Choosing violence

I'm a pacifist who loves murdering people in 'Hitman 3.' Why?

Hitman 3 is yet another thrilling chance for me to walk in Agent 47’s shoes.

They say you always remember your first kill, but I struggle to do so. It might have been sniping Guiseppe “Don” Guillani from the hill across his mansion. Or perhaps it was garroting the delivery man and taking his place to infiltrate the Don’s domain.

Either way, it was in Hitman: Silent Assassin (2002) when I first stepped into the classic black suit of Agent 47, traveling the world, invading the worlds of the rich and famous, and picking them off silently. What is it about this game that brings me — a card-carrying pacifist — such glee? In Hitman 3, the final part of IO Interactive’s World of Assassination trilogy, I finally got my answer.

Hitman 3 brings to a close a narrative that was set in motion with the 2016 reboot Hitman, and continued in the 2018 sequel Hitman 2. For the first time, we have a cohesive narrative of where 47 came from and who he is, which makes it difficult to talk about Hitman 3 without giving anything away. Suffice it to say that the series is one complete story, and it is now possible to play the trilogy through a single dashboard as one continuous game, with character progression and all. Is this, then, the last Hitman title ever? Sorry, no spoilers here.

Those acquainted with the series will find the gameplay comfortingly familiar, but ultimately what matters in Hitman 3 is the story and the atmosphere. The locations are stunning — narrative needs aside, each location has clearly been chosen for maximum impact, each contrasting spectacularly with the previous, each one brilliantly rendered, and each one bringing a distinct mood to the gameplay without compromising the story arc and tension.

The in-your-face opulence of Dubai’s towering Burj Al-Ghazali (yes, it’s a rip on the Burj Khalifa) throws 47 directly into the inner world of the filthy rich. A far cry from the remote Thornton Manor in the open countryside of Dartmoor, England, where a sudden switch in mood leaves 47 playing detective if he so fancies. In Berlin, Germany, he lands up alone and off-grid, with no tactical support, not even clear instructions about his mission. Then, suddenly, everything changes, and 47 is left to infiltrate a rave and navigate its heaving crowds.

The rain-pelted streets of Chongqing, China, at night are an artistic delight in a completely different way, as our drenched hero scratches the gritty surface to unearth a high-security organization with nefarious purposes. At the sun-drenched vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina, the darkness and squalor of Chongqing seem unreal. This is where 47 crosses paths with an old friend, resulting in the game’s most stunning twist. The story ends on a moving train in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, leaving 47 to make a surprising choice at the moment of denouement.

My partner can’t decide between fascination and horror as I describe with relish how I poisoned Alexa Carlisle’s tea and then drowned her in the toilet while she was throwing up, and how many other ways I could have killed her. Why does playing a calculating assassin taking lives as a routine activity produce such a buzz for me? I ask this question of Derek Burrill, an associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California Riverside.

“For you, playing something like the Hitman games… probably has more to do with actual gameplay and the pleasures that it affords, things like mastery, control, virtuosity, and being able to experience fantasy worlds and characters that are so different than your day-to-day life,” he says in our email chat.


Laura Stockdale, a researcher from the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University who has studied the link between gaming and real-life violence, says there is another reason: the sheer production quality, resulting in physiological arousal. “[That] is a big part of why some non-violent, non-aggressive people are very drawn to these games, and they’re so engaging cognitively for them.” Plus, these games are very deliberately and cleverly developed and marketed to be challenging and engaging. “The fact that [the game] gets slightly more difficult as you play, the fact that you’re rewarded constantly … [makes one] want to keep engaging.” Essentially, Hitman and its ilk are just really good games that we cannot resist being drawn into regardless of the content's real-world palatability.

“In Western culture, violence is really celebrated and rewarded and glorified. So of course people want to play out that glorification through video games.”

There’s a fantasy and disengagement aspect as well, Stockdale says, the escapism and catharsis. “I also believe that, in particular in Western culture, violence is really celebrated and rewarded and glorified. So of course people want to play out that glorification through video games.”

Derek Burrill’s research shows that male players particularly enjoy enacting violence in virtual worlds because it’s a way of exploring stereotypical behaviors associated with hyper-masculinity without having to deal with the fallout. But does this violent gameplay lead to real-life violence? Both Burrill and Stockdale admit that that is a leap too far.

“There are many, many studies that have tried… but none have found a causative connection,” Burrill says. Even though there are real, physiological changes in reaction to violent games, including short-term heart rate increases and amplified aggression, there is nothing to suggest that this leads to actual violence.

In fact, Laura Stockdale along with Sarah M. Coyne studied the connection between violent games and violent behavior in adolescents in a decade-long, longitudinal study. Their paper, published in December 2020, confirmed what many others before them had found: “that while violent video gameplay may be related to increased aggression in the laboratory, it is not a significant predictor of real-world violence.”

“More serious problems like poverty, food insecurity, the availability of weapons, the prison–industrial system, racism, and sexism are to blame for violence in our culture,” says Burrill. Games (and other media) are just a convenient scapegoat. Both he and Stockdale concur that games can, instead, be great teaching platforms and are good for well-being too, something a recent study from Oxford University also reports.

“More serious problems like poverty, food insecurity, the availability of weapons, the prison–industrial system, racism, and sexism are to blame for violence in our culture.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns. While most video games are not designed for kids, many parents do a terrible job of gatekeeping, says Stockdale. She has three big worries: the desensitization to the emotional experiences of others; equating violence with masculinity; and sexualized violence against women. “But no, I do not think that we have all this increased violence in the world [because of] video games… That’s completely over-simplistic and humans are much more complicated than that.”

Yet I can’t help but wonder if playacting as a professional murderer is desensitizing me to violence. “Desensitization is a really tricky concept,” says Burrill. Violence can be narrative or exploitative; some forms more “acceptable” than others. He is working on a project on representations of torture in games, TV, and film. Watching this media should have made him immune to violence, but it hasn’t. “I’ve found this project very difficult to finish because I am so disgusted by so much of what I have to see and hear. So, in the end, individual preferences and sensitivities, as well as cultural, generational, and social differences and tastes, will always make this argument difficult to delineate and follow.”

* * *

Five years ago, when I bought myself a gaming laptop as a nerdy version of a midlife crisis, my partner made peace with my nefarious make-believe second lives. Despite her indifference, though, I’ve often caught her watching me play, especially Hitman, sometimes offering suggestions. There is some talk of her taking Hitman 3 for a spin. That, I believe, is a badge of honor for the developers if there was one.

A good game is like a good book — it stays with you long after you’re done with it. Hitman 3 — and the entire series, in fact — is one of those experiences. Right from the moment 47 skydives on to Dubai’s high-rise, up to the epic ghost-train journey that marks the game’s climax. At a time in our history when traveling is out of the question and so much is out of our control, Hitman 3 is both an escape and a catharsis.