Video games mechanize killing instinct to make violence easy

By Tim Montgomery

Though I've been taking classes at the University of Minnesota since 1991, it was only recently that I ventured into the bowels of Coffman Union and discovered the Gopher Game Room. It features facilities for bowling and table tennis, pool and pinball - and, along one wall, an array of video games.

Here I found clusters of video groupies absorbing the violent excitement of glowing warriors who battled beneath marquees proclaiming them Time Killers and noting their inclination to Fatal Fury.

The largest crowd was mulling about a couple of teens engaged in Mortal Kombat II. I glimpsed a menu on the screen with a selection of 12 realistic human kombatants - both male and female. As I watched, the two teens positioned themselves at the controls.

"Fight," ordered the machine, and gazes became intent stares reflected in the screen. Bodies became rigid. Thumbs slammed viciously at the control buttons. Voices became grunts with occasional expletives. The nature of the encounter demanded quick and violent responses. The crowd was temporarily obscured as the two became the characters "Scorpion" and "Kung Lao."

Scorpion hurled stinger after stinger as Kung Lao attempted to retaliate. Blood exploded from heads that were kicked and punched. Kung Lao was savagely downed and then up again with no apparent injury. The pace grew furious until suddenly Kung Lao began to teeter helplessly. The screen boldly exhorted Scorpion to "Finish him." The controller's hand quivered with excitement.

I became suddenly conscious of another quivering hand held forth on a Sunday evening in September. It was trying desperately to lock the door of a small convenience store in my South Minneapolis neighborhood. The keys eventually fell into my hands. I locked the door and placed them before a clerk who stood shaking behind the counter thanking God almighty for his life. The store had just been robbed at gunpoint, and I was about to relive the story through the accounts of its victims.

The store had emptied but for three teens. One glanced at a newspaper rack near a door while another fingered some merchandise in a nearby aisle. A third, rather stocky boy in a bright red shirt approached the register with a can of pop. But no sooner had the clerk rung up the sale and opened the register when he came face to face with the barrel of a gun.

"Get down!" ordered 'Red Shirt' as the clerk raised his hands over his head. "On the floor!"

The boy in the aisle then raced around the counter to get at the till, slamming into a young lady who had been reading a magazine. Suddenly, aware of her, Red Shirt whirled around as the kid from the aisle kicked the clerk's head against the floor. The two teens had positioned themselves to take control of the situation in a dehumanized environment. The coordination of their movements took on a well-timed, mechanical aura.The nature of the encounter demanded quick and violent responses.

"I'll shoot! I'll shoot!" yelled Red Shirt, bringing the barrel of the gun to bear on the young lady's head.

Finish her.

It was as if Sega Genesis had progressed to a state of virtual reality, only this time the control stick was a gun, and the obstacles were real human lives.

"FINISH HIM," the video screen commanded. and with a final flurry of deadly stingers, Kung Lao's body was severed in a wild gush of blood. The machine proclaimed it a victory by "fatality," and the bloody, dismembered sections of Kung Lao's body drew howls of laughter from those gathered.

Moments later, Kung Lao was back in his selection box prepared for another challenge, and I was left wondering whether I had learned something that day at this institution of higher learning. In real life, the young woman in the convenience store came so close to elimination that her spirit for living had been raped. She now lived in fear, while the clerk made plans to move back to his parents' hometown in Africa.

Perhaps the three teens had once engaged in Mortal Kombat II. Push a button, pull a trigger, loft a mortar. Death seems endemic and life insignificant to today's simplified mechanization of the killing instinct. Have we become so desensitized to violence that we can laugh at this?

StarTribune Editorial by Tim Montgomery of Minneapolis, a College of Liberal Arts student at the University of Minnesota. Published on 03/26/1994.