“To Be Shot at Without Result”: Gaming and the Rhetoric of Immortality

“To Be Shot at Without Result”: Gaming and the Rhetoric of Immortality

Jason Hawreliak (University of Waterloo, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2211-1.ch028
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Winston Churchill famously asserted that “there is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.” Whether or not this is accurate, it is indicative of an ancient and persistent myth which depicts combat as the locus of glory, virtue, and sublime exhilaration. Drawing on the works of Ernest Becker, Gregory Nagy, and Ian Bogost, this chapter traces the combat myth from Homer to Call of Duty, situating it within a rhetoric of heroism and ultimately, immortality. Given the immense popularity of the First Person Shooter (FPS) and Action Role Playing Game (ARPG) genres, which employ combat as their dominant motif, the myth appears to be alive and well. The chapter concludes with a discussion of terror management theory and its application to videogame analysis and design.
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When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you. . . . Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you. (Ernest Hemingway, Men At War)

There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result. (Winston Churchill)

Churchill’s remark may or may not be accurate, but it is indicative of an ancient and persistent myth which depicts combat as the locus of glory, virtue, and sublime exhilaration. It is presumably much less exhilarating to be shot at with result. However, as the Hemingway quotation suggests, the visceral aspects of combat - exhaustion, pain, or death - are often omitted from the myths surrounding it: it is “other people” who are killed or wounded, and “not you.” Videogames are the latest and perhaps most culturally significant medium to perpetuate this myth; they represent combat as an exhilarating, action-packed experience in which everyone else dies. The long, hot marches, the daily tedium, the searing pain of metal cutting through flesh is noticeably absent. Elias Canetti (1962) describes the myth of personal invincibility so important for recruitment campaigns the world over, and so prominent in modern videogames:

Fortunate and favoured, the survivor stands in the midst of the fallen. For him there is one tremendous fact: while countless others have died, many of them his comrades, he is still alive. The dead lie helpless; he stands upright amongst them, and it is as through the battle had been fought in order for him to survive it… Not that he has avoided danger; he, with his friends, stood in the path of death. They fell; he stands exulting…. The man who achieves this often is a hero. He is stronger. There is more life in him. He is favoured by the Gods. (p. 228)

Writing three decades before Wolfenstein 3D (1992) appears, Canetti’s description perfectly captures the ethos of the contemporary First Person Shooter (FPS).

This survivor scene is not unique to the videogame, however; on the contrary, it is played out in countless poems, movies, television shows, and only now videogames. The survivor is extra-ordinary, someone special. This sense of extra-ordinariness, or divine favour, plays on a deeply rooted, evolutionary need to stand out, and is therefore incredibly powerful. According to cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (e.g. 1973, 1975), this drive for recognition, or “cosmic significance,” is not only something we all crave, it is in fact an expression of the primary motivation for all human activity, the denial of death. Becker’s concept of death denial via heroism, and the way in which it manifests itself in the videogame medium, will inform much of this chapter. As we shall see, the videogame, with its logic of winning and losing, provides a relatively safe and accessible arena for standing out, for getting a taste of heroism.

Moreover, as both an interactive and audio-visual medium, the videogame is well suited for propagating the idealized, disembodied conception of combat described by Churchill and Hemingway. Indeed, it is not until he is physically wounded that Hemingway’s “great illusion of immortality” shrinks away, and while videogames increasingly employ haptic metaphors to simulate the experience of being shot, a slight rumble in one’s controller is far removed from the jarring, physical realities of the combat experience. In short, videogames are capable of offering the “exhilarating” experience of getting “shot at without result” better than any other medium. They offer a “heroic,” sanitized, and above all, fun iteration of the combat experience, free from the material horrors of actual war (Stahl, 2006).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Combat: Direct, martial engagement with an enemy; the use of weapons against an armed foe.

Death: The cessation of individual, physiological being.

FPS: First Person Shooter, a videogame genre characterized by its use of first person perspective and reliance on gun-based combat metaphors for framing its tasks.

Kleos: The fame, renown, or glory conferred upon heroes; also, song, or “vehicle” which “carries” names and deeds.

Thanatological Metaphor: A metaphor which employs the symbols of death and dying as its vehicle.

Immortality: The eternal perpetuation of individual being; symbolic immortality is the perpetuation of (non-present) individual being via symbol systems.

Heroism: The demonstration of excellence as defined by one’s cultural environment.

Procedural Rhetoric: A term coined by Ian Bogost to describe the way videogames use rules and parameters to construct persuasive arguments.

Terror Management Theory: A branch of social psychology which examines the role of existential anxiety in human motivation.

Videogames: Electronic, digital games characterized by human-computer interaction and procedural representation; an electronic, ludological medium which appropriates the representational modes of other media.

Ernest Becker: A cultural anthropologist who argued that human beings are primarily motivated by existential anxiety and the desire to transcend mortality. Becker won the Pullitzer Prize in 1973 for The Denial of Death.

ARPG: Action Role Playing Game, a videogame genre typically characterized by real-time combat mechanics, character levelling, and fantasy themes.

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