Editor’s Note: The What, Why, and WTF is a fortnightly article series that explores the culturally pervasive elements of gaming, those parts of video games that seem to have left some mark on gaming as a whole or Nick just finds really interesting. It is in no way an academic source, despite liking to pretend it is.
Trying to write an article about violent video games that ends up being well received by all is like trying to please a mob of straight edge cultists with a bribe of vintage wine. Straight up, you’re going to be disappointed with this article. I’m not going to try and prove that violent video games don’t cause violent behaviour or cuddle you softly while whispering into your ear all the reasons why violent games are bad, because I’m interested in something a bit less run of the mill: I wanna know why it keeps popping up. Why the hell do games continually keep coming back to violence as a means to an end, and why are violent games so damn popular? While the natural attraction is obvious, there must be more to it than ‘violence sells’, right?
Human history is filled with violence as part of storytelling, but video games seem a bit more fascinated with it than, say, TV or film. A quick glance over my own gaming collection indicates a bit of a trend, home to such classics as Farcry, Fallout, Half Life, Deus Ex, and UT2004. The popularity of games like FIFA, Animal Crossing, and Scribblenauts are apparent to me, but they seem overshadowed by titles like Call of Duty and Last of Us, especially when you consider that the latter is being remade for next-gen while the former is re-released every six months. So, why is violence so recurrent in popular games? It’s not like violence is enjoyable or anything.
Violence is not fun in real life. Getting punched in the eye isn’t something I’d like to go through again (pro tip: chicks do not dig swollen faces), and I’m sure most people would agree that they quite like not having to actually kill, maim, or generally hurt people. For instance, if I asked you to stop reading, find the person nearest to you, and stab them 35 times in the back, pretty sure you’d do what a sane human being would do and not do it. So, naturally, violent video games consistently list amongst the top games sold each year in Australia. Absolutely no explanation is needed to explain why violent video games are popular, the logic is obvious, so this article is completely redundan- WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL.
Blades are the new black. Crossbows too.
In order to properly discuss violent video games, we need to know precisely what they are. We all kinda know what violence is, but nailing down it’s role in video games is problematic since it can sometimes be a choice made by the player to instigate violent actions or not. It’s obviously not just a matter of looking for games with guns or swords in them, it’s a matter of how such action is presented to us and it’s consequences in-game. I think my favourite definition specifies violent video games as those that represent violence as the best or only way to resolve conflict, but this is still a slight oversimplification.
The context of violence within a game is just as important as its existence. When Pikmin die, it’s adorable but depressing, while the mad killing sprees in Call of Duty (at least the latest ones) are all show and no substance, with each kill feeling like nothing more than shooting walking bloodbags. Treating glamorised violence identically as more serious portrayals of being hit by cars, shot by terrorists, or attacked by giant flies makes lumping them into one ‘violent game’ category convenient but somewhat misleading, which is why I think most gamers feel offended when they see something like this blindly state that all violent games are bad. Yes, perhaps running around in a panda costume whacking randoms with a dildo will desensitise me to violence, but it’s not as ‘bad’ as murdering an airport full of civilians with a machine gun… Man, now that I mention it, I’d love to do that in a video game. Well, using our nifty albeit slightly misleading definition de la violent video games, let’s now ask the question: Why do I want to slaughter virtual flight-goers?
Half of the reason that violence keeps cropping up in games is because, well, we like it. It seems really obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Indulging in violent media – not just games – can allow us to elicit thoughts and emotions that we find pleasurable and enjoyable from a safe distance. These emotions are clearly different from what we would experience if we were actually in a real life equivalent situation, but that’s part of the attraction. You’ll feel bad for stealing something IRL, but in a video game? No one gets hurt, you get rewarded, and nothing bad happens in the real world. Taboo behaviour is rewarded, which can help alleviate that frustration you felt about that dude who stole your seat on the bus, even though you’ve sat there a hundred times before because that’s where you sit.
Let’s not forget that you can be Batman in a violent video game.
The other half is that violence lends itself to games as a very convenient and legitimate tool to create game mechanics. It’s not exactly a giant leap to associate games with violent action because, at it’s most fundamental level, dying is losing. As morbid and pretentious as it sounds, we cope with death as coming to terms with loss, both in terms of the void created by the removal of someone close to us and their inevitable surrender to the grim reaper as part of the human condition. I’m not trying to trivialise death, but it is an extremely useful excuse to create game mechanics involving removal of targets, irreversible choices, and concrete win/loss conditions. Violence very rarely exists as a living-dead system in games though, and tends to be utilised to make things seem more… Badass.
There’s more to violent media – again, not just games – than watching people get hurt or die, and this it’s versatility has kept it a recurring theme for as long as I can remember. When presented right, violence and it’s implied usage can lead us to a perverse appreciation of it’s brutality, expressibility, catalysis for humour, unfortunate reliability, and make just about anyone a total badass. Quentin Tarantino’s films are renowned for how bloody selected scenes are while utilising the threat of violence to drive tension; Entire franchises are predicated on how satisfying it is to play off the conundrums that arise from violent resolution. It’s one of those things that we can all appreciate because it’s threat is ever looming and can be extremely personal, like that scar you got between your middle and ring finger from a stray cat you ‘accidentally’ tried to throw off a balcony. The difference between games and other forms of media is that the violent actions aren’t being viewed, they’re being done, but that’s not really a bad thing when you think how else you could get a similar experience.
I (and I’m sure a lot of other people) have always gravitated to the darker, macabre, and less cute aspects of life and art for solace or comfort, and that’s no different when it comes to my consumption of video games. Thankfully, games let me indulge in behaviours that would get me in A LOT of trouble if I were to do it IRL. While I’m not gonna go out and murder someone, I have had the urge to fix people’s faces with my fist once or twice. It’s not because violent games actively caused me to have these thoughts, far from it; I was just really (like, really) pissed off at my friend, and the frustration I felt about his god-tier stupidity found an outlet in the form of headshots in CS:S. Some people just tend to think more violently than others, and video games can be a healthy way of acting on those thoughts.
Smartphones seem to be fine in public, guns not so much.
HOWEVER, to say the relationship is wholly one-way and entirely beneficial would be like saying antidepressants just make you happy. However minutely, literally everything you do will affect how you think in some way, possibly consciously, possibly not. This means that indulging in violent video games will in some way make you think more violently. Whether that means you’ll end up shouting at a barista (or fellow LoL player) or not depends on whole lot of other stuff, but you will undoubtedly start getting used to violence on some level. So, that violent action you got so pumped up with a couple weeks ago becomes a bit normalised, dull even. To keep things fresh and interesting, you gotta up the ante…
We know that people buy violent video games, but to keep people coming back, games have continually made violence more and more appealing. As technology improves, the depiction of violence in video games can become more realistic or sensational, depending on what flavour you go for. The thing is, we could be exploring all sorts of other avenues of gameplay that weren’t so violent, so why do we keep seeing the same old violent games crop up? It’s an easy, go-to theme that works. It’s actually quite hard to make a game that isn’t violent since it lends itself so well to game design, technological improvements mean it can be made more appealing with each graphical update, and people have been violent since forever. I’m not saying that violent video games are inherently bad, but has violent gameplay become a bit of a crutch for developers? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
Just try and see things more like Pyro.
I know, it’s a disappointingly simple answer: Violence is just convenient from a game design point of view and as a device to lure people in with that familiar attraction to the taboo. There’s a whole lot more that could be said about violence in video games, but I’m not hugely concerned about them right now. The fact that violence exists in the medium of video games doesn’t freak me out; it’s been a pretty good outlet for a lot of my frustration over the years and if games weren’t willing to use it, how could the medium be taken seriously to begin with? Oh god, I’m gushing on like a psycho, so I’ll quit wasting your time and get back to making my flesh blanket.