Extra Credits is a popular series on YouTube focused on video games. The series is obnoxious for a variety of reasons including the undeserved professorial tone (the writer’s cartoon avatar even lectures from a podium), the Chipmunk-like effect put on the narrator’s voice, the lack of research, the bad writing, and the poorly thought-out theses. I’ll be responding to their video called “Hatred – Crossing the Line from Violence to Sadism.”
The video begins with a trigger warning for the graphic and truly disturbing images it contains such as this, this, and this. Then, the narrator describes the violence and rage in The Iliad. After describing the brutality of that classic epic poem, he says:
We are witness, up-close and personal, to the slaughter of men and the extremities of war. And yet again, I will say without equivocation: it is a classic…Rage, frustration, anger—these are a primal part of who we are…we need to understand and to channel them. And sometimes, we need an outlet for them.
The main implication of this section seems to be: The Iliad is a classic because it shows a primal part of mankind (violent anger) and helps us understand it. That, of course, says nothing of its actual literary quality. That is the problem with this video in a nutshell. James, the writer behind Extra Credits, does not acknowledge the intrinsic value of art, or the aesthetic dimension at all.
To James, games are valuable because they provide emotional release and/or teach a moral lesson. James suggests that he considers The Iliad a classic not for its beauty or the literary skill it shows, but because it helps us understand emotions—he acknowledges the incidental value but implicitly denies the intrinsic value. After that explanation of why The Iliad is a classic and why the violence is justified in it, he says this:
And that’s why I’ve never been against violent video games…many of us have had an experience where we were left frustrated or angry, and instead of going out and just hitting somebody, we played a game…and at the end of it, that rage had evened out.
The reason James isn’t against violent video games is because they can harmlessly channel emotions. Other people who aren’t against violent video games might cite artistic freedom of expression, basic cultural tolerance, humbleness regarding one’s own taste, the fact that many great games are violent, possible chilling effects on artists, or the fact that saying a game is violent doesn’t actually tell you very much about the game itself, and is just a shallow statement about the game’s subject matter. For James, though, games aren’t valuable in themselves—they’re valuable when they’re useful in teaching a moral lesson or providing emotional release.
Another video essayist, Instig8iveJournalism, responds to this type of anti-art mindset in this video criticizing feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian:
Art serves itself…When teaching art, the lesson is art. So when people talk of “education value” in art, they are implicitly denying the existence of an inherent value. Anita Sarkeesian and Hilary Clinton both make sure to stress that games are fun, can encourage teamwork, and can improve hand-eye coordination—not as a concession to the importance of video games, but as an assault on their meaning…to them, art serves as a tool for tricking people into learning or believing in something.
Clinton was railing against violent games, and Sarkeesian was railing against games she sees as misogynistic. Extra Credits is railing against violent games that don’t live up to his criteria of what justifies that kind of subject matter in art. The point all three of them miss is that games are not valuable because they increase hand-eye coordination, relieve stress, or teach a lesson. Similarly, literature is not valuable because it increases vocabulary, encourages empathy, or makes good fuel for a bonfire.
The view of art as just a useful tool for improving social relations or psychological health explains much of what James will say later in the video when he begins talking about Hatred itself.
I think Hatred is going to be a terrible game…Hatred the game is not about rage. It’s actually not even about violence, really. Hatred, as it’s been advertised, is about sadism.
As this quote makes clear, this video was made before Hatred was released, and he didn’t get early access as a member of press. He bases the entire video on only the advertising material of the game. It seems natural to wait for a game to come out before criticizing said game, but apparently Extra Credits disagrees. The fact that this analysis focuses on a game that hasn’t been released yet actually demonstrates another mistake that critics like Extra Credits and Anita Sarkeesian often make. Not only do they prioritize incidental value over intrinsic value (sometimes even completely dismissing intrinsic value), but their critiques often only deal with surface-level features of a game that would show up in advertising material.
For example, much of this video is predicated on what Hatred is “about.” That’s sadism, according to James. The problem is that Hatred isn’t really about sadism. Or at least, it’s about sadism in the same way that Super Mario Bros. is about saving Princess Peach, or in the same way that StarCraft is about the colonization of the Koprulu Sector. That is to say: not really at all, or only at the surface-level.
There are sadistic images in the game, and the game itself is wrapped in the story of a killer, but I contend that the game itself isn’t really about sadism, just like Super Mario Bros. isn’t really about saving the princess. The systems are what the game is “about” beyond the surface level. The story, the themes, the visuals, the music, etc. are all things that are attached to the game, but they aren’t the game. So, saying that Hatred is about sadism is not really engaging with the game itself, just like saying Super Mario Bros. is about saving the princess says next-to-nothing about the actual game of Super Mario Bros.
The bottom-line is, if your critique of a game can be done purely off of the advertising materials, then it’s probably not a very in-depth critique of the game in question.
Now, let’s get to what he actually says about Hatred. As you might expect, his two reasons for believing Hatred and sadistic games generally have no value is that they don’t fulfill his two criteria for artistic value, which, as we discussed earlier are that art must teach a lesson or “get you to think” about an issue, and that games must provide emotional release. I’ve established that these are only incidental values and do not have any bearing on art’s intrinsic value, but is he at least right in saying that sadistic games have no incidental value?
Here, he says that sadistic games can’t fulfill the criterion of acting as a harmless channel for emotion, thus half-way disqualifying them from having value for him:
There’s no way to channel sadism productively. It’s simply about harm, and the joy in doing harm…I think games that are exclusively about indulging in sadism do not have redeeming value.
Why is there no way to productively channel sadism? BDSM seems like the obvious example. Done properly, no one is unwillingly harmed and it produces pleasure. That’s the first example that came to my mind of productively channeling sadism.
That counter-example disproves James’s conclusion before we’ve heard the argument for it, but let’s examine that argument anyway. His argument for why sadism can’t be harmless channeled comes later on when he compares it to the more generic violence or rage:
I’m not even sure if such [sadistic] games can serve as an outlet for sadistic urges. I mean, anger can be internal. It can be focused at the world rather than the individual, and it can be expressed in ways that do no harm. A sadistic experience, though, is, by definition, about hurting a person—a real person.
I’m not sure which dictionary James is working from, but if he considers Hatred a sadistic game, then how can he also say that sadistic experiences also are, by definition, about hurting real people? Hatred is a sadistic game, yet it doesn’t harm real people. Fiction-reality distinction aside, he is begging the question. He says angry games can act as an outlet for rage because “it can be expressed in ways that do no harm.” That’s right, rage can be harmlessly channeled because it can be harmlessly channeled. I don’t blame him for committing this fallacy because it’s so obvious that rage can be harmlessly channeled. There are plenty of works of art that channel and deal with rage, and obviously art by itself doesn’t harm anyone. Why is the story different for sadism, though?
He says that anger is different in that it can be internal and directed at the world rather than individuals. I don’t buy that sadism can’t be either of those two things, but more importantly, I don’t see how those two facts are relevant to whether or not an urge can be channeled without harm. Even if sadism couldn’t be aimed at the world or kept internal, why does that mean it can’t be harmlessly channeled? He didn’t have the foresight to know this since he made the video before the game came out, but Hatred did reasonably well sales-wise, and also didn’t unleash a wave of violent sadists or sadists. So if anyone used the game to virtually act out their urges, then it must have been harmlessly channeled. Not to mention all the sadistic games that came before Hatred, which did not precede waves of violence inspired by those games.
It seems to me that sadistic games, just like any other game, can harmlessly channel sadistic urges, just like any other urges. So James is wrong in assessing Hatred based on his own incidental value criterion of emotional release. Sadism can be channeled while harming no one, even in a game.
Now for his second criterion for value in games:
By definition, they [sadistic games] can’t even teach us or make us think more deeply about the subject because as soon as you start to question these sadistic acts, or think about the horror of the suffering you’re inflicting, the experience ceases to be about sadistic pleasure. It becomes an experience about understanding the nature about sadism.
He says “by definition” again, but I’m still not sure which dictionary James is working off of here. No definition I’ve seen includes “sadism cannot have educational value in any context,” and no definition I’ve seen distinguishes between “sadism” and “sadistic pleasure” so radically that you could have a game about one but not about the other. If a game’s player-character is a sadistic murderer, the game will be about the nature of sadism, as well as sadistic pleasure, in the surface-level way James likes to talk about games being “about” things. Those two are not so separable, because sadism means feeling pleasure in other’s pain.
Games about sadism, including Hatred, have the capacity to teach us and “make us think more deeply about the subject.” Contrary to what James claims, if Hatred makes you think about the nature of sadism, then you aren’t suddenly thinking of something totally different called “sadistic pleasure.” Those just aren’t meaningfully distinct concepts. Furthermore, the fact that the advertising material has prompted James to make this video about the nature of sadism seems to refute James’s own point. Clearly, it has inspired him to think more deeply about sadism. Or is it only sadism in advertising material that has value, and not sadism in games?
His final argument against sadism as a subject matter in games is this:
Like, OK. Compare these sorts of games to your standard violent game…in those games, you’re usually fighting for a cause…the end isn’t simply the thrill of violence itself, but least the veneer of saving the world, freeing your people, or defending your country. In sadism games, though, the goal of violence is the hurt it causes. It’s about creating pain and fear. There’s no redeeming purpose. There’s no question of whether anything justifies this sort of harm because the harm is an end in itself.
Thanks to the very descriptive transition sentence “like, OK,” where this argument fits into his larger line of reasoning is unclear. It appears to be a hybrid argument, both arguing that sadistic games can’t provide harmless emotional release and that they can’t provide moral messages.
On the emotional release point, he seems to be claiming that any emotional release or channeling in a sadistic game must be harmful because it is not directed toward some noble goal like defending your country. The problem with this is that he does not explain the logical jump between “emotional releases can take place in a fictional/virtual context of either good (such as in the case of rage being relieved defending your country) or evil (such as in the case of sadism being relieved by murdering innocents” and “therefore, emotional release in the context of evil causes harm.” How does the fictional-moral context surrounding an emotional release decide whether harm is done? It may be evil in itself even though it’s not harmful, but James does not make that argument and in fact the criterion for valid emotional release the entire video is that it is harmless.
The other side of this argument seems to be that games about sadism cannot convey moral messages because “There is no question of whether anything justifies this sort of harm because the harm is an end in itself.” This does not make sense. Harm being an end to itself doesn’t mean the harm can’t be morally questioned. The violence in Hatred did actually make me a bit queasy–I could easily imagine it or a more intellectual game that is equally as graphic suggesting moral judgment or a moral message to some people. Even if Hatred specifically doesn’t do this, there’s no reason to believe games about sadism can’t make moral judgments about sadism. A game could easily have a player-character that is a mindless killer fighting for no cause or redeeming purpose, and then present a moral message about the harms of violence.
James then moves onto answering the question “so what?” He has condemned games with sadistic subject matter, now what should we do about those games?
Now understand—this doesn’t mean these games have no right to be made. Every game, even the most debased, has a right to be expressed. But, that doesn’t mean we have to give them a megaphone. It doesn’t mean we have to reward them financially. And, it doesn’t mean stores operated by private companies are obligated to carry them.
James is employing a sly use of language. He is, on the surface, stating the obvious fact that no one is obligated to give games they don’t like “a megaphone,” no one is obligated to buy them, and no one is obligated to stock the games in their store. Why is he saying that, though? It’s so obvious, and zero people are arguing that people must do those things. He’s saying it because he wants to say “you ought not to support the game and you ought to pressure stores into pulling it from shelves,” but that is a much stronger claim that requires more argument. Simply stating the obvious fact that no one is required to do these things is much easier and everyone gets the message. The description of the video makes this much more explicit:
These games have every right to be made, and calls for a ban would be misdirected, but they have no right to be rewarded for exploiting cruelty to create sensation. Do not buy them. Do not glorify them. Do not mistake sadism for expression.
It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between bad writing and linguistic tricks meant to disguise strong claims in order to evade calls for evidence and argument. He claims that games have a right to be made, but their creators don’t have the right to be rewarded. So, is he saying people can make them, but they can’t sell them? If they have a right to be made, but not a right to be rewarded (a right for people to buy the games), then are you not calling for a ban on sales? What is the argument for why developers shouldn’t have the right to sell their game and be rewarded?
I’ll assume that’s just a misunderstanding on my part and/or a mistake of writing on his. Let’s move onto the orders to refrain from buying or glorifying the game. This is where the fact that the game wasn’t released at the time of the video’s production becomes relevant again. How can you reasonably order people to not buy a game you’ve only perused advertising material for? Also, the whole video has consisted of arguments in favor of the proposition that sadistic games have no value. However, he never advanced the claim that they are harmful or gave a good reason that other shouldn’t enjoy those games. There’s a difference between saying that a game is bad under your criteria and actually encouraging people to not even buy it to try it.
The final line of the description is another case where I’m unsure if it’s just poor writing or an actually strong claim without backing argument. He says that sadism should not be mistaken for expression. Does he really mean “sadistic games, or sadism in games should not be mistaken for expression?” It seems obvious as a matter of the meaning of “expression” that sadistic games are expression. Is he trying to rebrand expression he doesn’t like as unworthy of freedom of expression by saying it’s not expression at all? Does he mean “valid or valuable expression?” Does he mean the actual real life sadism? If so, was anyone in danger of mistaking that for expression? He said earlier that each game “has a right to be expressed,” but now he seems to think some games aren’t expression. I don’t want to spend too much time wading into speculative waters based on slippery and unclear language. At a certain point, it’s James’s responsibility to write clearly so I don’t have to respond to every single possible interpretation of his conflicting and vague statements.
James ignores the intrinsic quality of art and insists on judging games based off of secondary and tertiary qualities such as whether or not they prompt thought, teach a moral lesson, or dissipate potentially harmful urges. James lays out criteria for the artistic quality of games without defending them, judges a game that he’s never played against those criteria, and urges people to stay away from the game as well as to pressure stores not to stock it, so it’s harder for others to play it. It’s incumbent on players and critics to call out anti-art moralizers like Extra Credits and to side with consumer choice. This is true even for games that we don’t think are great or that we wouldn’t give our children.