2013-07-15

Violence in Videogames

Videogame violence is an often-discussed subject. When videogames make the news, it's often in relation to its violent content and how it affects players.

Image from videogamebot.wordpress.com

As far as I can remember, whenever videogames have been criticized for their violent content, the gaming community has responded by saying something like "it's just a game". Since it's just a mindless pass time, how can it negatively affect the player? Well, this argument can't be used since it's becoming more and more common to see serious games that tackle important issues. With the huge amount of people playing videogames, it's impossible to say that the medium's content doesn't matter.

And on the flip side, politicians, concerned parents, and others have always accused videogames for leading to real-world violence. Many of these accusations seem blind since the naysayers criticize videogames without really understanding them. Making a scapegoat out of videogames doesn't help anyone.

Instead of brushing off the question or blindly blaming the medium, it's time to figure out what violence in videogames really means. Even if it's a question almost as old as the medium itself, now is a particularly good time to examine the question. Why? Because even videogames are weighing in.

Violence justified

Justification of violence is a big thing in videogames. All war games justify their violence with honorable goals and historic circumstances. Other shooters use survival as a justification: it's shoot or be shot. Be it honor, survival, mental issues, personal gain, revenge, or heroism, videogame protagonists always have some excuse to be killing. This means that in-context, the killing is justified to the player. But what if you strip away the justification? Does it change the nature of the violence?

(skip the next two paragraphs to avoid Hotline Miami spoilers)

I was pleasantly surprised at what Hotline Miami had to say on videogame violence. The game is ultra violent, and I had misjudged the game as shallow because of it. In the game, the player receives anonymous phone calls that tell the player to travel to a certain address and kill everyone on site.

One of the endings then reveals that two people have been making these calls and orchestrating the whole thing. During this scene, the fourth wall breaks. It is heavily implied that these two characters represent the game designers, and that the only justification for the violence is that the designers have told the player to do it (through in-game phone calls and the creation of the game itself). Without any real conclusion to the in-game plot, the player is forced to think of what he's been doing all this time. After all, you're the one who chose to pick up the phone (or pick up the game).

Image from giantbomb.com
The violence isn't heroic or justified in any way. Hotline Miami makes you feel like you've just killed a bunch of people for the sake of enjoyment. But when you stop and think of it, isn't that what we do in all violent videogames?

Killing for entertainment

(minor Spec Ops: The Line spoilers incoming)

Spec Ops: The Line addresses this question in depth. The game, winner of Zero Punctuation's 2012 game of the year for being the game "that most f***ing deserves being played", seems like your typical pro-American war game at first glance, but it does so on purpose. The game makes you play like every other military shooter, then makes you question almost everything you've done.


Even Spec Ops's loading screens make you think about videogame violence. One particular quote struck me: "To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for  your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless." Is killing for entertainment as harmless as we think it is? In our heads, while playing a game, we're killing . When I shoot someone in a videogame, I'm thinking "I'm shooting someone", not "I'm aiming my crosshairs to a bunch of polygons to advance the simulation".

Later in the game, a radio announcer starts commentating on your actions. As you're killing your way through, the announcer talks about the identities of the enemies you've killed since he knew them personally. This is the opposite of what most games do. For example, in Call of Duty, the crosshair turns red over nameless enemies and green over allies. Your allies' name and rank also appear to humanize the characters, clearly indicating that you are the noble and human good guys and they are the nameless, faceless threat.

Image from mobygames.com
What Call of Duty and so many other violent games do is called othering: de-humanizing enemies in order to justify violence. When people are reduced to numbers on a page or faceless threats, people are more apt to do terrible things to them. According to my German teacher, it's how the Nazis justified their actions. Spec Ops made me realize that I've killed countless visible minorities, all othered in the context of American shooting games. (http://www.digitalislam.eu/article.do?articleId=1704)

I don't think that critically-thinking adults will be negatively influenced by shooting games. But to what extent does repeated exposure to all-too-common xenophobic ideological representations influence kids? Videogames are a part of culture, and culture shapes our representation of the world. Violent videogames might be dangerous for how they influence our thoughts, not our actions.

Image from gamingbolt.com
Ian Bogost's book Persuasive Games has a chapter on how videogames represent ideologies with their rules. I think this is more important than it first seems. Playing Spec Ops showed me how much we take for granted in a lot of shooting games. Videogames are never neutral: they always carry some sort of political and ideological weight.

Playing a videogame is different than enjoying other media. Its interactive nature can engage and immerse players. Videogames are also highly active, requiring full concentration and quick thinking. People spend immense amounts of time inside these digital worlds. Instead of focusing on a link between videogames and violence, I think it's important that we figure out how videogames influence our way of thinking and our world view.

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