My father passed away recently in a tragic accident - and so I’ve been thinking and reflecting.
My dad was a staunch supporter of non-violence in all aspects of his life. But despite this, while I was growing up he purchased a fair number of violent games upon my request - such as the First-Person Shooter (FPS) game Doom and its many followers and derivatives. At the same time, he always stressed the importance of separating reality from fiction. And while he allowed me to play these games, I knew he found them distasteful and the violence unnecessary - especially when there are so many other wonderful things one might explore instead. He was always looking for a game that emphasized discovery and mystery, or story and problem solving, or journeys and narratives. Anything other than yet more violent action for its own sake.
So I’ve been thinking about my Dad’s views on violence in games, and in the world all around us. And during this time of reflection, I stumbled across an article by Keith Burgun on the glorification of violence in games. I’ve been wanting to write on the topic of violence for a while now, and Keith’s article struck right at the heart of so much of my own thinking. So in this article, I am endeavoring to paraphrase Keith’s major points in my own words, which I find helps in internalizing these complex issues.
But first, to set the stage.
When I look at the dominant video games, the vast majority of the most well-played games are predicated on violence. Look at the top 25 games in the steam charts. Only five or six don’t predominately have to do with killing things (Football Manager 2016, Rocket League, Civilization V, Euro Truck Simulator, and Stardew Valley). Take a look at the most popular Xbox One games. Out of the 20 listed on the first page, only a handful (mostly sport games) aren’t predicated on violence. Unless you are into sports or simulation games (the Sims, Tycoon-style games, vehicle sims) or casual puzzle games - practically everything has to do with violence or surviving violence.
History and Wars on Violence
Throughout the history of media, there have been counter-pressures against new forms of expression. Whether it was rock-and-roll, or swing dancing, or dungeons and dragons, or poetry. And video games have had their turn on the chopping block too. In practically every case, these counter-pressures have failed to control the new media.
Keith Burgun’s article pinpointed a number of pitfalls made in prior “wars on violence” relative to video games, and which have likely hindered genuine and thoughtful discussion of the topic. These pitfalls, made by the likes of Jack Thompson during the 90’s, included things like trying to legally censor violent games, deeming all violence as glorified and subject to censorship, and arguing that consuming violent material makes people more likely to be violent themselves, especially among children.
The above are all strong ambitions or claims, none of which have held up in terms of yielding actual change in the gaming industry or gamer culture. Censorship strikes directly against societal values for freedom of speech and expression - so good luck accomplishing that feat. Deeming all violent expression equally as “glorified violence” dismisses opportunity for more considered arguments and nuanced discourse surrounding the topic. And the claim that consuming violent media makes people more violent is likely never to be known with certainty - more research is needed before making that claim I suppose.
Don’t Mess With My Stuff!
One outcome of the wars against game violence, is that it has made gamer culture defensive when it comes to talking about this issue. Keith Burgun notes that many gamers feel that they have “already won the war against violence,” and so are resistant to further debate. Especially in light of the past approaches and aims described above.
However, there are a few more recent trends that gamers have had to weather, which compounds the problem of discussing violence. First is that the games industry has been highly criticized for being sexist, specifically concerning the depictions and roles given to women in games. This continues to be an on-going debate with a lot of tension coming from both sides. So there is a certain apprehension to bringing the fight on to the topic of violence - especially considering that gamers on both sides of the sexism debate are likely playing the same violent games. Keith Burgun calls this the “OK, but not this” line of defense. In short, gamers already feel attacked on one front, and are quick to shut down criticism the another.
The second issue is that we are all attached to the stuff we like - and generally don’t like other people messing with our stuff. When someone comes along and starts criticizing your stuff, the natural tendency is to start defending it - especially when there is a history of people trying to take your stuff away (e.g. censoring violent video games). Moreover, video game culture has no shortage of fanboyism. And all to often people take measured criticism of a game in one regard (e.g. violence) as a damnation of the whole game and as an all out attack on their person for enjoying it. Some people just can’t accept that others don’t see things the way they do and still be okay with it. This of course is a trait that cuts well beyond the realm of video games.
So What’s the Problem?
If past arguments against video game violence have failed and only hardened the defenses of gaming culture, why are we still be talking about it? I think there are two main considerations at work. One relates to dehumanization. The other relates to game design and the diversity of games being created and in turn the potential audience.
When I look at the all big, ambitious, AAA game titles with the biggest production values - the Call of Duties, the Skyrims, the Grand Theft Autos, and so on - they are almost all predicated on violence. As the protagonist in these games, the way you interact with the game is fundamentally through violence. I’m hard pressed to think of any large, big budget, open world type games that don’t have a lot to do with killing things and blowing stuff up. There is a certain power fantasy at work in playing games - and certainly playing the part of a hero (or villain!) plays into satisfying that fantasy.
Furthermore, as Keith Burgun has written - many developers seem to take violence as a given and hence construct stories and narratives that justifies the violence they employ. Kill the big bad villain. Stop the Nazis. Slay the dragon. And coupled with this justification is often a glorification of the violence. Don’t just kill the Nazis, do it with style. Of course this isn’t just games - violence is glorified across the media spectrum (summer Blockbusters anyone?). Culturally, in America anyway, violence sells.
I was playing the demo for the new Doom game. One of the gameplay features is the self-titled “glory kill” where you are incentivized to kill the enemies in a supremely graphic melee attack, and are rewarded with extra health and ammo pickups. We can justify killing all these monsters certainly (they are going to kill you if you don’t!) - but is the glory kill really necessary? Or is it part of the power fantasy? Zombie-themed games give us a perfectly justifiable reason to mow down hordes of human shaped beings. Maybe playing Left 4 Dead won’t make me more violent - but maybe, just maybe, it desensitizes me to violence and our sense humanity, if only a little bit.
I remember showing my dad Morrowind, Bethesda’s third entry into the Elder Scrolls RPG world. We both oogled at the visuals and the amazingly detailed open world, filled with all these places to see and explore. When he asked about the gameplay however, it was clear the game was predicated on violence. Nearly all of your skills and abilities ultimately relate to killing things. Sure, maybe some quests can be accomplished through stealth or persuasion. But if you ignore combat - vast swaths of the gameplay are rendered invalid. Of course he never went on to play it.
So where are the big ambitious AAA games and the fascinating open world adventures that don’t hinge on violence? They are few and far between. And, like with sexism in games, the industry is losing a potential slice of its audience by not making at least some games of that level of production value about something other than fighting. Seriously - if you want to avoid violence in video games, what are your choices? Sports and simulator games and casual puzzle-like games? That’s about it. Even most strategy games are fundamentally predicated on violence at one scale or another.
The point of all of this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be making violent games, or that they are inherently bad for us (regardless of whether they are or not). Rather, it is to ask why do we so often use violence as a starting point in game design? We take it as an assumption that games are predicated on violence - and in the process blind ourselves to exploring other avenues and trajectories for game design. And these other trajectories might compel a greater and more diverse audience to enter the gaming world.
Of course, some will take this call for more diverse games as an attack on their stuff, claiming this would result in less developer energy going towards the old kind of game. Who knows if that’s true or not - but in a world where everyone is free to make and consume whatever media they want, I think there will continue to be a market for whatever style of game people desire. The old marketing adage is that sex sells. And so it seems does violence. But maybe we can have more games that aim for something different?
Having said all of this, I think there some trends in the gaming world that are moving more towards non-violent games.
In the world of board games, I feel like a large swaths of German and Euro-style games have adopted non-violent themes. Heck, take a look at the top 25 ranked games in the BoardGameGeek database. Only about 8-10 of them are focused on violent themes - the majority have non-violent themes. Having observed the board game world for a while, I do feel that as typically non-Violent Euro-style games have merged with American-style (or Ameritrash) games, the collision has resulted in more games with violent themes. But maybe that’s just an impression. Still the board game world shows a far greater diversity of popular games that reflect non-violent themes compared to the video game universe.
A second trend, among video games, is the growth in exploration / survival focused games (No Man’s Sky, Rodinia, The Long Dark, the Solus Project, etc.) and sandbox building games (Minecraft-likes, Kerbal Space Program, etc.). Many of these games achieve (or strive to achieve) the same sense of immersion that you get in a typical AAA-game, but with themes and goals that are aren’t all about killing the big bad. These are great trends and there appears to be a lot of fertile ground for new gameplay ideas.
Last, is the growth in more experimental or “art” games that intended to relate to different themes entirely, such as walking simulators like Dear Esther or The Witness along with more thought-provoking narrative experiences like Gone Home or That Dragon, Cancer.
But one of the challenges with these last two trends is that these games move away from being proper “competitive games” in pursuits of other themes. Challenge very often means having opposition. And so often when there is opposition the game is designed around violence as the primary system for interaction. Ultimately, I’d love to see someone make a game, like say Skyrim, and rework it such that violence isn’t the first course of action. The problem is that providing other mechanics and systems for interaction in all the possible encounters requires a lot more time and attention.
But people are trying. Offworld Trading Company is a great example of taking a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game and swapping out violent combat for economic market manipulation (yes, there is still some violence with the Black Market actions in the game - but the primary gameplay is not focused on violence). It’s a rather brilliant notion and still remains a very competitive game despite eschewing the violence that typifies most RTS games.
Being honest with myself - I don’t expect I’ll stop playing violent games anytime soon. Too many of the games I enjoy, from the standpoint of immersion, sense of challenge, or narrative - come saddled with violent themes. But I do find myself tiring of a lot of it. It’s been at least a decade since I went to the movies to see an action movie or a summer blockbuster (exception made for Star Wars: The Force Awakens). The violence, in all its glory or brutal reality, just isn’t a motivator or source of interest. Quite the opposite actually, it’s a deterrent. When watching the new Star Wars, I was far more interested in the non-action scenes.
But unlike movies or books or board games, the amount of serious, and especially competitive, video games that are available that also are not violent is small. And unfortunately, sports games games and casual puzzle games just don’t interest me that much. So on a personal level, I’m advocating for more non-violent games for selfish reasons - I want to play them. But on a societal level, I feel that broadening the pool of games and the types of interactions and stories that are told can bring the world of games to a greater diversity of people. Maybe these games can have a positive and humanizing impact on our collective psyche. Rather than dehumanizing and desensitizing, perhaps they will expand our sense of empathy - a quality which is so often in short supply.