The Continuum of Force

In the movie, Kung Fu (yes, the David Carradine one) there is a training montage where Master Kan explains the physical and moral approach of the eponymous martial art when responding to force: “…avoid, rather than check. Check, rather than hurt. Hurt, rather than maim. Maim, rather than kill. For all life is precious, and none can be replaced.” I’m going to talk about this very important concept to conversations about violence and the justified use thereof. There’s no particular game I’m going to discuss today, but I’ll revisit this concept repeatedly whenever I offer commentary on a video game, or anything else for that matter, where violence is used to solve problems.

It seems that both the people who produce media and we as a society that consumes that media have abdicated this nuance in favor of the simpler “kill ’em all” or shooter narrative. This is not to say that games where lethal force is depicted are wrong to do so, but there is precious little else available on the market – and plenty of games where there is ample room for a more nuanced approach, but that approach is absent. I don’t expect the Call of Duty franchise to pick these themes up, for example; Call of Duty comes to the violence well after it has already been escalated. But games where the violence occurs in greyer territory (Deus Ex’s quasi-law-enforcement context, for example), and especially in the so-called ‘Open World’ games like Fallout, do a disservice to those who consume them when they phone-in a black-and-white violence spectrum.

I don’t recall my exact age, but I was very young when I first saw Kung Fu. The scene embedded below is quoted at the start of this article, it shows students attacking a master, who demonstrates a variety of ways to avoid their attacks, while the voice of Master Kan gives the content of the lecture. The lesson was one that has stuck with me, and formed a very personal part of my own philosophy of violence. The lecture explains the practicalities of responding to force and begins with the mechanical explanation for this moral code, but the moral component of the lesson is compelling and important:

The preferred response to force, as that clip shows, is to run away – to avoid violence rather than seek it out. Running away is not compelling gameplay, generally. The fact that there is a progression in the lecture from avoidance to lethal force highlights that even the Shaolin in Kung Fu, who value peace over victory, recognize that running away does not always satisfy the practical needs, even when it is possible.

Lethal force, however, is a serious business. The consequences of lethal force are irreversible. Every time you take a life, you forever change the world around you. This is not to say that this is never called for, but it has become assumed in movies, stories, and video games that “a bullet in the head” is the appropriate way to approach even minor disputes. In our daily lives we encounter people who view lethal force to be the appropriate response to religious or ethnic differences, shitty parking jobs, and being wrong on the internet.

For most games and stories, we can excuse lethal force and bypass the deep philosophical questions that should attach to a discussions about the justifications of use of force, through a recognition that human interaction occurs at the lowest common denominator. If I want to trade with you, and you want to kill me and take my stuff, we are not going to trade; we’re going to fight. And if I don’t recognize that you’re not interested in trade, it’s probably going to be a very, very brief fight that ends poorly for me.

Bad guys usually want to kill us, in video games, so there’s a tremendous philosophical leeway granted in our use of force in kind. The problem is that the use of lethal force has become so much a staple of video games that writers oftentimes forget that they have a responsibility to excuse that force in some way, or have simply become unconscionably lazy about doing so. Moustache-twirling evil has become code for “needs a bullet in the head.”

There is precious little between “so-and-so is evil” as an excuse to kill them, and “so-and-so is Muslim/Jewish/Black/a Yankees Fan” as an excuse to kill them. When writing falls into the pit of using ‘evil’ as justification for homicide, writer and character alike have lost sight of the continuum of force.

Screen capture from Men in Black (featuring Will Smith) depicting the shooting range where the protagonist puts a single bullet through the head of a target shaped like a ten year old girl carrying a Quantum Physics textbook.
May I ask why you felt little Tiffany deserved to die?

“So-and-so is doing evil,” is enough reason, certainly, for us to justify some kind of direct response – the escalation from Avoid to Check. But that response needn’t be lethal force, which would otherwise be a jump from Check directly to Kill. There is narrative richness to be explored in justifying escalation from Check to Hurt, Hurt to Maim, and Maim to Kill. Taking our time working up to that point lets us also escalate the tension of the story, building to whatever the final level of force our desired climax entails.

Beyond just providing a broader experience that can appeal to a more morally diverse audience, offering a spectrum of responses to situations is good game design. Current games, which favor an “of course we kill the bad guy with guns” atmosphere wind up all looking like each other. In his exhaustive examination of the Postal franchise, Noah Gervais comes to the conclusion that violence for its own sake is boring. Games that permit players the full range of the continuum of force also provide a critical component to good game design: player agency. This opens up the possibilities for villains to be humanized, for conflicts to reflect the complex nature of conflicts in real life, and in so doing gives us fertile ground for deeply relatable conflicts, despite the high-drama of storytelling.

Games that give you options about how to confront the bad guy, where lethal force is one option at one end of the spectrum give meaning to choices about how we approach these problems. That meaning, in turn, contributes to the richness of our experience of playing the game, and leaves us with the possibility of replaying a game with a different set of choices. Games are a fictional medium, and fiction has tremendous potential for us to explore our assumptions about how the world works. We should be exploring new frontiers of this potential, not just wallowing around in the same old tropes day in and day out.

A cursory glance at even the shooter titles of today will make abundantly clear that story is considered an essential part of a successful video game. If anything worth doing is worth doing well, then it follows that if you’re going to have story, you may as well have good story. Good stories respect nuance, or at least understand and lampshade when they decide to throw it away. Those who design videogames, like those who create any other story, owe their audience a due consideration of the causes and justifications of their conflicts – and where possible, more attention to nuances in how, when, and where to apply force. It needs to not be a rare thing, when a video game gives you the option to resolve a conflict with less than the maximum of force.