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The Immaturity of Video Game Violence
by Laurence Nairne on 06/17/12 10:40:00 am   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.

 

So I already made a post about violence in video games and how it's completely over emphasised as a problem of adolescent gaming, but I wanted to take a specific part of that violence to analyse why we as gamers are so numbed to the act of effectively murdering representations of living beings whether they be human, alien or animal.

I stumbled on this as a problem for me as I watched the E3 conferences along with fellow game enthusiast and student Olly over at the Pixel Crush. Whilst he argued that such a potentially horrifying act could be better portrayed when it is visually closer to the real thing, and that if the quality of the experience of killing a digital being is improved to a sickening standard, then it will have more of an impact on the player, I didn't quite agree, and it soon got me thinking about why we are completely fine with watching and playing at war in a video game, even though it represents a level of violence we strive to avoid in the real world. And when considering this, I wanted to come to a conclusion with how to improve a violent game to the point where the mechanic to kill an individual was present, but that the decision to do or not do would be made much more difficult by more complex emotional triggers.

 So to begin, I believe the main trouble with trying to staple any weight to killing in games comes down heavily to the tone of the game. Any action shooter on the market today exists purely for that reason, to shoot. When a genre titles itself in such a way, you know you will be doing a lot of it. So generally speaking, wave after wave of NPCs will flank, front assault, back stab and bombard your every sense throughout an intense adrenaline rush of a single player campaign, and when you head online, it's more of the same with a removal of the back story and the NPCs, replaced with real people who have gone through the same experience.

The tone set by these games is that you are the ultimate badass with any selection of weapons and equipment regardless of what background they give you, and you are very willing to go out and shoot anyone in the face if they so much as charge towards you without so much as a howdy-do. They instantly signify anything enemy worthy as cannon fodder to your wrath and there is not even the hinting inclusion of a surrender mechanic where you can choose to not kill a man.

We as human beings have become very adept at expecting a list of character traits from our fellow man. When these characteristics are lacking, we either shun that individual (if in real life), or we no longer consider it human. If you are trying to represent a human being, you have to include all or at least most of those characteristics. That's not to say all characters would be wooden on a generic model, as humans are still a very diverse species, but they would contain more of what we know as human, therefore giving more access for the player to at least pretend that character is a real person.

Another side to this problem is that the FPS developers still rely heavily on the glory propaganda that the Western World has been using to encourage young men into the military for over a century. Take Call of Duty as an example. It is little more than a corridor shooter, where you run around several limited spaces and shoot whatever comes into your ever so reflexive reticule. It's a spectacle showcase where everything blows up and everybody dies in a huge spray of artery contents. All fire fights are over the span of twenty metres and your enemy is in broad daylight (unless ducking behind a low wall to reload the old RPG).

War by all accounts is nothing like this. The experience is further cheapened by the fact that these developers intentionally avoid any psychological challenges in their war focused games. There is no emotion involved in spraying into a wave of insurgents, there's no horror when outnumbered, with squad mates breaking down. There are no allies to shoot themselves in the head as they freak out at what they've seen. NOBODY REACTS to anything! Bare in mind, in most games you come in contact with many new recruits and inexperienced warriors. Not a one even vomits from disgust, or the sight of entrails. Explosions propel whole bodies across hallways and all they have to show for it is some rag doll physics and a patch of poorly textured blood to signify "dead".

Why is this missing? Who wants to buy a game where you actually care about your doing? Right? Well unfortunately adding in anything which matters to anybody is counted as a risk. For example, Call of Duty: World at War, Treyarch's previous title before Black Ops contained dismemberment. Whilst I don't think this solves many issues with the psychology of warfare, it was at least more believable. This was taken out in following iterations of the franchise. Developers are so scared of actually making a violent game where people have to think about the decision to kill.

Games are trying to move beyond the trivial and shooters are holding the industry back as they work each and every year to add new gimmicks and unlockables to their roster of ways to shoot meaningless pixels, instead of meeting the challenge of creating a meaningful experience in which violence lives at its heart, but doesn't define every action of the player. I believe the time has come for the exploration of violence to extend beyond the surface into the depths of motives and psychology, with more experiences like Heavy Rain to make the player use that juicy blob of matter behind their eyes.


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Comments


[User Banned]
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Nick Putnam
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I agree with this article. It seems like the industry right now is dominated by shooters, and sometimes pointless violence. It's fun to be the badass, and go down countless confined corridors and outdoor locations just shooting and blowing people sky high into the air, for no reason yet to fend off another horde of enemies. Though it is kind of sick to think that, as the player and even though these are virtual circumstances we don't give any empathy to who were killing and sometimes why we should care. I think what games are striving for though and some developers are getting right, is trying to add more context to the play. Though I don't think choose your own adventure style choice mechanics do good at completely immersing the player into the experience where they actually feel empathy for the ones they are viciuosly murdering. I think one way developers could create more emotion and empathy in games is in the way they approach the gameplay as a whole, and not just tell people to be empathic. Yet to put them in insane circumstances within the gameplay itself, that makes them feel empathic, through shear human emotion.

Michael Joseph
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This is one of those inconvenient truths we are forever remembering and then forgetting. It's good to be reminded again.

TC Weidner
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killing rips the soul apart, war is insanity. PTSD is very real. Violence in a slapstick 3 stooges, wile coyote way is one thing, the violence we now see many video games approaching is quite different.

I agree with this article, violence and violent video games are just a cheap cop out to make an easy buck. They do a huge disservice to our community and the gaming industry.

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David Navarro
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"violence and violent video games are just a cheap cop out to make an easy buck."

You must work in an entirely different industry if you think making a shooter is "easy" or "cheap".

Eric Schwarz
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Violence is common in games for a few reasons:

1) Violence sells. It's a lowest common denominator action that provides instant drama and emotion. Is it cheap? Absolutely. But, just as people enjoy the carnal thrill and spectacle of action films, they enjoy violent videogames. They're fun, not challenging, and that's the point.

2) Violence is cheap. It's relatively easy to abstract the act of killing something or someone into a simple game mechanic or system. First-person shooter enemies are merely obstacles that the player needs to surpass via timing, reflex and resource management challenges, for instance - and these quick and repetitive behaviours are things entire games are built upon. Creating a game where you shoot stuff is, relatively speaking, easy. Modeling the human cost of those actions, their implications, the moral problems associated with them... that is not cheap, or easy (not that it can't be done, but it's something designers have far less experience handling).

3) Violence is traditional. Genre is such a constant in the world of videogames that most games aren't even built with mechanics in mind from the start - they're "we're going to make a shooter/RPG/strategy game/etc." and then fan out from there. Nothing wrong with this approach of course, but violence is so integral to these types of games and is historically what players expect as a default game theme, as well as developers, it's the sort of thing that's often included in a game without much thought. We make games about killing because the games we grew up with were about killing.

All of this doesn't really change the fundamental point of course - that violence in games is sometimes disturbing because of the way it avoids all the inconvenient truths, but I think it's also important to recognize why things are the way they are. Without doing so, it can be easy to forget that cartoon videogame violence is a fantasy, and everyone who takes part in that fantasy (ideally) knows it.

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Eric Schwarz
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1) Does selling cheap traditional violence profit the user?

- If that's what the user wants. Clearly, lots of people do. Whether or not that's actually good for the user is another story.

2) And do you think "all" parts of fantasy, are always "just" fantasy as to the interpretation of the end user?

- I think most people are able to tell fact from fiction and to interpret the context of violence in order to understand its meaning. Saving Private Ryan frames violence very differently than Die Hard, and I would imagine audiences are aware of this. If a person isn't able to make those distinctions, then either that person is a child and probably requires guidance by an adult, or is an adult and probably has issues that I don't think game creators should be held accountable for.

3) Do you derive meaning from the violence?

- Absolutely. Violence is an integral part of the gaming experience in many cases. The nature of that meaning is what matters. Call of Duty's violence is very different from ArmA's, or Dragon Age, or Pokemon, etc., both mechanically and thematically.

David Navarro
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"it soon got me thinking about why we are completely fine with watching and playing at war in a video game,"

We've been playing war in games since, at the very least, the 6th Century AD, so I guess it's because people have had time to get used to it.

Also, children have been playacting violence and murder to each other since at least a hundred thousand years before that. I'm not entirely sure why playing "cowboys and indians" is OK, but playing a videogame makes you a budding psychopath.

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Vinicius Capiotti
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While I do agree that violence is being cheaply overused, I don't think the abstraction of warfare as a theme to achieve certain gameplay purposes is necessarily bad. Using themes superficially to make sense of the gameplay is a common thing in any genre, and trying to create a completely real experience related to a situation or theme is not necessarily the best approach, in my opinion, also because it is just impossible to do.

Obviously exploring war and violence in different and innovative ways is a great thing to do, but it is just one of the things our industry is lacking right now.

JB Vorderkunz
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WARNING DISSENTING OPINION!
Ever heard of a book called "Killing Monsters"? Violence is an inherent fact of nature and often serves useful purposes that are healthy. PTSD most often occurs when violence is encountered as simultaneously senseless, arbitrary and avoidable - see "Achilles in Vietnam". While every soldier is effected by battle, not every soldier is crippled by it - fact!

[EDIT: Eric S and David N, well said!]

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Jacob Germany
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It could be easily argued that all violence in warfare is senseless and avoidable. Not sure why you see a differentiation between avoidable and unavoidable violence, and who claims that would affect PTSD.

And considering the frequency of PTSD, saying that "everyone" isn't crippled by violence loses some its punch when quite a few are.

David Serrano
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I was watching one of HBO's shows about porn this weekend and when asked about porn's growing popularity and its impact on Hollywood, a USC film professor said since Hollywood can only show implied sex... they use violence as a substitute to appeal to consumers. In many ways, I think this is exactly what game developers have been doing for years. So maybe it's finally time for game developers to start experimenting with the alternative?

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Roger Tober
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When you overuse anything, it becomes meaningless, and that's what has happened to games and violence. Games need to grow more than ever before because the market is getting older and expects more depth, yet they are locked in never ending strings of violence and cheap little rewards given over and over like sugar canes and lollypops to 5 year olds. More and more people are seeing them for what they are, a never ending dead end, it only progresses to more and bigger, not deeper. The question really needs to be, what can replace it? We need non-violent skills that fits easily into a game setting. My own feeling is we've gotten caught up in having the player decide the story outcome. The story, in my mind, needs to force us down certain paths. There are places where you don't have weapons and where you have to use ingenuity to create weapons or other tools that will be useful in the environment. The environment has to be seen as another enemy. Not just jumping, that's boring and overused also. Vehicles and tools.
Another choice that should be not given is the dictatorial muscle approach. You have to get these people to stop fighting and live in peace. That's the only objective. You have to keep a race from being wiped out that has no way of overpowering all the other races. You have to save a family, save a person, etc. Force the player to use nonviolent methods, sometimes, not always.

Bart Stewart
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I generally agree. Furthermore, what does it say about the computer game industry when so much of its contribution to culture generally is simulated violence?

But set aside those questions for a moment. If not violence, what should the most common form of electronic entertainment be? Would an industry of Portal-like physics puzzlers be more or less commercially successful than an industry of shooters? What about over the long run?

[User Banned]
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Laurence Nairne
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I think it's an issue that is reflected in the human mind set. We've come to a point where attention to detail is more in the visual that in character or plot lines. We look so deep at graphics and the complexity of models in the environment, but rarely consider what makes a GOOD story. I emphasise good because action shooters may have once had a good template, but it's been used countless times in game and film over the years that it's long past stale, right into the mouldy!

When the mass consumer market starts demanding more depth to their gaming experiences, then we'll see more titles pushing narrative boundaries for something fresh and thought provoking.

marty howe
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More violence please. Just make the violence stylish (no blood, death animations that look like dance)

Games are too tame, too soft, not enough action.

Laurence Nairne
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I can't tell if you trying to troll or not...

marty howe
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Not trolling Laurence. I love violence (movies, games, comics)

Laurence Nairne
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Do you never crave more understanding of violence in media though? I personally like to be able to at least consider it. It doesn't need to be shown in a negative light, but at least make me think about what I'm doing rather than throwing wave after wave of meat in my direction...


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