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Kill Polygon, Kill: Violence, Psychology, and Video Games

It's true, many video games have violent elements in them. But what does that mean? We talk to Silent Hill producers, abstract indie game creators and the Grand Theft Childhood book co-writer to look at the pluses and minuses of violence as a tool for expression in games.

[It's true, many video games have violent elements in them. But what does that mean? We talk to Silent Hill producers, abstract indie game creators and the Grand Theft Childhood book co-writer to look at the pluses and minuses of violence as a tool for expression in games.] 

At the end of fourth grade, my friend Daniel told me he was moving away. We had spent the whole year mooning over girls, watching videos, and listening to warped Run DMC tapes. He came over to my house his last night in town.

We went swimming and played with Star Wars dolls and then, as the sun was going down, his dad's car pulled up. He was one of my first genuinely intimate friends; there were no secrets between us, no need to pass ourselves off as cool. Daniel looked at the Star Wars toys on the floor and grabbed one for himself -- a parting gift, he told me.

I followed him into the hallway, pushed him to the floor, and then pummeled the top of his head with my fists. He dropped the doll after a few seconds. I stopped, picked up the doll and returned it with the others in my collection.

A few minutes later, Daniel was gone and I never saw him again.

"In real life, there's already this perceived 'dark side,'" Tomm Hulett told me. He's a producer at Konami, on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. "In a horror game (or movie, or book) it's about playing off that dark side and revealing something that the player already fears deep down, and forcing them to deal with it."

Violence is oxygen to the modern video game. The top 10 selling games at any given time are filled out with an imaginative spectrum of violent experiences, from Mario Kart Wii to Call of Duty: World at War and Madden NFL 10. Not all games need violence, but violent confrontation has been central to games throughout history.

Did we create this media violence, or did it create us? What effect is it having on us in the long term? And how much of our assumptions can actually be supported with research instead of hypotheses?

A Spoonful of Blood Makes the Medicine Go Down

The adrenal gland is the G-spot of the video game player. As humans evolved, the adrenal glands played a central role in self-preservation, releasing hormones that jolt a person into a state of caution, or heighten a person's ability to fight and manage pain. As humans have evolved into office-dwellers, Facebookers, and Amazon reviewers, the use of the adrenal gland has shifted to more abstract purposes.

"[God of War] is specifically tuned to make you feel like a macho, empowered badass," said Hulett. "Much like Batman, Jack Bauer, or Bill Rizer, nothing fazes Kratos. He is never scared. You buy action games to feel like that."


God of War III

God of War is one of the best-reviewed games of all time, with a Metacritic of 94 and perfect scores from 1UP, Game Informer, GameSpy, G4, Games Radar, and the Official US PlayStation Magazine. The basic mechanic involves swinging a chain with a giant blade on the end. For the sake of variety, you can rip the heads of Gorgons with your bare hands, run your blade through the chest cavities of hapless soldiers, and, through some plot trickery, be tricked into disemboweling your own wife and child.

As an action game, progression is tied to clearing areas of enemies and moving forward. The fantastic enemy designs encourage players to see them more as targets or obstacles than as living creatures deserving of empathy. The spurts of blood and flying limbs tell the player they're doing something right: this is where they're supposed to be, and this is what they're supposed to be doing.

"The way that the player interacts in Gears of War is by shooting the world," said the series' lead designer, Cliff Bleszkinski. "That's essentially his virtual hand. What he does is essentially reaches out and touches the environment. He's touching his enemies to essentially defeat them by unloading bullets into them."

The gore triggers a subconscious release of adrenaline, a guilty frisson that helps to keep the otherwise mundane work of obstacle-clearing feel exciting. Clearing chess pieces is intellectually satisfying, but adding blood spurts and cries of agony every time a piece is lost would add another layer of fun.

This isn't high art; it's interactive phantasmagoria and suspense. It's the lowest common denominator of game design. Aesthetics can be manipulated to mask a repetitive gameplay mechanic, while offering the player essential feedback on the efficacy of their execution. This may or may not be a noble approach, but it definitely works.


Is Control Worse Than Watching?

One of the most contentious issues in video gaming is the effect of violence on the people playing. Jack Thompson has been the loudest about his crusade against the corruptive influence of video game violence on players, but there have been many other serious attempts to control video game content.

In 1994 Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, Democratic Senators from Connecticut and Wisconsin, held hearings to investigate the graphic violence in Mortal Kombat. California Attorney General Dan Lungren testified that games have "a desensitizing impact on young, impressionable minds."

In 2001, families of those murdered by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the Columbine High School Massacre filed a joint lawsuit against twenty-five different video game companies for five billion dollars.

The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the impression that Harris and Klebold were driven by violent games like Doom has lingered. Harris was an active Doom modder, and many of his levels can still be downloaded.

In 2005 California passed a law restricting violent video games (anything depicting "killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being") to anyone under the age of 18. Under the law, all distrbutors would have to ensure violent games carried a two-inch-square sticker with "18" on the cover, and retailers would be criminally liable for selling games to minors.

The law was later declared unconstitutional, and a final appeal in the US Supreme Court is imminent. Also in 2005, Hillary Clinton, then Senator from New York, railed against video games as a "silent epidemic of desensitization," and called for the criminalization of selling AO or M-rated games to minors.

In spite of ongoing criticism, many developers remain determined to push the envelope. "If anything, we have an obligation to not soften the violence," Jason Rohrer, developer of Passage, Primrose, and an upcoming game about the diamond trade in Angola, told me.

"Some researchers have expressed concern that repeated physical action in video games (e.g., defensive shooting) could condition violent responses in the real world. But this is only a theory," said Cheryl Olsen, co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media and co-author of Grand Theft Childhood. "One could argue that because a gamer has to act to keep the game going, he/she is more aware that the game is a fantasy compared to passively watching, say, a slasher film."

Control is an essential characteristic of the video game and while research suggests it can increase aggression in short term, it might also be the cue that constantly reminds players of the fictional environment in which they're playing.

"A bit like taking the mask off the scary monster and trying the mask on yourself -- you can diffuse the psychological power of a false stimulus by fully deconstructing it," said Rohrer. "In a movie, we can't do that as easily."

Often art style makes the violence feel even more abstract, breaking the corollary between what's happening on-screen and what we might expect in real life. "It's easier for squeamish players to kill demons, I'd imagine, than to gun down soldiers in a realistic military game," said Hulett.

Based on her research, Olson believes that there are a lot of healthy social impulses being served by video games. "It's absolutely normal for preteen and teen boys to compete in games (formally and informally) to see where they fit in," Olson said.

"Kids and teens also like to try out new behaviors and potential identities (how would people treat me if I acted like this/was this kind of person)? Video games can be a safe place to do these things."


What We Don't Know

While most people still hold fervent beliefs about how graphic content in video games affect us, there is still a dearth of conclusive data to support either side of the debate. We know less than we think we do on all fronts.

"There are no systematic studies of people who have harmed, or attempted to damage, people or property, to see if their use of video games (or other media) is different from the general population," Olson said.

There have been a number of studies that suggest recent exposure to violent media, film or game, produce increase the probability of aggressive behavior in children, but the limited scope of those tests remain inconclusive.

"My own research suggests an association between bullying and playing video games that are mostly violent -- but this is what's called a correlation, not evidence of cause and effect," Olson noted.

Another huge blind spot in our understanding of games is that most research has been focused on children. According to the ESA, the average age of a game player is 35. There are almost twice as many women players over the age of 18 than there are boys under the age of 17.

"Every time I've mentioned Danny Ledonne's Super Columbine Massacre in a conversation with industry outsiders, I've gotten the following reaction from at least one person: 'Why would anyone want their kid to play a game about Columbine?'" Rohrer said.

Few outside active gamers think that a game with provocative themes and controversial mechanics might seriously be intended for adult consumption. Olson said that this is beginning to change.

"A number of recent studies on Internet gaming have involved adults," Olson said. "But adult use of games is evolving so fast that it would be hard to study. You'd need to look at particular groups (e.g., people who lack access to social opportunities due to physical disabilities or dangerous neighborhoods) and the potential benefits and risks for them."


Silent Hill: Homecoming

Another area for investigation involves a full accounting for all the instances of violence in Western culture, big and small. Video game violence is typically easy to identify because it calls attention to itself and represents an emerging medium, but artifacts of violent heritage surround us on all sides.

"Sports clearly grew out of war training, and still today they serve as peaceful war substitutes between rival nations," said Rohrer. "Some sports, like American football, contain very literal battlefield metaphors."

In these more metaphorical forms of violence, there seems to have been a general consensus that the participants understand that they are in a pantomime that shouldn't be taken too literally.

"Even in a game about war, a 'killed' piece would simply be removed from the board (not smashed with a hammer or whatever else we can imagine)," said Rohrer. "It does seem like 'killing' is our most natural reading of even the very abstract conflict that's present games like chess and go, so maybe the abstraction isn't as important as our reading of it."

So why is it okay to watch gridiron warriors, or go to war with plastic icons, while using controllers and polygonal avatars is corruptive? Do video games of the West come from a historical continuum of abstract violence? Do children exposed to frustration in highly stimulating games like Tetris and Galaga also exhibit heightened levels of aggression after a tough few rounds of negative reinforcement?

"I'd like to see more studies on kids who do a lot of bullying," Olson said. "We also need observational studies, where kids or teens playing video games (especially in groups) are taped and analyzed. Finally, more studies need to look at how video games may be beneficial as well as potentially harmful, so we can build on strengths and limit risks."


This Is Not an Exit

As the industry continues its growth, game violence is only intensifying. The recently released Dead Space Extraction is filled with the decapitations and alien spatter, but there's also a sequence where players will, in first person, have to cut off their own arm to escape the clutches of a giant alien.

You won't be let off the tentacle with a simple button press; you'll have to repeatedly hack at your elbow joint, swinging the Wii Remote before you're turned loose. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories will push the envelope even further, blurring the borders between game violence and sexuality.

In a demo presented at this year's E3 show, an in-game psychiatrist asked players to complete a personality profile. One of the questions asked players if they liked to roleplay during sex. Imagine answering that question -- not just in a game, but on a big monitor in a convention center with thousands of people around you.

In Edmund, the recently announced winner of the TIGSource Adult/Educational Competition, your pixilated hero has to rape another character. In comparison to other media, the thematic constraints on games are still fantastically rigid. Earlier this year two games that featured rape as game mechanics were removed from Amazon's marketplace.

But you could buy a DVD of Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, which shows an unedited eight-minute rape scene in a subway and a man's head being graphically crushed with a fire extinguisher. You could also order a copy of Denis Cooper's novel Frisk, which ends with a detailed description of a serial killer mutilating and raping victims in the Dutch countryside.

In the Los Angeles Times Michael Silverblatt wrote, "Dennis Cooper, a disturbing and transcendent artist, enters the mind of a serial killer and comes out with a genuine revelation." Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post called Noe's film "a genuine work of outlaw art."

In Fallout 3, a game where you can detonate a nuclear bomb to wipeout an entire village and freely attack most any character you want at any time you choose, you are prevented from attacking children. Lead designer Emil Pagliarulo wrote about the choice in Edge, asserting "that was a line we certainly didn't want to cross, and we think that was the right decision. It wouldn't have been socially responsible, at least in the case of Fallout 3."

Is there really a way to differentiate acceptable violence from that which crosses the line? Can we legitimately say that killing an eight year-old in a fictional world is worse than murdering an entire town at the behest of an NPC?

"With Shattered Memories we have focused very much on psychological horror," said Hulett. "There are not graphic or gory scenes directly shown in the game. Acts of violence are often hinted at, but we let the horror brew in the player's mind rather than bombard them with horrific imagery."

Maybe the most disturbing thing about violence in video games is how easily we identify with it. I remember the glee I felt when I realized I could go up to any random pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto III and beat them to death. This wasn't supposed to be allowable; this is socially unacceptable, a crime against civilization. But it was an idea I had all by myself. There is no tutorial in GTA III that teaches you how to murder civilians.

"Maybe we want violence in media to be disturbing," said Rohrer. "Maybe the 'comfortable' violence, like that shown in Star Wars, is the most dangerous, and the Scorsese violence is the most beneficial to society. If that's true, then game violence might be the worst of all."

Last year I interviewed Rich Farrelly, Creative Lead at Treyarch on Call of Duty: World at War, and he told me about the studio's efforts to imbue the adrenaline-numbed violence of the series with some sense of the psychological traumas of war. "The men on both sides of the war weren't always heroic and fearless," Farrelly said. "The horrors of war brought many aspects of humanity including less noble traits such as revenge, hatred, and cowardice."

It's hard to forget the bitter irony of World at War's ending; players ride with a marauding company pushing through Berlin, applying the metaphorical deathblow to the Nazi Empire. In stark contrast to the self-congratulation and hip-hop high-fiving at the end of Modern Warfare, World at War ended with a total loss of power.

Your character is shot in the chest and disarmed, watching as your commander stabs another human and plants the Russian flag on the Reichstag, against the backdrop of hellish ruin. Control is taken away for a few seconds, drawing attention away from the moment-to-moment objective progression, and forcing you to look at what you actually accomplished.

It's an awful moment -- a merciless rendering of war -- where humans kill one another for political reasons. Whatever your thoughts about weapon balance or enemy AI, this scene stands alongside the great creative works of war in any medium. It's forceful and breathtaking in a way that cannot be reproduced in film or prose.

Whatever course the video game industry follows in the future, violence will be an inseparable part of it. Violence is, like any other element in games, a tool with which developers can express themselves. As with Looney Tunes, John Grisham novels, and Transformers, violence can be used for fun. But what else can violence be used to express? That's a question best answered by developers.

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