GameCrank Editorial: Violence in Video Games

Patrick

I want you to do a little experiment. Go to your nearest game retailer–Best Buy, Gamestop, it doesn’t matter–and take a look at the game rack. Try to pick a shelf in the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 section. Notice those large letters in the box at the bottom right hand corner of most of these games. These letters are usually something like E, E 10+, T, M–or if you happen to ask behind the counter, AO. Pick about 5-10 shelves of games. Now, count how many games that you see have the letter M on them.

If less than 50% of your games are rated M, get out of Toys ‘R Us, my friend: you really can’t miss these things. It’s no secret that video games are often very violent. Why? Because they’re immature, or that the people who play them are immature? Perhaps; there’s no denying that some of them are. However, as far as I know, games aren’t evil, and neither are the people who make them. I don’t believe in a concept like evil–it’s a purely subjective term that varies by cultures and societies. However, a ton of people don’t understand why games choose to be violent, and this misunderstanding has led to a lot of hatred. People call games evil, obscene, mindless, useless, immature, and deny them as a true art form. I’m not here to campaign for the Games Are Art fad: that’s for another day. Right here, I’m just going to try and explain why games are violent and how that can be good or bad.

First of all, we have to remember why we play video games. There’s an almost numberless quantity for the types of people who play games, but these are general, boiled-down qualities. For some, we just want an innocent little distraction, a quick dose of energy and excitement before we either have to go back to work or continue on with our lives. For others–for people who truly love video games–they want immersion. They want to indulge in an alternate reality where they either partake in insane situations that they would likely never see in their lives or they want to explore these realities: they want to experience a different kind of world, full of different kinds of people, places, and different sets of laws and cultures that are completely separate from what they’re used to. They want a sense of adventure, a grand quest for exploration and discovery. It’s a form of escapism that many people use to get away from the real world and to escape the troubles of real life. Regardless, people most often play video games for a sense of accomplishment. They want to feel good about themselves, they want to be rewarded, and they want some sense of importance, power, or special quality after having conquered unique challenges. Gamers want to feel gratification–they want the thought that they did something special, and that they are something special. What I’m about to talk about largely connects to these principles of gaming.

Gore is perhaps one of the easiest ways for giving players gratification. It makes them feel immensely strong and powerful–they were so powerful that they were able to take the life of a living being, which is something that most of us never experience in our lives. Think about it: what do think it feels like to determine another man’s fate? What does it feel like to deny the life of another human being, and take from him the right to survive? It’s one of the purest animal instincts we have. It’s the lust for power and control. Games love to harness this kind of energy. It’s a way of making the player feel empowered, that they’re stronger and more determined than they’ve ever been. Most games with decent challenges make us feel this sense of accomplishment automatically, but blood and gore is often used to accentuate this sense. Think about it: what makes you feel more powerful–punching someone in the face and having them stumble backward or fall over, or punching someone in the face and having their head explode with blood spewing everywhere? This sort of visceral appeal makes us feel super-human, and it’s a very simple tool for creating player satisfaction.

Speaking of which, games also use violence for realism. Violence in video games hasn’t just grown simply because game creators are becoming less mature. Older games often tend to be much more unrealistic to us simply because of their technical limitations in providing realistic feedback. When you shot someone, they could often just flash, flicker, or disappear when they were defeated. Now, shooting someone will cause blood to pour out of the place you shot them and perhaps destroy that part of their body altogether. You physically get to see the effects of your actions in real time, in a realistic fashion. Technology has evolved to the point where we can render just about every part of the human anatomy realistically; today’s graphics let us observe the slime and organs of someone that’s been blown up or sliced apart in shocking detail. It makes players feel like they’ve actually killed a living creature instead of just erasing a computer program. Not only that, but violence empowers us after accomplishment. Blood symbolizes the core essence of our mortality, the life-force that flows through our body. Losing it implies that we are losing our strength and our life–that we are becoming weaker and coming closer to the end. This is a great way of showing gamers gratification while they’re destroying their enemies.  As a result, it gives the player an instant sense of reward as they land a hit or beat that enemy. Plus, what better way to look at the consequences of your actions as you look  at your enemy’s lifeless rag-doll corpse, with scars, burns, and wounds covering it after the battle? Realistic violence helps further immerse us in the game’s sense of realism, and it can also be used as a form of reward or spectacle after achieving our goals.

The last, most practical reason for gore is to gain the player’s attention. If a main character dies in the game’s story, then you’d probably want to accentuate the impact of the emotions in the player. If you do a lot of damage to an enemy or kill one, you’re going to need some sort of message to show that he’s really hurting or that he’s really dead. Games have developed much farther than just having characters flash red and disappear when they die. Now, we have to be realistic; if you slice someone with a sword, then they don’t just disappear in a puff of smoke or vanish: they bleed, lose limbs, and crash to the ground. It’s a much more meaningful impact to see characters lose fights or challenges with a visual representation of their pain and their loss. If you die in a horror game, you’d better bet that the game wants you to know about it: you’ve failed your objective. You died. However, through gore, games are able to make players feel that kind of loss or that kind of power without electrically shocking them if they lose or rewarding them with, say, cheese if they win. Spraying the screen with red blood as your character takes damage makes you feel more in tune with your character.  Remember: when you think of the color red, what do you think of? Fire. Anger. Pain. Heat. Blood. All are core principles of what makes us simple human beings, and it’s what we’ve thrived on and had to live with since the beginning. In games, you’re not just watching someone kill something: you are the one who’s killing something. It carries a much larger weight of emotion than non-interactive mediums. Utilizing this kind of emotion and response correctly can help make a powerful, gripping game and truly draw in a player.

The problem with video games is that, very often, they use gore as a crutch. To a lot of people (at least the intelligent ones), gore is a noticeable sign of lazy design. Is the game boring or repetitive? Throw some blood and on the screen! That’ll keep him distracted! That’s all blood and gore is in a lot of games: a distraction, or an artificial stimulant to mask incompetent design.  This is what causes many people to feel so trepidatious about all the violent games; tons of people who look at games as toys think of them as childish and immature, since they have to use violence to entertain their brain-dead audience. Therefore, since they think games are appealing to kids, they automatically assume that Mature-rated games are targeted specifically at young kids. And, do you know what? I can’t really argue with them in a lot of levels  Blood and gore can be a very easy way to sell a game, or at least push an average game into becoming appealing.  Think about it: if “MadWorld” wasn’t so violent, would it really be worth playing? Perhaps. Would it be as good or appealing as it is now? Of course not; its violence is its trademark characteristic.  Chances are, if it didn’t have blood and gore, it would have sold even more terribly than it already did.

Now, I’m not about to say that gore alone instantly sells games. If it’s not in extreme quantities like “MadWorld,” the game would have nothing. This is mostly due to the industry’s climate, with M-rated games becoming so much more popular and prevalent these days. Is “Gears of War” such a success because it was violent?  No; it was because of its well-designed gameplay. However, most cheap developers think that the second option is too difficult and instead go for the easy one: the one that also excuses them from having any sort of mature context for the story and design. Games that try to sell themselves on violence, have actually proven to have surprisingly poor sales, though. Gore games are like McDonald’s; it’s okay for you once in a while, but if you try to make it your sole source of nutrition, you’re going to face health issues. Video games aren’t cheap, so people try to look for something that’s substantial. The simple truth is that most violent games aren’t really substantial. If the violence in a game is the only part that’s appealing about it and the gameplay isn’t worth revisiting, then people are going to get bored of that game really quickly, trade it in, and get their money back. If “Mortal Kombat” didn’t have its developed fighting engine and gameplay, then people would’ve stopped playing it years ago after they had seen all the fatalities. If you’re going to have gore in a video game, that’s fine, but you’d better have a lot of something else. Gore is like cinnamon: sure, it tastes great with something and makes that something smell a lot more appealing, but scarfing spoonfuls of it straight from the jar is disgusting and unappetizing.

If I’m going to talk about how video game violence affects kids, I would need at least another 1000 words to talk about it, but I’ll make it quick: who knows. The evidence on both sides of the argument is so jumbled and unspecific that it’s really hard to make a true verdict on the issue, and it’s why the issue still exists today. People love to fabricate their own evidence to support their beliefs, and to a good extent, that’s the thing with a lot of people who protest video games: they’re believers. They’re not thinkers, and they don’t have evidence; they just think what they want to, proof or not. Am I saying that all video games are absolutely defensible? No, not really. I don’t care how much you think “Bioshock” is hugely artistic and amazing–no child should be playing it until they’re mature enough to hand it. The industry should have the taste to not make certain games, but people should have the sense to know not to buy them. This is a capitalist economy: we’re very good at weeding out bad games and bad companies from the market. If a game only has violence to offer and nothing else, then it’ll bomb and hopefully we’ll never see anything like it again. Sadly, this whole natural selection process doesn’t always work out–not for video games and not for anything else–all the time. “Okami,” one of my all-time favorite games and one of the most artistically realized ever made, sold like solar-powered flashlights. The world isn’t always fair; bad people are met with success and good people suffer, and that’s the same with video games and every other art form. I would love nothing more than to see movies like “The Expendables” bleed out all the money they ever made and give it to “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” but unfortunately that isn’t going to happen. Some bad games will sell, and some violence-obsessed video games will sell. I’m not prepared to hate on those games’ creators like everyone else. But I am definitely prepared to yell at anyone who buys and supports those games.

The point of all of this ranting is this: gore cannot carry a game. It can enhance a game, and I’m generally not against gore unless it’s being used in some specific, extreme circumstance. However, a game needs to be fulfilling and rewarding on its own merits–not on the merits of its violence or anything else. I’m all about guilty pleasure. There are times when I just want to let loose and play something simple and visceral once in a while. However, there are also times when I want to play games for more than just a quick burst of entertainment. I want to play games for experiencing something surreal, something involving, something immersive, thought-provoking, or even educational. I want to play games to better myself and the way I see and interact with the real world, and there isn’t much of that to be found in simple blood and organs. If a game has violence: fine. But, for me, a game has to abide by its main mission: it must provide an engaging, thoughtful experience with rewarding gameplay. After all, that’s what makes the game.

GameCrank is written by Patrick Pontes

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