The Great American Boss Fight
My last task in God of War is to take on the endgame boss: the Valkyrie Queen herself. Dozens of hours of hacking through mythological enemies has prepared me for this final challenge and I’ve undergone all the necessary steps to ensure my imminent victory. My health bar has been extended as high as it will go. My weapons have been fully upgraded. I’ve carefully selected my armor, prepared my most powerful attacks, and slaughtered eight other valkyries in my thirst for success. The arena is a large open space, a familiar layout for battles in melee based games, with enough room to dodge and maneuver when needed. I knew what it was the second I stepped inside. As if to confirm my anticipation for faux violence, a hauntingly fierce melody begins to play as the battle begins. It’s a fine score to die to. And I do. A lot. Within a minute of my first attempt, my neck is being crushed beneath the unforgiving boot of my enemy, an animation that I will soon see played out dozens of times.
For the uninitiated, a “boss” is any significant enemy in a game, usually far faster and stronger than other enemies and one which takes particular knowledge or skill to defeat. The first boss battle ever featured in a game was Dungeons and Dragons’ Gold Dragon. Implemented in the popular tabletop role playing game in 1975, boss battles have been a strong tradition in gaming ever since. They’ve gotten bigger, bolder, sexier, with conventions like intense theme music and consistent attack patterns being added to the experience. Entire franchises have been designed around the concept of facing difficult bosses. While the term “boss fight” wasn’t coined until around 1980, it quickly became a familiar part of the gaming lexicon. Today, the internet has been flooded with dozens of lists declaring the top ten boss fights of all time. YouTube videos celebrate the nostalgia of early bosses while online guides detail how to defeat the newer ones.
Boss fights are different in games with guns. It is necessary to have cover to duck behind as an open space such as the one in God of War would see the player filled with bullets immediately. Developers have responded to this by learning to design environments for specific sorts of violence. Somewhere along the way, they’ve culturally conditioned gamers to react to them in fixed ways. I see a room full of conveniently overturned tables and I know that I’m meant to crouch near them when someone inevitably starts firing at me. I find a cache of ammunition and know that I should probably equip my best weapon for whatever enemy is coming next. This kind of learning can be implemented across games, a sort of unrealized knowledge that has changed the way I think about the electronic spaces I play in. As developers construct environments of violence, they have constructed a unique psyche to go along with it.
In the real world it ends up working sort of like this: the principal gets on the loudspeaker to announce that the school is going into a lockdown drill. Immediately, the students look for a space where they will not be spotted from any of the windows while the teacher rushes to lock the door. The environment that was once their classroom waits, anticipating that at any moment it will become an indoor battlefield with formidable consequences if the boss decides to show up.
The first school shooting recorded in the United States happened on July 16th of 1764, 211 years before the first boss fight, when four Lenape American Indians entered a schoolhouse in Pennsylvania during the Pontiac Rebellion and shot most of the people inside. Two children survived. Since then, gun based violence has continued at an alarming rate. In the same year of the Gold Dragon, four school shootings were reported in the United States. By 2007, 38 deaths occurred in a single year as the result of school shootings. In the same way that boss fights have grown bigger and more terrifying as more people take up gaming as a hobby, gun violence has grown as we’ve found ways to make the weapon more lethal.
My final lockdown drill occurred during my senior year of high school during which I was alone in a space that was meant to be a storage closet. When the voice over the loudspeaker announced the drill, my gamer brain instantly kicked in. The door, just five feet away, became an escape route. The boxes of robotics equipment were suddenly a tool to hinder any attacker that managed to trap me inside. Like boss battles have become integral to gaming culture, shootings have become part of the United States experience. The names Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech are almost as familiar to Americans as the phrase “boss fight” is to gamers.
Much like developers have begun to program a response to the demand for boss fights, schools have begun to consider the possibility of shooting in their construction. Windows in many academic institutions are made of bulletproof glass. Hallways are designed to offer more cover from bullets. Most schools have security cameras now, some have metal detectors, and lockdown drills are just another part of the academic routine. It is probable that one needs a keycard to get into these buildings, not that it does any good when so many of the perpetrators of this violence are students themselves.
My mother, an elementary educator, has watched the evolution of lockdown drills as they’ve gone from the “sitting ducks” approach of my youth to the “active shooter, active response” scenario. We know now that the response to these scenarios isn’t just fight or flight. It’s fight, flight, or freeze, and the purpose of a lockdown drill is to condition students not to freeze, the same way developers have conditioned me to move my thumb to the attack button the second I hear the music change. What we don’t know is what that does to our minds. What does it mean to learn in an environment constructed for violence? What are the lessons truly being taught?
The reality is that we have no idea. Students across the nation are the first to study this sort of survival, the first to grow up with shooter drills being just another part of the academic routine. We are generation lockdown. Generation no longer surprised when shit goes down because gun violence is no longer a possible thing but a probable one. Generation ready to throw down our pencils and fight for our lives at any moment.
In video games, bosses are usually more difficult than regular enemies. They can deal and sustain more damage, may become progressively stronger the more a player tries to stop them, and require strategy to defeat. It has long been questioned, disproven, and questioned again whether video games cause violence, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re asking the wrong thing. Perhaps it would be better to ask what we can learn from violence in video games, because the rise in school shootings has become the cultural boss battle of this generation.
And yet. When a gunman in El Paso killed 22 people, special attention was paid to a fleeting reference he made to video game soldiers, leading many politicians to point accusatory fingers at electronic entertainment. The manifesto declaring the attack a response to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” was seemingly forgotten by certain leaders. It is true that there is a correlation between those who commit acts of violence in America and those who play video games, but there is also a correlation between ice cream sales and homicide rates. In China, the nation with the most revenue from video games, gun violence dropped 81.3% from 2012 to 2017 according to government officials. The United States isn’t the only country where people enjoy boss battles, but it is the only one with politicians who are more concerned with how video game characters die than how students do. It is perhaps the only place on earth where the right to bear arms is guaranteed more than the right to come home from school alive and pick up a controller.
The Great American Boss fight, like so many other bosses, is something that has gone through many phases. From the first bullet fired in 1764 to senators whose entire platform is ensuring gun ownership, the developers of violence in this nation have designed a battle more difficult than Dark Souls III’s the Nameless King. Now, in an era of school shootings and lockdown drills, this boss has reached its final form. We don’t know what environments constructed for violence do to students, but we continue to construct them. We do know that in 2019, there were more mass shootings than there were days in the year.
After multiple grueling attempts, I land the final blow against the Valkyrie Queen. My character on the screen slams her face into the concrete, rewarding me with a splatter of electronic blood as I tear the wings off her back with my bare hands. She falls lifelessly to the ground, her spirit rising from her broken form to thank me for freeing her. In the end, the violence that I enacted against her wasn’t motivated by ruthless brutality but by a need to see her liberated from the cycle of it. No guns were necessary.
Note: This essay was inspired by the work of Jacob Geller. All the thoughts and experiences I’ve expressed herein are my own, but I highly encourage checking out his work on Games, Schools, and Worlds Designed for Violence for additional perspective on the topic.