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Ken Levine reflects on the game industry's history of violence
Ken Levine reflects on the game industry's history of violence
June 30, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

"One of the reasons there's been a lot of violence in video games is because it's relatively easy to simulate and, like action movies, there's an easily perceivable market for it."
- Bioshock creative director Ken Levine speaks to the value of violence in video games during an interview with NPR.

In a brief interview segment on NPR's All Tech Considered, game industry veteran Ken Levine spoke candidly about why he thinks the industry at large -- himself included -- demonstrates such a predilection for violence and gore.

"There's a tendency for publishers and developers to underestimate the audience," said Levine. "They're really no different than any other audience. There's plenty of movies that are intended for people that aren't that interested in political philosophy, and there's plenty that are."

The interviewer challenged Levine about some of the criticism Bioshock Infinite received for its violence, and he responded by pointing out that the criticism itself is evidence that the industry is changing -- presumably for the better.

"I think that it's not particularly more violent than Bioshock 1," said Levine. "I think the conversation in the games space has changed a little bit. I think people used Infinite as a launching point to talk about the changing nature of games."

Levine went on to suggest that game development is growing up, claiming that as segments of the game market have evolved -- in a very broad sense -- from quarter-munching arcade games through shooters to story-driven experiences like The Walking Dead, so too have his own interests and game-making skills.

To hear Levine tell it, first-person shooters offer a very violent, very convenient mechanical frameworks which developers can drape their designs over and easily appeal to a broad swath of people.

"A shooter answers a lot of questions for you: the main mechanic is you have this gun, you have weapons, you have enemies, you have conflict coming at you," said Levine. "I think now, we have a little more confidence that, especially when you don't have to appeal to eight or ten million people, when you can just digitally distribute, you can really try to have a one-to-one interaction with a smaller, more dedicated fanbase and give them the thing they want. You couldn't do that twenty years ago when I started."

It's an interesting point to make in light of the veiled claims Levine made about producing digitally-distributed "narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable" with Take-Two Interactive in the wake of the company's decision to close Irrational Games earlier this year. Levine cofounded the studio in 1997 and helped lead its development of first-person shooters like System Shock 2, Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite.

The full interview segment, which contains more commentary from Levine about the industry and his role within it, can be heard over on NPR's All Tech Considered website.

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Sam Stephens
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"I wouldn't have known how to make a game like Mario," he says. "I wouldn't have known how to take this kind of story and turn it into a game about jumping on blocks."

This interview makes it very clear that Levine is the kind of person who makes his games from the top down. He thinks of the world, story, and basic genre before considering the details of the gameplay. It's interesting that he brings up how he wouldn't be able to make a Mario game, because Shigeru Miyamoto takes the opposite ground up approach to game design.

Miyamoto on Pikmin and new IP's: "Pikmin 3 is a good example; the Pikmin characters were something that were born out of a new gameplay idea when we first came up with that game. We created the gameplay idea first and we decided that the best characters suited for that gameplay idea were Pikmin characters. That's where the Pikmin IP came from. Similarly, if you look at our booth here, we're showing it as a showcase of all of Nintendo's great characters, but in each and every one of those games the gameplay" experience is what's new. So from my perspective, it's not a question of just how can we create a new character and wrap it around an old game and put that out and call it a new IP. It's always about starting with a new gameplay idea and a new experience that's unique from an interactive standpoint and then finding a character that's best suited with that. In some cases, it may be an existing character, and in some cases it may lead us to a new IP at some point in the future."


Kujel Selsuru
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I much prefer Miyamoto-san's way of designing games over Levine's. In fact Bioshock was one of the very few games I ever traded in because I felt it wasn't a very good game and would have made a better film.

Sam Stephens
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@ Kujel Selsuru

"I much prefer Miyamoto-san's way of designing games over Levine's."

I agree. Designing games in the way Levine does brings in unnecessary challenges that can be avoided otherwise. Of course, this approach alone isn't entirely responsible for the BioShock series' shortcomings, but it definitely contributes.

Charles Cresswell
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As long as the market isn't saturated with first-person-walkarounds. Yeah, there is a place for art in video gaming and sometimes exploration can be as fun as anything else, but it does seem that there are a lot of recent releases sold as games which do not even have much in the way of interaction except note collecting.

Connor Fallon
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But if there is a notable segment that finds that compelling, what would the problem be? It's not like shooters and other more mechanic driven games are going to dissappear.

Diversification of the types of games can only be a good thing, I feel.

Benjy Davo
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I don't think he meant games like Gone Home Charles, though I get why you said that. He has been talking about combing the strategic game play of X Com and storytelling for a while now.

Alexander Jhin
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"A shooter answers a lot of questions for you: the main mechanic is you have this gun, you have weapons, you have enemies, you have conflict coming at you." Shooting, as a mechanic, is extremely compelling both in video games and in real life. Humans have an inborn pointing instincts (unlike monkeys or great apes) and pointing and shooting gives instant feedback: whatever you're shooting goes kabloowey from great distant and at great speed.

If you've ever wondered why a certain class of people (hunters, target shooters) love guns it's the same reason certain people love shooters (mixed with a sense of competition.)

But of course, a gun in the real world can kill real people (just like a car in the real world can kill real pedestrians.) So, perhaps, if shooters get better and more realistic, people can get a very similar thrill to the real thing, just without the risk of bodily injury to self and others.

Benjy Davo
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Always liked Ken's games going all the way back to Thief, SS2, FF 1 + 2 and Swat 4, as well as the Bioshock's. Kind of interesting seeing newbies respond to Bioshock as if Ken had just turned up.

Felt he was dealt a slightly harsh hand in relation to Infinite by the gaming "press" who were on a sniping hunt in regards wanting new stuff in games. Clearly he had to keep it reasonably close to Bioshock as it was a vague sequel to that game and fans of that game would want similar game play. I suspect some were also going after him because of weird rumours he was difficult to work with which were unfounded.

Will be interesting to see if he can achieve what he aimed for in that narrative Legos chat he did at GDC.

Jennis Kartens
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Years back, I watched a documentary where one former designer of Abe's Oddysee statet that these kind of mechanics have grown rather organic, due to the technical limitations back in the old days. He said it was easier to destroy an object, get it out of the memory, contrary to create something new.

I always found that aspect rather realistic. This industry grew so fast, its not even a hundred years old yet already has an industry surpassing the over 100 years old movie industrie as well as gained due to the overal change in the world a lot of followers.

By now, people are used to shooters. It's an accepted form. Not so easy to get out of it again. Additionally, some things haven't changed. That would be the actual way how we play games. There is still no connection between you and the computer, except for some very very primitive and basic input devices. That topic has been touched with Kinect, PS EYE or Wii Mote, but has been not so much of an avail so far.

I personally think, more diversity will come over time automatically, but also with new approaches on how we play games. And these things are not so easily marketed as an all new visual engine that makes the killing even more realistic and yay...

George Menhal III
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The single biggest innovation that I would like to see in this current generation of games is an interesting way to move design and mechanics away from violent interactions with hostile NPC's. In my mind, the time for such a thing is long overdue. I think Oculus and VR have huge potential in this regard. My hope is that the introduction of a VR element can reposition game design away from all of these first person shooters. Not that there is anything wrong with a great shooter, but I think the time is ripe for a significant change. We need more diversity and we need more creative game designs.

David Serrano
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For what it's worth, I think if not for COD, Halo and Gears of War... games like Assassins Creed, Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, Red Dead Redemption (and Viva Piņata and Big Little Planet to a lesser degree) would have shifted the development focus in a radically different, less violent and puerile direction.

And unfortunately, I suspect until the big budget, violent, bro-dude centric games begin to consistently lose money... core developers and publishers will continue to exclusively focus on delivering more of the same.

Rodney Emerson
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While technical limitations seem to be a factor playing into the ubiquity of violence in games, I think the overall issue has less to do with the computer, and more to do with the designers and consumers themselves.

When a computer was too weak to display a certain act of violence, graphical technology soon got pushed, which game developers gleefully used to their aims.

When there was a lack of a sufficient gameplay style best geared toward violence, game designers soon created one.

When marketers needed a good way to appeal to consumers to by their product, they usually went straight for the basest, most primal instincts they could find, which was almost always violence (sometimes accompanied by sex).

Eventually it came to a point where extreme violence was in such demand, that anything that didn't have an M rating got the stink eye from consumers.

And now in this current generation of video games, extreme violence is so common and expected that game developers seem unable to imagine a game WITHOUT ridiculous displays of violence, even considering the amount of computer power we now have. We can create cities in a computer now. We can make amazing representations of the human form with a computer. We can even create entire procedural worlds going by the feats of Minecraft and the claims of No Man's Sky. But in all this, we somehow cannot find a way to interact with a little computer person that does not involve bashing his head, cutting him in half, or running him down with a car while waxing poetic about the hardness of life? This sounds like a very human problem to me.

But after saying this, I'm not going to claim that making such a change is easy, because it's not. I know from my own personal struggle with it that it's not. Casting aside violence as a mechanic requires one to completely change their thinking about how games work, what people do in them, and what you can do to make a fun experience for your audience. There are many things people enjoy in real life, most of which do not involve violence, but how can we make these things into fun game mechanics?

Jennis Kartens
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Thats kind of what I meant, better said :-). It (maybe) started with technical limitations, but back then that has been the focus. So evolution took place only in technology, while old mechanics where adapted and adapted, generation after generation. And now it's accepted and wanted and breaking free of these things became harder.

But some are trying and succeeding even. I hope we will see more diversity even in bigger productions in the future.

Maria Jayne
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I think the natural draw of violence is fantasy, most of us live in a civilized society where violence is controlled and unlawful outside of those controls. Video games can often overlook many of those controls and give us a fantasy where we can be more free to indulge. Some of us even look for controls within video games just to try and bring some reality to the fantasy.

If we lived in a constant violent society, we might actually prefer none violent video games more, because that would become the fantasy.