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In this editorial, Andrew Vanden Bossche takes a look at game violence, real-life violence, and how the relationship between the two -- as presented in games -- could become more meaningful and nuanced as gamers mature.

Game Developer, Staff

August 20, 2010

10 Min Read

[In this Gamasutra editorial, Andrew Vanden Bossche takes a look at game violence, real-life violence, and how the relationship between the two as presented in games could become more meaningful and nuanced as gamers mature. ] In the early 80s, a little robot brought a tear to Ichiro Lambe's eyes, so he spent his life making video games. The little robot is from a game called Planetfall, designed by Steve Meretzky in 1983. Lambe played Planetfall on an Apple IIC on a green-on-black monitor. Thirty years ago, the best graphics engine by far was the human brain, so video games presented players with snippets of text to which players could respond by entering combinations of verbs and nouns like "drop key" or "open door." Planetfall is a science fiction story about a luckless ensign on a spaceship whose boring job mopping decks is interrupted when a mysterious disaster sends the player to a crash landing on a nearby planet. The player's adventures lead him to make friends with the childish yet endearing robot Floyd in a quest to save the planet. In order to save it, though, Floyd has to make a sacrifice. "He volunteers bravely to go," recalled Lambe, "and he is just torn to pieces by these creatures and it is the silliest thing, this tear jerking moment where he runs out of the room and meets you again and it's a classic movie death scene, where the player is singing him a song." Lambe doesn't think his games have made many people cry, but they've certainly made them laugh. He wants his games to be like "little bubbles of joy." Not Gruesome, But Still Grown-Up One of those bubbles is AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. Aaaaa! is a unique bubble; there's very little in the industry to compare it to. Lambe told me it was most like a rhythm game, like Rock Band or Guitar Hero. He's right, but Aaaaa! is at the same time unique. In Aaaaa! you jump off of buildings while dodging metal girders, giving thumbs up to fans, spray painting graffiti on municipal buildings, and flipping off protesters, all while trying to parachute to a safe landing. When I first played the game I snapped my character's pelvis in twain about four times in a row before finally cruising in for a safe landing. Instead of showing the character die, the game gives a clever little message about the results of your poor parachuting. It's hard not to giggle while playing it, but it's the sort of off-beat humor that is a bit hard for kids to get. The stereotype, however, is that games are still for children (but somehow at the same time unsuitable for them and clearly marketed at older age groups). Activist and lawyer Jack Thompson called video games "murder simulators," prior to his disbarment, but as of 2009 only 17.4 percent of video games have a rating of "M" (17+, the equivalent of an R rating) and are played by more women over 18 than boys under 17, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Violent crime among youth has declined sharply since the mid-90s, while at the same time video game use -- and the realism with which games depict violence -- has exponentially increased. Numerous new studies, in particular the ones leading to the book Grand Theft Childhood, have shown that video games are no more dangerous to children than movies, books, or television, and should be monitored by parents in the same way. This stereotype no longer reflects reality, if it ever did. Part of the reason for this is that gamers are growing up. In 2005, the average age of a gamer was 30, according the the ESA. In 2009, it was 35 (at 35, Ichiro is perfectly average in demographic if nothing else). Twenty-five percent of gamers are over 50, a huge increase from 9 percent in 1999. New Anxieties As gamers get older and the audience expands, Scott Macmillan, a member of the Boston indie games scene, feels that attitudes towards video games have changed a great deal over the years. "I feel like we've become much more legitimate," he said, "Everyone who grew up playing games doesn't even have a question about that. But there is a need for us to assume responsibility for what is being taken more and more as a legitimate form of commerce and, hopefully, art." Valve's Gabe Newell is one person thinking seriously about what will resonate with the aging gamer generation. In a recent interview, he talked about wanting to return to the fear he inspired in older teenagers with 1998's Half-Life. Half-Life is a lonely battle through an isolated facility in New Mexico as it is overrun with bizarre and extremely hostile alien life. Monsters pop out at the player as the game channels a pre-Avatar science fiction ethos in which the aliens were Aliens. So what will scare those same players again, 12 years since that first game was released? Not monsters. Newell says it is "the death of their children" and "the fading of their own abilities." These are themes far beyond the experience of most teenagers. Newell recognizes that the people who played Half-Life are now professionals and parents. They have work to be responsible for and children to worry over. And they still play video games. When Wikileaks released a video depicting U.S. soldiers firing on and killing unarmed journalists from Reuters on the fifth of April 2010, a spokesperson for the site said "It seems like they are playing video games with people's lives." It's reminiscent of old stereotypes, but the target for Wikileaks was not video games, but war. It really highlights how different video games are from life to see the consequences of game logic applied to reality. While watching it, Macmillan told me he "was sickened, I felt physically ill. I had this just awful, awful feeling in the pit of my stomach knowing both that these -- probably kids -- in this helicopter were about to kill these people, that these people were going to die, and those kids were going to have to live with that for the rest of their lives." What is so disturbing about this is that a complicated situation is morally simplified. The video is shocking not just because it shows American soldiers killing innocents, but because of how chillingly removed they are from what's happening on the ground. Macmillan agrees that it feels similar to a video game, but for him, the point of greatest similarity was not visual. "In a video game you are completely sure of exactly what you are doing. It's about achieving the goal that you all share," he says, "[in the video] there was no questioning of whether the targets were bad guys; they were sure these guys were bad guys." If there is a problem with today's war games it's that there are so few that invite people to think about the consequences of war. Video games are only as morally complicated as the designer makes them. But Macmillan thinks that video games are capable of much more than the more popular examples would indicate. He says that, rather than a game in which players shoot without thinking, "it is achievable for video games to have that 'Oh god' moment, where you realize a horrible mistake has been perpetuated." The 'Oh God' Moment Silent Hill 3, released in 2003 by Konami, is one game that attempted to do this very thing. It's a horror game, where the player is weak and monsters are strange and strong. Survival Horror, as it's called, has been a small but well-known niche, and Silent Hill is one of the best-known games in the genre. Silent Hill leans towards psychological horror, confronting players with puzzles and subtly distorted cityscapes. The enemies in Silent Hill include lumbering piles of flesh, spinning and screeching wasps, and faceless nurses. Silent Hill is actually a game about running away from monsters, not killing them. Heather, the protagonist, runs through a vision of a small town in God-knows-where America. It looks about as generic as any small town USA can be, and in the grasp of some unmentionable horror it transforms into an industrial hell. Silent Hill, unlike most video games, is not fun. It is intentionally not fun, and critically acclaimed because it is not. Playing it is tense, torturous, and stressful. It is as relaxing as a Wes Craven film and as psychologically reaffirming as Eraserhead. But players still love it, for the same reason people love horror movies and Silent Hill has a similar cult classic status. Towards the end of the game the protagonist, Heather, meets with a shady and unbalanced man named Vincent. He hopes for the two to help each other out, but Heather is suspicious of him. Her incredulous attitude towards him makes him completely lose his temper, resulting in the following exchange. Vincent: You come here and enjoy spilling their blood, and listening to them cry out. You feel excited when you step on them and snuff out their lives. Heather: Are you talking about the monsters? Vincent: Monsters? They look like monsters to you? It's just a joke, Vincent hastens to add, suddenly friendly and calm. But it's not a very funny one. The hideous creatures that inhabit this world are monstrous in the extreme. They exude evil. There is no way to interact with this creature that is not violent. It either kills you, or you kill it. With a button assigned to violence in a world of monsters, how can a player be expected to react any other way? One of the surprising truths of video games is that there is very little choice in them. In Silent Hill, there is not even a way to take a nonviolent approach to the monsters, and certainly no way a player would feel like doing it. That's okay, because they're monsters after all. Designers go out of their way to make sure that player's won't object to the targets, whether they be terrorists, insurgents, monsters, aliens, zombies. It's no surprise that one of the most popular settings for the first-person shooter genre is World War II. So even when opponents are human, they're safe targets. This is actually somewhat positive; the average person can't even play a game where they virtually kill virtual people unless they're "bad" virtual people. So in Silent Hill 3, I killed monsters as Heather because the game told me it was okay. So when leering Vincent suggests, even as a joke, that they weren't, the game has suddenly turned traitor. I was hero, and for a split second I'm a monster. The entire premise of the game crumbles if these rules are violated. This is Macmillan's "Oh God" moment. As the audience for games expands, we are seeing the emergence of many new kinds of games. Some games, like Silent Hill 3, want the player to think about what is happening around them, and there are many others like it. I started playing games when I was six. I'm 24 now. I never thought of video games as something it was possible to outgrow. They've just been too interesting, and they only get better. What kind of sense would it make to abandon them? Imagine if it was 1939 and I refused to watch the Wizard of Oz because I was too old for such as childish story -- what sort of person could do that for one of the first films to ever use color? Doesn't that just sound perfectly insane?

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