Not long ago, I tried VR for the first time, and while I’m grateful no one thought to record me begoggled and flailing the motion controllers at empty space, the experience did introduce me to a pretty neat video game called Superhot. A cross between a first-person shooter and a strategy game, Superhot (or at least the demo I played) takes an über-conventional premise—bad guys want to kill you, so kill them first—and adds a twist: time only advances when you do. What that means in practice, then, is that so long as you’re just having yourself a look-see and not actually doing anything, the game pauses. Enemies and projectiles slow way down, and you, a newly awakened Neo in a world of Agent Smiths, are free to track bullets, gauge enemy distances, and scope out potential weapons.
I had a blast with it. First-person shooters aren’t usually my thing—don’t have the twitch-fast reflexes to play them well—but Superhot, which rewards economy of movement and a deft memory, made me feel godlike. The game’s enemy hordes—reddish polygons organized into vaguely human shapes—burst into satisfying, pixelated showers beneath the business end of my hammer, or fists, or badass ninja throwing stars. And when, on occasion, the game put a gun in my hands, I knew exactly what to do: aim for the head and squeeze.
Headshot. Headshot. Headshot.
It’s been some months since I’ve had reason to think about Superhot, or about my dalliance with virtual reality. I can’t afford a VR rig myself, so why give it much thought? But a recent class I taught got me thinking again about that experience and particularly about those headshots.
Two weeks ago, I wrapped up a mini-unit on video games. It was the first time I’d ever taught games, and though I was confident this particular one would go over well—as I’ve asserted multiple times on this website, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is bonkers good—I didn’t know how the actual instruction, which had to balance playtime and discussion, would fare. Answer: pretty stinking well. Much as I enjoy teaching novels and short stories, video games do something special when played with a group. Because they’re an embodied form of entertainment, and just plain fun, they scramble students’ expectations of what education can and should look like. The familiar, sometimes overly rigid top-down organization of the classroom gives way to more spontaneous exchanges. A comfortable camaraderie emerges among students. Laughter comes easily. Moreover, when it comes time to step back and think critically, which my students proved more than capable of doing, video games have a second bonus: they offer a practical illustration of how pleasure often works. That is, pleasure works not by lighting up our critical radar with “interesting things to discuss”—by prompting us, in other words, to theorize, or think about, our fun—but precisely by slipping under that radar, by being fun.
After all, controller in hand, or watching while a peer storms Hyrule Castle under a hail of Guardian laser beams, it’s hard to give serious consideration to the game’s formal properties, or to its treatment of gender, or to its terra nullius approach to land. With video games, you don’t think. You do.
It’s that distinction that made me remember Superhot. In particular, it got me thinking about the casual ease with which I popped off pixelated noggins. Because here’s the thing—and the surprising thing, actually, if you know anything about video games: Superhot doesn’t reward headshots. Whereas most shooter games (even adventure games like Breath of the Wild) recognize the technical skill required to pull off a headshot by dealing extra damage or by awarding the player bonus points, Superhot’s rough-cut cyphers shatter no matter where you hit them. Going for the head makes, literally, zero difference. In fact, headshots are a bad idea in Superhot since the torso makes for an easier target. Yet in defiance of reason, there I was all those months ago, an absolute dud at games like Halo or Call of Duty but still plugging away at the seat of reason itself.
When I play, I don’t think. I do.
Which brings us, finally, to the most uncomfortable of questions: what does that say about me? And what does it say about the cultures I participate in?
I’ll note one thing it doesn’t say. It doesn’t give us license to dust off that old canard about violent video games, favorite scapegoat of the political right looking to explain away our country’s damning rash of mass shootings. Research does not support a causal link between video games and gun violence. And while I’d argue there’s more than sufficient warrant to understand gun violence as a symptom of a wider culture of fearmongering and “good-guy-with-gun” fantasizing, that’s not the point I want to make either. The lesson here is far more basic.
Video games—but not just video games—have normalized a particularly lethal relation to the body. Through the combined power of pleasure and repetition, some of our most dominant cultural narratives have reimagined the head not just as a target for violence but as the target for violence. And while, sure, a twentysomething pointlessly John-Wicking VR baddies is more or less harmless, the far more pressing concern is what happens when, by dint of habit, the cult of the headshot finds purchase in the world of flesh and bone. In the world of soldiering, for instance. Or of policing. Or even of civilian life.
Because remember: the headshot is not a problem to be worked through at the level of our conscious, rational minds. It’s a problem of instinct. And if Superhot taught me anything, it’s that the upsweep from torso to forehead comes far too naturally.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.