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In light of yesterday's Supreme Court ruling on violent games, Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander explores the role of violence in the industry, and how violence often fails when we're "told it's meaningful."

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

June 28, 2011

7 Min Read

Not all video games are violent, obviously. But plenty of them are, else there wouldn't have been a Supreme Court case rooted in the concern some had about the effect of content on minors. And if we didn't believe in games' right to expression, we wouldn't have all exhaled a collective sigh of relief yesterday when the court refused to reconsider the struck-down law. But that doesn't mean everyone's thrilled to have violent combat as arguably the primary form of "expression" game developers choose. There's an entire contingent of writers, readers and players who, even if they do enjoy brawling and busting caps just as much as everyone else, work and write because they want to see games tackle a wider variety of narratives or develop stories about someone else besides the usual archetypes. They'd like to play games that try hard to do innovative things with the unique medium of interactive entertainment, beyond high-res and increasingly realistic takes on the same paradigms. Especially because "realism" isn't that much fun. In pursuit of immersion, developers have made ever more lifelike game worlds, but many longtime game fans have become less engaged with games as that march progresses. Perhaps the more realistic some elements of games get, the more stilted and dissonant others seem to be. For example, would people have noticed the weird physicality of L.A. Noire's characters if their faces hadn't been so vivid? When the characters of a game world behave in an almost-perfect way, the necessary concessions realism must often make to the laws of design seem that much more disconcerting. Another reason utter realism can be undesirable is because it creates less for the imagination to do. Think about the longest-enduring franchises, or games with the largest fan following. Often, they began in an era of more primitive graphics, when a single sprite had to act as anchor for the player to identify on their own. Or they use the language of symbol and music to create depth. Think of Fumito Ueda's wordless worlds of light and shadow, or even the bright absurdist palette of Mario games, all pipes and mushrooms. One thing realism can do for some players is make violence uncomfortable. Although real war is of course infinitely more hellish than a game, the blood spoor and twisted limbs get ever richer, the concussive blasts and bullets ever louder and more exhilarating. Even if it doesn't offend you or make you uncomfortable, it should be easy to empathize with those who simply don't think it's very creative or very interesting. With all that freedom of expression, we're primarily glutted with games about fighting. Punch, slash, shoot -- monsters and people. This doesn't mean that the presence of violence in games automatically disqualifies them from being fun or creative. A summer action blockbuster is totally valid as enjoyable film, even if it'll never be an Oscar contender -- or even memorable beyond its few months in the sun. But it's worth thinking about what differentiates fun violence from numbing. I mean, for me, at least, because a lot of it's just to do with personal taste. And when I started having so much fun with Infamous 2 (on the evil path, no less!) I started thinking about what makes death and destruction fun for me to play. It's half design and half aesthetics, and the former is more complex to nail down than the latter -- no surprise to game developers, of course! Game feel is kind of gaming's je ne sais quoi (although there are books on it!), but whether or not I enjoy combat mechanics has to do with whether a character is fun to control, has a variety of moves, and feels satisfying to play. For one thing, I've found I like first-person shooters infinitely more if they offer a melee option that's actually reliable, and moreso if there are even further choices: stealth or environment destruction, or some kind of "power" weapon that can be wielded instead of a gun. The Infamous games make you point and shoot, but for some reason, the fact that it's an electrical superpower I'm throwing around makes a big difference, and so do the environmental choices offered by the epic scale of the game world. Maybe I'm just averse to guns. And I'm perfectly willing to admit that my enjoyment of wielding superpowers comes from the fact that my aim with a gun is adequate at best, no matter how much I play. But if that's the case, then maybe there's a lesson there in how to make combat games appeal to bigger audiences. My full-time job is games, so if I'm often frustrated by my own lack of skill aiming a gun, imagine how more casual gamers or more "lapsed" gamers interested in returning to the pastime feel. Offering options makes the experience more accessible and less intimidating. When it comes to Infamous 2, the reason I've been able to take so much pleasure in hacking up civilians in the hopes of earning more bad karma on my way to torch more militia men isn't just because I've been given the choice of swinging a melee weapon that offers so many combos and is so easy and fun to use. Herein's the aesthetic issue: Infamous 2 is a kinda dumb game. And that's a really good thing in the context of violence. Violent destruction in games becomes fun when there's very little to take seriously. Infamous 2 has silly characters, none of whom manage to make it beyond two-dimensional. Neither are they particularly likeable. The plot is comic book cheese in the worst-best way: Key points of the story are forgettable, and most players will be having so much fun completing missions and cruising New Marais for all the little optional elements that they probably won't even follow it. The dialog's horrific and the AI is straight-up silly. New Marais' citizens tend to blurt nonsequiturs as you pass them, and can sometimes be found clutching themselves in the street moaning for help without apparent cause. They run flailing into the middle of your violent confrontations with the game world's mutant monsters, and then act off-put about you being in their way. You can pick up a taxi cab with the driver still inside, throw it into the side of the building, and the worst you'll get is that someone might complain about how you think you're so great. If it were any more thoughtful, more sophisticated, more plausible, it wouldn't be so much fun to disassemble it all with abandon. Violence in games succeeds when you can laugh at it, when you can't possibly empathize. That's why despite all the thought and impressive richness bestowed upon Grand Theft Auto IV, players felt oddly ambivalent. The popular consensus that the game "took itself too seriously" isn't quite a fair assessment -- isn't developers taking storytelling seriously one of the things many people feel can make games better and more meaningful? But GTA games are satires of American culture, media and their excesses, even riffing on the culture's own paranoia about the very kind of content the games serve up freely. And as satire, when they're funny, their violence is funny too (GTA: San Andreas will let you beat people with a large rubber sex toy). As sterner commentary, it doesn't work as well. It stops being fun. Personally, I think wreaking havok in games is a lot more enjoyable when the game doesn't try to be more than it's capable of being. It's when we're packaged and sold violence and told it's meaningful that it stops working. Or it's when developers clumsily tack on themes that deserve actual gravity in an attempt to invest some shooter-of-the-year with emotional punch that I start to wonder where the fun's supposed to be. Nobody wants to simulate war and murder -- at least, they don't want to until marketing starts selling it to them. And it's not that games should strive to be shallow, dumb fun, either. I've always believed in the idea that the content people create should ideally aim to be meaningful, and I'm not alone. I can't tell you how many of my colleagues Tweeted yesterday, following the court ruling, something to the effect of "I'll be more excited about video games as free speech when developers have something meaningful to say." Some will. Some surely don't. But if you're in the latter group, let yourself be silly so that we can all have a good time.

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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