ane & Lynch: Dead Men is an ugly, ugly game, and I’m not talking about the quality of its graphics. It’s a moral sewer, putting you into the sorts of senselessly murderous scenarios that would have sparked national outrage 20 years ago. The game’s titular heroes can be described, at best, as selfish, psychotic killers. The game can be called, without exaggeration, a cop murder simulator. The game opens with a firefight between Kane and the police, and before you even know the story, before you have any narrative reason to squeeze a trigger, the game asks you to shoot cops. Why? Because they’re in your way. As the game progresses, you shoot more cops. You shoot security guards. You raid a prison. If you’re not careful, or if you’re feeling a little anarchic, then you’ll mow down plenty of civilian passersby as well. Doom has nothing on this game; Mortal Kombat looks like an episode of Gumby in comparison; even Grand Theft Auto, as murderous as that series can be, does not so singularly make cop killing your objective.
Where, then, was the outrage over Kane & Lynch? It’s only coincidence that I started playing this game shortly after Jason posted about Heavy Fire, but I feel pretty confident in stating that Kane & Lynch is just as morally reprehensible. Kane & Lynch lacks the overt racism and the political edge, but is still dehumanizing, still inhumane, and still mindlessly destructive. The game still takes a very real, very serious social problem – crime – and tries to make it fun and exciting and appealing.
My question above, of course, is rhetorical. There was no outrage over this game – at least not related to its content – and gamers had absolutely no qualms about murdering cops by the dozens. The game’s story, in fact, was praised by many, and I only read one reviewer who remarked on the striking amount of cop killing. Even then, the reviewer seemed almost amused: “Hate cops? Kane & Lynch‘s designers sure hope so.”
This should surprise nobody. Video games have a long and oddly proud history of being a moral wasteland. Gamers fight tooth and nail for their right to play tons of awful, gruesome murder simulators. I play tons of awful, gruesome murder simulators. I’ve probably murdered thousands of virtual police in my life, to say nothing of innocent pedestrians, or German soldiers, or African tribespeople, or children, or poor farmers, or world populations.
Not all of these games are morally questionable, but plenty of games are; and Kane & Lynch is so conspicuously awful that I find myself playing it not because it’s a good shooter (it’s really not), but because it’s alluring in how uncomfortable it makes me. Why am I fine with wanton cop killing in Grand Theft Auto, but not in Kane & Lynch? As Michael Abbot pointed out in his piece on Heavy Fire, GTA offers an illusion of choice. I am responsible for contextualizing that action, where Kane & Lynch provides a context for me. But Jason rightfully pointed out that that illusion is just that: an illusion. There’s no substantive moral difference between the action in those two games.
As awful as Kane & Lynch is, I can’t say many games are that much better, and I can’t say many games are even that much better than Heavy Fire. Certainly, Kane & Lynch isn’t as disgustingly racist, but racism isn’t the only way for a game to be morally objectionable. The game does not glamorize crime and murder – it’s far too gritty and dark a game for me to say that – but it does trivialize crime and murder, and provides a very weak narrative excuse for me to run around slaughtering cops. Ultimately, I’m not sure I can come to any conclusion besides that a whole lot of gamers are hypocrites, including myself. We’ve been playing video games long enough that we’re just not critical of violence, of murder, of cruelty, and of all the escapist, power-fantasy behavior that games allow us to indulge – in fact, maybe we eventually just grow bored.
This isn’t say that gamers are immoral or amoral – I consider myself a strongly moral person – but, to me, games rarely have a strong moral context. Every now and then, a game manages to overcome my moral numbness, or apathy, and I find myself in an unusual dialogue with the work in question. But I don’t find myself asking why it’s different. Rather, I ask why it’s not.