How Violence is Perceived in Game Design

The display of violence is a tricky subject in the video game industry and today's post looks at how various degrees of violent acts are represented and either accepted or criticized.

A few months ago, the trailer for the controversial game Hatred hit the web -- featuring an anti social protagonist who declares a war on life before going on a killing spree and executing numerous civilians and police officers. As you can guess, this wasn't met with excitement but shock by members of the game press.

Looking past the extreme violence, the game's actual game mechanics are very thin which strongly hints at the violence being used as a distraction/marketing plug to get people interested. The use of violence in the game industry has been popular since the NES era and is an interesting topic about how it is perceived by people.

Plague Inc Evolved (3)

Who's the Enemy?

When it comes to examining violence in video games, there are two key factors that are always looked at: Who is being attacked and what is the level of detail? Simply put, people are more accepting of violence when it's aimed at combatants of any kind -- aliens, zombies, monsters, terrorists etc. Because these characters are standing in the player's way or are actively trying to kill them. And it's preferable to feature non human enemies as you can get away with more violence.

In these titles, the developers are free to make things more graphic as the player doesn't care about them in any way. This is also why a lot of cartoons like to have bad guys who are robots as it lets them get away with showing extreme violence without any negative consequence of blood or dismemberment.

But with titles that have non combatants or those that are considered a positive role on society IE policemen, these titles tend to abstract things. In a game like Payday 2, while civilians and police officers can be shot, there is very little detail when it comes to damage and the game throws so many police officers at you that it's not considered realistic.

game Industry
Hotline Miami features ultra violence, but the game's retro look helps present it in a stylish and unrealistic tone.

"Realistic" being the key word, the more realistic the damage and violence is, the less realistic the situation normally is.

This is why games that have ultra violence or extreme detail usually keep things in as fictional of a setting as possible as people aren't offended about killing aliens or monsters.

And this in a nutshell is why Hatred is being criticized as it’s the first game in a long time to openly revel in extreme violence in a realistic setting against non combatants. The developers obviously aren't idiots and know how the game is being perceived and I and most people are betting that this is their PR campaign to get sales.

Even though I don't believe in censorship, I do wonder if any sales will be worth the negative attention and stigma creating a game like this with what's been going on in the industry lately. In my mind, a game like Hatred being developed and advertised right now is like burning any bridges you would have to the mainstream market.

Getting back to talking about violence, what's very interesting about this perception is that there are games that are much more violent than Hatred, Call of Duty or any other shooter that you can think of, yet no one cares about them due to how things are abstracted.

Death Tolls:

As we've talked about, unrealistic settings and extreme violence go hand in hand to keep from offending people. But what happens when your game is literally about ending all of humanity?

In this case, you abstract the hell out of it to the point where there is not even anyone being shown in the game. There are two titles that come to mind that have gone this far -- Defcon and Plague Inc (Or Pandemic.) These titles don't sugar coat the fact that by the end of their games, life on Earth is over.

game industry
Defcon abstracts all the death and destruction down to simple messages which in a way can make things even more terrifying.

Instead of showing people dying, everything is abstracted down to numbers so that in Plague Inc you can watch the counter of life diminished until there is no one left.

Or in Defcon, get simple display messages showing how many people were killed by your attack.

Yet despite the subject matter, these titles are never criticized for offending people or called as evidence when talking about violence in video games. And this shows the dichotomy of how violence works in the game industry -- Ultra violence belongs in unrealistic settings while abstracted violence works in realistic settings.

Digital Killing:

With all that said, this isn't a post that is meant to fix things or give solutions as the display of violence and how little or how much it offends someone is based on society. It's pretty clear that showing violence in America is preferable to sex and why some of our biggest hits in the past have been games that are about killing. But with a game like Hatred, you can take things too far and go into poor taste territory.

And lastly I just want to say that this post is not about condemning or condoning extreme violence and it is about looking at how it is perceived by the general public when it comes to video games.

(Check out Game-Wisdom for posts, podcasts and videos on game design and the industry)

Latest Jobs


Playa Vista, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Senior Level Designer (Zombies)

PlayStation Studios Creative Arts

Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia
Lead/ Senior Asset Artist


Playa Vista, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Senior Gameplay Systems Engineer - Treyarch

High Moon Studios

Carlsbad, CA, USA
VFX Artist
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more