Kick-Ass and the Ethics of Gameplay

Posted by on Apr 19, 2010 in Articles | 19 Comments

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.


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  3. Connla Lyons
    April 28, 2010

    The attempt to connect video games and films in discussion is a difficult and confusing one. While most art and media can be discussed across their different forms of media (books to films to stage to music to still arts) discussing themes and ethics from video games to any of the above requires an more extensive process of *translation* from one media to another.

    To put it in the most basic way I can think of, film, painting, music, theatre, literature and so on are all single narrative media.

    They may be complex in meaning, plot, presentation and so on but the delivery of the product is a single narrative, the lengths of these narratives vary, a song is delivered in a 3 minute (there abouts) single construct expected to be listened in one go, or when developed on as a series of these short constructs as an album. In both cases the individual construct is a single narrative identity told by the musician and the album is a series of these laid out in a specific narrative order again by the musician. Film similary is a condensed single narrative to 2 hour length, it is designed to be watched in a single sitting with no control given to the viewer over its delivery again its a single narrative by the filmmaker. Literature is pretty much the same except its stretched over a much larger timeframe with the need to need to be self contained somewhat toned down. Paiting/photography is again similar without the time constraint all together.

    But the consistent is they are all single narrative media.

    Video Games are not.

    They are Dual Narrative Media, the most successfull dual narrative media in the world, the only other contender is role playing such as found in the popular dungeons and dragons series.

    Its no surprise how easily then that role playing transfers to video games and vice versa.

    They belong to the same narrative circle.

    A dual narrative media works on the notion that the game designer while in complete control in the game’s design, plot, aesthetic and delivery, they must share the game’s narrative with the player.

    The player’s narrative is the experiance of control and the freedom allowed to him or not as set out by the rules imposed by the game’s design. These freedoms and the appeal of the game’s narrative evok a response from the player’s narrative.

    To use a personal anecdote as an exagerated example, Hexen was a mid 90’s first person shooter on the PC using a midevil knights and demons setting, a shareware was released free online and myself and a friend played it requlary, though due to the game’s design focusing on monsters and melee weapons for one of the characters my friend and I decided that instead of following the game’s somewhat confusing goal based structure, we would instead play hide and seek with the monsters, because everything was melee (unlike doom) it was very easy in the game’s first level to run away from most of the monsters and because of the basic AI telling them to always chase us, hide and seek became a natural distraction for us to play on the game. This was our narrative within the game’s narrative, it is achievable within the game’s design and it does not break the game’s own narrative (so drinking games or Riffing in films is not a comparable contrast) as we are still able to progress with the game’s own narrative except now our own narrative has created a character with a childish cowerdice attitude of running away from danger.

    This is not a unique experiance, it is repeated daily on many different levels, a quick search online shows that this with youtube daily collecting videos showing people doing such things in video games. There’s also the devlopment of video gaming hallmarks such as rocket jumping and tea bagging all derived from player narratives. These are exagerated examples as on a basic level the player narrative is simply how he reacts to the game’s mechanics and how well he copes with them, from failing at the stealth mechanics in metal gear solid to the hoarding of ammo and health in the average first person shooter. That is the player’s narrative…how he played the game.

    This is not to say the designer is completely at the whim of the player, he can very much push and persaude the player into his approach to the narrative but he is never 100% in control and he must in the design of the game decree how much freedom a player will have to influence the narrative.

    And game design can be examined from this perspective, how much narrative control is given to the player. From the open ended turn based strategy games like Civilisation where the player narrative is vast and the game narrative is minimal to the on the rail shooting games like R-Type where the player narrative is limited to reaction.

    Dual narrative is important to understand because it allows a greater understanding of storytelling in video games, of violence in video games and very importantly the ethics of a player. It is the relationship between the player’s narrative and the game’s narrative that defines a games ethics.

  4. Eugene Warren
    April 28, 2010

    Dude, Kick-Ass is just a dumb comic book movie. Perhaps you shouldn’t use dumb comic book movies to try and make large-scale social assumptions. Kick-Ass has nothing to do with video games, even IF it was largely influenced by them. It is not a game, it is a film. A film that should not be analyzed “academically” because in the grand scheme of cinema, it is completely irrelevant.

    There IS a more effective way to watch and appreciate cinema… but it doesn’t apply to Kick-Ass. My guess is that people laughed at Kick-Ass not because their “morals” have been polluted by video games, but because they were aware that what they were watching was just a dumb comic book movie. Which is probably why they were in the theater in the first place. To watch a dumb comic book movie.

    In short, your entire train of thought here is pretty much a big waste of time. Better luck next time.

  5. Tanner
    April 28, 2010

    @Eugene Just to be clear, I am not arguing that games are polluting anyone’s morals. What I am arguing is that games engage with ethics differently than film and that viewers are confusing the two.

    Also, I do not accept the premise that some films should not be studied academically because they are “dumb.”

  6. Richard Adamson
    April 28, 2010

    An interesting viewpoint, but not my experience (although I can fully understand it happening). I feel that to focus on the gaming aspect, and in particular to make the assumption that these people are viewing the film as a videogame, in the observation of the desensitised reaction of the audience to the film is utilising a much too narrow view.

    As a background to my viewpoint I have been an avid gamer since the mid-seventies, comic geek since before then and a film geek as long as I remember resulting with a BA in Film, Media & Video Production.

    As a fan of the works of Mark Millar I was extremely lucky to attend the first official screening of Kickass, attended mainly by journalists, critics, crew members and chancers such as myself. As such I got to hear the reactions of people that were looking for more than just a way to pass the evening and experienced laughter, cheers and applause from people that I would have thought were jaded through way too many screenings (and in all the appropriate places, at least in my opinion). This included shocked silence during the scene that concerns you, completely at odds with the nosedive of the first hero appearing in the film which happened not long before the scene in question, which I can verify has the same unglorified feel in the first issue of the comic.

    During my time in university I worked at the local cinema, helping me out financially as well as offering the opportunity to blag free film viewings. It is during this time to which my mind was cast back when reading your account, as one of my deepest frustrations was watching the reactions of audiences to films, whether those I loved or hated and the spectrum of emotions between. Mainly these audiences didn’t attend to invest themselves in the movie they were watching, but rather to switch off from the stresses and exhaustion of working life. This resulted in them choosing some tat over a great piece of work, as I saw when a Lindsay Lohan piece of offal was consistently playing to full auditoriums while Yimou Zhang’s Hero played to an empty screen next door (broke my heart), or even actively rejecting attempts by films to engage them by making light of serious matter in front of them (such as laughing during a deplorable act of violence).

    Of course this on its own goes no way toward explaining the reaction, but when combined with the desensitisation of violence in media as a whole, be it film, television, music and, yes, even games, I think we’re getting close to an answer. Add a natural evolution and escalation of the acceptability of explicit content as old taboos becomes old hat and maybe we scratch the surface a bit further.

    I guess what I’m trying to say in this not-so-brief comment is that as good as it is seeing someone such as yourself really examining the relationship between the world of games and the world we live in, it’s dangerous to categorise a certain demographic as a “gaming generation” and use this to try to work through this issue when, as popular and mainstream as gaming is becoming, there is still a large portion of this demographic that is anti-gaming, often regarding it as a geek-hobby. This means that as influential as this relatively young but more immersive medium has become there are still other influences at play, and to ignore them is in danger of doing a disservice to the subject at hand.

    I hope this comment isn’t read as too negative as this piece has inspired me to add my first comment to the net, and makes me look forward to seeing future observations by yourself. Keep up the good work!

  7. jay
    April 28, 2010

    first off, i watched kick-ass opening night with my cousins and we all loved it. the first time i saw the trailer i knew what i was walking into – a fun action comedy. sure there were some emotional scenes, but that did not mean it had to take away from the action and comic relief.

    now i believe that when someone sees a movie with the title Kick-Ass, they know they are going to be viewing an over-the-top action flick that will hopefully not disappoint. not to mention, a movie based on a comic book about real people wanting to become super heroes and fight crime. it shouldnt be surprising that with a title like that, and the fact that it is based on a comic book (one which i never heard of until this movie) people coming to a theatre to watch it wont have the mindset of “im watching a serious movie”.

    to me, your shock of witnessing people laughing at kick-ass getting stabbed and then a few seconds later, getting hit by a car is kind of ridiculous. sure, that usually is not something to laugh at, but come on, look at the movie they’re watching. ive been playing games since i was 4 or 5, and i did not make any connection to any video game ive played when seeing kick-ass get stabbed and hit by a car. and ill be the first to admit that when playing gta or saints row 2, i just speed along the sidewalk taking all the unsuspecting peds with me. why? because i like seeing the ragdoll physics and euphoria engine in action. yet, neither of these games popped into my head when i saw him get hit by a car. i also chuckled a bit at the scene. however, the thugs set it up perfectly with their reaction to a kid in green scuba wear trying to stop them. you just cant take it seriously, even if he ended up getting mauled in the end. this sudden change in tone comes to an abrupt end when they cut to the scene in the ambulance and he requests his costume not be mentioned.

    with all that said, is it fair to say that the audience that did laugh at this scene did it because they were viewing the scene as a videogame? did you personally question the viewers and ask them why they laughed at certain scenes you found to be serious? i for one laughed a bit but did not connect it to videogames. i know the scene was meant to show viewers what could happen if someone actually tried to fight crime with no experience and what not, but they still set it up in a comedic way. two thugs left dumbfounded by the sight of a crimestopper in a ridiculous costume, them being shocked when he actually tries to take both of them on by wildly flailing his two sticks. i think its safe to say that some audience members are going to laugh even when it takes a turn for the worse.

    does this make it right for people to laugh at such a gruesome scene? well heres another example of a scene that i dont think was meant to be funny, but i ended up laughing anyway – kick ass and big daddy are captured and BD is being burned alive. did i laugh because i love the sight of human beings burning? no. but the way he was screaming out his instructions to hit girl was just flat out ridiculous, and you had to admit, was pretty funny regardless of what was happening to him. and again, i did not suddenly think of videogames when laughing. but now that i think of it, it is funnier if you connect this scene to his unintentionally hilarious movie Wickerman. if you do not get it, just youtube the highlight reel of the movie. so with the question, does this make it right that people laughed? its all about the context, and the way this movie was able to keep people laughing right after or even during a serious scene; its hardly a surprise people did.

    i just think that going to a movie with the intentions of analyzing and making connections to another form of entertainment destroys the experience. you should not be all shocked with the audience and their reactions when they obviously do not have the same mindset as you. if they are thinking “this movie is literally kick-ass” and you are sitting there thinking “how does this movie connect with videogames?” its no shock they will react differently to scenes than you.

    so what im saying is, maybe the people laughing arent laughing because they see it as a videogame, but a totally different reason. whether it is because of the ridiculous tone of the movie, or they find different things funny. i dont speak for everyone in your audience, but when i laughed at the particular scene you have in mind, it was not because it reminded me of a game. it was more of a shock chuckle and “damn, did that just happen?” and come on, the scene after he makes the worker promise not to mention the costume… i think its funny that in a life death situation, the character would be more concerned about that.

    anyway, thats my 2 cents and if i totally missed ur point, sorry for wasting ur time.

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  9. DerBonk
    April 29, 2010

    I agree that in general, “video game morals” seem to be central to Kick-Ass though I am still hard pressed to specify that. It’s more of a gut feeling that, in general, how the movie deals with violence is influenced by games just as much as it is by action films.

    The example you mention does not work for me however. The way I see it, this is clever film making. First we just think Kick-Ass was hit in the stomach and that’s a bit funny because it show that he just can’t fight, but the second the audience realizes that he got stabbed, the laughing becomes shock, especially as he drags himself forward, still bleeding heavily. That he is then hit by a car is meant as a joke, the way I see it. It happens so suddenly and without warning, we are caught off-hand. It seems totally unnecessary as well, a stab wound is bad enough. When the car drives of, even though the driver realizes that he could have killed someone, is again the point the laughter immediately dies down and we are shocked, esp. because this is the point Kick-Ass is trying to make. I think this quick switch between comedy and drama is what makes the scene so impactful.

  10. FhnuZoag
    April 29, 2010

    Does laughter really imply humour here? I know I laughed at the scene in Saw where the hero saws his arm off. I also laughed at the scene in Ichi the Killer when the hero chops an opponent in half. I also laughed at the scene in Battle Royale where a knife is thrown into a teenage student’s forehead. Does this mean I am a monster? Has videogames polluted my mind?

    I don’t think so.

    I think that laughter here signifies incredulity and detachment. We are laughing in disbelief because the film producers are trying to sell us something that we cannot concieve of happening in real life. It’s a WTF laugh.

  11. matt
    April 29, 2010

    I think the films largely comic tone lead to that being a “laugh” moment rather than a “dark” one. Also, the sheer absurdity of the situation makes it comic. Had KickAss merely stumbled a few steps before falling after being stabbed, perhaps with a typical linger shot from above as he lay there bleeding, the scene would be tragic. Instead, he takes a few steps and gets blindsided out of nowhere. This type of violence is more like something out of a Road Runner cartoon rather than a serious film about the fragility of humanity. In fact, I’d say it’s you who misinterpretted the scene. That could have been an oppurtunity to make us fear for KickAss’s mortality, but instead it was presented as an unexpected laugh in an otherwise grim situation.

    Also, I don’t think it’s so much of a videogame influence that made that scene funny, but conditioning from much earlier cartoons in which the characters would suffer increasingly ridiculous violence because of their bad luck, *exactly like that scene*.

  12. Kao
    April 29, 2010

    Ok, so watching some of the action sequences in “Kickass” is kind of like watching a video of someone else’s playthrough of a videogame. Because the movie has a videogamey feel to it, and because some of the subject matter is videogamey, many viewers will watch the onscreen events with a misplaced sense of empathy. Rather than seeing a given character as a real human being with a capacity for pain, the character is looked at the same as you might view one of the characters in a Team Fortress replay. That is, the character is an avatar for someone’s (fighting) skill, ambition, and knowledge. The extreme violence, stripped of its associations with intense pain and suffering, is now only an illustration of extreme *failure*. Failure contrasted against ambition is pretty much the basis of most comedy these days, especially American comedy, and therefore the scene is *hilarious*. (Kickass got pwned)

    You have a problem with this, because you don’t think the audience is taking the onscreen violence seriously enough, or sufficiently empathizing with the character. To me this is a failure of the film-makers, not of the audience. If the overall tone of the movie is inconsistent and frequently unrealistic, then the audience’s sense of consequence may not be calibrated “correctly” for a given scene. This, by the way, is the reason that it is perfectly sensible to dismiss comic-book movies as “dumb” and therefore irrelevant, however entertaining they may be. Every aspect of the superhero genre, if treated with realism, empathy, and a true sense of consequence, would be horrifying and disgusting to any sensitive human being. It is *only* by trivializing human life that superhero/comic movies can be enjoyable.

  13. Tanner
    April 29, 2010

    Just wanted to drop in and say how much I appreciate all of this thoughtful feedback. Great stuff all around. Whether you agree or disagree I think it’s productive to think through this issue.

  14. Eugen Warren
    April 29, 2010


    Anything created by anybody ever engages in “ethics” on a different level. If you watch five movies and play five games you will have experienced ten isolated takes on “ethics”. And that’s assuming all of those works even takes on the issue of “ethics” in the first place (which they probably don’t). There is no such thing as universal “film ethics” and “video game ethics” that apply to all film and video games.

    Also, all films are deserving of “academic” “analysis”, eh? How about The Pest with John Leguizamo? What does that film say about us a species? What ethical principles could one derive from viewing such an original work of film “art”?

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  18. Alex Tse
    April 5, 2011

    Thank you! I was very disturbed by Kick Ass the movie and I was disappointed to have this sentiment dismissed by people with “oh it’s just a dumb movie” or “this is satire, just lighten up will you?”. I’m so relieved to see you speaking out about it because the desensitizing effect of mass, mainstream media is NOT okay.

    I did in fact read Kick Ass the comic book and I wrote an article about its celebration of violence

    PS we’ve met on twitter I am @alexnotangry :)

  19. Tanner
    April 8, 2011


    Thanks for the response. I would actually word my position differently. I don’t see Kick-Ass, and the audience’s reaction to it in my theater, as an example of desensitization but rather a different kind of sensitization perhaps borne from videogame culture.

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