Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Rationalizing Brutality: The Cultural Legacy of the Headshot

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We didn't always talk about shooting

people in the head.

That's a weird opening sentence I know,

but it's true! Obviously there's a large

part of human history without guns, but

even with them, headshots weren't the

near ubiquitous term they are now. If

someone was gonna be shot in pre-

sixties pulp,

they'd typically be shot in the chest


"Shot in the heart!" It sounds almost cute

"oh you shot me in the heart

why don't you just marry me?" There were

exceptions of course. The Manchurian

Candidate features three head shots in a

row, two assassinations and one suicide.

But for the most part, no matter how hard

boiled the detective or ruthless the

villain, people died with their heads

intact. We as a culture also weren't that

familiar with the kind of intimate filmed

violence we have today. Two world wars were

recent in memory of course, but embedded

journalists and 24-hour news cycles were

still pretty far off. Our depictions of

war were through grainy photographs and

patriotic movies, and strict content laws

meant that entertainment media was still

bound to being not particularly graphic.

And according to Sean Quinlan, we can

actually pinpoint the historical events

that brought the headshot into popular

consciousness. Perhaps the least

intuitive of these events actually has

nothing to do with violence and

everything to do with medical science.

Earlier I mentioned gangsters talking

about shooting people in the heart, and

while this sounds like a cute pick-up

line now, it totally makes sense as a

clear and concise way of killing someone.

Because, for most of history, the heart

has been the self. Of course if you stop

the heart you kill the person, but there

was more to it than that. Countless

writers have waxed poetic about the

heart, longing for the person they love

or questioning someone they loathe. It

was the soul too! To destroy someone's

heart, that was destroying that person in

a way that simply bleeding out or

succumbing to pneumonia wasn't really.

"Shoot him in the heart," that's basically

a way of saying make him not exist

anymore. And then a weird thing happened.

We got really good at stopping people

from dying.

Kinda like headshots, vegetative states

haven't existed in popular consciousness

forever- they're a product of modern

medicine. And so all of a sudden we had

these machines that could keep someone's

heart beating after they sustained

traumatic head injuries, injuries that

previously would have outright killed

them. We had people who were by all

previous measures alive and yet, boy this

didn't feel like living. Another thing

that was happening in modern medicine at

the time was the widespread adoption of

organ transplants. And to many people,

the idea of taking the heart- the self-

out of one person and putting it into

another was discomforting if not

outright monstrous. So to confront this, a

bunch of medical pros got together for a

summit on death. And they emerged with a

hugely influential decision that was

published in the Journal of the American

Medical Association in 1968. Brain

activity was the essence of human life.

They said to determine death, doctors

should use an EEG and measure brainwaves.

Get it? The heart wasn't the self anymore.

It shifted about a foot and a half

straight up. Now you were your brain,

which makes it a real shame for anything

bad to

happen to it. This focus on the brain

cast a dark shadow over other medical

practices of the past. About 40,000

people in the United States received

lobotomies a medical procedure that

removed large portions of the brain in

an attempt to regulate behavior. One of

the most famous people lobotomized was

the third child of Rose and Joseph

Kennedy. Her name was Rosemary. At 23

years old, Rosemary got a lobotomy

intended to stop her mood swings and

occasional violent outbursts. The

procedure left her with the mental

capabilities of a two-year-old, and the

family hid her away in a cottage for

much of the rest of her life. Of course

Rosemary isn't the first Kennedy people

think of when traumatic brain injuries

are brought up. JFK's assassination was

internationally viral in a way that

maybe no other event had been before.

People around the world knew within a

day. Pictures like LBJ being sworn in

with a blood splattered Jackie by his

side were burned into the nation's

memory. And then there's the Zapruder

tape, the shaky capture that perhaps

cements the assassination as the most

viewed death of all time. Unlike famous

assassinations before it, people were

given the opportunity to truly obsess

over JFK's death with the visual

evidence to back it up. Most famously in

Oliver Stone's movie JFK, the Zapruder

tape was stretched to its breaking point

in an attempt to prove or disprove some

form of conspiracy. The tape and the

ensuing cultural conversation were so

ubiquitous that the seemingly

inconsequential phrase "frame 313" is

immediately recognized, at least in some

circles, as a reference to the frame

where- well where JFK's self was

destroyed. The frame where he went from

the President to an annihilated object,

an object of conspiracy, tragedy, an icon

of a generation's dreams destroyed,

but not a person anymore. That was left

at frame 312. The third event, says

Quinlan, was captured by Eddie Adams in a

1968 pulitzer prize-winning photo called

"Saigon Execution." And I put a warning

before, but just a second one here- I'm

gonna show this photo and it's not

particularly gory, but it is of a man

being shot in the head. The man holding

the gun is lieutenant colonel Nguyen

Ngoc Loan, the man who's just been shot

is Vietcong suspect Nguyen Van Lem. In

other words we, as Americans, were

supposed to be on the side of the

colonel. Our fight was represented by the

executor, The Vietnam War still had

nearly a decade to go, but Saigon

Execution marked a shift in the nation's

feelings. We remembered Kennedy, we

remembered what it was like for

someone's self to be violently stripped

from them, and now documented,

incontrovertible, was our side doing the

same. In The Deer Hunter, one of the

seminal works on Vietnam PTSD, a game of

Russian Roulette forces the entire

audience to expect the head shot again

and again. And as Sylvia Shin Huey Chong

points out, the scene is staged almost

identically to "Saigon Execution." It

places the american even more directly

in the place of Van Lem, his temple at

the end of a gun. America, the dreams of

the 60s, the trauma of the war, all of it.

Frames away from annihilation.


These events, JFK and Van Lem, helped

modern writers bring another phrase into

the cultural lexicon. Pink Mist. In The


the 1969 novel, Mario Puzo vividly

describes the scene when Michael

Corleone shoots two men in a diner. "The

bullet caught Solozzo squarely between

his eyes. And when it exited on the

other side, it blasted out a huge gout of

blood and skull fragments onto the

petrified waiter's jacket. Instinctively,

Michael knew that one bullet was enough.

Only one second had gone by as Michael

pivoted to bring the gun to bear on

McCluskey. Very cooly, very deliberately,

Michael fired the next shot through the

top of his white-haired skull. The air

seemed to be full of pink mist.

When Michael's driver asks him if he's

sure they're dead Michael responds

simply: "I saw their brains."Exponentially

more famous than the book is the same

scene in Coppola's film.


It's less gory, actually than the scene

is described in the book. But the pink

mist? That was there. Really, from the 70s

on, the headshot was fair game for

everything. From Dirty Harry, the

encapsulation of a lone wolf fighting

for racially coded law and order-

"This is a 44 magnum, the most powerful

handgun in the world and would blow your

head clean off."

To the water balloon-esque scanners,

the headshot was there to stay. And

audiences kind of ate it up!

Sam Peckinpah, an American director,

thought that the new language of the

headshot and the advent of squibs and

other new VFX techniques could shock

audiences into the horrors of real

violence. The kind that happens in war,

the kind they couldn't write off as

movie magic.

But Peckinpah succeeded despite himself,

because he was wrong!

Audiences loved it. And maybe this is

actually a positive outlook on our

ability to separate media from real-life.

Actual tragedy had undeniably influenced

how movies depicted violence, but that

on-screen violence didn't elicit the

same trauma from the audience.

Maybe we're really good at separating

fact and fiction. Or maybe it's just a

lot more complicated than that.

BOOM headshot, BOOM headshot, try and hit

me, come on. Pure Pwnage is not a

household name these days, but the

webseries that started in 2004 (and still

writes like it apparently) made one major

contribution to gamers online rhetoric.

In episode five, this fellow's

enthusiastic screams became a true meme

that continues to this day.

FPSDoug, this loud man, is playing

counter-strike. And his exclamations tell

us all we need to know about his play

style. He's brash, he's dominating, but

despite the goofiness, we know he's

skilled. The first gaming headshot as we

think of them today was added to the

original team fortress in 1996, but most

of the gaming community's first

experiences with them came a year later

in 1997 with, shall we say, a higher class

of violence. In several of Goldeneye's

levels, you're presented with a sniper

rifle and given a bunch of oblivious

goons to practice on. A more obvious

invitation to headshot there never was.

There's a weird dichotomy in goldeneye's

headshots, and the games lead, Martin

Hollis, said as much explicitly. "The

headshot isn't very bondian, because it

is needlessly brutal. You imagine it is a

very messy and hideous way to kill

someone. He even says that they tried out

a bloody version of the headshot but

ultimately landed on an animation that

he called clinical. It's a term that

defies reality, a clinical take on a

distinctly un-clinical action. And in

multiplayer, the person who scored the

most headshots even got an accolade

reflecting this dissonance. Most

Professional. If you wanted to make it

easier on yourself, you can even turn on

the cheat code DK mode. Headshots, made

more accessible than ever. What does a

gaming headshot mean?

Most professional isn't that far off. And in

most shooting games, headshots are the

most efficient way to play. It kills the

enemy in the least time, it preserves the

most ammo, putting a bullet between a bad

guy's eyes means that they have less

time to shoot back at you. But even that

is a pretty clinical way to talk about

it. Let's be honest here- hitting a

headshot feels good. Shooters have

essentially turned the human body into a

skee-ball scoring range. Anyone can get

ten points, and if you're consistent with

those tens, you'll probably end up with a

score that's fine. It'll get you a couple

tickets. But up there, that small little

target, that's the big bucks. That's a

hundred points. And goddamn, that's what

we want to hit. One of the most basic

expressions of agency in shooting games

is "where do you want to shoot?" It's one

of the reasons why Resident Evil 4 feels

so creative and dynamic. Want a guy to

drop his pitchfork? Shoot him in the arm.

Slow them down? Shoot him in the leg. But

like skee-ball, there's a best option.

It's the head- pop him in the brain. I'm

not great at skee-ball, but I am pretty

dang good at Resident Evil 4. True story,

Resident Evil 4 was the first M rated

game I was allowed to own. The year was

2000 and something, I had just had my bar-

mitzvah. And as I so eloquently argued to

my parents, in the eyes of the Torah I

was a man. Who's the ESRB to stand up to

the Word of God? So I got Resident Evil 4

and a decade plus later, I'm still

playing it. It feels good to exercise

this much power over the game. Those

ganados that once tore 13-year old me

to shreds don't stand a chance.

I can dominate this game now. And

Resident Evil 4 upon first glance is

shockingly violent. It's not clinical at

all, it's a veritable firework of gray

matter and viscera. But I never think

about that aspect of it anymore.

While games certainly sell themselves

with violence, most players will tell you

that it fades into the background pretty

quickly. Games frequently simulate that

pink mist we talked about earlier, but

there's little sense that a person is

gone- because, of course, there was never a

person to begin with. In their articles

on violence as a motivator in games,

scientists Pryzbylski Ryan and Rigby

reference the grunt birthday party

modification in Halo. Replacing gore with

a gleeful yell and shower of confetti

doesn't actually rob the game of any of

its pleasure. The enjoyment of a headshot

comes from an expression of the mastery

of the game- or frequently a mastery over

others. My single-player celebration of

headshots is nothing compared to actual

human versus human multiplayer lobbies.

Games are faster harder with actual

thinking opponents and those

split-second reflexes letting you pop

heads are proving again and again that

you are better than the people you're

playing against. 100 skee-ball points

doesn't cut it anymore, you've got to get

3,000. (look this metaphor is getting

pretty weak but just stick with me) In

the blur of multiplayer, headshots are

often the difference between life and

death. This kind of logic is leaking out

into wider media as well. In the hyper

violent and hyper video game-y John

Wick series, head shots are really the

only kind of gun interaction that


Keanu routinely shoots people in the

torso once, twice, more only to set them

up for a headshot. Nothing else really

matters. If their head is intact they're

fully functional. Once it's gone so are



As my dad said upon his first viewing

"it's like his gun is a stapler."

But despite the spectacle, there's an

implicit message in the gore of John

Wick. He's better than these other goons,

he's got the twitch reflexes he needs to

survive, and anyone's a professional, it's

god damn Keanu Reeves. Here's a question-

when would you shoot a person in the

head in real life? okay good answer.

Better question, when are people whose

job includes shooting people supposed to

shoot people in the head? There is an

answer to this, actually. In hostage


police sharpshooters sometimes aim for

headshots. Disable the nervous system

completely, avoid retaliation. What else?

Here's the thing- almost never. General

military and police training aim for

body shots. Hunting animals? oh you don't

want to mess up that trophy do you?

Snipers? That group whose literal

profession is to murder people? They

don't go for the head either. Marksmen

train to hit a triangle on the upper

chest, an area basically from the neck to

the nipples. And shooting a gun is very

different in the real-life (shocker).

It's heavy, it kicks. Bullets can be

affected by the elements, and a stray

bullet isn't just a wasted round. It

could ricochet, it could hit someone else.

Although guns are kind of unavoidable in

the U.S. most people will never have a

direct interaction with gun violence, and

only a tiny fraction of them will

actually be in a situation where they

are also armed and could potentially

shoot back. So where do we form our ideas

about guns? Well. Can you think of a game

where you shoot someone without the

intention to kill them? They do exist.

Bringing in live bounties in Red Dead,

or LA Noire foot chases come to mind, but

it ain't the norm is it? And this

actually is realistic. Guns are pretty

bad at doing anything non-lethal. But it

serves to drive home what guns mean in

games. The best shooter is the one that

kills the quickest. There are other

notable exceptions to the trends of

gaming depictions of gun violence. I've

been showing footage from JFK Reloaded, a

free game from 2004 that puts you in the

position of Lee Harvey Oswald. It was

controversial upon release, of course. The

name is intentionally, hilariously crass.

The idea of recreating a real-life

presidential assassination in the

context of what most shooting games are

like seems sacrilege. But JFK Reloaded is

actually an immensely interesting game,

due largely to how little "game" there

is. There's no progression system, no

incentives. Your reward for shooting the

president in the head is, well, knowing

you shot the president in the head.

What JFK reloaded does instead is

present you with overwhelming detail. How

did your bullets ricochet? Did they

strike the other people in the car? What

was the wind speed, how long did you take

between your shots?

JFK Reloaded gives us what the Zapruder

tape couldn't. A chance to pour over

every angle of the scene in exhaustive

detail, see how messy the shots could be,

freeze and zoom around frame 313 leaving

nothing left unanswered. And at the end,

the president is still dead. What do we

gain? Receiver is a 2012 game that

similarly ignores traditional game gun

logic. Although there are turrets and

drones to shoot, neither are as dangerous

as the paralyzing amount of control you

have over your own gun. How many buttons

do you use to control a gun in most

games? Three? One to aim, one to fire, one

to reload? Maybe four if there's a

secondary fire. In Receiver you have more

than a dozen. here's the sequence for

firing Max Payne's revolver: press R to

reload, click to shoot. Two actions. Here's

how it works in Receiver: press e to open

the cylinder press V to shake out the

old rounds, press Z Z

Z Z Z to load each bullet in, press R to

close the cylinder, press F to pull back the

hammer, click to aim click to shoot.

That's 14 separate inputs. Firing the

colt 1911 is very different, of course.

It's a different gun. Why would it feel

the same? Receiver is not a twitchy game.

Everything is absolutely deliberate. It

has to be, or else guns don't fire,

cylinders jam, clips empty. Most games

aren't Receiver or JFK Reloaded. Most

games take the utmost care to make a gun

feel like a natural extension of your

body. And for many of us, this is our most

direct experience with guns: click on the

bad guys heads.

Does this make us want to shoot real people?

No not according to any existing

research. But that's not the only context

that matters. "Simulations, like video

games, are important locations for

individuals to form an idea about what

the act of shooting someone at the head

might feel like. Not because it helps

them understand the sensations of murder

or of death per se, but because it helps

them access the mechanics of aiming and

shooting in a particular fictionalized

context." We learn from games that using a

gun is entirely reflex based. Twitchy.

Used in split-second decisions. And that

coincides pretty well with our love of a

deadly shot. From Call of Duty to

Battlefield to American Sniper,

we've mythologized the stories of how

deadly our trained killers can be

overseas. It's that lone killer aesthetic,

one made popular by SEAL Teams,

snipers, and superheroes. As Nate Powell

points out in his comic "About Face," these

aesthetics and attitudes quickly leak

into domestic police forces. Operator-

style facial hair, blacked out vehicles,

ballooning budgets and increasing

militarization. And in a culture that

valorizes the perceived professionalism

of our deadly forces above virtually all

else, who are we to argue?

Five years ago, an 18 year old boy named

Michael Brown was killed by police

officer Darren Wilson. He was shot six

times, twice in the head. Once from a

downward angle. You've heard the

arguments I'm not going to explain to

you how abhorrent it is that the cops

shot an 18 year old boy, a 12 year old kid,

a seven-year-old girl. If you're not

convinced of that, I'm not gonna be the

one to do it.

But I do want you to think about those

shots. Six times, twice in the head. That's

not even a high number for these events.

Nguyen Van Lem was shot once in the head

by a man standing next to him, Michael

Brown, not an enemy combatant, not a foreign

threat, was shot in the head by a cop

standing over his fallen body. The

effects of being shot in the head are

the same as 60 years ago. An annihilation

of the self. It's actually kind of

fitting in the context of police

violence; The effort for centuries has

been to dehumanize black men and women,

make them less than a person

so the oppression done to them doesn't

trigger white empathy. If the brain is

the self, what's left of a boy shot twice

in the head? We as a culture have grown

increasingly aware of police shootings,

largely through the organizing efforts

of black and brown women. Things have

come from the horrors of Michael Brown

and others' deaths, even if those things

are seemingly never jail time for their

murderers. But in a world increasingly

immersed in the virtual mechanics,

physics, and goals of gun combat, how has

this affected how we view the mechanics

physics and goals of real-life violence?

"While there has been no conclusive

evidence linking video game violence

with aggression in the physical world, we

face a future in which a growing

civilian body considers shooting for the

skull our norm, even a joy, of firearms.

This is also a future in which twitch

responses are valorized for a growing

segment of the populace. Implicit biases

govern the realm of twitch responses, and

they have already been found to effect

rapid decision making along the lines of

race and lethal force. Does a jury,

consciously or not, reward an officer

with a "most professional" accolade for

their lethality in the field? Are we so

in awe of their twitchy combat

proficiency that we assume their

decision to use force was the result of

the same training that taught them to

efficiently destroy a person?

Historically, our idea of a headshot was

built and shaped through our

interactions with it in media. And while

history might be fixed, those ideas

surrounding violence are ever-changing,

in a constant conversation with our gun

obsessed culture. Video games, as far as

we know, don't cause violence. But I

increasingly think that's asking the

wrong question.

This video exists because of two papers.

Sean Quinlan's work I mentioned earlier

his is "Shots to the mind: violence the

brain and biomedicine in popular novels

and film in post 1960s America" and it's

a fantastic overview of the cultural

history of the headshot up until

probably the turn of the century. Who I

really owe everything to though is

Amanda Phillips, who wrote "Shooting to

kill: headshots, twitch reflexes and the

mechropolitics of video games." A huge

amount of what I said in this was either

quoting or directly influenced by her

work so go read both of them. If you

can't access themc just message me on

Twitter and I will send you them. Full

stop. The lovely voices you heard in this

video also belong to talented people.

That godfather reading was Jackson or

@jSchlessinger on Twitter, and the Phillips

quotes who were read by Eurothug4000.

She has her own channel which

is excellent, go check both of them out

please. And if you're still here after

everything, you're the true fan so here's

another picture from my bar mitzvah,

thanks love you bye!!




The Description of Rationalizing Brutality: The Cultural Legacy of the Headshot