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Manhunt to Mortal Kombat: The Use and Future Use of Violence in Games

In this Game Developer-reprinted feature, Steven L. Kent invites game makers, the ESRB, and the National Institute on Media and the Family to discuss the use and problems of violence in videogames.

September 3, 2004

16 Min Read

Author: by Steven L. Kent

Beyond the psychological studies, the moralizing, and the sales charts, there is a basic truth about storytelling: There is no story without conflict. In interactive games, that conflict is predominantly played out in violence. Just how prevalent is violence in games? Look at the five games nominated for best original game at E3 2004: Destroy All Humans!, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, God of War, Jade Empire, and Odama. Not only does this list demonstrate how prosaic violent games have become, it also shows how the degree of violence can vary from one game to the next.

God of War and Destroy All Humans! have violence in mass quantities, no question about that. But Odama, a game that combines pinball controls and real-time strategy, recreates the wars of feudal Japan, letting players crush enemies with a giant cannonball. Violent? And what about Donkey Kong Jungle Beat? Here's a game that the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) will likely rate E for Everyone, in which the main character punches enemies to clear them out of the way. According to the Webster's Dictionary definition of violence, "exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse," Donkey Kong Jungle Beat is indeed violent. What about Madden NFL? If football is described as a violent sport, wouldn't an accurate simulation of that sport be violent?

Perhaps past versions of Madden may not have been violent enough. The latest iteration includes a hit-stick feature that lets players add more authority to tackles. There are limits: The NFL will not allow on-field decapitations; but watching the in-game replays of these hard-hitting tackles, you would be hard pressed to say they are not violent.

"For people to get into the games, they need to be aroused," says Dr. David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family. "People might not get aroused watching a boring basketball game; but if the game is back-and-forth, seesawing into the last minute, then there is all kinds of interest in that game. I think that arousal and engagement go together."

Walsh, whose organization creates an annual videogame report card monitoring the progress and enforcement of the ESRB rating system, sees violence as one of the most potent ways to immerse players in games. "I believe that is why there is so much of it. I think that the thing that is lacking is the creativity that is needed to engage the player without resorting to the tried-and-true recipe of violence."

By Degrees

Mario and Sonic jump on enemies to make them disappear-a nebulous fate that may or may not involve death. Even though this is done with guns, knives, and explosives in the Medal of Honor games, it's no bloodier than death in Mario's Mushroom Kingdom. Then there are games like Manhunt and Kingpin, where the shooting and stabbing produce blood. According to the ESRB, the combination of violence and gore is more offensive than straight violence.

"There are a number of factors that kept both Medal of Honor and Call of Duty in the Teen category," says Pat Vance, head of the ESRB. They are straight, historical simulations for one thing. They are non-gratuitous in terms of the types of injuries they depict. The amount of blood in these games is minimal. There's no friendly fire. "These are straight World War II simulations, and the developers made a concerted decision not to include the more gratuitous injuries and other things that you might find depicted in an M-rated game."

According to David Jaffe, director of Sony's Twisted Metal franchise and the upcoming God of War, stripping the gore out of games can diminish their impact. "I think you might be able to [separate the gore from the violence], but it's not as simple as shooting someone and simply not having any blood. The Medal of Honor games do this. I love those games, but without the blood, they just don't have visceral impact. They feel watered down.

"I think the idea of creating impactful violence without gore is very interesting. I have not really thought about it because up until now, my games have been arcade-like, fast-paced titles. I think it would be really hard to create violence without gore in that genre."

If there is a genre in which violence and gore have been successfully extricated, it's fighting games. The first one-on-one combat games, such as the Vectorbeam game Warrior, were bloodless because of the limitations of the hardware. Even when Street Fighter II suddenly made fighting games arcade headliners, fighters remained unblemished for the most part. Then came Mortal Kombat.

"When Midway released NARC, it was the first digitized videogame -- I think it was a little bit before Pit Fighter," says Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon. "All of a sudden, that opened the door for all kinds of stuff, and we thought, 'Let's put blood on the screen to shock people.' It was not something that we set out from the beginning to do. It was more something we could do suddenly with the technology that became available."

Capcom, and later Namco and Sega, did not follow Midway's lead. "Tekken is the equivalent of a PG-13 movie," says Boon. "Mortal Kombat is the equivalent of an R-rated movie: an M-rated game. It just presents it in a more hyper-realistic way. The intended audience is different. We never make our games with the intention [of attracting] younger players.

"It's kind of like saying, 'Why was Goodfellas an R-rated movie? And why would The Sopranos not be R-rated in theaters?' Well, maybe it would. Okay, but another kind of movie of that type. It's just a different way of presenting a game. Since we did it first in our games, it has become one of the things that people like about Mortal Kombat. [They like] the extreme presentation, so we keep it; but we don't think, 'Oh, this is a necessary ingredient in order for the game to be fun.'"

Boon admits that Mortal Kombat did benefit from a certain amount of shock value back in the early 1990s, but states that despite the head start they got from the shock value, good play mechanics were even more important. "I don't think that the violence was the main contributing factor. I think what the violence did was that it got people's attention. People who might not have played the game played the game, and then they got hooked on the secret moves and all the hidden features and all the fun of playing the game. Today, we don't think that the violence is going to carry us just because so many other games have it."

In fact, when asked if Mortal Kombat has kept up with the violence in games over the years, Boon's answer is vehement. "Oh, no. No. When it first came out it was around the top of the heap in violence, but there are games that have long since surpassed it. I think violence has been less and less of an ingredient in every Mortal Kombat game. I'm not saying that the violence has decreased in the games. It's just that violence is so common in games today that it's not going to make you stand out."

As of last Christmas, the poster child for over-the-top was Rockstar Games' Manhunt. According to the ESRB's Pat Vance, Manhunt isn't alone. "I think that Manhunt is very, very high-end. I think that there are other games that are as high. I think that Postal 2 was equally high. I think The Suffering in some scenes is equally high. I think that there are other titles [in that category as well]."

Violence and Story

If there was a watershed moment in which videogame violence went from shock to awe, it was the launch of Grand Theft Auto III. Before GTA3, people talked about Death Race, Custer's Revenge, Chiller, Mortal Kombat, and Doom. Death Race, Custer's Revenge, and Chiller are historical footnotes -- games that defined the boundaries of their time and little else.

Mortal Kombat is another story. Mortal Kombat was a major best seller, but it sold into a decidedly non-mainstream market of pre- and young-teen boys. Doom, on the other hand, may be said to have broken into the mainstream. But Doom launched nearly concurrently with Myst, the uniquely mainstream title that helped launch multimedia as a technology for the masses.

More than any other company, Sony Computer Entertainment has succeeded in making games a mainstream form of entertainment. And with the mainstreaming of videogames, the stage was set for GTA3 to become a truly mainstream game.

"I clearly remember when the first two Grand Theft Autos came out," says Boon. "There was a very small uproar: 'I can't believe they are letting people carjack as part of the gameplay. Oh my god!' But that was just a PC game. It was not really mass market at the time and you weren't right there for the action. Suddenly, they presented it on PlayStation 2 and they had made great advancements in the gameplay. That's when everybody started playing it. And when everybody started playing it, that was when it got the attention."

Unlike the fighting, shooting, and FPS games that preceded it, GTA3 had a sophisticated storyline. It had its own dynamic world. "With certain games, violence is one of the tools that allows me to direct the feel/vibe of the game," says Jaffe. "In the case of God of War, I wanted there to be this vibe of letting your inner beast out to run free; letting the player just cut loose and run wild. That was my barometer. It was like: 'Is this element making the player feel strong and brutal?' If so, in it goes. And more often than not, violence was one of the tools that allowed us to give the player this feeling."
If the E3 demo was any indication, God of War is an excellent example of how violence can be integrated into a highly mature game. In some ways, God of War feels like a bad acid trip version of Nintendo's Legend of Zelda games. It has the same responsive controls and similar combat mechanics; only, instead of happy elves and a sparkling TriForce, God of War has a suicidal Spartan and the hordes of Hades.

"For God of War, we use violence to complement the storyline and make the player feel strong, brutal, and unhindered by anything other than a sense of vicious fun that plays into the gameplay well," says Jaffe. "It serves as one of the core elements in Twisted Metal, now God of War. I like violence in games if it's done in a creative, interesting way."

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, 81 percent of the movies submitted for ratings last year received an R rating. Twelve percent received PG-13, 6 percent received a PG rating, and only 1 percent received a G. (Only one movie received an NC-17, making up less than one percent.) "Last year 10 percent of the games were M-rated, and that was up from 8 percent in 2002," says Vance. "It's gradually increased over the years from 6 or 7 percent to 10 percent. There has probably been more fluctuation in other categories such as T than there is in M in terms of growth."

Not surprisingly, Dr. Walsh is concerned about a rise in violence across several media. "I would say that [violence] is more prevalent in games. I mean, there are a lot of violent movies, but there is a wider palette of themes in the movie industry than in the game industry. That could have a lot to do with the maturity of the industry. The movie industry is nearly one century old, whereas the game industry is relatively new."

When discussing violence in games, terms like "comic" and "cartoon" come up often. According to Vance, the violence in many of the T-rated games is cartoon-like. "I think of it as being like punctuation, like an exclamation point," says Boon. "It's not necessary for getting your point across, but it heightens things."

"For me personally, I don't like it when violence gets too real from a subject matter standpoint," says Jaffe. "All of my stuff is fantasy, comic book-style stuff. Even GTA3, set in the real world, has a comic book/action movie vibe applied to it. Same with a game like Max Payne.

"That's where I am comfortable with violence. That's where I think most players are comfortable: when the violence is presented in a way that it clearly is done for fun and visceral impact. It's when you start getting to the real dark stuff, and the ripped-from-the-headline scenarios, that people start either tuning out or getting upset."


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