When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch Looney Tunes. My dad, a child psychologist, believed that cartoon violence wasn’t something young children should be allowed to watch, and I assume he had seen research that supported this. This became something of a Big Deal to me, likely only because it was forbidden and I believed I was missing out on some huge cultural experience that all my peers shared (or the equivalent of that feeling when you’re ages 5-10 and can’t express it as such). Overall, however, I would not categorize my childhood as particularly “sheltered,” except in this one very specific way. I watched lots of other cartoons that were probably not substantially less violent than Looney Tunes, and I was allowed to watch The Simpsons – yes! The Simpsons! – from the time of its debut in 1989, when I was only 5 years old.
Oddities of my childhood aside, the problem of whether it is Ok to enjoy violent media is something I still think about a lot. As an adult, I doubt I am any more nonviolent or a pacifist than anyone else with similar ethics. Yet what I feel when I watch and enjoy a violent scene in any kind of media isn’t merely an internal examination of whether that enjoyment is appropriate, but also a deep-seated feeling of guilt as if a parent is looking over my shoulder.
I didn’t play shooters for a long time.
Again, when I was younger, I played plenty of video games that probably contained more cartoon violence than most Looney Tunes shorts. My cousins and I loved to play Streets of Rage, which included plenty of cartoon violence, including bosses who carried knives, guns, and other weapons. The first actual first-person shooter I can remember playing is Goldeneye, again with my cousins. We played multiplayer mode and turned on the paintball cheat that would turn any bullet holes in the walls into splotches of colorful paint instead. While it didn’t change the fact that we were still zooming around the map attempting to shoot each other, I do think it softened the experience somewhat and probably made it more palatable to our parents if they happened to see us playing.
After Goldeneye, I can’t recall playing another FPS or any kind of shooter for at least a decade, though it was probably much longer than that. Beyond my feelings of guilt about playing violent games (my assumption always being that shooters were among the most violent games available) was the very clear sense that these games were not designed for me or my enjoyment. Shooters, I believed, were designed for hardcore gamers; specifically, they were created for gamers with vastly superior skill and reflexes to my own. I truly believed that because I was someone who enjoyed games like The Sims or Mario Kart, or games considered even more “casual” than those, I had not developed the skills necessary to play shooters successfully. As my friend Grace has pointed out to me, this was clearly an irrational viewpoint to have, given that I was healing heroic raid content in World of Warcraft, which is some of the least forgiving reflex-based gameplay out there. But my aversion to shooters was specifically based on this irrational idea that, somehow, these games would be magnitudes harder than anything I had ever played before.
Well, that and the guilt.
Then, one day last December I was bored. I wanted a new game to play with an interesting story, but all the AAA games that seemed to fit that bill were shooters. I started rifling through my boyfriend’s old Xbox games in our basement and eventually came across the first Mass Effect. What the hell, I figured. If I failed miserably, at least I hadn’t spent any money to do so. I realized pretty quickly that the combat was not as difficult as I expected it to be, but I could also tell that I wouldn’t want to play it on a console. Years of being used to a keyboard and mouse system has made it nearly impossible for me to function with dual analog sticks for directional controls of movement and vision, and continues to ensure that I will probably never be much of a console gamer.
So I took a chance and bought all three Mass Effect games in a bundle to play on my PC, where I could enjoy it with the familiarity of my mouse and keyboard. I wasn’t disappointed, and not simply because the story was fascinating. It didn’t take long for me to discover that the combat was actually pretty fun – and that I was something of a crack shot. I’d previously honed my aiming skills when I played as an archer in Skyrim, but Mass Effect was the first time I played a game where I routinely stared down the barrel of a gun at an enemy. It was simultaneously fun (a word I cannot write without immediately affirming my deep trepidation) and also very disconcerting.
Since Mass Effect essentially opened the doors for me, I’ve played through several shooters in the last year. I finally had a chance to see firsthand why so many pieces were written about the violence and the story of Bioshock: Infinite. Most recently, I’ve been unable to suppress a laugh every time Gaige yells “NOOB!” when she gets a Critical hit (read: headshot) in Borderlands 2. The challenge of hitting a target is something I enjoy and feel rewarded by when I do it successfully, but it is so difficult and also completely necessary to that enjoyment to separate the feeling from its source. Put simply, I find guns utterly terrifying. I have never fired one and I have no desire to do so. I don’t want to be around them or have anything to do with them – except, rather inexplicably, in video games.
I can, and do, reason away this disconnect as much as possible because if I didn’t then I would never play any game with guns at all. While it’s easy to point out that a lot of the epic narratives being told in AAA games are done while your character holds a gun out in front of them, it is disingenuous for me to act as if that is the only reason I play. I do play because I want to see the stories, but I also play because the combat is fun (again, with the same affirmation as above). I play shooters because I enjoy them, and some not-so-small part of me hates that I enjoy them. I’m not sure I want to be able to reason away that discomfort. I’m not sure I want to shake the feeling that someone is watching over my shoulder as I score headshot after headshot, whispering “Don’t you think this is kind of horrible?”