Questions And Meditations On The Idea That Some Videogames Are Violent

Rowan Kaiser challenges the popular belief that videogames are all about violence.

by on 19th Dec, 2012

Questions and Meditations

We all know that Call Of Duty is a violent video game. You play a soldier, sent around the world to kill your enemies. The game is a first-person shooter, meaning that the game takes place primarily through “your” eyes. Your main mode of interaction is a gun, which is the closest thing to representing “you” the game has. You aim and shoot to kill, looking for headshots, causing spurts of blood. If any game should represent violent video games, it's Call Of Duty, right?

portal 2Portal is a first-person shooter. Well, kind of. It uses the perspective of a first-person shooter, and your primary mode of interacting with the game world is by aiming and shooting a gun. But the gun doesn't create spurts of blood with successful hits, it creates portals that you use to solve puzzles. Make a list of Great Games That Don't Depend On Violence and Portal ought to be included. Okay, there's a little bit of violence—the narrative involves your character trying to survive attacks from a rogue computer system, who occasionally deploys robotic turrets to attack you. You can use the portal gun to knock the turrets over and destroy them, though. But that's not enough to declare Portal to be violent, right?

Binary Domain is a third-person shooter. The distinction between first- and third-person seems important to some, but I find them practically the same. You're still shooting as your primary mode of interaction. The story of the game is about a renegade computer, sending a series of dangerous robots to attack your characters. You shoot and destroy a bunch of robots with conventional shotguns and assault rifles, etc. They look more humanoid than Portal's robot turrets, but then, Portal's robots say cute and funny things when trying to kill you. It even ends on the idea that peace between humans and robots is possible. So is Binary Domain more or less violent than Portal?

Mass Effect is another third-person shooter with robots as the main enemies. It also has a robust dialogue and moral choice system, which serves to indicate the importance of your quest through a violent universe. Mass Effect 2 adds more moral ambiguity in many ways, including more combat with sentient beings with free will (mercenaries, generally), while also adding motives to the robot enemies of the first game. They weren't just evil robots, they were a hive mind corrupted by a virus. Mass Effect 3 includes a major human faction of enemies, however, they're corrupted and “indoctrinated” by the series' biggest god-like evil faction. They do, however, bleed when you shoot them in the head. So is Mass Effect 1, 2, or 3 more violent than any of the others? Are they more violent than Binary Domain or Portal? As violent as Call Of Duty?

If you're playing a shooter on a computer with a keyboard and mouse, by default, you use the W-A-S-D keys to move and click the left mouse button to shoot. If you're playing a shooter with a controller, you probably use your left hand to move via an analog stick, and pull your right-finger on the top of the controller in a pseudo-trigger motion to shoot. If you're playing a shooting using a Wii Zapper or a Playstation Move gun controller, you're pointing a gun-shaped object at the screen, at what you're trying to shoot and, directly simulating shooting. It could be the same game in each case. Is one more violent than the next?

Mass Effect 3Are Chess and Go violent? Both theoretically simulate acts of battle and war. If you capture pieces, are they prisoners of war, or dead? Does digitizing these games and putting them on a video game system make them more violent? Does adding animation of fighting previously simply assumed, as in Battle Chess, make it more violent? Does giving the player the ability to control those fights, like Archon and Dark Legions do, make it more violent?

Civilization is a turn-based strategy game, just like Chess and Go. But here, there's a more direct representation of human events. You build cities and create military units, which sometimes go to war. In early Civilizations, you'd simply move a block representing a unit into an enemy and one would disappear. As graphics got better, the sequels included more animations in the combat system. Little riflemen would line up and shoot each other, with some falling over. Is this more violent than previous titles in the series? Is it more violent than Chess? Is it more violent than Battle Chess? 

You can drop nuclear weapons in Civilization. Military units are destroyed, and if you hit a city with them, the population number (from roughly 1-30) goes down. Theoretically that represents millions of people. Is that more violent than Call Of Duty? Wouldn't that make Civilization more violent than any game except perhaps DefCon, a game that you win by causing the most casualties in a nuclear war?

SimCity, like Portal, is heralded as a non-violent game. But as you build your city, it keeps track of unemployment, safety, and crime. If you build a city riddled with crime, you can see statistics that indicate the problem. Some of those statistics would have to be murders or other violent crimes. Does that make SimCity violent? Does that make SimCity violent only if you play in a way that encourages crime?

Assassin's Creed 3

Grand Theft Auto 3 is a game famous for allowing players to have their character pick up a prostitute, have sex with her, then beat her to death and take your money back. That's a horrible option, but that's just an option. You never have to do it. In The Sims, you can create two characters, push them to fall in love, push them to have a baby, watch that baby grow up into a child, then wall it off in a situation where it can eventually set itself on fire. That's a horrible option, but that's just an option. Does this make The Sims a horribly violent game?

Bejeweled is a purely abstract game where you try to match three gems of the same color together. Puzzle Quest is a role-playing game where competitive matches of Bejeweled-esque gameplay serves as combat within the game's world. A set of red gems, for example, may give enough red mana to cast a fireball, hurting the knight or ogre you're fighting. In Dragon Age, you select a set of skills that may cast fireballs that hurt enemy ogres and knights, but you see some animated bloodshed. Is Puzzle Quest violent in a way that Bejeweled isn't? If Puzzle Quest included blood spatters, would it be as violent as Dragon Age? 

Assassin's Creed is a game where you play a pseudo-historical assassin who runs around killing people. Well, that's not entirely true. You play a character in a strange computer simulation reliving the memory of his assassin ancestors killing people. You are, in short, playing a character who is playing a violent video game. Does that make Assassin's Creed less violent than any other game where you run around a historical environment killing people if that game doesn't have the extra narrative conceit?

Is The Walking Dead a violent video game, even though it's about the consequences and stresses of violence? Are Journey and Papa & Yo violent video games because your goal is often to avoid violence, even if the character you control cannot engage in violence in return? Dyad reframes abstract rhythm game conventions by using language like “lance” and “bomb,” does that make it more violent than Rock Band? 

How much of the idea of video games being violent depends on symbolic interpretation of that violence, via words, via animation, via movement? What makes some of those symbolic interpretations more relevant or violent than others? How much of the idea that some video games are violent relies on particular symbolic interpretations while ignoring others?

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