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What Violence Means to Games

In the wake of the famed Supreme Court ruling, I ask what role violence plays in the history of video games. What are some ways violence impacts games in terms of design, and what does it mean for the industry's reputation?

I’d like to put my “More than Design” series on break for a little while to discuss a different issue.

I’ve been running a lot of blog topics through my head recently.  In the process of this line of thinking, the Supreme Court came up with a news-breaking ruling: video games are protected by the First Amendment and sales of violent games cannot be restricted by the government.  Now, I wasn’t greatly impressed by this ruling, namely because I’ve never felt all that threatened by government regulation.  At the time, I just kind of tossed it aside and offered a hearty “Congratulations” to my colleagues.  However, as time wore on, I started thinking about it again.  I’ve thought about the violence question a lot in the past, and the whole issue with the Supreme Court ruling has gotten me thinking about it again.  In response, I decided to jot down a few thoughts.  Those thoughts kept coming, resulting in what you see below.

An Introduction to Regulation

If you look back through video game history, particularly at attempts for regulation, you’ll come across the scandal involving Death Race for the NES and Arcade.  In the game, you drive over humanoid figures in a car, turning them into graves.  When it was claimed that Death Race served as a means of promoting violence (supposedly by inspiring children to start going out and running people over, or something like that), the developers fought back with the information that the footage was taken out of context.  Players in the game weren’t running over humans, but zombies.  Apparently, that makes everything okay.

Ah, zombies.  Zombies make for a great way out.  Can you imagine if you were to create a game that involved running through a mall killing hordes of innocent civilians?  The scandal!  The outrage!  Zombies, though, are mindless drones who are better off dead anyway, so a game like Dead Rising is okay.  It’s just a fantasy environment, like something out of a horror movie.  The same goes for just about any zombie game.  Left 4 Dead using live humans?  Resident Evil?  The closest you can get to a zombie game using live humans is something like Grand Theft Auto, and that series has definitely seen its share of controversy, too.

Can More Violence Make a Game Better?

Then there’s something like Gears of War.  From what little I know of this game, I know it has some rather impressive and elaborate weapon impacts.  I don’t know how much time it takes to make a head explosion look that realistic, but I know it involves a certain amount of research and subsequent testing and tweaking.  It’s impressive to have such realistic shotgun impacts, but do they really make the game better?  That’s an interesting question.  Most people probably wouldn’t find it worth the effort it takes to create such effects.  However, Gears of War caters to a specific demographic – a demographic which gravitates towards things like realistic head explosions.  If players in the target demographic find those effects impressive and are more fully immersed in the game world as a result, then you could truly say that those effects make for a better game.

Another classic example is Mortal Kombat.  Nintendo’s decision to remove all blood from the Super Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat is often regarded as one of the company’s all-time great screw-ups.  Swapping out blood for sweat did nothing to impact Mortal Kombat from a design standpoint.  Removing Fatalities, while having a slight impact on the gameplay (as they require specific button combinations), was also largely an aesthetic choice.  Regardless, the Super Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat was generally regarded by fans as a lesser game than its Genesis and arcade counterparts, and, among other reasons, Nintendo has been thought of as the “kiddie company” ever since.

What Mortal Kombat demonstrates is that what violence and gore provide to a video game, more than anything, is spectacle.  From a design standpoint, Mortal Kombat is a fighting game based on mastering the use of complex button combinations in specific time intervals.  But the design isn’t what Mortal Kombat is about.  It’s about brutally ripping your opponent’s spine out or watching them explode into a flurry of blood and bones.  Even then, it’s not necessarily about the violence itself.  It’s about the pure showmanship of the whole ordeal.  It’s not just bloody and vicious – it’s completely over-the-top.  You don’t just destroy your opponent – you show off to the camera.  What people really missed from the SNES version wasn’t blood and gore, but the flash and absurdity that the blood and gore offered.

On the other hand, I’ve heard people complain about other games for their lack of, specifically, blood.  I’ve seen people rant in forums about how Zelda needs to be M-rated, a gritty action title in which enemies shower Link in blood as they get sliced up.  This isn’t just random musing, either.  This is serious talk from people who legitimately believe that a Mature rating will automatically make Zelda into a better game.  The gameplay and overall flash value wouldn’t change; the only addition would be a bit of blood in replacement of cartoony flashes.  For these people, I suppose increased gore WOULD make for a better game.  However, for everyone else, all it does is limit the available market.

In this case, the addition of blood doesn’t really serve a purpose of improving the flash value of the game.  This is just gore for the sake of gore.  Yes, changing Zelda into a more God of War-like environment would make the series appeal to a new audience.  However, it doesn’t change it from a design standpoint.  Additionally, a well-established and very popular series like Zelda has no responsibility to add blood purely to attract a few new people.  Those who want a more God of War-like environment can play God of War.  Those who want Zelda to be Zelda can still have Zelda.

Violence for the Sake of Violence

I don’t take issue with the existence of violence in video games.  After all, where would the industry be today if it hadn’t been for a bit of punching, kicking, and shooting?  Violence is, on some level, almost necessary to the very existence of video games.  Violence generates danger, generating drama that can drive a player forward.  Sure, there are other ways to generate action, but what better motivation is there than “SOMEONE IS GOING TO KILL YOU!”

What I take issue with is the concept of what seems to be violence for the sake of violence.  Games with unnecessary levels of gore, deliberate showers of blood, and game mechanics centered around actively going around killing as many people as possible in the most gruesome, tortuous ways possible – this sort of thing I have a problem with.  (There was a lot of sighing involved when I witnessed Manhunt in action.)  With all that the game industry has tried to do to gain respect and freedom over the years, it feels as though deliberate shows of elaborate and gratuitous violence tend to hinder progress.

And no, games aren’t the immature displays of vulgarity that the news media, parents, and politicians make them out to be.  People who want to see all games as poor inspirations for children will see what they want to see.  They’ll focus on the gore, the sexism, and the way in which such elements actively involve the players.  The issue I see is that while this isn’t what games are about, we’ve certainly made it easy to paint that picture.  The conversation can be a little hypocritical at times.

THE GAME INDUSTRY sits on the couch, playing
God of War.  CONCERNED PARENTS stand off to the side, hands on hips.

Video games are a horrible influence on our children!  They expose them to scenes of graphic violence!

So do movies, the news, even Saturday morning cartoon shows.  Do you want to get rid of all of those, too?

But video games are different because they make our children active participants in that violence.  They don’t just glorify killing – they make it seem fun!

Games aren’t about glorifying killing.  Games are useful tools for all sorts of things.  They’re vital teaching tools, they develop hand-eye coordination, and some are even being developed that can help people manage chronic illnesses like cystic fibrosis.

We don’t hear about any of those games anywhere.  We only ever see ads full of explosions and guns.

That’s just a matter of what the media promotes.  Games aren’t trying to make violence cool or fun.  You should really just consider the potential thatOHMYGODDIDYOUSEETHAT?!  I JUST SLICED THAT GUY INTO FOUR PIECES!  THE BLOOD ANIMATIONS IN HERE ARE AMAZING!

CONCERNED PARENTS stand with a shocked and horrified expression.

It just seems like we shouldn’t be trying to convince people of our maturity while simultaneously showing how cool it is to disembowel demons with a giant sword.

Really, though, what can you do about that sort of thing?  To end the violence is to restrict our own freedom.  The best we can do is admit equality.  “Yes…we’re just as immature as the rest of the world.  Please treat us as you would treat the rest of the world.”  Don’t think for one moment that I’m suggesting games are worse than other forms of media in regards to gratuitous violence.  Movies like Saw illustrate the apparent appeal of this kind of material to the cinema audience.  The fact that the original went on to have as many sequels as it did only proves the point.

Again, I don’t take issue with the fact that violence exists prominently in games.  My concerns arise when the potential video games offer to society is pushed aside in favor of making violence more realistic.  When new graphics technology emerges, we make more detailed blood spatter.  When a new control scheme rolls around, we use it to swing a sword or aim a gun.  These are, of course, just small portions of what new technology is used for, but in some ways, they serve as a driving force behind the very evolution of that technology.

As stated before, it’s not so much about violence as it is about flash.  Graphics technology in particular has moved forward in an effort to make games more elaborate, impressive, and exciting-looking.  Invariably, one of the main ways to illustrate that impressiveness is with a big action title – characters going buck-wild jumping around through particle effects, blasting away at enemies while bits of the world explode dramatically around them.  It certainly looks pretty.  If it doesn’t, the more clever gameplay-oriented games will have a lot of trouble compensating.

In this sense, you could almost say that violence has driven graphics forward.  Since graphics technology has represented the primary evolution of video games over the years, it could even be said that violence has moved the entire game industry forward.  That scene is shifting somewhat now.  Changes in control schemes are bringing elements of gameplay into greater prominence in the public eye, and as graphics technology has begun to plateau, issues such as social connectivity and adaptability are becoming the new evolutionary forces for the industry.  This doesn’t mean games are becoming any less flashy or less violent.  Simply put, the public is becoming more aware that there are different aspects to consider, and those aspects are becoming decidedly more prevalent in the mainstream world than they have been in the past.

Artistic Expression

There’s also a strange argument for the use of violence from an artistic standpoint.  Now, I’m not about to start another “games as art” debate here.  That’s another topic all its own.  No, I’m simply referring to the fact that works of art (high art) have a level of expressive freedom beyond what the average media allows.  Art is about meaning – the observer derives some sort of meaning from a work of art through experience and reflection.  Every piece of a work of art serves to conjure up an emotion and get the observer thinking.  Sex, nudity, and violence are allowed to exist in high art if they work towards this purpose.

Art, through its function of eliciting emotion from the observer, contains massive freedom to utilize violence to achieve that end.  Artists have the privilege of claiming that their work is designed to elicit a particular feeling.  If you were to look at something like Dead Rising as a work of art, you could theoretically say that the act of killing zombies in creative ways is meant to make the player feel some emotional response.  The player may feel excited, nervous, disgusted, frustrated, or even joyous as they run around beating zombies with a baseball bat in an effort to survive.  But you see, that’s all part of the open interpretation of art.  Everyone experiences and reflects on it differently.

I’m not about to claim Dead Rising is a work of art.  In my mind, it’s just a world in which you run around killing zombies.  What I hope to do is illustrate the point that making violence in a game mean something not only makes for a better game, but also brings games one step closer to being taken seriously as works of art.  I’m not greatly concerned with whether or not games reach that status, but I know a lot of people seem to be.

Freedom of Speech

I think it’s important to consider what’s been offered here.  Games have been granted the same rights as other forms of media.  The game industry has been granted what is deserves: equality.  That’s all.  No more, no less.  The fact that violent game sales cannot be restricted doesn’t indicate that games are free and clear from persecution.  All it tells us is that the United States government recognizes games as being less destructive and dangerous to society than yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater.  It’s not a statement that we’re mature and civilized, but rather that we’re no worse than television or movies.  Really, I think that’s a fair assessment.

The worst thing to do is flaunt the liberty we’ve won.  The Supreme Court hasn’t just given us permission to go out and make games as violent as we please.  Well, technically, they have, but that’s not the point.  The point is that just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD.  This isn’t a criticism of the industry.  I’m not implying that we’re bloodthirsty savages who only want the opportunity to unleash images of bloodied corpses and exploding heads upon the world.  No.  We’re mature enough people…most of the time.  I just think it’s up to us to maintain that maturity.  I don’t want people to get into a habit of “violence for the sake of violence” just because we’re free to do so.  Violence is still a useful element in a lot of games, but there no sense in feeling obligated to use it.

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