“Only One Life Left!”: Dying in Video Games

Though I’m a bit scared to don the “gamer” title after Monday’s readings on Gamergate, I won’t let a crazed few keep me from professing my love for Mario and Pokemon. Indeed, it’s hard to take Gamergate participants too seriously, since the ‘movement’ seems to bring a new effigy to the stake each week. In Gamergate’s drunken stumble through gamer culture, a common thread amongst the debates is one already well-trodden: if, and to what degree, do video games affect their players?

For a few years now, games have been the target of choice to explain away whatever we decide to hate about our youth. Kids are violent/sexist/racist? Must be Grand Theft Auto. Before games, the correct answer was rock music, and before that, well – take your pick from comic books, TV, movies, or any other medium.

If it’s not already clear, I’m not a fan of this blame game – but I won’t get any further down that rabbit hole. Because even though I seriously doubt any claim that video games actually inspire violent tendencies, I do think that games, with their often casual and dismissive attitude toward dying, may influence how we think and talk about death.

It’s not even the most violent games that could be at fault here – in fact, often the family-friendly arcade-style games are the ones that treat player (or enemy) death with the least reverence. In Mario, Pac-Man, Sonic, and any other number of games with a “lives” system, dying is quick and painless and readily forgiven. Touch a ghost in Pac-Man, and it’s only a matter of seconds before you’re “alive” again, as if nothing had ever happened. Mario even turns player death into a comedic moment, theatrically turning Mario’s sprite toward the player as he falls through the ground and off the screen.

I find this fascinating, especially considering that these are the games typically marketed towards children. Even the most violent “adult” games often treat death with more gravitas. The Grand Theft Auto series, for example, has become known for its cinematic “death-cam” which triggers a black and white filter and slow-mo effect as you watch your character collapse heroically.

I know that this is all just speculation, and that perhaps games are just a product of a generation already indifferent toward death. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the effects may be of games that portray death as comedic or reversible or trivial or all of the above. A casual attitude toward death might have partially inspired the language used in threats on Zoe Quinn’s life – threats that may not typically produce physical harm, but as Michael suggests, can effectively ‘kill’ an individual’s voice on the internet.

To close with a somewhat less concerning example: It’s always a bit weird to hear my younger brothers – just 13 and 14 years old – already tossing around words like “kill [the Goomba]” and “die[, Princess Peach!]” while they play Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros. Neither of them would hurt a fly, but they’ll sure talk with murderous intent about those damned blue shells.

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