Media violence is a rather old topic and it does not necessarily pertain to aspects of digital culture, but it is a conversation that occurs within certain cultural spaces; such as University undergraduate courses for instance.
Now, although there is ample of research that indicates that the link between media violence and real life violence is strenuous at best, the contextualisation of mediated violence matters. This matters for two reasons. Firstly, and relating to mediated violence as a social issue, it is the uncontextualised media violence that has strenuous links to violent tendencies in certain media consumers. This point is the worn road of mediated violence debates which I do not want to spend my time here. Secondly, contextualised media violence is often used as a narrative device; in particular within the Horror genre. It is this second point I want to discuss.
A brief thought experiment: Imagine all of your favourite horror films/games without any violence. Pretty dull, huh? This is because violence – both implied and literal – are genre tropes that drive the narratives of specific forms of media. Within a series like Alien for instance, the violence serves to highlight the fragility of human existence in relation to the unknown forces that exists within the outer reaches of the universe. Further, the violence of the Facehugger – Chestburster combo serve as a commentary on issues surrounding bodily autonomy and the horror of having your bodily autonomy forcefully invaded. In this instance, violence is a communicative device used to communicate messages and meanings that are fundamental to the narrative of the Alien series. Here, it is plain to see that violence has connotative meaning as a signifier rather than just the denotative representation of gore. Although this is only one example of the narrative role of movie violence, it serves to illustrate a point as to how violence is used to create meaning.
A somewhat more controversial topic is that of video game violence. But, in this instance, video game violence serves the same communicative role. An example of this is the Doom games; both the 1993 original and the 2016 reboot. The original Doom, all the way back in 1993, was defined by the use of Gothic imagery and carnivalesque sensibilities; this is something that the modern Doom inherits from its ancestor. Within this context, the gore of Doom ceases to be gore for gore’s sake, but fits as part of a sub-genre of Gothic literature known as Splatterpunk, that in the 1980s was almost a backlash against the implied, rather than literal, horror of the Gothic genre. This relationship bears out here when this present day Doom is compared to the modern trends of first person shooters as they become more based on reality claims as the violence and gore becomes removed and sanitised. Doom‘s violence and gore are part of a greater genre trope that almost appear to be in protest of the modern advancement of first person shooters. It could also be argued that games like Call of Duty and Battlefield‘s santising of the violence is problematic due to creating a narrative of war in which violence is distant; this is fundamentally different to a game like Spec Ops: The Line where the very graphic and traumatic nature of war is present, and the player is forced to be confronted with it. Tangent aside, the gore and carinvalesque sensibilities of Doom fit within a certain horror trope that differentiate it from the reality claims of other games. Here, the violence drives the meaning of the game’s narrative rather than just simply being present for the pleasure of the player.
I could go on and list more examples of this; Michael Haneke’s Funny Games being a great example of violence being used as a communicative device almost merits having an entire post written about it itself. But the purpose of the two examples that I have provided is to engage with this topic in a manner that is often erased from the popular debates surrounding it. Media violence – whether it is in film or in games – serves a fundamental part of the meaning making process of the media text they are present within. Effectively, media violence is a narrative device that can be used to create meaning and drive the plot of a particular media text.
I would like to add one quick caveat: not all mediated violence is equal. There are different forms of violence; the obvious distinction I can think of is ‘violence’ vs. ‘sexual violence’. I do not enjoy witnessing media depictions of sexual violence in media forms, and although it serves a narrative device (this person is bad because committing sexual violence is bad etc, etc), it is lazy writing. There are many more nuanced ways to communicate the unlikable traits of someone rather than jumping into them committing forms of sexual violence. A more nuanced story telling could also make the text itself richer with more depth of meaning.