On Violence in Video Games

Last year, a debate took place regarding the level of Violence in Video Games. In May, The E3 press briefings in general got Nathan Grayson on RPS to react, and The last of Us in particular managed to get Kris Graft on Gamasutra to react with  “If you were an average Joe who strolled into one of these E3 press conferences, and saw hundreds of people hoot and holler when a guy’s face gets blown off in high-resolution detail, you might think you walked into an ancient Roman coliseum.” Towards the end of the year (or, rather, this January) Leigh Alexander, also on Gamasutra, wrote a more nuanced article about when it might actually be good sometimes.

So you could think all has been said, especially since these people are a lot better with words than I am. However, violence in video games has been a topic I’ve been thinking about for years, and I wouldn’t like the debate just pass by without speaking my mind.

Back in 2009, I visited my first game conference, the Nordic Game Conference in Malmö, Sweden. I was 19, and a college freshman, at the time, and hadn’t met the game development community in person before. So you can imagine meeting people doing the work of your dreams was exciting! Perhaps my most long-lasting (and to this post most relevant) memory is a debate I had with a HR-person. He asked, and I’m paraphrasing, “so, why should you be in the industry”.

And I answered. In length. About how tragic it is for us, as a business, as a medium, as an art form, to be so stuck in the concept that “shoot/stab someone in the head” is the basis for so much of our work. Games can do so much more than that (although I didn’t know what, exactly)!

Then I remembered the HR guy worked at Starbreeze, the makers of The Chronicles of Riddick (and since then The Darkness and Syndicate).

Whoops!

Do a google image seach for this game and count the number of pictures containing weapons of any kind. Point proven.

Maybe he just said the wrong thing to the wrong person, too?

At it’s core, that basic outlook remains unchanged. So did the last five years prove me right?

Yes, it did – we can do so much more. We can build farms (Farmville), cities (Cityville), sort blocks (Bejeweled), dance (Dance Central, Just Dance) and tell really moving stories (Heavy Rain, Mass Effect) and… uh, roll balls (Katamari Damacy)?

But I’ve also been proven wrong. We’ve done other stuff than shooting/stabbing virtual men. We’ve built farms (Animal Crossing), cities (Sim City), sorted blocks (Tetris) and danced (Dance Dance Revolution) and… you guessed it, rolled balls (Monkey Ball).

Our repertoire, at least by these examples, doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. But, as you may have guessed, contradicting my point and doing that alone wouldn’t be much of a point for a blog post.

The art and interaction is improved, but how much have we really changed beneath that?

Look, it’s flawless!

It’s strange how some moments just etch themselves and changes your views of things. Perhaps it’s their timing, how your attention is already on a certain topic, and this moment just serves as the tipping point for a realization.

Django Unchained was such a moment for me. Despite generally not liking the violent games, I really did enjoy the action of this movie. Had it to do with the medium, perhaps? No, I don’t think so. I think it has all to do with pacing and framing.

The violent games usually takes a very light-hearted approach to what’s really not a light-hearted topic. Take take the first example I think of – common Assassin’s Creed gameplay. In the clip below, the player falls down on the street. A guard gets suspicious, but doesn’t pay it much attention and moves on. The player stalks him, stabs him in the back on open street, and walks on. Like nothing ever happened. I can’t not imagine how that guard is a “real” person, who grew up over the years, had to take a job in his adult year (or, maybe, was half-forced by the king to join the crusade or something), and is trying to survive yet keep order in a faraway land.

Maybe I’m just too soft here, but This, this is what pisses me off with Video Game violence – how it trivializes lethal actions and dehumanizes the player’s humanoid opponents to an obstacle to be traversed.

In contrast, Django Unchained spends about 20 to 30 minutes having the coming target of Djangos coming actions kick the puppy repeatedly, as well as ruling out one peaceful option after the other. At the point where the action comes, there’s no doubt the fight is somehow important, that fighting here is the only way out, and that “they deserve it”.

That doesn’t mean games can’t do it well: take a game like Shadow of the Collossus. I may not have played it, but what I can tell from friends it humanizes the colossi to the point you feel regretful killing them, starting to wonder if you really do “the right thing”. They are also few – 16 in total – which means every colossus counts. That’s how you put meaning in violence.

Not to mention epic. Man, I want to play this game!

It does feel kind of important, doesn’t it?

Another factor I’m often bugged about with video game violence is how it loves to gorge itself in blood and gore, and makes the violence look “cool”, “awesome” or what have you. Tarantino films doesn’t help here – they’re as gory as the rest of them. I shouldn’t have to give you an example, but let’s do it for reference.

The problem is this: Violent acts are tragic and full of death (a topic of which point in games I’ve already covered). Games, or action films, glorifies this to the extreme. I’d rather see an approach where it is unglorified (not saying it has to be realistic; I’d rather not watch or play that). An example, the television show Game of Thrones does this really well – violence is often sudden, deadly, “not made much of a fuzz about” and tragic.

WARNING: SEASON 1 SPOILERS IN THE EMBEDDED VIDEO
http://youtu.be/gm2P2SOg4ms

So, to conclude. I’m not fine with violence that plays down it’s meaning yet glorifies it. I would be fine with it was it a real and constant danger in the drama, always meaningful and preferably tragic. Unless the bad guy has kick too many puppies, in which s/he deserve what’s coming! ;)

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3 Responses to On Violence in Video Games

  1. Pingback: On Pre-orders | Tankeflod

  2. Sam Hale says:

    I agree with your post. If you’re looking for a game that takes death seriously, check out Indigo Prophecy. I made a blog post on the same topic. Check it out!

    • Johannes Smidelöv says:

      I have heard that game is really impressive (until some weird plot-twist half way in or so). I should check it out, indeed!

      It seems the link to your blog leads to a removed web page. Have you changed the URL, perhaps?

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