Meet the Creator of the Year's Most Hated Video Game
Is it possible to defend Hatred?
Jarosław Zieliński, CEO of the company behind the controversial trailer for the ultra-violent, serial killer game Hatred, seems like a sweet guy.
Zieliński is a soft-spoken, stocky black metal fan; a hard-working animator who comes across as sarcastic but attentive. "Do not refuse when he wants to drink with you," notes his profile on the website for Destructive Creations, his 10-person video gaming studio based in Gliwice, Poland.
Hatred, a virtually narrative-free game about a long-haired angry white man who decides to shoot and stab his way through as many innocent civilians as possible, drew virulent criticism. The cries grew more outraged after journalists and readers discovered that Zieliński and some of his team members had liked various homophobic, anti-Muslim, and nationalist organizations on Facebook.
Zieliński himself was raked over the coals for liking the Facebook page of right wing immigration groups like the Polska Liga 'Obrony', or Polish Defense League, which patrols the nightclubs of Warsaw to prevent young strapping Muslim men, or "dusky princes," from picking up "pure" Polish women.
After the onslaught of character attacks, Zieliński put his head down. Destructive Creations "expected some hype," but "didn't expect so much attention," he told me. "We didn't know we'd make such a big mess."
Part of the reason for the "big mess" may have been that the release of Hatred comes at a time when the gaming press, and its hobbyist antecedents on social media, are examining the motivations of game creators. This is a positive development for people who think games are more than just "games," and are cultural artifacts like movies, books or music.
So when a game came out with no other purpose than to shoot people, critics wondered what was behind it. What motivates someone to simulate killing as realistically as possible, without having the decency to wrap it in a storyline? After talking to Zieliński, I'm not sure even he knows the answer.
I knew he'd been abused by the press, so I decided to romance him with death metal. We had several phone calls over the course of a few weeks, during which I learned that he prefers the American and Polish scenes, has a soft spot for esoteric band Black Witchery, and sneers at the notorious Polish National Socialist black metal band, Graveland. "They're too 'heroic', too macho," he said. "I think it's kind of shameful."
We bonded over Suffocation, the seminal Death Metal band from Long Island that popularized the harsh growls known as "Cookie Monster" vocals. "I'm really surprised that the journalists got on my case for liking the Polish Defense League's page on Facebook," he said. "I wish someone said I liked Suffocation's page as well." (Suffocation's classic line-up is half black.)
Furthermore, he says he was ignorant of the PDL's bigotry and followed their page so he could get news about the anti-Semetic riots that took place in 2014 in many European countries.
"Giving a 'like' on Facebook doesn't mean you're a supporter, and anyway, even if those profiles have a homophobic or a nationalistic side, these are just one of many things those groups represent," he said.""Those are legal organizations and their main program points are patriotism and democracy, so liking their profile isn't anything illegal."
If we take Zieliński at his word, that Hatred wasn't motivated by some kind of racist bigotry, the point of the game remains a mystery.
Hatred apparently isn't even supposed to be fun; Zieliński left out the typical blood-pumping metal and hardcore music that usually accompanies violent games. "We want to use dark ambient music, because there's nothing [pleasantly] exciting in this game," Zieliński said. "It's supposed to feel kind of sad, and hateful. It's supposed to give the player an evil grin."
"I want to give the main character in Hatred a kind of humanless, killing machine vibe. I don't want to justify anything. I want the player to ask: why." This admission sounds suspiciously like a defence he came up with to justify making a game about nothing but murder, but if we're being charitable, it almost sounds like an artist's statement.
One of the reasons for Hatred's notoriety was its tone-deaf timing. The #Gamergate scandal, considered by many to be an anti-woman harassment campaign, already highlighted the worst of the gaming community's entitled, white and male demographic.
The imaginary violence of the digital white male power fantasy became real violence for cultural critics who are neither white or male, as is the case of the controversial Anita Sarkeesian, a second-generation Iraqi immigrant who has been on the receiving end of death threats for years since she began a feminist YouTube series about video games. A month ago, she canceled an appearance at Utah State University after an anonymous enemy threatened a mass shooting.
I want to give the main character in Hatred a kind of humanless, killing machine vibe. I don't want to justify anything.
A look through Destructive Creations' online message board shows that many of the yet-to-be-released game's most active champions are part of #Gamergate's rank and file. I'm talking about Men's Rights Activists, right wingers, outright racists, and keyboard warriors from 8chan and 4chan. Hatred's nihilist violence appeals to them, and they don't see what's wrong with it.
Zieliński's favorite pieces of media are Fight Club, Snatch (the Guy Ritchie movie), and the Band of Brothers television series. He said his life has been relatively "violence-less," and that you do not have to have a violent upbringing to like violence in movies or games. Hatred admittedly courted controversy from the beginning, but just how much backlash the trailer received confused him.
"I do understand some players will have problems with these sorts of games, but almost all games are quite violent," he said. "Ours just doesn't justify it in any way."
His team, which includes many enthusiasts from Poland's PC-modding community, was "never making something not about killing," he said. "With Hatred, I only tried to make it as real as possible."
Zieliński is right; Hatred isn't that unique. Overall, games lag behind other forms of media in terms of how they treat narrative.
For every Assassin's Creed, which attempts to challenge our notions of other cultures and history, there are dozens of games that lean heavily on offensive sexist and racist tropes.
Far Cry 3, in and of itself, checks off nearly all the boxes, including the "white savior," "noble savage," the "magic Negro," and a hyper-sexualized "ethnic" woman in its "satirical" plot. Far Cry's author, Jeffrey Yohalem, insists that his game is self-aware about using these tropes. "The point was to be a satire of popularity," he said.
The most recent Grand Theft Auto curtails player freedom in a series celebrated for being an open world sandbox, by making an unavoidable sequence where you have to torture a Muslim man on behalf of the American government. That too, was defended as "satire."
Other games that are more earnest in their approach, like Call of Duty, are probably less progressive than Hatred. In addition to making the all too common mistake of depicting Karachi as an Arabic-speaking city (Pakistan is as Arab as Turkey is Nordic), the game's developer Infinity Ward's list of non-white characters are mostly non-playable characters, and often fodder to shoot (especially if they're brown and from COD's fictional un-named Muslim country).
Being selectively outraged at games that depict mass shootings in the USA, while embracing games that depict mass murder in Africa and the Middle East, is hypocritical at best. At worst, it reinforces notions of American exceptionalism and white supremacy.
While gaming is definitely undergoing a battle for its soul, the game Hatred shouldn't shoulder the blame anymore than Call of Duty, or Grand Theft Auto, or Far Cry. The problem is these works of art are made for a cynical, and detached viewer. In her 1996 paper about Quentin Tarantino, the theorist bell hooks called this aesthetic "white cool."
In her words, white cool is a "hard-core cynical vision that would have everyone see racism, sexism, homophobia but behave as though none of that shit really matters, or if it does it means nothing 'cause none of it's gonna change."
In Hatred, one can see the so-called authenticity of white entitlement playing out through the decades-old medium of edgy and violent entertainment. The Polish indie game is just following a well-trodden path made by other, more lucrative ventures.
Even though Hatred is still in development, Zieliński has plans for the sequel. He wants not one but three other American cultural tropes as playable characters. "For Hatred 2, we're thinking of three playable characters," he said. "A grim-looking one like this one, a Hollywood-style black American tough guy, and a lesbian girl who hates everything." It already sounds like a Tarantino film.