Ihave an admission to make: I’m a vegetarian who enjoys big-game hunting. For the past several weeks I have been playing Monster Hunter: World, a PlayStation 4 video game in which you head out into the wilds and hunt down enormous dinosaur-like creatures, wearing armour fashioned from the bones, fur and scales of previous conquests. Monster Hunter: World is nothing like real-world hunting. For one thing, the monsters in question are hugely powerful and often eat me for dinner several times before I finally manage a victory, and for another I do most of my hunting with a lightning-infused axe that transforms into a sword.
More saliently, it’s not real. My entertainment does not come at the cost of any real-world suffering. There is no possibility of extinction or ecological catastrophe.
Some players have expressed discomfort at Monster Hunter’s savagery. I was surprised when two friends seperately told me they found the whole thing too distasteful to play – both of them meat-eaters. I am not a judgmental vegetarian (I’ve even been known to eat meat on occasion), but the dissonance made me raise an eyebrow. How is it possible to eat industrially farmed meat – the product of a real animal’s suffering – but find hunting dragons in a video game too much to take?
Since the earliest video games, with their bleeping, abstract aliens and tiny little spaceships, conflict and killing has been a fundamental part of how we interact with game worlds. Usually it’s abstracted, as in Space Invaders, or framed with a utilitarian justification: killing bad guys is necessary in order to save the world.
Monster Hunter, meanwhile, arguably glorifies the killing. You fashion wearable trophies from the beasts you slay. Its creatures have habitats, quirks and realistic natural behaviours, when they’re not busy trying to eat you. In practice it is not as grotesque as it sounds, because Monster Hunter’s violence is completely bloodless, and tempered with humour. There are silly cat mascots, absurd fashions that make your character look like a fluffy milkman, and ridiculous weaponry like giant swords and crossbows.Besides, the fight is more than fair: these monsters are not easy prey, and can only be defeated with skill and perseverance. But I will admit to twinges of unease when, near the end of a long fight, a visibly injured dinosaur limps back to its lair for a sleep and I doggedly follow it, preparing for the kill (or, more humanely, the capture – Monster Hunter at least offers the alternative of trapping weakened creatures and tranquillising them). When I started playing Monster Hunter games 10 years ago, on the tiny 4in screen of a PlayStation Portable, they did not look as realistic as they do now on a 50in television.
Monster Hunter invites you to think more about killing than other video games. It would be ridiculous to suggest that slaughtering pretend monsters is immoral, but it has made me contemplate the distance we put between ourselves and the real-life violence that provides our meat. Monster Hunter removes that distance and puts you face to face with your potential kill, which is precisely what makes some players uneasy. To obtain a full set of armour themed after a particular monster, you have to fight it over and over again. The word that players use for this activity – “farming” – is instructive.
It is interesting that Monster Hunter: World was released just a week before another game about fighting giant creatures, Shadow of the Colossus, which unambiguously intends to make you feel bad about killing. First released in 2005 and remade this month for the PlayStation 4, Shadow of the Colossus challenges video game orthodoxy by sending the player on a doomed quest to fell 16 colossi, many of which barely even fight back. Instead of rewarding your conquests with trumpets and commendations, the game forces you to watch the slow collapse of each majestic creature over melancholic music, black tendrils snaking out from their prone bodies and enveloping the hero; with each kill, his darkness grows. It is a game about the selfish destructiveness of humanity, and it is a masterpiece.
Comfort levels vary when it comes to pretend violence. Personally, I am enduringly uncomfortable with simulated violence against humans. I’m fine shooting at robots and aliens in Destiny, but zombie-dismemberment and even military shooters give me no pleasure. When it comes to films, I find most depictions of realistic violence intensely upsetting. For others, shooting Nazis in Wolfenstein or watching gory horror films is perfectly untroubling, but hunting down a fantastical creature with a PlayStation controller prompts disquieting reflection.
Not every game needs to make you feel bad about killing. It is, after all, rather at odds with the pursuit of fun. The games that do set out to re-examine it, like Shadow of the Colossus does, are memorable precisely because they are so uncommon. Among the many other artistic and cultural functions that they serve, video games have long been a safe outlet for aggressive and competitive impulses, whether in the form of first-person shooters, one-on-one fighting games or battles against imposing creatures.
One of the functions of fantasy violence, whether in Monster Hunter or Game of Thrones, is to prompt reflection on the role that violence plays in the real world and in human nature. Monster Hunter might involve killing, but it also restores humans to the hierarchy of the natural world. For me, 10 years of playing it was a factor in my own growing distress with the concept of industrially farmed meat, which eventually led me to stop eating it. Perhaps spending hours of my leisure time pretending to be a hunter-gatherer-warrior is an outlet for the slavering carnivore within.