Monday, 10 January 2022

Violence and Its Uses

I have violence on the brain tonight, having just finished reading Rene Girard's The Scapegoat, and having been reminiscing with a friend about the film Akira and the relentlessness of the bloodshed in it. (I made the observation that there is barely a scene in the film that doesn't contain blood. This may be an exaggeration, but only a slight one.) 

Without wanting to dwell too much on Girard, it is undoubtedly true that there can be something cathartic in acts of violence, and also unifying. This is what gives it its hideous appeal. One of the most violent things I have ever witnessed happened in a late night fast food outlet in my home town, when I was back visiting after years away. It was about 2am, the nearby nightclub had closed, and everybody had spilled out into the street and thronged into the burger joint in pursuit of grease and carbs. 

My home town is small enough for most people to know everybody by a few degrees of separation; being at the end of a peninsula and somewhat insular as a result, it also has its own slightly distinctive variant of the local accent. Outsiders are easy to identify. And one of them was indeed identified in the midst of the crowd. Having got into an altercation with a local, this unfortunate fellow was then rounded upon by twenty or thirty people, bundled out of the burger joint, and had the shit kicked out of him. He eventually stumbled off into the night absolutely covered in blood. I remember at the time thinking: this is basically chimpanzees, but wearing jeans.

What gave the event its Girardian twist was the way the tribe was unified in this persecution of the outsider. In the aftermath of the violence, there was euphoria in the air. For a brief period, we were all one, basking in our collective victory. All it had needed was for somebody to be singled out for a beating, and it was like flicking a switch: we had become a hive mind. More interestingly, the aggression that had been brimming (fifty or more drunk people ramming themselves cheek by jowl, stinking and sweaty, into a tiny enclosed space, elbowing each other and bellowing for attention from the staff) was totally diffused after the fight. Even those, such as myself, who had merely watched passively from the sidelines, felt ourselves blissfully released from that sense of rising tension. All we had needed was a sacrifice. 

Another feature of violence is its capacity to close chapters and open new ones. Think of a boxing match. Think of the way the mutual antagonism grows in the build up to the fight, and the way that it is suddenly dispelled when the bout is over - the way the relationship between the two participants is forever, fundamentally, visibly transformed from that moment onwards. (Anyone who has ever done any combat sports or martial arts will have experienced something of this.) Think of the number of playground fights you witnessed as a kid, in which enemies became, if not friends, then respectful rivals in the aftermath. Think of the number of films you have seen in which violence has been the climax of an act, or indeed of the whole story. Think of how you felt afterwards, if you've ever hit someone. With every act of violence, there is a clearly delineated 'before' and 'after', and however that 'after' takes shape, it is always different to what was before.

Violence in RPGs also has these dynamics, doesn't it? It unifies the players, giving them a sense of common purpose, and can often serve to bring everybody together when they have become slightly bored, antsy, distracted, or have been pursuing different agendas for too long. In the aftermath of combat (assuming they win), there is often a sensation of simmering tension having been released. And it also often has the feeling of closing chapters and opening new ones. The moment after combat is like an interval at the theatre: a pause, a time to take stock, to relax, to look at things in a new light. It shakes things up, and the way in which they rearrange themselves is very often rather different to how they were before.

There are times, in other words, when we seem to need our chimp modes to activate. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I've no idea; I make these observations merely as the most armchair-bound of armchair anthropologists. 


  1. It's an interesting observation, and may give some insight into how players will RUSH to a combat (even one they shouldn't/can't win) after spending too much time doing "build up" (or non-action) in a game session. The need to release tension becomes so great that a TPK (or its potential) is PREFERABLE to waiting any longer.

    1. Yeah, I've noticed that tendency time and again over the years.

  2. While the odd relaxing bit of roleplay, wacky hijinks or tense negotiation can provide welcome diversion, violence is central in all my games and attempts to separate violence and DnD are foolhardy and should be met with suspicion. DnD is violence at its heart, born of wargames, and nothing is better then wresting phantom gold from the cold, dead hands of monstrous things in dream tombs and walking away with 1 hp to spare. To drive terror in the hearts of the Orc, or the Man, and see him fall to your spell and blade, in that moment we can feel the searing heat of Siegfried's Pyre or hear the horns of Valhalla and it is glorious! Deus Vult!

    It is worth noting that all available research shows that violent video games tend to quell the violent responses, they do not kindle them. Any devotee of the social science cult advocating against violence in rpgs will ignore this fact if it is brought up, like they do all others.

    I hope you had an excellent newyears as did I!

    1. Yes, I played in an explicitly non-violent campaign (not of D&D though) once and it was a torment.

  3. Violence has a place - and an important one - but there is far too many beloved and powerful examples of literature, film and theatre that contain NO violence. Yet they still bring a great sense of emotional fulfilment or release. So violence cannot be simply mandatory.

    Chances are if players are constantly rushing to violence, then that is a reflection of their play history. For many players the only way they've been shown (or have themselves understood) to have agency is though employing violence.