I remember going to my friend’s house for the day when I was about seven years old, on a pilgrimage of sorts. He had all the games. His parents had a bit of money, and he was half-Japanese. (Incidentally, he gave up videogames at a sensible age and is now a ripped bodybuilder and world martial arts expert, whereas I am currently lying in bed in the afternoon writing this article, my laptop resting gently on my soft belly. Oh, the forks in our roads.)

On this occasion, I had gone over to marvel at the new Nintendo 64, and a brand new movie spin-off game called GoldenEye. My dad arrived to pick me up at the start of the second level. You know the bit, where Bond bursts out of a vent into the gents’ toilet like a madman, and dispatches a guard mid-urination.

“It’s okay,” I replied. “I know they’re not real people.”

I greeted him with a still-astounded “Look at the graphics!”. He responded with a “hmm” that surprised me. He had a passing interest in games, but neither of us had seen a game like this before.

In the car ride home, Dad explained his discomfort. The people I was shooting had faces which were digitally created from photographs. They weren’t photorealistic, but they were trying to be, although by today’s standards the resolution and detail is laughably low. But still, it was a watershed moment. Here was a game sweating through its CPU to depict the act of killing as realistically as possible. “It’s like you’re shooting real people. Don’t you think it’s a bit much?”

“It’s okay,” I replied. “I know they’re not real people.”

It was okay, in a sense. Plenty of studies have shown that playing violent videogames doesn’t make you want to go out and kill real people. It wasn’t until much later in life, beyond my teens and into my twenties, that I realised that wasn’t why he’d asked the question.

This week, the White House released a montage clip assembled from various modern first-person shooters, in an effort to prove a hard link between videogame violence and school shootings. The link isn’t there, and everyone who doesn’t wear a MAGA hat knows that the real culprit is the massive proliferation of guns and normalisation of gun culture in mainstream American society. The video is not an accurate depiction of the causes of mass gun violence in the USA. But as games developer (and now Congressional candidate) Brianna Wu wrote in response to the video, “you have to admit this is a fair representation of our field.”

The video is a brutal sequence of hi-def stabbings, shootings, beheadings and torture. A man gets killed by a knife thrown to the eye. In another scene, an escaping victim pleads for her life as the player drives a fire axe into her head. The rest of the video is pure torture porn, and although it does include infamously fetishistic moments such as Sniper: Elite’s X-Ray kills and Call of Duty’s ‘No Russian’ interactive airport massacre scene, the video’s contents are entirely indicative of the sorts of violence regularly depicted in mainstream videogames. The video could be twice as long, just as brutal, and it’d still be just as hard to criticise it as cherry picking. This doesn’t mean that videogames cause violence, however it is a little crazy that such a propagandistic video from the Trump administration can turn out to be such a fair representation of the primary artistic and thematic trends in mainstream videogames.

“The video could be twice as long, just as brutal, and it’d still be just as hard to criticise it as cherry picking.”

Yes, as people go to great pains to admit, Nintendo make some of the best games in the world and none of those are torture porn, but most of the big showpieces – and, arguably, the main drivers in innovation when it comes to graphical technology and game design – are games in which you murder people in ever-higher fidelity. A gun being held in a first-person perspective shooting bullets into a human being is our baseline idea of what constitutes a videogame, and the level of violence only gets more fetishistic from there, as dismemberment and torture become novel gameplay features that let a game stand out from the crowd.

Obliterative violence as the primary vehicle for interactive entertainment is a truth of the videogame industry that will only feel more uncomfortable as technology and fidelity continues to lurch toward photorealism. Big games are even visibly trying their best to adjust themselves narratively to embrace the violent gameplay loop in a way that might fit in with modern liberal morality, whether by replacing people with ‘not-quite-people’ in the form of zombies, awkwardly shoehorning in narrative twists along the line of ‘the player was the real monster all along’, or, in the case of The Last of Us, both. It’s not that these games shouldn’t exist. I’ve played and enjoyed most of the games depicted in the White House’s video. But that video underscores the inescapable truth that the videogame industry today is the product of its own decades-long arms race to make the most fetishistically violent aesthetic objects it possibly can. I’ll be honest with you, that’s not the best look.

My dad, a liberal jazz musician who doesn’t remember much of the 1970s, was never checking to see whether I was able to separate fantasy from reality. He was asking: is this fantasy worthwhile? What does it mean that when we’re given these amazing tools to make interactive art, we use it to revel in the act of killing as photorealistically as we are able?