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.