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Hitman 2 is funny, violent, and nothing to worry about, say psychologists

By Reid McCarter
Hitman 2

In Hitman 2, as in so many mainstream video games, the only way to reach the end is to kill a whole lot of people.

What sets the game apart, though, is how legitimately funny each of these murders is. As stoic, bald-headed super-assassin Agent 47, the player travels the globe hunting down a series of enemies who must be dispatched to progress through the story. Each can be killed in myriad violent ways, with points awarded for demonstrating maximum creativity. In one case, 47 disguises himself as an aircraft marshal after sabotaging a private plane; its amateur pilot's seat is ejected and he flies up into the air, presumably to be squashed somewhere far above the screen's view. In another, he dresses as an American military general and reprograms an automated weapons robot to shoot its designer rather than a dummy in a carefully planned "malfunction."

All of it is as ridiculous, as much for the deadpan absurdity of a preternaturally skilled hitman killing powerful crime lords and international agents by slipping into goofy costumes and orchestrating clever accidents as for the slapstick of each target's inevitably gruesome demise. Where most games portray homicide as either an act of war, a tragedy, or simply a matter-of-fact test of reflexes, Hitman 2 uses violence to present a dark interactive comedy. The audience laughs because the humor is an intentional subversion of the usual horror we might expect to feel at what's shown on screen.

Much has been made of the ostensible link between video game and real-life violence. Hitman 2, funny as it is, highlights a potentially troubling extreme. A casual onlooker, watching a player orchestrating the perfect murder and delighting in its bloody, punch-line payoff, could easily think the game represents some novel new height of depravity.

According to psychologist Dr. David Verhaagen, though, there isn't much cause for concern.

Dr. Verhaagen is the co-founder of Southeast Psych and has worked with teenaged and young adult men for the past 27 years. He's also an author who has published not only academic material but also chapters in several books that explore the intersection of pop culture and psychology. In an email interview with SYFY WIRE, he mentions that Southeast Psych's offices "embrace and incorporate popular culture into our work" and explains that games, as opposed to the bugbear they're often portrayed as in media, carry "the potential for good and bad" for patients.

The "bad," in this case is "excessive or compulsive use" as well as "exposure to negative content for individuals with certain struggles," not the incitement to violence imagined by some pop culture commentators and politicians.

In Dr. Verhaagen's experience, video game violence doesn't warrant panic. He highlights the important distinction between aggression and violence in studies exploring the link between digital and real-world violence, referring to an article he wrote to summarize existing research on the connection between games and violence following the Parkland school shooting last year. In his words, "aggression can include rough play or forceful behavior, while violence involves an action that inflicts physical damage on a person." The former is minor — "rough play would be aggression" — and the latter more serious — "a kid hitting another kid in the nose or pulling a gun on him would be violence."

"We believe video games can increase short-term aggression, but there is no compelling evidence that it increases long-term violence," he writes. Recent research is also complicated by the fact that "it has become normative for teens to play violent video games," so it's difficult to claim that the same video games that don't affect a large portion of this demographic are also the reason a minority of the group will act violently. Even more significant are statistics showing "that the rates of youth violence have decreased steadily as the rates of violent video game sales have steadily increased."

Larisa Garski, a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Chicago's Empowered Therapy, also mentions the link between "increased feelings of aggression" in the adults and children she's worked with.

In Garski's experience, "the act of engaging with a violent video game can, and often does, decrease the player's frustration tolerance and increase the likelihood of aggressive speech patterns both during and immediately following gameplay," which can create "miscommunication and conflict." Like Dr. Verhaagen, though, she "[tends] to disagree with colleagues who are quick to read causation from correlation, leaping to the conclusion that corresponding aggressive behavior is the result of too much violent video game play."

Garski, too, explores the overlap of pop culture and psychology in her work, and co-hosts Starship Therapise, a podcast "that uses fandom to explain psychological concepts and tools." And, though she now works most often with adults and couples, she began her work in the field "as an in-home family therapist working with children and families."

When SYFY WIRE about how the comedic violence of a game like Hitman 2 might factor into our perceptions of video game violence, Garski says "we've still got a long way to go before the research wing of the psychotherapy community has a conclusive answer" regarding its effects, but that her own experience leads her to believe "that context and framing are often key to understanding the ways that violence in video games impacts our emotional states."

What's important, she believes, is how a game's narrative informs what sort of acts it portrays. Dr. Verhaagen also writes that he doesn't think there's any "strong reason to believe that games that feature comedic violence, including Hitman 2, would necessarily influence real-life behavior any more than games that depict violence more somberly, like Call of Duty."

Hitman 2, muffin

Noteworthy, too, is that there is actual weight given to each murder in Hitman 2 because every assassination target is characterized with far more detail than in many other violent games. Targets have actual personalities, revealed in conversations and dossiers, unlike the nameless enemy soldiers that populate so many other action games. As irreverent as the manner of each target's death may be (it's hard to feel much horror when someone is unexpectedly blasted with a spray of wet cement and hardened into a construction site's pit), the game's player spends time learning about each character they kill before committing the act — who these people are and the exact nature of their villainy. Agent 47's methodical planning is creepy, sure, but, practically, its design forces the player to learn about both their avatar and enemy's personality between bouts of violence.

Dr. Verhaagen provided a selection of academic studies focused on this aspect of video game violence, saying nothing in current research "suggests identifying and emotionally connecting with a character does change how players experience the game." He adds that doing so "certainly changes their justifications for why their character made choices in the game, and it may affect players' real-life behavior as well."

Garski writes that "character intimacy can have a huge impact on how gamers respond to and understand violence in video games... Thanks to ongoing research on parasocial relationships — which just means the very real emotional attachments players/readers/viewers experience and create with characters over time — we know that the emotional investment gamers put into characters feels very real to them," she explains. "When a game does the job of building a sympathetic character, violence done to that character is going to feel more personal and intimate."

This should be something of a balm for anyone concerned by the seemingly heartless laughs generated by Hitman 2's over-the-top kills. Its comedy hinges on each target being a character we can understand, not just a faceless digital object to dispatch. It also suggests that our cultural hang-ups regarding the negative psychological impact of video game violence — no matter the form it takes — may be overblown.

The narrative value of any given game, as in film, TV, books, and every other type of media, is likely to have the greatest effect on how we perceive what's on-screen. As Dr. Verhaagen puts it, "there is outsized attention on video games [because] the more realistic games are relatively new" and the adults commenting on them now didn't grow up with them."

Garski, too, mentions novelty as one likely reason for the enduring worries over video game violence's influence on real-world behavior. Still, she points out that "video games are unique in the ways that they involve the player in the act of creation" and that "this type of increased engagement and involvement absolutely makes video games a distinctive medium" whose effects on audiences are worth considering. "It certainly seems possible if not probable that it impacts the brain and neurological development depending on the age and experience of the player as well as the context in which they are playing," she writes. "But this impact doesn't have to be damaging."