Kick Ass and the Ethics of Gameplay

Tanner Higgin's picture

The Need for Videogame Literacies

Kick Ass is an important film for videogame scholars to see, especially with an audience. Many have made the claim that videogames have influenced film, but this influence has never been more apparent to me than in Kick Ass. However, my concern is not with tracking the obvious visual/stylistic similarities (e.g. the first person shooter sequence featuring Hit Girl); rather, what  I am interested in is how the apparent but not functionally established connections between gamic logics and filmic logics can actually lead to serious ethical misunderstandings by the audience. Even though Kick Ass and games are alike stylistically, there are still significant affective and logical differences that, if confused, can lead to ethically troubling audience responses. This ethical confusion, wherein audiences misread a film by applying gamic logics to film, demonstrate the desperate need for better videogame literacies that teach viewers how to interpret and understand games.

Disclaimers: 1. I have not read the graphic novel yet so these reactions are based solely on how I interpret the film (and I would love to hear from someone who has read the graphic novel). 2. I do not believe that games are making people violent. See my chapter in The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto for how violence in games can be productive. 3. Beware there is a mild spoiler ahead. 4. I understand my argument is based on one anecdotal experience. The point is to throw an idea out there and see what people think.

To Laugh or Not to Laugh

Let me illustrate what I mean by this ethical confusion. Early on in the film, the hero, Dave Lizewski, debuts his Kick Ass persona and is beaten up by thugs, violently stabbed and then hit by a car and left for dead. The purpose of this truly brutal and jarring scene is to disrupt the lighthearted tone of the film’s opening and confront the viewer with the dire consequences, as well as the incredible stupidity/bravery, of what Dave has chosen to do with his life. The entire film relies on this balance of extreme violence, humor, and very real consequences. Each “hero” is introduced with an emphasis on the fact that, while fighting and violence can be dazzling and fun, ultimately pain hurts (Hit Girl via the bulletproof vest sequence and Red Mist’s jump down into the alley) and that things can—and probably will—go very badly. Significantly, Hit Girl and Red Mist’s scenes do not have the presence of danger and the pain they endure is funny, while Kick Ass’s scene is incredibly dangerous and not funny. The decision to show Kick Ass in deep trouble is key to the plot of the film since Kick Ass is the everyman the viewer is meant to identify with. Kick Ass’s asskicking also exposes the fantasies of unrealistic violence in comic books.

Yet the majority of the audience in my theater laughed when Kick Ass was stabbed and laughed even harder when he was hit by the car. They also laughed at many other moments I felt were not supposed to be funny but horrific. From my perspective, and that of the person I saw it with, the audience’s response was disturbing. The inappropriate laughter  is the effect of the transposition, by some viewers, of videogame logics and ethics to other media—in this case, film.

Violence as a Mechanic in Videogames

Here’s what I think is happening: it can be assumed that a lot of the audience for Kick Ass, especially the predominantly 17-25 year old male demographic of my screening, are videogamers. Death, destruction, and violence are a nearly pervasive element of all videogames and hold, for most games, very little consequence. Games are often allegorical and thus violence can take on a host of different meanings that’s more often than not is reduced to its function as a mechanic of the game. To be reductive, violence is a way to score points or to accomplish goals. As a result, violence in games can almost always be interpreted as funny and in most games pain is just a mathematical value with little affective response from the characters or player. Consider the player of Grand Theft Auto who runs around in a world that resembles real life but those resemblances conceal gamespace that essentially functions as a complex system of obstacles to impede free movement. In this situation, getting hit by a car is structurally equivalent to being hit by a hammer as you try and jump between platforms in a Mario game.

For those audience members at my screening, Kick Ass getting stabbed and hit by a car was funny because they are viewing the film as if it was a videogame. This is a fundamentally incorrect way of understanding what is happening in the film and a detriment to the experience. To look at the character of Kick Ass as a videogame avatar/crash test dummy corrodes the humanity and fragility of Kick Ass that provides the emotional center of the film. I acknowledge that viewers can and should interpret a film differently but to laugh at that scene represents a destruction of the narrative architecture of Kick Ass. Moreover, the laughter exposes an ethical disposition that is troubling. (NOTE: I do think some videogames have characters that need to be understood as fragile and draw their power from that fragility but they are few and far between. Since games have extra lives and life bars, etc. it is difficult to have a player invest much in their well-being. Of course, permanent death of characters (e.g. Aeris in FFVII) do famously affect players but that is different than emotional concern over injury or brutality.)

The study of videogames is still in its infancy and public discourse around videogames is still painfully immature and reductive. If I am correct in my theories here then there has been no better example to me of how far we still have to go than the reaction to this film. It’s important that we talk about the ethics of games, especially when those ethics begin to creep into other media and everyday life. Games aren’t bad for you and like all other media some games are ethically sound and others are not, but they must be understood on their own terms and the differences between games and other media must be acknowledged.


Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 19 Apr 2010 07:46:18 +0000


Simon Rosenberg's picture

Sad indictment of human nature

 Your article is fascinating but I remember seeing Goodfellas in a crowded cinema in New York in 1990 where there was mush whooping and laughing at scenes that disgusted me leading me and my partner to leave the cinema. I subsequently saw the film in London where there wasn’t the same reaction.

So I’m not sure if it’s the result of computer games or in fact the nature of how people deal with disturbing scenes in a crowd — they laugh out of embarrassment.