It’s a topic that deserves some thought, even if you’ve already come to a conclusion.
Before we get started, here are the facts as they stand: youth violence has decreased as video games have gotten more popular. Studies have shown both an increase and decrease in violent feelings after playing games, calling into question research methods. But at a basic level, nobody can claim games can both be emotionally affecting and not affect their behavior. That said, violence is the result of many factors, much of which are misunderstood in the public.
Its important to state my background. I’ve been playing video games for almost twenty years. In this time I’ve played everything from Bubble Bobble to Conker’s Bad Fur Day to Halo to Banjo-Kazooie to Grand Theft Auto to Final Fantasy to Portal to Braid. I see video games as a unique medium, in which players can experience a space born from an artist’s vision. And I think limiting what they can do—what they’re allowed to do—limits what art can arise, ultimately limiting our human potential to create new experiences. Ultimately limiting human potential in its whole. My wish is for video games to expand their horizons, not confine themselves.
I’ve been defending video games for about as long as I’ve enjoyed them. As I played the first Pokémon game, I showed my mother the words I was learning (“deposit” and “withdraw” come to mind instantly) and asked her for explanations of certain things, sneakily attempting to prove that games had both educational value and we not inherently a solo, non-family experience. I wanted to demonstrate that games were a force of good, probably so that my mother wouldn’t object to me playing more of them.
At the time, I didn’t understand the more subtle, generally positive lessons that video games were teaching me. Pokémon was a social game, encouraging me to talk to others, discuss strategies, and work out deals (trading Pokémon was an effort in persuasion). Other games like Final Fantasy, which I got into later, ended up teaching research methods. Having trouble on certain encounters or wanting to know every inch of the game helped me find internet guides, reading them to find the answers. I wasn’t even in high school by the time I wrote my first guide to a game (Final Fantasy XI), a game that was released in Japan that I had yet to play. The guide was less than perfect. While I look back at that guide in shame and laugh sometimes, I’d like to think it was an impressive work for a middle schooler. Without playing the game, I managed to scour the internet, find what information was out there, and assemble it into a complete work. Games got me into writing. They got me into research. I never even considered these elements because they came naturally to me. But games were shaping my behavior in a real, positive way.
Final Fantasy XI in particular, as an MMO, became something of an obsession. People look at the bad habits that MMOs encourage, and talk of horror stories of parents letting their children die and others starving themselves because they couldn’t stop playing. But for those few horrid stories, we have others like myself who spent time in the game helping others, having discussions in-game with people around the world, debating politics and morals, thinking about ways to improve the current experience and what those changes might mean for the world. I read books like Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds, which discussed the nature of virtual economies. Whenever an article online or in a newspaper mentioned a game I knew something about, I tended to read it, regardless of whether or not I enjoyed the subject beforehand. It’s like those Sports Science videos, using a student’s interest in sports to help them with science, but less obvious. The prior connection to games helped bridge the gap between uninteresting and informative. These weren’t overt attempts to show how “video games are educational and extend beyond the game”, but rather actual repercussions of game playing.
So I fully believe that games are a powerful form of media. Nay, art. By experiencing them, we learn about ourselves and about the world. Overall, games are a positive force in this world.
But their nature also reinforces problems that our society has.
Games are unique amongst all media for their participatory element. That is to say, unlike music, TV, radio, movies, paintings, and sculptures, games require input from their audience. Though a concert might encourage people to sing and shout something to the band playing, and a radio might have people call in, and a house build by an architect who values design could have someone live in and experience the benefits of the house, games are the only form of media where every action within the game is necessarily something that the player has directly or indirectly caused.
Pressing “start” makes the world come into existence. Perhaps it creates a world of war, and the player is thrust into the position of a lone soldier. Or it creates a world where a bunch of pigs have poorly constructed some buildings and you are the birds who wish to tear their buildings down.
The problem with violent games is not that they’re violent. It’s that violence is the only option. The only way to not kill people in a first person shooter is to not play. But playing is a central experience. It’s the most interesting way to enjoy the product. It’s the intended way to enjoy it.
It’s given me a lot to think about. What the fact that we give players only one way to complete a game, and it’s a violent way, means about the current state of games. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t exceptions to the rule. But rather, that the overwhelming state is one where the gameplay is centered around destruction with no other option.
There’s a real disconnect in RPGs when a character says they abhor violence and then fight and kill. It doesn’t matter if an enemy attacks first. RPGs especially have the ability to provide alternate means to explore the way we interact with the world. And they tend not to. The ability to put an enemy to sleep doesn’t end the battle: it simply helps you kill the opponent. Nonviolence doesn’t stop the enemies from attacking. Maybe a scene happens and the character regrets the fighting. But when he continues fighting, it loses the impact. The game says, “Okay, that one time, fighting was wrong. But as a whole, fighting is good.”
Violence is seen as good and spectacular, instead of bad and bland.
The other problem is that violence within video games is often the main way for the player to improve their skills. Video games do a service in showing a player that there is always a solution to a problem, even if it’s not immediately available. Any challenge can be overcome. That’s empowering! Yet for many games, fighting is the means to solving most problems. In an RPG, the player will typically enter combat 10x more frequently than they will solve a puzzle. Arguably, most of RPG combat is mindless, and the real skill probably comes into play in boss fights. Using this logic, focused fighting and puzzles probably come into play an equal amount, especially in a game like Golden Sun. But where solving puzzles has some mental reward, fighting is where all the flashy graphics are. By solving puzzles, a door will open. By fighting, a dragon will fly into space and shoot a laser beam from orbit down to the surface of the planet.
And then the final encounter is always a fight. Testing your skills. There is something wrong with the fact that every game ends with a fight. In terms of memory, people retain their knowledge of the beginning and end of something far better than the material in the middle. As a result, people remember that final fight well.
What does it say about our world if violence is the sole means of problem solving? What does it say if violence is the most interesting way to go about things? What does it say if it’s the best way?
I think it’s also worth addressing the realism in video games. While games are getting more-and-more realistic-looking on the whole, and doing better at immersing their players, there remains a disconnect. The uncanny. Players can see that their opponents aren’t real. Even though they look like people, there’s something slightly off. It’s an NPC that only has one or two lines of dialogue. Or none at all. It’s obvious it isn’t real.
Anyone who says that video games are desensitizing people to violence because of the graphic violence in games is looking at the wrong thing. Fake blood and gore aren’t the heart of the problem. Running over 3D hookers with your 3D car from a 3rd person perspective isn’t the problem. These things are distanced enough from our real experiences. Perhaps this is too anecdotal, but I have a friend who becomes nauseous at the sight of blood. Even movies can set him off. But video games don’t have an effect.
However, there is a line that could be crossed. Will be crossed when given enough time. When the graphics and violence are so realistic that they become indistinguishable from real life, then we’ll have a problem. Right now, anyone can tell you that video games are, though engrossing, entering into a separate world. But the moment where a player might be confused if they’re hitting someone in real life or hitting someone in a game, then we’ll have a problem.
In any case, we aren’t there yet, thankfully.
Obviously, this problem extends deep. Much of what people consider normal and fun is problematic. I’m not about to contend that we should stop having these kinds of experiences. Fighting and combat is a proven way to engage players. And more basely, having no more games about fighting removes something from the conversation. Up until the present, fighting is a real part of the human condition. Maybe the physical violence is a metaphor for a more mental fight. Fighting games are engaging because everyone has to fight and persevere in some way in their life. There’s a reason that violent games like Call of Duty top the charts—they’re engaging to a lot of people. At their core, the games are simply well-constructed, albeit tried-and-true.
Game design, like every other form of mass media, favors the old-fashioned; the proven techniques. Gameplay is often based on systems to get the player’s blood pumping, and what better way to trigger the fight-or-flight response than the give the player a fight. And this is fun. The player knows that they’re not really killing anybody. It’s all 1s and 0s! They’re safe to experience the wild side of the world without actually being in harm’s way. It’s not real.
When good writers write villains, in an attempt to make them more real, they often try to make them sympathetic. Ironically, making them too sympathetic can be a problem, as players will have more hesitation to kill them. One writer talked about how he wasn’t allowed to make villains plead for their lives. They were only allowed to be glad the player was killing them and willing to charge head-first into a fight. The writer expressed concern that games don’t give players the option to sympathize more with the enemy. After all, nobody is truly good or evil.
The problem for the game designers was, if the villains were too human, then players wouldn’t want to kill them. And this is problematic? It’s bad for people to not kill?
In response, someone noted that by making the villains sympathetic, killing them is breeding sadism. When someone screams that they don’t want to die, and the player must kill them, there is something inherently wrong. By making the villains beg for death, we also make them into the uncanny—the NPC we know isn’t quite real. It allows our mind to say that it’s all just a game.
But I think there is an onus on developers to consider ways of avoiding violence. What if there was the option to finish the game without resorting to violence. Giving players the choice? If they fight, then maybe they can’t get the “good ending”? I think there is possibility out there to make villains sympathetic, and to avoid breeding sadists: giving the option to players to not fight.
This is more difficult than the tradition. It requires more to the game. And honestly, it’s not realistic to have all games attempt this. But, there is value in having games that challenge this norm.
Consider a game where fighting was only “necessary”. In Mario games, they come close. You can beat the whole game without killing an enemy, if you’re good enough. But when you do kill an enemy, the game rewards you. You get a coin. The area becomes safer. What if killing them lowered your score? What if the best way to go through a level was by not killing?
For all I know, there’s no way to solve the violence problem. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying.
Perhaps you still believe violence is not a problem in video games. It’s certainly not the problem that pundits make it out to be. However, be that as it may, making violence optional opens up new doors and new genres within games. Going forward, developers should be mindful of the effect that “violence as the sole option” creates.