We haven’t heard much about videogame violence in the last few years. For one thing, the industry started slapping ratings on its product following the 1993 Senate-hearings kerfuffle over Mortal Kombat. Also, this is a target-rich society, and the public-interest watchdogs have lately been nipping after more high-profile villains such as gangsta rap and Web smut. Then there’s the legacy of 1994’s Doom, whose gore quotient would have been simply unconscionable if the game hadn’t been so much damn fun to play. No matter where you sit on the question of vid-game violence — whether you think it actively guts the souls of our youth, reflects an ethically impoverished society, or just represents a fine way to spend an afternoon — there’s no denying that Doom and the legion of ”first-person shooters” that followed raised the bar both for violence and for the average player’s tolerance of same. (Bad taste does set limits, however: A British online company recently discovered that a subscriber had posted a game based on the actual massacre of 16 Scottish schoolchildren and their teacher. Virgin Net hastily purged the site and banned its originator.)
Still, if they want to appeal to jaded hardcore gamers, game makers have to keep upping the grue content — and in the batch of titles hitting stores now, they’ve started addressing quasi-real-life scenarios as well. Three new titles present a fair spectrum of the options. Redneck Rampage sounds thoroughly tasteless, which is, of course, the major selling point. In reality, though, it’s a wan Doom clone set in Deliverance land: You tool around rural settings and dispatch inbred goons, pigs, and aliens with shotguns, chain saws, and dynamite. Yes, this is bloody, but in the most buffoonish way imaginable — and, more fatal for true gamers, it’s old hat.
With Carmageddon, we begin to push the envelope: Here’s a race-car game in which the object is to hit and kill as many pedestrians as possible. But if you consider that concept evidence of the inherent amorality of videogames, let me direct you to Paul Bartel’s 1975 drive-in-movie classic, Death Race 2000. Truth to tell, the hyperrealistic box art, depicting a hapless ped gored by a stiletto fender, is the most disturbing thing about Carmageddon; on the screen, the low-resolution graphics leach the proceedings of all but the most absurdist pop sadism. Which is to say that I can hardly imagine someone so jonesed up by this game that he tools the family Taurus to the mall to pick off actual humans. Me, I found it all rather funny. But I drive in New York City, which makes Carmageddon look like Ms. Pac-Man.
With Postal, however, the laughs catch in my throat. The graphics are even more crude than in Carmageddon: You watch from above as your itty-bitty character wastes equally itty-bitty cops, soldiers, and random passersby. That’s it; that’s the game. And if you don’t finish them off, those itty-bitty characters lie there groaning for mercy. I’ll put it to you, dear reader: Is a game in which the targets act recognizably human ”better” (i.e., it makes the player more aware of the ethical consequences)? Or is it ”worse” (i.e., it encourages numbed sensibilities, if not outright cruelty)? As for the way this game’s title and concept make cynical hay out of actual spree killings by disgruntled U.S. Postal Service employees — well, it’s a good bet that no one involved with Postal has ever lost a loved one to a nut with a gun.