Navigating between society's moral panics about the influence of violent videogames and philosophical texts about self-cultivation in the martial arts, The Virtual Ninja Manifesto asks whether the figure of the 'virtual ninja' can emerge as an aspirational figure in the twenty-first century.
Engaging with the literature around embodied cognition, Zen philosophy and techno-Orientalism it argues that virtual martial arts can be reconstructed as vehicles for moral cultivation and self-transformation. It argues that the kind of training required to master videogames approximates the kind of training described in Zen literature on the martial arts. Arguing that shift from the actual dōjō to a digital dōjō represents only a change in the technological means of practice, it offers a new manifesto for gamers to signify their gaming practice. Moving beyond perennial debates about the role of violence in videogames and the manipulation of moral choices in gamic environments it explores the possibility that games promote and assess spiritual development.
About the Author
Chris Goto-Jones is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at the University of Victoria. He is also a Professorial Research Fellow of SOAS, University of London.
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The Virtual Ninja Manifesto
Fighting Games, Martial Arts and Gamic Orientalism
By Chris Goto-Jones
Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.Copyright © 2016 Chris Goto-Jones
All rights reserved.
Intentionality and Motivation
Between Synthetic and Actual Violence
THE PROBLEM OF VIOLENCE
The relationship between videogames and violence has become something of an obsession for contemporary societies, especially as advances in technology have enabled more graphic representations of physical brutality in games. To some extent, these concerns mirror (although they do not duplicate) concerns about the emergent popularity of the martial arts in the 1970s and 1980s, which critics (and the mass media in particular) saw as means to introduce, rehearse, and amplify levels of violence in society. These twin discourses represent legitimate concerns about the ways in which exposure to violence (in either virtual or actual sites) might influence players to become more violent in their daily lives, or less sensitive to the occurrence of violence in society around them.
Framed in this way, concerns about the possible connections between what we might call synthetic violence (i.e. violence that is enacted performatively in isolation from any direct, physical consequences of that violence, such as actual injury or death) and actual violence (i.e. violence perpetrated against real people) seem to move in direct opposition to the central hypothesis of the Virtual Ninja Project, which posits that particular modes of engagement with what appears to be synthetic violence can promote the ethical self-transformation of the player.
Hence, in this chapter we're going to consider the various ways in which synthetic violence has been studied as a variable in the production of actual violence. While chapter 3 will consider philosophical and spiritual arguments about the value and significance of confronting (synthetic) violence in our lives, this chapter will look more closely at the scientific work being done by psychologists to establish (or disprove) the validity of causal claims.
One of the things that becomes very clear from the outset in this literature is the essentially contested nature of the category of 'violence' itself, which is often overdetermined or undefined in formal experiments. In general, 'violence' is usually deployed interchangeably with 'graphic violence', with an emphasis placed on the realistic representation of 'needless brutality' in images, often involving firearms. Hence, in a (sometimes unconsciously) conservative move, violence comes to mean images of violence, as it does in wider studies of the impact of violence in non-interactive media in general, and the unique feature of violence in videogames (i.e. the role played by the player in performing it) is often overlooked. This is an aspect of the more general neglect of physical demands placed on gamers by videogames in general and martial arts videogames (MAVs) in particular. Relatively little work, for instance, has been done on the ideological or affective significance of the game interface and control schemes as variables in the impact of synthetic violence. Since these are so essential to the MAV, we will consider them in detail in the next chapter. For now, it is enough to note that vanishingly few experimental studies of violence make use of (or even reference) MAVs – it seems plausible that the reasons for this include the challenges posed by the complexity and sophistication of the control schemes in MAVs, which significantly raise the bar for skill levels required at short notice in a laboratory setting. Such studies as exist on MAVs tend to adopt a more ethnographic methodology (e.g. Kijima, 2012; Harper, 2014).
The literature in this field is divided on its conclusions about the significance of synthetic violence, and participants in the debates are sometimes adversarial about the credibility of research being conducted. Whatever the connection between synthetic violence and actual violence, it is clear that research into this question is not only driven by scientific curiosity about causal mechanisms but also by social, political, economic, and ideological agendas. For instance, a recent report by a taskforce of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2013), which resulted in policy advice warning that violent games can provoke actual violence, occasioned an open letter from an international group of 228 media scholars, psychologists, and criminologists who questioned the APA's findings (and its political agenda). The letter laments the pressure on scholars to produce 'positive' findings (i.e. those that tie violent games to shootings in the USA, such as the tragedy at Sandy Hook on 14 December 2012), arguing that 'it is possible for responsible scholars to make good faith arguments both that media violence may have some influence on aggression or other outcomes, or that media violence may not have such effects'. The signatories requested that the APA reconsider its conclusions and refrain from making declarative policy statements, which 'are likely to do more damage to the field and mislead the public'.
The politically and commercially emotive nature of the issue risks undermining the credibility of work in this area. A recent study by Andrew Przybylski has sought to bring the question of agendas out of the background and more centrally into focus: he has found that the belief that violent games provoke real-world aggression is most prevalent in 'demographic cohorts who did not grow up with games and those who lack concrete gaming experience' (2014:228). In other words, fear about the impact of videogames on society is strongest among people whose experiential knowledge of such games is least well developed. Of course, such fear does not make the fearful wrong per se – indeed, the status of experiential knowledge as both a lens through which to interpret data and a source of data in itself is hotly contested. However, such fear is a significant factor in agenda-setting power in society, and it lies at the foundation of 'moral panics' that can risk distorting the scientific landscape.
It is not the purpose of this chapter to attempt a resolution of these debates. Instead, the aim here is simply to investigate the extent to which these debates impact upon the hypotheses of the Virtual Ninja Project. In particular, it is important to establish whether or not there is a plausible space for the argument that playing MAVs, which can contain strong elements of synthetic violence, could lead to pro-social (rather than anti-social) real-world outcomes, or whether engagement with synthetic violence determines actual violence as an outcome. If there is space for such an argument, what are the parameters of this space and how might we navigate through it? And in particular, how might we maximize the chances that engagement with MAV should lead to positive ethical self-transformation of gamers? Is there space for a manifesto?
ARE MAVS VIOLENT?
Most of the games are the same. Two fighters stand face-to-face on a stage of some kind. The stage isn't important. It's just garnish to make it all taste better. The guys face off and then they fight. It's just like in the movies: Bruce and Chuck at the end of the Way of Dragon. Two fighters and nothing else. Just them and their skills. And me ... I'm there too. Or one of them is me. Or something. The other one could be anyone – my mate, my enemy, or even the computer itself. It could be an epic competition, or I might just be in my room. Doesn't matter. The guys face off, and then they fight.
You remember that scene in Seven Samurai when the two masters face off but then they don't fight because they can tell who's won already? Sometimes that happens in Street Fighter too. I've seen it. They just feel it. They know. The guys face off, and then they don't fight.
Capt3inK1rk, San Francisco, 15 February 2015.
One of the many difficulties in considering the impact of violence in videogames is the problem of what constitutes violence in the first place. Rather than agreeing a coherent and shared conception of violence, most meta-analyses of the literature simply accept whatever definition of violence was used in the myriad experiments from which they draw their data. Such definitions can be vague or self-referential in themselves. For instance, in their influential study on the role of violence in sports videogames, Anderson & Carnagey argue that violent sports games (as opposed to non-violent sports games) are those that 'include unnecessary violence' (2009:733). In general, in the USA (where the inspiration for such studies is often to address alleged connections between videogame violence and public shootings such as the Columbine massacre (1999), Aurora theatre shootings (2012), the Sandy Hook massacre (2012), or the Washington Navy Yard massacre (2013)), videogame violence is often mapped to the use of firearms, especially in First-Person Shooter (FPS) games like Call of Duty.
Even if we accept (which we need not) that the use of firearms always constitutes violence, for many critics of this field research is insufficiently attentive to the significance of the type of violence being performed. For the Attorney-General of Australia (2010), for instance, there should be more sensitivity to the degree of 'severity of violent content (e.g. cartoonish violence vs realistic violence)'. However, we might also ask for greater sensitivity to the modes of violence themselves – if violence is reduced to the occurrence of combat in a videogame, should research differentiate between combat that uses vehicles, firearms, swords, and bare hands? And if so, on what grounds should such a differentiation be made?
The Australian Attorney-General's report also draws attention to the foundational question of the conceptual integrity of the idea of violence itself – if certain types of behaviour are socially acceptable (even though they involve combat in some way), are such behaviours really violent? 'It is not known whether socially acceptable violence (such as in the course of playing sports) has a different effect to antisocial violence' (2010). To borrow Anderson & Carnagey's provocative phrase, when does violence constitute 'unnecessary violence' and under what conditions might necessary violence not constitute violence at all? If actions take place within accepted rules, can they really be considered violent?
The status of MAVs in this contested landscape is far from simple. It is certainly true that, by definition, a martial arts game involves martial conduct: the basic model of the MAV, following the structure that was popularized by the iconic Street Fighter II (1991), depicts two avatars in direct physical combat, with the goal being to defeat the opponent by beating him/her up. Hence, in the MAV, there is relatively little space for 'unnecessary violence' since the premise and structure of the games themselves require every action to be performed with martial intent. A gamer who decides that punching or kicking is unnecessary and so refuses to punch and kick is simply not playing the game.
As a genre, there is great variation in the use of various weapons (swords, spears, whips, nunchaku, etc.) and fantastical powers (energy balls, etc.), great variation in levels of graphical realism or cartoonic aesthetics, and some variation in the levels of graphic brutality and 'gore'. Hence, it is difficult to talk about a unified aesthetics of the genre. Even a casual glance at the family of MAVs (which includes, among others, Nintendo's kawaii-cute Super Smash Bro., Arc System's anime-cool BlazBlue, Reverge Lab's hypersexualized SkullGirls, Midway's gory Mortal Kombat, and Capcom's robustly cartoonic Street Fighter) reveals the range of aesthetic possibilities. If a violent videogame must include 'graphic images of blood and gore' (Anderson, et al., 2008:e1068), then relatively few of them – like Mortal Kombat – would meet the criteria. Mega-franchises like Street Fighter would probably not count as violent. Only a small minority of participants in the Virtual Ninja Project felt that MAVs were violent per se, although that minority tended to celebrate violence in rather vulgar terms.
Dissatisfied with the possibility that many (perhaps most) games would fall out of the analysis of violence if the main criteria were simply a gory aesthetic, researchers have been keen to make a more inclusive definition:
Violent media are those that depict characters intentionally harming other characters who presumably wish to avoid being harmed. Thus, even children's video games that lack depictions of blood and gore can, and frequently do, include violence. (Anderson, et al., 2008:e1068)
According to this definition, it certainly seems to be the case that MAVs fall squarely into the category of 'violent'. The basic premise of the MAV is that one character is going to fight another, who presumably wishes to avoid being harmed (and instead wishes to harm you).
However, the sheer inclusiveness of this kind of definition presents all kinds of problems and risks rendering it meaningless. For one thing, it's not immediately obvious what might constitute 'harm' – indeed, the study of the meaning and implications of 'harm' is a field of academic inquiry in its own right. Does Mario harm the anthropomorphized mushroom when he jumps on its head? Does PacMan harm the flashing ghost when he eats it (only for it to re-appear in the middle of the screen)? Conversely, should we assume that Mario and PacMan do not enact violence while the mushroom and the ghost endeavour to do so? Content and narrative analysis of meaning in specific games is required if we seek to understand the possibilities of harm in a videogame.
Many of the researchers who work with these definitions seem to realize the problems. For instance, it is common to attempt to differentiate between violence and aggression, where violence 'is the most extreme form of physical aggression, specifically physical aggression that is likely to cause serious physical injury' (Anderson, et al., 2008:e1068). The emphasis here on 'serious physical injury' is helpful: shooting a character in the head in Call of Duty is going to cause them serious physical injury, but Mario jumping on a mushroom's head simply causes it to transform into a gold coin (and we don't have sufficient understanding of mushrooms to know whether this constitutes physical injury).
In the context of a MAV, however, the situation is less clear: yes, the characters are engaged in a physical fight with each other in which only one will prevail, but 'damage' is usually indicated by a declining health bar rather than evidence of physical injury. Indeed, after being defeated, characters jump back to their feet ready for the next round. While it is certainly the case that the behaviours exhibited in MAVs 'are likely to cause serious physical injury' to the opposing avatar, in practice they do not. To some extent, this is also true of training in the martial arts themselves, where practitioners train to perfect techniques designed to cause serious physical injury, but in practice they do not intend to cause such injuries (indeed, in most cases, causing them would very quickly bring training to an end). The game is not to injure your opponent but rather to overcome his/her skill with your own.
Even if we accept that violence is an extreme form of aggression that results in physical injury, we're still left with the problem of what 'aggression' might mean. For Anderson et al., aggression seems almost identical with violence itself: aggression is 'behaviour that is intended to harm another person who is motivated to avoid that harm. In other words, aggression is an act conducted by 1 person with the intent of hurting another person' (2008:e1068 – emphasis added). While this definition seems intelligible (and so consistent with their definition of violence that it risks redundancy), it contains another problem that needs to be addressed: aggression (like violence before it) appears to be tied to issues of motivation and intentionality. That is, we are aggressive not only when we behave in harm-inducing ways to others but also when we mean our behaviour harmfully.
As we already saw in the last chapter, the question of intentionality and motivation lies at the core of the Virtual Ninja Project, which plays with the hypothesis that proper intentionality can transform the ethical significance of engagement with MAVs, just as it might transform engagement with the actual martial arts. Rather than intending to cause harm through the performance of martial techniques, the ethical martial artist intends to use such disciplined performances as a means to cultivate him-/herself into a better person.
Excerpted from The Virtual Ninja Manifesto by Chris Goto-Jones. Copyright © 2016 Chris Goto-Jones. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Introduction: (Video)games and violence/1. Violence and Self-Cultivation: Embodied Orientalism/2. Digital Embodiment and the Dōjō/3. The Virtual Ninja Manifesto/4. From Techno-Orientalism to Gamic Orientalism/Conclusion: Videogames and Emancipation/Bibliography/Index