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On Violence
by Craig Ellsworth on 02/28/12 08:53:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Growing up, I played DOOM, Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros., MYST, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The 7th Guest, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Warcraft, and a ton of other videogames without much in common.

I made no discriminations, no categorizations based on genre, because genre was a foreign concept to me.  I didn't care what the rating was (half of my childhood was spent without a videogame rating system anyway), and I certainly made no distinction between violent and non-violent games.

I played DOOM and Mortal Kombat when I wanted to, and MYST when I wanted to.  DOOM has you mowing down zombies and demons with machine guns and rocket launchers, and MYST is about a hair more violent than a Sunday crossword puzzle.

The violence held no attraction or repulsion for me.  The middle-of-the-road games, like Sonic the Hedgehog games, where you stomp things, but with no blood, were just as much fair play.  There was no road to be in the middle of.  Only now as I write this am I placing these games along that line.

And as far as I can tell, the violent games made me no more aggressive than the non-violent ones.  No difference.  In fact, I was hardly aggressive at all, ever.

I was bullied, not the bully.  I never killed anything larger than a spider, and usually at that age I'd have to call my dad in to kill it for me.

When I dreamed of killing, which was extremely rare (and I think didn't happen until my teenage years), I always found myself physically unable to kill.  My body in my dreams would not cooperate and allow me to kill, and I always felt a sense of dread while trying.  I don't know what that says about me psychologically, but there you have it.

I'll pause here to say that, yes, plenty of studies have been done to show no correlation between videogame violence and youth aggression, but since so many people distrust science these days, and put their faith in anecdotal evidence, this is my own eyewitness testimony to put on the heap.

So for me, violence meant nothing.  Indeed, I was allowed to watch rated R movies when I was young.  I remember walking into the living room at about age six while my dad was watching Conan the Barbarian, full of blood and heads being chopped off.  That Christmas I got an NES.

As far as I can tell, I didn't turn out too bad.

When I was that young, I didn't care about the graphics or the level of detail.  The family that babysat me had an Atari 2600, and I enjoyed the games on that just as much as I enjoyed the latest games for Sega Genesis or Windows 95.

Violence was something I simply took no notice of, and I bet none of my friends noticed either.

Recently I heard a story about how some parent with an adopted child was playing Portal 2 with said child, and at one point a robot made fun of the player for being adopted.  The parent was taken aback.  The child "swore she didn't hear anything."  I doubt that, but I think it's her way of saying "It's not a big deal, dad, let it go."

Children simply don't have any problem with videogames the way parents do.  They don't have a problem with music, movies, or any other form of entertainment.  No child is going to object to Harry Potter for having witchcraft in it unless their parents drill it into their head to be scared of it.

Parents hear about school shootings, and the old media blames videogames, so parents are quick to do the same.  Then it always comes to light that the children who commit mass murder aren't fans of videogames, or play them no more than anyone else.

Maybe it's the fault of overprotective parents that shelter their kids from the real world.  Maybe when kids suddenly get a taste of life, they are so unprepared that they go nuts.

I'd like to see research done on that.

But that's beside the point, I think.

Because lots of people will still object and say "But but but when my kid plays games, he gets angry!"  Yeah, maybe he does, but it's not the violence that does it.

Here's my hypothesis:  it's the difficulty of the game being played, not the level of violence that makes kids aggressive.

I get pissed off when I'm playing a game and can't get past some spot that's way outside of the difficulty curve.  It frustrates me, even as an adult, so much that I want to smash my keyboard or throw the controller at the TV.  It's just the same as if you're watching a movie, getting really into it, forgetting you're even watching a movie, and suddenly the DVD starts to skip.  That's basically what it's like to get stuck in a videogame:  your game essentially gets stuck at one spot, breaking your flow, breaking your enjoyment, breaking your suspension of disbelief, and you get angry.

If you pay attention to kids playing games, maybe you'll find out that that's the case with them, too.

That would be an appropriate study.  Have kids play the same game on different difficulty settings and see if they get angrier as they lose more often.  Frustration is a big cause of aggression, I can tell you that.

Don't blame game makers for putting too much violence in their games; blame game makers for making games too difficult and frustrating.  Or better yet, don't blame them at all, just don't let your kids playing games that are too difficult.

Maybe we should redesign our rating system to be based on difficulty, so kids can't buy games that will make them scream in frustration.

To read this article with pictures and jokes, as well as to read other articles, reviews, development logs, etc., stop by 

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Jake Shapiro
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This "parents don't understand games" era is only a temporary one. In a couple decades when the majority of parents are people who grew up with video games, it'll be interesting to see if this issue even exists at all anymore.

Bart Stewart
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When politicians and pundits are all people born in the 80s and 90s, they will find some other hobby of the next generation to get worried about and denounce.

It probably won't be videogames. But there's always been something the next generation loves that we don't get, and (as long as H. sap. is still around) there always will be.

Joshua Darlington
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Parental concerns for 2032: AR fetish skinning, deep spectrum LIDAR peeping toms, holographic torture porn mod cults, optogenetic virus mods that turn the infected into transhumanist sluts, computer viruses that turn your AI assistant into a Nigerian con artist, autonomous car bombs etc.

Glen Cooney
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Reminds me of the ill-fated show Caprica, which while being a mediocre show overall talked about the possibility of full VR worlds kids would go to where they could have sex and kill eachother in VR with impunity.
Never thought of the violence thing like that before. I think there definitely is something to the idea that parents are looking at how their children are physically reacting to the games they play and drawing conclusions from that without really trying to understand the media their children are taking in. Great post!

Joshua Darlington
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I'm not familiar with Caprica, but it sounds like it was based on plausible predictions.

I was thinking of stuff like this.

AR skinning


Seeing through walls


DIY genetic engineering

Michael Joseph
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@Guerric Hache
Just because something is accepted doesn't mean it is a good idea.

So a large percentage of society has accepted some things. What is that supposed to prove? Can you prove we're better off? Of course you cannot. Is this the type of reasoning we get from the video game playing generations?

Smoking, drinking, sedentary lifestyles, watching a lot of tv, playing a lot of video games... all accepted but so what? And it's not just about violence in games. I wish people would quit trying to reduce the discussion to what is probably the least important reason for being cautious about excessive video game play.

For me, the biggest concern is that young people are paying (potentially) a heavy opportunity cost when playing games. Playing games is not likely to help a young person become excellent.

Joshua Darlington
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Unless some one is geriatric super stud, all parents have grown up in the age of videogames. Whether parents understand games or understand todays games is another matter. Typically they are going to have a preference for games that dont create violence or add to violence in their household. If their kids only play a game when they are in a violent mood, parent may have a hard time seeing that their kid is the source of the aggression and not the game itself. They will error on the side of caution. This is a money making opportunity.

It seems like most male hardcore gamers enjoy violent entertainment. So from this perspective, concern over violent entertainment seems absurd at best or a personal insult at worst. However, if you go beyond the role of advocating your personal bias, you may realize that the issue of violent entertainment is complicated and worth a deep consideration, rather than a superficial dismissal.

The release of anxiety through "kick the dog" behavior has been studied. People "kick the dog" because its relaxing. Providing a game mechanic for this instinct is an interesting idea. Perhaps a button that blows up the universe, would work as a similar release. It's worth exploring. However, this would reinforce parental concerns re violent games. Humans are hunters and have bloodlust instincts. Violent games satiate this instinct but at the same time reinforce violent problem solving. A non-violent solution to spiking frustration is to provide multiple pathways for mission completion. A "skip this mission because I suck" option works but is not as elegent as offering a similar (face saving or alternate challenge) bypass within a mechanical and or narrative structure.

Ultimately, I believe that when affective interfaces (emotion capture) and psych gamification comes of age, game designers will have a much more sophisticated understanding of how their games effect players psych and will have proven mechanics for engineering psych. They can choose to work within this understanding or not.

Theres a great sufi book on music that explores the subject of art as emotional transmission - "The Mysticism of Sound and Music" by Hazrat Inayat Khan.

Henri Mustonen
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I don't see violent games being a result to unstable behaviours either. What I do see is a lot of missed opportunities by not questioning the violent themes and killing altogether that most games use as the primary gameplay mechanic.

I'm not saying violence based video games don't have a place; they have brought us to this point where there's at least a possibility to stop and to look at new possibilities. I think we could benefit the industry and humanity in general if we would start including new things. These could include:

Personal growth
Appreciation of the world around you
De-personalization of life
Inner peace
Companionship with other people
New understandings about some subjects

All this may sound idealistic, and maybe it is, but wouldn't these be things that we would like to teach to our children along with what the current games teach? I see Thatgamecompany doing great pioneer work and hopefully more will follow in the years to come.

Michael Joseph
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Maybe playing all those video games as a child is to blame for this poorly reasoned article.

"I sniffed glue all my life and as far as I can tell I'm fine!"

How do you know what you would've been like had that time been filled doing (arguably) more productive things? The simple fact is there's no way of knowing for sure but we all know that virtuous work, excercise and study habits are likely to lead to greater success in all facets of life.

The violence in gaming debate is a red herring. The virtues of gaming (video games specifically) is what we should be thinking about. Most publishers are not thinking about the virtues of gaming I know that much. You see these silly reports every now and then about games increasing hand eye coordination. Is that the best they can come up with? The rest of their points are little better than "Pizza sauce is a great source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and iron!" as if there weren't better sources that didn't contain all the bad stuff found in pizza.

"No More Technology for Children? The case to let your kids be bored"

Hayley Krischer | November 30, 2010

p.s. I hate to say it but a lot of the defense of video game threads seem to echo scenes and themes from the movie "Idiocracy." There's too often the defense of mediocrity and ignorance... the defense of our own lifestyles.