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No Violence Please, We’re Gamers

Red Dead Redemption violence

Turned my back and grabbed my gat
And guess what I told him before I shot it:
‘If you don’t quit, yeah, if you don’t stop, yeah, I’m lettin’ my gat pop’
Cause it’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop

That chilling threat came over my headphones, backed up by a sinister bassline, while I was waiting queueing for some trivial purchase in a shop. Jarred by the disconnect between the prosaic setting and the shocking sentiments I was hearing I wondered: why did I find the rap unsettling, while the fact I killed twenty men in Red Dead Redemption the night before cause not a flicker of emotion?

This happened a while back, well before Michael wrote his Rethinking Mass Murder column on violence and gaming. But we’ve all reflected on these issues from time to time. Personally I disagree wholeheartedly with his assertion that there’s any link between media violence and social nihilism. These moral panics have accompanied every incremental media change since popular novels 200 years ago and never amount to anything. The gulf that separates thought and deed is too wide to step over without conscious choice. The evidence, such as it is, supports me.

No well constructed, wide ranging social science research has ever demonstrated a connection. Violent crime in US and Europe has been dropping for two decades. Respect and tolerance for other points of view and ways of life, as measure by polls, has been rising over the same period. The perception of an increasingly uncaring society has been fostered largely by a sensationalist media. But it’s a myth: we may be more scared of violence than ever, but we’re safer on the streets than we’ve been for years.

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But that’s not what this column is supposed to be about. I just felt strongly enough about the issue to want to rebut that claim, and this seemed a good place to do it. Rather I wanted to look at why violent gaming feels qualitatively different from much of that presented elsewhere in the media, films and music in particular.

dishonored-interactive-trailer_original

To cut to the quick the answer is presentation. Anyone who plans to portray a piece of violence has to make conscious decisions about the context in which it will be shown. Build up sympathy for the victim, linger on the suffering and the act will condemn itself. Glamourise the protagonist, anonymise the antagonist and focus on the fireworks and the violence will be thrilling. Lessons so obvious they were learned in early theatre, centuries before the first violent film.

The relationship between modern video game design and cinema is easily close enough for these points to be applicable to both. Gamers could easily be encouraged to reflect on the consequences of their violence rather than glory in it. So the question becomes a why question: why do game designers choose almost exclusively to present their violence in a glamorous way rather than a condemnatory one? Why do game players nearly always choose to eschew more thoughtful pieces in favour of the thrill?

There is of course a close connection between what gamers want and what designers deliver. But in the instance of violence, I’m beginning to think that it’s a rare case of a gap between the two, a disconnect between the perception of what’s wanted and the truth. Add a grain of laziness on the part of studios, or perhaps more charitably the valid concern over multi-million dollar titles experimenting and flopping in the marketplace and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

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Consider. One of the very few mainstream titles to actually present the player with a harrowing version of violence, Spec Ops: The Line, garnered a lot of interest and critical praise and seemed to sell reasonably even if it was below the publishers’ expectation. Another rare exception, the infamous “No Russian” level of CoD: Modern Warfare 2, again got a lot of coverage and was certainly no impediment to sales.

Spec Ops: The Line

Meanwhile non-violent games have been one of the great success stories of this hardware generation. Family games, casual games, puzzle games, dance games, sports games have risen and risen, fueled at first by the early success of the Wii, then later by mobile devices. There may only be a small overlap between this market and that which consumes more violent fare, but plenty of action gamers have found pause for thought in peaceful, reflective indie titles.

It seems to me there’s actually quite a considerable market for anti-violence action games like Spec Ops. All that’s required is for the package to be delivered correctly. Firstly, it must be remembered that while it’s a sizable segment, it’s still a minority. That should come as no surprise: pandering to the lowest common denominator has long been a recipe for sales success across all media. Games are no different.

So it was perhaps unwise to have commissioned Spec Ops: The Line with an AAA budget and the accompanying weight of sales expectation. But pitch it right and there’s a market there, providing you can design a game to suit. That’s where the accusation of laziness holds a little water. Designing an action game around violence is relatively straightforward, with so much history to draw on. Building one that either draws a player into violence and then has them dwell upon its repercussions, or which tows the protagonist along in the wake of violence committed by others is much harder. But still entirely possible.

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The lack of negative portrayals of violence, relatively common in almost other art forms, is unfortunate in video games. It plays into the hands of those who seek to censor or ban games by manipulating public perceptions of a link between gaming and antisocial behaviour in the face of all available evidence. But it’s not as inevitable as some might have you think. Not so long ago gaming was an immature format, practised largely by minors. But as the audience grows up, so will the subject matter. It’s about time we learned to expect, and to demand, better.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

4 thoughts to “No Violence Please, We’re Gamers”

  1. Well put. I think you’re spot on about the financial risk involved, but I think another key point, especially in comparison to cinema, is the proper way to deliver the message, as it were. With actors, it’s easier to present violence in a bad light. The actors can emote and generally use their talents to help us feel a certain way about the violence. Games, technologically, I feel just aren’t quite capable of delivering the same message with just imagery and CGI characters, not without making it cartoony and thus taking away from the message.

    1. But how much of that is just the age of the medium, zeo? Film and TV actors have the ability to show violence in a bad light because we have developed a whole canon of cinematic techniques to show that. That’s a process that took time — if you look at the films of the 50’s, for instance, you’ll see very few that didn’t glorify the violence they were portraying; most wouldn’t even have known how to do anything BUT celebrate the soldiers and cowboys and other dealers of death.

      We are only just now finding a similar language for video games, and like all the best developments it hinges on interactivity. A lot of the Spec Ops message was communicated via cutscenes, which is an essentially filmic technique, but I got almost as much of a gut-punch out of the way that the character’s “I’m reloading” voice-over soundbyte devolved to incoherent shouting by the end of the game.

      1. That’s basically what I’m saying. The tech is getting there, but it’s not quite there yet, or if it is there, devs aren’t using it effectively. I’m going to have to go pick up this Spec Ops game I think.

        1. definitely worth a purchase, ideally during a steam sale. the gameplay is a little sloppy but the story is solid and, as has been said elsewhere, it’s one of the few games that’s actually trying to SAY something about violence and gaming.

          I think the tech is totally there to tell any kind of story we might want to tell, with any sort of depth we might want. At this point everything from 8-bit simplicity to near-photo-realistic graphics and intelligent AI behavior can be had. Again, the comparison to 50’s cinema stands — the technology didn’t really change that much between then and the 70’s; it was just a question of the stories writers and directors decided they wanted to tell, and people wanted to see.

          The question is how we HARNESS the tech we’ve developed to tell deeper stories.

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