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Five approaches to 'good' violence in games

"Violence in games" isn't a single issue: Leigh Alexander looks at five design choices that make violence work and feel meaningful, at a time when meaning is important to the diialogue around games.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

January 22, 2013

7 Min Read

The renewed discussion of violent games has one big problem: It's too abstract. There are nuances to how violence is commonly portrayed in media; for example, in a slasher flick the cartoon violence is the whole point, while in a thoughtful drama, a single gruesome scene becomes an artistic punctuation mark if executed gracefully. In games, the violence spectrum becomes even more complicated. When the broad question "are games too violent" surfaces, we who make, play and discuss games tend to bristle -- violence is free speech and games don't cause behavior and that should be all, most say. Yet rarely do we examine or express the fact that all games are different, and the impact (or lack thereof) of violence depends on the context. What's interesting about the current wave of conversation is that this time, we as a community seem less willing to absolutely reject any criticism of our violent games. We're curious about our commercial shooter culture and the relationship it has to gun fetishism, for one thing; after spending years exalting games as a cultural institution with inherent value and social impact, it's harder now to turn around and say they have no relationship to the human experience. Maybe the silver lining in the fact we've ended up having this industry-wide gut check again is that we can learn more about the role of violence in games, highlight and study situations where the value of combat, blood or weaponry is considered and evident -- versus simply being the result of obvious design institutions that are just getting more graphically vivid. When any of us says we're uncomfortable with game violence there's an assumption that we're just prudish, delicate, pacifistic. That doesn't need to be the case -- lots of us enjoy violence when it's well-implemented and feels meaningful. leigh 1.jpgIt's important to understand that most of the time, conversations that examine violence aren't fearful condemnations, but curiosity about how and why it's being used. That kind of examination can only lead to better games: 30 years ago, essentially making dots collide was the building block of design -- games have better graphics now, but to what extent are they doing more interesting things? When, from a design standpoint, does violence "work"? When it's necessary to the narrative. Some of the moments in games that are most widely remembered and appreciated involve acts of violence, like the plot climax of BioShock or the end of Metal Gear Solid 3 -- cases where the player is asked or forced to execute a death in a way that enhances the story. When an act of violence is a crucial part of a game's story (assuming the story's well-established), the player naturally takes ownership of the action and its implications. That sense of agency is supposed to be one of the strengths of interactive entertainment, so it makes sense to be judicious with it. Giving players the opportunity to perform any action in a very specific and intentional context virtually requires players to think about what they're doing and be engaged. When it's absurd. Incredibly grave physical situations have been the backbone of comedy forever. Similarly violence in games takes on a completely different tenor when it's funny; some incredibly violent games are effective because they portray the absurdity of the usual blood sport gamers routinely engage in. It's commonly pointed out that there's some dissonance with, say, the Uncharted series and the suspension of disbelief it requires to see Nathan Drake as a pleasant, likable and resilient guy despite the hundreds-high bodycount hee leaves in his wake. But games like Hotline Miami or earlier Grand Theft Auto games embrace the silliness inherent in the idea that one of the most common core ideas in games is "endless murder." The ragdoll physics game boom a few years prior emerged in part from our fascination with playing with body shapes and seeing how they crumple -- but games like that rely on a certain extreme absurdity. Even Angry Birds is fundamentally about banged-up animals flying through wood and plate glass, but it works, even for kids, because it's silly. leigh 2.jpgWhen it comments on itself. Many games have attempted to use violence to comment on violence, or on the nature of games themselves. It's been mixed success so far, really -- Modern Warfare 2's civilian-killing "No Russian" scene sparked a lot of blog posts because of its aim to jar players with the actual horror inherent in the war they were simulating as a team sport, but there was more conversation about why the scene felt cheap or contrived than there were stories of stirring personal impact. Still, it was an important effort, highlighting the idea that games about horrors could, or should, develop self-awareness. Gamers share poignant memories of Far Cry 2 or, more recently, discuss how Spec Ops: The Line tried to differentiate itself from genre-standard war games by portraying some of the trauma of the experience. The inherent value in making trauma into a game -- at least, such a literal one -- is an open discussion, but the use of shock imagery has the potential to be a valuable narrative tool when it shakes players into thinking about what they're doing and why. Plenty of games satirize their own mechanics as a way of commenting on themselves, too -- rather than fight the goofy old structure of plowing through henchmen to reach a boss, No More Heroes embraces it, making enemy constructs gleefully sprout blood and coins as the player strives to reach ever more implausible (and oddly-touching) villains. And there are more delicate ways of being reflective and aware about the nature and structure of games: Shadow of the Colossus gives the player a horse, a princess and a sequence of monsters -- in a surreal and meditative essay on our tendency to fulfill unexamined objectives and to make too many assumptions about who the "monsters" really are. When it's optional. Violence in games feels meaningful when it's not your only choice. Part of the appeal of stealth games is the friction created when combat actually feels dangerous, a threat best avoided. In those situations, when you find yourself physically confronting an enemy it feels frightening, anxious, regrettable, like a failure. Games that offer players a variety of choices about how to deal with threats -- and then balance the gameplay accordingly -- ensure that conflict is never thoughtless. leigh 3.jpgThat the player feels more thoughtful and engaged about decisions they make in the game world is a benefit regardless. Outside the stealth genre, games like Fable, Dark Souls and countless others have offered worlds where player behavior affects the world's behavior, showing that all actions have a role in some kind of ecosystem. When it makes you feel powerful. I have a secret guilt: Despite my devotion to the study and criticism of games as complex, expressive creatures, my interest in championing new mechanics and new ideas, I occasionally like to shoot guys in the face as much as anyone else. I know I'm not alone, either -- those of us who roll our eyes at mass consumerism in public will eventually be found cheering a cornball vehicle scene or a gory splatter in private. It's not a convenient admission when we're trying to distance games from real-world psychological issues and violent acts, but a lot of people like luxuriantly-violent games because they allow us to examine our worst impulses in some excitingly-amoral vacuum. It's not that most of us have secret fantasies about killing others; it's more like why we like to pop bubble wrap. It scratches an itch that's satisfied by some kind of tactile extreme. Double-talk or denial won't help us at the discussion table when it comes to the fact that sometimes violent games inexplicably feel good. But we might be able to better defend media that gives us actually-interesting, inventive or meaningful power fantasies. Failing that, it's best to consider context for this pleasure: My favorite combat games are generally abstract and absurd Japanese melee titles, impossible acrobatic bacchanals of guns and fancy shoes and muddled demonic imagery. They're unreal, so I take delight in them. I'm satisfied, even pleased by aggression when it feels narratively consistent, when it's paced well. It's just that "because he's coming at me" isn't a reason to pull the trigger for 40 hours straight. Having better reasons will create more intelligent, engaging games -- and the added side effect of having valuable answers to all the questions people who don't understand games want to ask about violence.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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