into a nook away from the easy reach of predators. Then I went home.

I couldn’t sleep. The thought of that poor animal alone and afraid tormented me throughout the night. I’m not an overly religious man, but I prayed for the rat. I told myself that it was only a rat – they spread disease and sickness – but the look in its eyes stayed with me. It’s still with me. The next morning I avoided the area as best I could, but eventually I had to know. I headed up the stairs and looked around. I found the rat in his cubby hole. He had passed away in the night. I then did something that’s a supremely human reaction – I buried it. Well, sort of. I found a box in the garbage and scooped the rat up. I sealed the box as best I could and put it in the dumpster. I stood there, looking at the dumpster for a time. I wanted to do something silly like say a few words – another ridiculous human trait – but finally turned away and resumed my work.

In video games, I’ve killed countless scores of men, robots and everything in between. I’ve played through “No Russian,” tormented and tortured in Dungeon Keeper and sent millions to their death in Mass Effect 3, but none of that prepared me. The enemies we simulate in games would have a lifetime of memories – love, hope, regret and desire – all that would end in a second when a bullet crashes through their skull. I fire that round joyfully, but I couldn’t put a rat out of its misery in the real world. I couldn’t do this one violent kindness to a dying creature.