Channeling the French philosopher Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The quote keeps coming back to me as I think about Hatred, the game about a spree killer recently released by Polish studio Destructive Creations.
When I first heard about Hatred last fall, my initial reaction, like the vast majority of the gaming press, was revulsion. The trailers portray people being shot on the street and in their homes, usually screaming or begging for their lives. The voice over for the main character is puerile, like a teenager desperately trying to sound sophisticated as they explore their inner darkness. The game looks absolutely tasteless, but it quickly gathered fans enthusiastically anticipating its release.
It made me worry. What kinds of people actually wants to play this, and why are there so many of them? But then I heard that Running With Scissors was planning to release a redux version of Postal, a game about mass murder that I played and enjoyed as a teenager. I found myself thinking fondly of the old game and looking forward to the new release. I was forced to re-examine my position on Hatred.
Players kill innocent people in video games all the time, often in games that are popular with critics and often in ways that are completely unnecessary. Once while playing GTA IV, I decided to ram into the back of another car for no reason. To my surprise the car burst into flames and the flaming driver bailed out and rolled on the road. The spontaneous chaos made the incident one of my favorite experiences with the game.
Similarly, Sleeping Dogs protagonist Wei Shen is basically a good guy who is sometimes forced to do shady things because of his double life as a deep cover cop. However, at a certain point I got bored. I picked a random guy out of a crowd, sprinted at him, and crippled him with a flying jump kick. He held his body in pain and writhed around on the ground while bystanders cowered. It was satisfying, so I did it a few more times.
In Sleeping Dogs, Wei didn’t have to drop kick a random pedestrian. In GTA IV, Niko Bellic didn’t have to rear end a random guy at high speed. Neither game suggested in any way that I should do that, and I was not at all rewarded with progress, points or cash. I have to bear sole responsibility for it. In the story missions, Niko and Wei end up killing a lot of people. While they’re all presumably “bad guys” who deserve it, I don’t feel responsible because if I hadn’t killed those people, the story would stall and progress through the game would stop.
So if Hatred requires innocent death, how culpable is the player for the in-game mayhem?
In the film A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge is an unrepentant rapist and murderer. While in prison he receives an experimental treatment that debilitates him with nausea if he even contemplates engaging in violent or sexual activity. But the prison’s priest objects to the treatment because Alex is compelled against his will to good behavior. Without the freedom to choose between good and evil, Alex has ceased to be a moral being, therefore he cannot be praised as good.
By that logic, the player of Hatred is doing nothing evil or sick when they mow down innocents because there’s no other way to progress to the next level. With no choice but to commit evil acts, the player is not a moral agent. So when I make Wei decide that random drop kicks are a better idea than real police work, have I then become the truly depraved one? Is my moral choice worse than the imposed systems in Hatred?
Well, no. Hatred has been called “the sickest game ever” for the very reason that the sole objective is to kill innocent civilians, and the type of gaming experience you have boils down to the type of game you select to play. That’s the player’s choice. The developers have been pretty clear that unprovoked murder is the point of the game, so it’s safe to assume that clearing a level will involve little more than civilian death.
Sleeping Dogs, meanwhile, is actually a game about striving to make a difference in a world full of crime. When I get bored and make Wei do something anti-social, it’s a departure from the narrative. The petty attacks don’t hold my attention, and I know I’ll soon be taking on more constructive missions in the main story. The game world moves on, oblivious to my temporary deviance. Like taking a boat into the open ocean in search of the edge of the map, my actions are an experiment to see what happens in the game.
When someone selects a game like Hatred, they are agreeing to participate in a wholly different experience with much grimmer implications, and Destructive Creations’ game really does look sick. They’re going for something altogether darker than Postal and while I don’t believe it’s ethical to ban the game, I wish they had decided not to make it. I browsed the comments on their YouTube channel a few months back and the threads were dominated by people looking forward to acting out racist and sexist fantasies in the game. The official description of the game calls the player’s mission a “genocide crusade”, two words with highly political, cultural, and racial implications.
Also, though the studio has denied rumors that they are associated with fascist and racist groups, they have never said anything positive to indicate that they respect and welcome people of various faiths and ethnicities, which is what any sensible group would do if they wanted to dispel such rumors.
Hatred is genuinely disgusting. It’s going to be played and enjoyed by some gross people, and it’s going to set back some of the progress that has been made to improve the image of video games in mainstream media. But, like Voltaire, I have to stand by and let them do it. If this is the art that somebody wants to create, they have to be free to create it. And if I don’t like it I can either ignore it or exercise my own freedom of expression to point out why it’s horrible to anyone who will listen.