Weed and video games. They go together like Sonic and Knuckles, as timeless as Valve and not releasing Half Life 3. I smoked tree filled blunts
regularly like it was a job from about the age of 17 to 21. Fortunately for myself and potential employers, I’ve quit since those smoke-filled years. There was, however, this one time in college. Because, you know, college and Santa Cruz. For those who have never experienced what it’s like to be faded with bloodshot eyes, body and mind melted as one with their virtual counterparts, let’s just say the experience can be like Oculus Rift before Oculus Rift. While I had smoked and played video games high dozens of times in the past, this particular “sesh,” led to a moral dilemma, one that had me rethinking the violent gaming tropes that prolonged exposure to game design make an afterthought.
It was a Saturday night and after spending the day in the library writing an essay (seriously) a friend and I decided to reward our diligence with some marijuana treats. The chosen medium: THC gel caps. Now this decision was based simply on novelty alone. Gel caps that got you high were not your daddy’s, or even your younger sister’s readily accessible method for getting a head change. But, you know, medicinal marijuana dispensaries and California. This was certainly a bad idea. We make our way back to campus (the pill consumed and almost forgotten) and decided what better way to spend our flight than by reuniting my favorite couple, weed and video games. Reach made the most sense, specifically the firefight mode on the map “Overlook.”
5 4 3 2 1…
I dash towards a green ordinance icon, trading my pistol for a shotgun. I can hear dropships whining, approaching the base we’ve been ordered to protect—because doesn’t matter. I switch back to my DMR, pulling back the bolt handle with a satisfying slide and click. I hear the electric splash of the turrets. I turn to face the dropship. My teammate trails behind me. Grunts, jackals, and Elites drop from the ship because dropship (heh). The jackals fire first. Green balls of plasma and lights that would be more at home at a rave than a battlefield fill the air. They pick away at my shield. It’s annoying. I place bullets into the defect in their handheld bucklers. They stagger. I kill. Headshots in 4/4. I throw grenades. There are screams. My comrade takes some kills from somewhere in the distance. I sprint forward, jump, switch to my shotty, melee, shoot. Enemy shields turn to static, bodies ragdoll. I run to another group of enemies, rinse and repeat. I giggle. I’m unstoppable. Of course, I’m a Spartan after all.
I shoot a grunt’s head, confetti sprays in the air. I hear a children’s choir shout “yay!” in unison. I keep firing, killing. The children, they keep on cheering. The confetti, it keeps on spraying. I imagine that it garnishes the blood, pools of rainbow specked red staining the grass.
The grunts, they watch their comrades’ heads explode with party decor. They still come at me. Me—the almost 7 foot Spartan donning half a ton of billion dollar armor. I’m the most powerful weapon earth has ever created. Some run. Yet, for the most part they fight. And I keep on killing. The sound of champagne bottles popping accompany each bullet through the head. One waddles at me with plasma grenades in each hand and death on his mind. Headshots only because the efficiency is satisfying. The children, they keep on cheering. The confetti, it keeps on spraying.
I fight reflexively. It’s a slaughter. I start to think. I start to think about these grunts. They must have families, lovers back home, gambling debts at their favorite bar, shows that they love to watch and discuss. Lives to go back to and lives they are fighting for. I am really really stoned.
What seems like the voice of God rewards me with his audible praise and an accompanying medal: “Double kill! Triple Kill! Overkill! Killtacular! Killing Spree! Killtrocity! Killimanjaro!”
The voice it rewards me for murder. It feels satisfying. It feels wrong to be satisfied. They toddle at me, making garbled squeaks and speaking in an ancient language. They have absolutely no chance against me and they know it. Why do they continue to fight? Because they believe what they’re doing is right? Because they’re trying to protect their loved ones back home? Because they’ve been indoctrinated through religious and nationalistic fervor? Or is it the more obvious reason: That they’re easily coerced due to their small stature and less technologically advanced culture? I assassinate another one, sheathing my combat knife into a leathery neck.
These grunts are victims. Forced to join the Covenant or face extinction. They’re not actually called grunts. They’re Unggoy, renamed to some alienated abstraction not unlike “charlie” and “hajis.” They had a homeworld and lives of their own before they were colonized and reduced to the lowest ranking race in the Covenant, to cannon fodder, cheap labor, and slaves.
The match ends soon after. We saved the base or whatever. The next match starts on “Waterfront.” In the few moments before combat begins, an eerie space pad is the only soundtrack. The kind of sound used in a slasher film. I put the controller down, hands shaking. My friend looks puzzled and eventually leaves. I sit there, really really stoned.
Since this day, I have played Reach or other Halos without any similar moral dilemmas or trauma. My experience didn’t turn me into conscientious objecting Master Chief, but I did learn some things in my altered state of mind.
The first is the reductionism that the gamification of violence participates in. War and the act of killing are infinitely complex, especially psychologically. The stress, the second thoughts, the justifications, the shock are barely even touched upon in the gaming space. Violent action is video games’ most explored and fleshed out subject and, yet, rarely is it expounded upon beyond enjoyable power fantasy. The points, the level up bars, the medals—the gaminess—all serve to reduce some pretty horrific behavior into a good time. Of course, this is the product of games having to be fun, but the ability to engage in an immersive and thorough representation of war’s horror has mostly been left untapped in favor of virtual blood sport.
Gaminess produces a dehumanization similar to the programming necessary to most effectively engage in modern warfare. In Halo, this functions well mostly because the characterization is so poorly done and because the developers aren’t interested in having us consider the ethical implications. That would ruin the fun. It’s interesting to consider the power story has on this gamification. Sure, I was blasted, but the characterization, the stories I made up about who the Unggoy are broke through those alienating systems with empathy.
When you play Halo, you turn into a robot. How we think and how we act in the game perfectly mimics the ideal for a soldier’s mind and behavior. It’s overly appropriate that you play as a cybernetic warrior that simply exists as a weapon, turned off at the end of every major “fight,” then activated again once it’s needed. In many ways, the Spartans and the Unggoy aren’t much different. Both have little free will and are seen as tools, subservient to the interests of their superiors. Our role is no different in the game. All we can do is fight. For the player and the Spartan, the only judgement involves how, never why.
Now, I’m not saying we all need to pack a bowl and play video games, but it may be worth while to spend some time now and again thinking about the games we play from a different perspective. Getting baked and playing Halo: Reach afforded me with an all too rare and needed defamiliarization. There are many often overlooked oddities inherent to gaming logic that go unaddressed. Looking at our games from a canted angle could allow us to see the creepy children cheering for the party or whatever forced metaphor you want to use here. If we do allow ourselves to look at games through different lenses, maybe we’ll discover how to make different types of games and something about ourselves. Just as the fish doesn’t know it’s in water, the player doesn’t know that we wade in blood drenched confetti.
But what do I know, I was really really high.