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Going Postal – When Does Gaming Violence Become Too Much?

The Postal series is headed to consoles with Postal III. Why should we not be excited?

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Going Postal – When Does Gaming Violence Become Too Much?

by on June 15, 2011

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E3’s are really a bittersweet time in the gaming industry for those of us who are able to cover it journalistically. While we get the opportunity to see some fantastic games and revel at how far gaming in all of its aspects has come, it’s tough to appreciate it all as it goes by so quickly. As soon as we think we’ve caught up to the plethora of news, previews and trailers, it’s already Day 3 and the show is just about over. It’s during that time when we’re able to take a closer look at all of the industry’s upcoming titles, both ones that we think will flourish and ones we know will suck. It’s rare though, when we come across a game that causes us to step back and ask, “Why is this being made again?” That is the exact response I had when I heard the unfortunate announcement that Postal III was on its way and saw the subsequent trailer.

Although the trailer didn’t show much, it clearly hinted that it would provide the same asinine gore and violence that the other two games in the series provided. The story is weak and the production values are poor, but if you’re looking for the most obscene, senseless video game ever created then look no further than Postal. But why should gamers be pissed that this series hasn’t been shelved long ago? Postal can be looked at as the epitome of why video games are still often looked upon as being irrelevant and time wasting nuisances. I’m all for the idea of free speech whether it be in games, film, or print. But when a group of people deliberately attempt to produce a work that has the sole purpose of spewing out offensive material simply because they can, it begins to reflect upon all the people who are involved with that particular medium.

As a culture, we’ve become so desensitized to violence in different forms of media that works like Postal don’t affect us perhaps as much as they should. We see violence not just in video games but in every media form in existence really, both in its glorified and dehumanized form and conversely in its more realistic setting where it has extremely unsettling properties. Though much more rare, probably because it is difficult to successfully employ, is violence in its artistic form. The concept of the “aestheticization of violence” has come to be defined as violent themes or images that are stylistically excessive or significant in a sustained way (see Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange). On the other hand, there are works that take those same violent themes and portray them in a debauched and often ridiculous manner. The Postal games exemplify this.  Numerous attempts at censorship and restriction due to the game’s content have made it a microcosm for the debate as to what is unacceptable, if anything, in the medium of video games. There is no doubt that the content is extremely graphic, but does it call for regulation? Is it any worse than what we watch on TV or other games we play? Postal is not just worse, it is the worst of the worst, and the developers undoubtedly take pride in that respect. In my mind, the content itself is not the reason as to why the gaming world should call for its removal, it’s because the game is an absolute horrid representation of the industry and an even worse display of how interactive entertainment can be used.

Postal’s protagonist is your typical everyman – a thin man with sunglasses, a t-shirt with an alien head, and of course a long black trench coat to identify him as some sort of unsympathetic badass on a mission. He is uninspiringly referred to as “The Postal Dude.” In Postal II, the game’s “levels” are split into days of the week and at the beginning of each day, the Dude is faced with several monotonous, commonplace tasks to accomplish. The purpose of the game is to finish all of the tasks throughout the week, but the real fun lies in how monstrously the player goes about completing such tasks. The action of decapitating civilians and urinating on the corpses for example, is always at your disposal. The Dude must put up with being flipped off, mugged and attacked by protesters as well as Al-Qaeda terrorists, bothered by members of a religious cult, and insulted by an obnoxious convenience store owner, who of course is also a terrorist.

In terms of the actual content, well let’s just say that it’s quite clear why people are offended. I have never agreed in the way in which the media likes to take anything related to video game violence and demonize it as a major factor in teen homicides. But with games like Postal, that outrage does have some merit. The violence included serves no purpose whatsoever other than the degree of “shock value.” The revolting actions in which the player is able to partake in are there because the developers had the opportunity to put them there. The Postal Dude does not have any redeeming qualities and he has no back story or traits that would give his killing spree even an inkling of emotional value (unless of course you count a nagging wife as a good enough reason to go on a killing spree, in which case 75% of America would be behind bars). The result is mindless violence that goes way over the line and gives players a reason to go on a pointless rampage. Players can decapitate people with melee weapons and kick the heads around. Cow heads filled with anthrax can be used as weapons that can make the victims vomit blood. Cats can be used as silencers for shotguns and machine guns. This useful little technique is achieved by shoving the barrel of the gun into its rectum. After firing a few shots and hearing the cat moan in pain it’s eventually flown from the barrel. No argument can possibly defend what Postal allows players to do. The content, by all means, is simply disgusting and senseless.

Postal also revels in the promotion and extension of racial stereotypes and homophobia. For example, upon entering the arcade, there is a game which reads “F.a.g. Hunter.” In the “AWP” expansion of Postal II, the developers even go as far as to expand the game into a mini-level where the player has to kill 20 stereotyped homosexuals that are depicted as bald men wearing pink shirts. Also seen in the arcade is a reference to the Columbine High School massacre, as there is a game titled “Teen Sniper.” The artwork shows a child sitting on top of his school and firing at students. If the player commits suicide, you can hear relieved pedestrians say “I blame Doom.” The Columbine shooting was a truly horrifying event that deeply impacted and traumatized countless people both in the Denver area and abroad. Using the interactive medium of video games to poke fun and bluntly mock such an event is completely tactless and is no less insensitive than mocking the events of September 11th, for example, though who knows what future Postal games may contain.

It must be noted that if a player deliberately tried, he/she would never have to resort to violence throughout the game. Though the game can be played in this way, it was not meant to be. Nearly every situation the Dude finds himself in features extremely hostile people and environments. The game clearly urges and was intended for players to kill the people attacking them in order to survive. Postal does not have a purpose if one is to go about completing the mundane tasks without eventually losing composure and fighting back against those annoying liberals as they spit and curse at you.

Now, compare Postal’s violence to that featured in GTA IV. Anyone that lists the two in the same category are severely mislead and are doing a serious unjustice to Rockstar and the masterpiece that they created. The entire GTA series has taken a lot of flak since its inception in 1998, and most of it is from politicians who have never picked up a controller. Because of its graphic nature, GTA has always been an easy scapegoat for a violent culture. When a teenager commits what’s referred to as a “copycat crime” similar to what the protagonist is able to do in the games, reporters are quick to jump on the story and blame the entire incident on the fact that the kid played Grand Theft Auto. The films he watched prior or the family support he/she never had strangely seem to be a non-factor in such instances, instead blaming a form of entertainment like any other and effectively creating a media panic. If critics were to in fact play the game they so openly criticize, chances are they would not be so upfront about it.

GTA IV, like any other game of the series, features some extremely violent scenes which some would find offensive. The difference here is that whereas Postal clearly urges players to indulge in homicidal, maniacal behavior, GTA IV does not. Can you carjack someone and stop a block later to get out and beat a granny with a bat? Yes. Can you pick up a prostitute for sex and then kill her to get your money back? Absolutely. Yet these actions are done entirely on the player’s accord and the game never encourages them. What the player does when not continuing the game’s storyline is not the developer’s fault. Those actions and the missions of the protagonist are always completely separate.

Grand Theft Auto IV follows the story of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European war veteran who is haunted by the betrayal of his army unit by one of his comrades. Ten years later after a botched smuggling run, Niko leaves Eastern Europe to escape the anger of his employer. Eventually, under persuasion from his cousin Roman, Niko comes to Liberty City for better fortune as well as to pursue the man he believes to be the army traitor. It is not long after his arrival before Niko realizes that the concept of the “American Dream” has undergone heavy changes, if it is still alive at all. In this way, GTA IV, through an immersive experience and gritty, realistic setting is able to present a cultural satire that makes a statement which comments on important modern social conditions.

Unlike Postal, the ever-present violence in GTA IV always has a purpose. Niko quickly becomes involved with an underground of criminals and mob-bosses, yet he only agrees as he knows it will help him financially in a place where he has nothing. He gets entangled in a web of criminal activity, with his only motivation being that he hopes to gain information on the traitor. Niko and Roman finally locate him and learn that he has become a drug-addicted bum. They also learn that he betrayed the group for $1,000 dollars which went to support his drug habit. The player is then left with the option of either executing him or sparing his life.

These types of decisions are prevalent throughout the game, and each time we’re faced with one there is never a correct choice or positive outcome. Letting the man live would be an insult to all those he betrayed, and chances are he would slip back into his drug addiction. On the other hand, executing him ultimately makes Niko feel empty and he soon questions his actions. Were all of the people he had killed in order to take revenge upon this one man truly worth it? Does killing him make the pain subside? Though the game places players in these violent situations, the message behind the violence is always clear and poignant. Not only does it affect us on an emotional level, it presents difficult and ambiguous decisions that remain in our minds long after we shut off the console as we contemplate what the opposite choice could have led to.

Portrayed so heavily nowadays in both films and video games, simulated violence can in fact be useful in the sense that it allows people to encounter brutal experiences and even release endorphins while never having to take physical action or experience such hostile situations first hand. Games like Postal however, completely exploit the popularity of violence in culture just like films such as the Saw or Hostel franchises do. It offers repulsive, mind-numbing carnage that is utterly pointless and is there simply so that the game can hold the title of “most shocking.” With Postal III headed to consoles for the first time in the series, the game will obviously become available to more people and most likely to a younger audience that would generally never have known of its existence.

What I fear is that games like Postal will cause the gaming industry to be stuck in a perpetual state of non-progression. They will prevent a medium that has endless possibility from growing and evolving into a universally respected and appreciated form of entertainment. But if gaming can continue to evolve without the regressing effects of degenerate games like Postal, it could very well develop into what many of us know it is more than capable of becoming. That is, a vehicle of entertainment which has the means of providing us with more than just a form of escapism. A vehicle of entertainment that could be, dare I say it without being scolded by Roger Ebert, an art form.

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