Sean Connery once said that “there is nothing like a challenge to bring out the best in a man.” Of course this is just as true for women as it is for men, but the statement contains a certain subtext about masculinity. Failure to thrive under pressure is the trait of a boy, not a man. There are these calls to action that are supposed to define us as men. Defeating a challenge is one; capability for violence is another. Men are generally well aware of the cultural pressures on us to be violent. Even though most of us are not violent people, we still sometimes feel the need to respond to the pressure by asserting that we would be very dangerous if we wanted to. The two ideas are at odds: societal norms that say men are violent while violence actually has nothing to do with masculinity. It can certainly be argued that a male’s inclination toward violence coupled with the ability to back it up has served both males and the human species as a whole quite well in the past. However, what was a virtue in the past is not necessarily a virtue today. And even if violence were hardwired into men, we’re still much more than just blood-thirsty beasts. And the reason we play violent games is more than our own bloodlust. So why, then, do so many games portray violence and masculinity as being so closely intertwined? Let’s take a look at some of these games. In particular, we’ll look at: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare; The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion; and a lot of God of War. Just a warning, this whole article is going to be chock-full of spoilers, so read cautiously. What these games all have in common is that they make a statement about the connection between masculinity and violence. They deal with issues like “is violence rewarding,” “can violence defeat evil,” and “is violence just how men deal with their emotions?” What lies beneath all of those statements are these facts: men are not very free from cultural norms, men are not empowered or nurtured properly as men, and society seems to have no idea of what masculinity is at all.
Violence gets men love, power, and respect! Hmm, that doesn’t sound right, does it? Why is it that so many games seem to tell us that violence reaps all the rewards? In games, it’s natural for the player to be rewarded for playing well. While violent actions are bound to be rewarded in violent games, many games go far beyond that to reinforce the same idea with the narrative and the themes of the game. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare puts the player in the role of two male soldiers, one of the British SAS and the other of the USMC. To its credit, Modern Warfare actually made a thoughtful statement about violence with its nuclear attack scene. It would take too long to describe that scene, but here’s a quick explanation for those who aren’t familiar with it. The Marine player-character is killed after one of those rare moments in a shooter where you actually feel proud of your actions. When you experience this as a player, you can’t help but think about how senseless and cruel violence can be. Unfortunately, everything that comes after that seems to celebrate violence. After all of the violence and bloodshed, the horror of a nuclear detonation, and constant reinforcement that the bad guy’s violence must be stopped, the plot stresses that the good guys have to be just as bad and violent to stop them. That’s how they rise to the challenge of being great men.
In the game’s closing, the player lies dying on the ground about to be killed by Zakhaev. He’s got political power, abundant cash, and powerful forces, and he was going to win. All of the violence leading up to this point was in vain, and the only reason the good guys lost was that the bad guys were a little better at being violent than we were. The player-character uses all of his strength to raise his sidearm, and the player tries desperately to kill Zakhaev or at least buy time. At this point, some really complex issues were at play that to make an intelligent statement, but instead we get a deus ex machina—friendly soldiers show up and blow him away. In its own way, Modern Warfare seemed to whisper a statement about the meaningless of violence. Even that point gets ruined, however, when a cutscene shows us that politicians are making decisions that are going to lead to more violence! Way to point the gun somewhere else, Modern Warfare. Violence beats money, power, and violence, but then pesky decision-makers have to go fuck it all up. Leave it to the runnin’ and gunnin’ shooter to go and make things way more complicated than they have to be. I certainly rest easy knowing that the gung-ho, violent behavior of all of the men I fought with in the game is vindicated by the in-game narrative as being acts of valor.
Violent behavior gets men so many good things; it makes them such good men. I wonder if it can solve any kind of problem, maybe even pure evil. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion takes place in a medieval fantasy world. Some people, I’ll call them bad people, have essentially opened numerous doors to hell (Oblivion) and it’s up to you, the player, to shut those doors forever. So, you do the decent thing and slay maybe a few dozen demons (daedra) and close one of those doors, only to find out that the only person who can shut them all and keep them shut is a man living in a monastery. After killing some more, you find that man. His name is Martin. He didn’t know he was so special, but he’s pretty upset with those bad people for opening up all these doors to Oblivion. He reluctantly accepts a sword but rarely uses it. You generally don’t get too upset with Martin for incompetence in battle. The worst case scenario involves him falling unconscious, since the game won’t let him die. Then, you can spill as much blood as you want without having to worry about doing it in front of a holy man. Some more stuff happens, and you do a whole lot more killing. Finally, the bad people successfully unleash Satan himself (Mehrunes Dagon), who begins to quite happily lay waste to the capital city. It’s Martin’s time to shine. Heroically, he unleashes a power from an amulet, allowing himself to become an avatar for Akatosh, a big-ass dragon-god, transforming himself into the form of the big-ass dragon-god. Big-ass Dragon-Martin then grabs Satan, and turns the both of them to stone, ending the onslaught. Wait… what? Despite all of your violent actions in the violent world around you, Martin does not become violent. Instead, he demonstrates the will to sacrifice himself for the good of others, which is something the violent heroes do, but he brings about a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. This is a nice surprise: violence is not the only thing that can destroy evil after all. I’m glad games aren’t all bad with this. Maybe things are getting better.
Let’s go all in; let’s look at one of the most violent games of all, featuring one of the most violent characters of all. God of War follows the story of Kratos, a Spartan warrior in service of Olympus. He seeks forgiveness for his past sins. Prior to the events of the game, Kratos called upon Ares, the God of War, to save him and his men from the mouth of defeat. After Ares answered Kratos’ call, Kratos was bound to serve him. Kratos waged war for Ares for some time; he was a bloodthirsty warrior who thrived on his duty. While on a rampage in a temple, Kratos slew his wife and child. Only after his rampage was complete did he realize who he killed. Kratos blamed Ares for his sin, who had known that Kratos’ family was in the temple, and abandoned his service of Ares. Instead, he pledged his service to the rest of Olympus in search of removing his sinful burden. Kratos, a man consumed with his violent identity, serves the gods the only way he knows how—by waging war. Eventually, the goddess Athena asks Kratos to kill Ares, who is now attacking Athens out of jealousy for Athena. Kratos obliges her request knowing that he will be able to exact his revenge and atone for his sin. Kratos relentlessly pursues the death of Ares, killing many along the way, before finally killing the god. His deed complete, Kratos speaks with Athena. She tells him that she does forgive him for killing his family, but neither she nor any of the gods of Olympus can free him from the horrible reality of his actions.
Kratos fought to provide for his family, to atone for his sins, and to get revenge. He fought out of sadness, anger, and spite, and now he chooses to fight no more by hurling himself off of a mountain. God of War makes a great statement about man’s inability to deal with emotions, especially when consumed by violence and anger. In the context of the story, his suicide is a powerful yet simple symbol of choosing to walk away from the sword. After all, the sword in his hand is what took his family from him. Kratos is saved by the gods before he hits the rocks below the cliff, and is asked to sit as the new God of War in Olympus. He will serve men as a god. Kratos, though tragically flawed as a man, is still capable of getting past his flaw for the better of mankind. A great, male hero. I’d love to say it ends there, but it doesn’t. In God of War II, we find out that Kratos has proven to be just as bloodthirsty as Ares, erasing all meaning from his acceptance and understanding of the nature of violence at the end of the previous installment. As punishment, Zeus removes Kratos’ godly status and casts him out of Olympus. Kratos could see the violent pattern emerging here again, and choose to acknowledge that the consequences are a result of his actions. But I guess we want our men to be bloodthirsty, don’t we? Kratos wages war against the gods and attempts to kill Zeus. Athena impales herself upon Kratos’ blade to stop him from killing Zeus, begging him not to kill him. She reveals that Zeus is Kratos’ father. Kratos learns his lesson—and apparently that lesson is to not kill your family. So, he brings back the titans of the past and overthrows Olympus with them. I won’t get into what happens in God of War III, except that the titans betray Kratos, so guess what he does?
God of War, Oblivion, and Modern Warfare all feature heroic men. Heroes are supposed to be something we emulate. While Martin in Oblivion, bucks our own stereotypes of masculinity, he goes on to be well-defined hero. The events in God of War and Modern Warfare, however, demonstrate the violent qualities which apparently only belong to the best of men. I’m a man, and even if societal pressures tell me that men are dangerous and violent, I don’t expect violent behavior to reward me with masculinity. I don’t try to solve any of my problems with violence. I experience the full human spectrum of emotions, and I’m capable of feeling them and expressing them without needing to kick anything’s ass. It all smacks of cavemen. Me ug man. Me ug respect. Me ug feelings. What happen to ug?! UG SMASH! Games don’t need to get rid of violence, and they definitely don’t need flat and violent female characters to share the weight with the males. Games need to portray males dealing with violence. Kratos could have continued to wrestle with it. Every war doesn’t have to be won with a gun; there are other powerful forces, people. Let’s try love, money, computer hacking, or anything else. We don’t need to keep glorifying male characters who shoot first and try the level again if they don’t shoot enough. It’s all almost as enraging as how games throw sexualized women in my face, tell me it’s what I want, and then demand money for it. That will just have to wait until next time.