Why Hatred finally has the gaming industry talking about violence

HatredTrailer_stabbing.jpg (1300×660)

The gaming industry is finally ready to talk about violence in video games. 

We’ve reached a landmark moment in the development of video games as a medium, provided by a group of Polish game developers who have proposed the most offensive video game ever.

Denunciation of the trailer for Hatredreleased on Oct. 17, was swift and vociferous. It is a game about a sociopathic killer who decides to take out his anger on anyone and everyone via a mass shooting. After years of trying to demonstrate to the general public that video games are not only about violence, someone decided to make a video game that not only justifies every fear expressed about gaming, but also shamelessly plays upon American shooting tragedies as a marketing tool.

What solidified my perspective on Hatred, more than anything else, was a tweet I saw from Adrian Chmielarz, one of the founders of the Polish indie development studio The Astronauts.

Chmielarz is the game designer behind The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, described by Polygon as a must-play if you “care about the future of games as a storytelling medium.” He was also a co-founder of People Can Fly, a studio that made a very different sort of game, called Bulletstorm. It was a game about a space pirate and his partner, who crashed on an alien world plagued with radiation that had mutated the plants and people on its surface. 

Bulletstorm players are rewarded with points for shooting people in creative ways. Some targeted Bulletstorm with criticism for its over-the-top violence. The point-scoring mechanism was explained within the game by the fact that the planet in question was used as a training group for an elite fighting force. They were rewarded for the skill they demonstrated in fighting off the mutant flora and fauna. Bulletstorm was not violence for its own sake.

I was struck, in any case, when I saw Chmielarz bluntly denouncing Hatred on Twitter, and struck up a conversation. He immediately backed off on his mention of Payday, a game about planning and robbing bank heists. “After all, just like Payday is about ‘cops and robbers,’ Counter-Strike is about ‘soldiers and terrorists,’ but no one sane would ever confuse [Counter-Strike] as a game that promotes terrorism,” he told me via email.

But did he think Hatred crossed a line when it comes to depictions of violence in video games? “That line is going to be different for everybody, right? I giggle at the violence of Bulletstorm, my wife refuses to even look at it. I think the question here is: What do we mean when we say ‘unacceptable?’ Unacceptable to us? To society at large? To the law?” Chmielarz wrote.

“My current thinking is that whatever is a human creation—a book or a video game—can be whatever it wants to be. Yes, even if it describes or allows [someone] to experience the most despicable acts. So the law should not be involved, other than protecting this right. However, as human beings who understand what morality and empathy are, there’s a lot we can do to marginalize, or even effectively evaporate the most vile creations. For example, by rendering them unable to succeed commercially.”

What constitutes a vile creation? Well, in the Hatred trailer, the player character shoves a gun into the mouth of an innocent woman who is begging for her life. He pulls the trigger, blowing her brains all over the ground. This is the game described by its studio as “a pure gaming pleasure.”

Even as recently as 10 years ago, it felt like no one within video game culture wanted to talk about violence in video games, because the topic could be wielded as a weapon against the video game industry. The fear was that even a wisp of admittance that violence in video games could be problematic might have been argued as a tipping point in debates that called for censorship, or even banning, of violent video games.

On June 7, 2003, an 18-year-old named Devin Moore shot and killed a 911 dispatcher and two police officers in Fayette, Ala. Moore was reported as saying after his arrest, “Life is like a video game. Everybody’s got to die sometime.” When it became clear that Moore was a hardcore fan of Grand Theft Auto, lawsuits were filed against Take-Two Interactive, the publisher of Grand Theft Auto, and Sony (because Moore had played the game on PlayStation-brand hardware) and even Wal-Mart (who sold Moore his GTA games.)

Jack Thompson was the lawyer who brought that suit, and who famously referred to Grand Theft Auto as a “murder simulator” in March 2005 during an interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes.

Thompson’s crusade against obscenity in rap lyrics in the 1990s turned into a campaign against video game violence in which he targeted DoomQuakeMortal KombatBully, and Manhunt, in a string of lawsuits that sought to punish video game developers and publishers for inspiring real-life violence with violent video games.

Thompson was disbarred in September 2008. He was arguably a whack-job—he once referred to the proliferation of Grand Theft Auto game distribution in the United States as Sony committing “Pearl Harbor 2”—but while he was on his campaign, you rarely heard members of the video game community suggesting that Thompson, in theory, might have a point.

Where Thompson was more of a sideshow than a legitimate threat, other more credible figures have threatened to step in and regulate games on account of their violent content. Hillary Clinton’s Family Entertainment Protection Act would have mandated federal involvement in enforcing Entertainment Software Review Board game ratings, and called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation into whether or not the ESRB was rating games appropriately.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Vice-President Joe Biden called a meeting with top video game industry leaders to discuss media violence, and ways to lessen gun violence in America. Attendance at that meeting was hotly debated among video game developers, which reflected the long-standing fear that any acknowledgment of a potential relationship between violent video games and real life violence could be turned against the industry.

Some scientific evidence suggests beneficial repercussions of playing violent video games, like pain management and improved ability to handle long-term stress. Other evidence suggests exposure to violent video games may decrease activity in areas of the brain responsible for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior. Even if the scientific evidence on the topic is not cut and dry, what has finally been put to rest is the fear that video games may be censored or banned for violent content. In 2011, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that granted video games First Amendment protections.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the 7-2 decision that struck down California State Sen. Leland Yee’s Assembly Bill (AB) 1179, which was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Oct. 7, 2005. The law was intended to make the sale of “ultraviolent video games” to minors a felony offense.

“Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection,” Scalia wrote.

Perhaps the issue will be revisited if and when conclusive, undeniable scientific evidence is presented that demonstrates a direct, causal effect between violent video games and real-life behavior. There is nothing to make us believe, based on research to date, that such a discovery is forthcoming. Therefore, under the protections of both scientific and legal opinions, I think it’s safe to begin having honest discussions about violence in video games, and if there is a line to be drawn. Which bring us back to Hatred.

“‘My bad’ means the same as ‘I’m sorry,‘ unless you’re at a funeral. Context is everything,” Chmielarz told me. “In the case of Hatred, the creators say they have created these chillingly convincing visuals and sounds to offer…a pure gaming pleasure. That’s either idiotic or a lie, I am not sure which one is worse.

“There is a third possibility, that the creators are psychopaths for whom the mass murder of innocents is really a fun experience, but I honestly doubt it. This way or another, the context can change even depending on author’s intention, without changing a single byte of code. Imagine Hatred as a freeware artistic provocation to undress the hypocrisy of violent video games. I’d still not play it, but at least I’d appreciate it,” Chmielarz said.

It didn’t require a rocket scientist to predict the current wave of mass shootings, back when Grand Theft Auto III was released in 2001. The Houser brothers, the creatives behind Rockstar Games, are astute observers of culture. There’s a chain of gun stores in the GTA universe called Ammu-Nation, where you can literally walk in the door and purchase rocket launchers, chain guns, and grenades.

The reason the Jack Thompsons of the world targeted Grand Theft Auto is because no one was willing to recognize video games as art, which is the necessary precursor to recognizing certain games as satire. Now that the “games as art” debate is settled, how dense does someone have to be not to recognize Ammu-Nation as an obvious satire of a society where people can walk into gun shows and purchase a gun based on military-grade assault platforms? 

Is there any doubt that GTA is reflecting a very real aspect of our world, for the purpose of forcing the question? We may be blowing up cop cars and shooting civilians with those rocket launchers, chain guns, and grenades we bought from Ammu-Nation, but it’s akin to cartoon violence in a cartoon world that mirrors the darkness of the reality we live in, and hence not inherently offensive.

Call of Duty campaigns are like Tom Clancy novels on acid. Huge, over-the-top military actions wrapped around covert ops and terrorist threats. The “No Russian” level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, is a massacre of civilians at a Russian airport, in which the player takes the role of a deep-cover CIA agent embedded within the terror cell. The player’s choice, then, is whether to open fire on the civilians, or to stand and watch. “No Russian” became the center of another debate over violence in video games.

When Al Qaida attacked the United States in 2001 by crashing airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it kicked off an American invasion of the Middle East, a deployment of a modern military against a woefully unprepared foe. In a fictional universe, what might inspire one of the world’s mightiest professional militaries to start a war against the world’s other mighty professional military? 

The player is shot by the terrorists at the end of the “No Russian” level, and his body left behind for the authorities to discover. The Russian government identifies that body as that of a CIA agent, and mistakenly blames the massacre on the Americans. We can criticize the creative choice made by developer Infinity Ward in choosing that particular spark for the Russian/American war in Modern Warfare 2, but does anyone doubt that the “No Russian” level is inarguably a reasonable cause for such a war in that fictional universe?

Manhunt involves killing a bunch of people in gruesome fashion. It is also a story about an escaped convict forced to participate in snuff films, and who is killing people trying to kill him, i.e. not innocents. Mortal Kombat allows players to kill avatars in some of the bloodiest, detailed executions ever. It is also a story about undead ninjas and four-armed monsters fighting each other in a martial arts tournament. In all of these cases, the situations are either blatant satire or obvious fantasy. We cannot say the same for Hatred.

While other games have positioned violence as social commentary or absurdist fiction, Hatred seems to go a more literal route by clearly drawing the line and then stepping over it. Mass shootings in America have injured or killed almost a thousand people since 1982. The terror of a gunman loose on campus, in a shopping center, or at a workplace is real. 

I reached out to Jaroslaw Zielinski, the head of Destructive Creations, to ask about the trailer for Hatred on the day it was released. I didn’t hear back from him. In an interview with Engadget published today, however, Zielinski had this to say about what the violence in Hatred is supposed to mean.

“That we should not bend under political correctness propaganda which we can see everywhere right now. We live in the free world, with freedom of speech and artistic expression and we should use it in any way we want, otherwise we’ll be falling under SJWs [Social Justice Warriors] regime,” Zielinski said.

In other words, if Hatred is about anything, it’s about being really, really angry at people who are trying to make gaming an inclusive space for everyone. Message received.

Screengrab via Destructive Creations/YouTube

Dennis Scimeca

Dennis Scimeca

Dennis Scimeca was the Daily Dot's gaming reporter until 2016. He loves first-person shooters, role-playing games, and massively multiplayer online games. His work has appeared in Salon, NPR, Ars Technica, Kotaku, Polygon, Gamasutra, GamesBeat, Paste, and Mic.