Mature Content – Video Games Are Awfully Violent
Video Games as a medium are reliant upon a crutch; their ability to resonate as art, to tell stories of interest and to evoke emotion are all held back by a dependence upon violence. This industry is steeped in the fictional depiction of blood, guns, guts and brutal murder.
Some clarity is needed on my own stance before I proceed; I absolutely love violent video games. Hotline Miami is one of my all-time favourite games and it simply couldn’t exist without an indulgence in hyper-violent murder and carnage. GTA IV, Bioshock, Half-Life 2, Metro 2033; the list goes on and on – I am quite partial to fictionalised brutality and the visceral sight of spreading pools of blood. Thus, I am in no way criticising the existence of violent video games. Nor do I suggest that we ban particular games, reduce the number of them or censor them in any way. Instead, I want to highlight an over-reliance that sits at the centre of my favourite medium.
Since the dawn of video games, competition has been at the heart of what makes a game fun. Since Tennis for Two your objective has been to win, whilst stopping the other player from winning. Sports games remain popular to this day, serving as an extrapolation of these early Pong variants and currently provide the largest alternative to bludgeoning people with your fists, or extracting viscera with high velocity lead. In addition to the high profile sports releases, we should not ignore the less popular genres of puzzle games and management sims; alternatives to the glorification of combat and gore do exist. However, it would be difficult to dismiss the mainstream triple-A market’s rather obsessive relationship with death and violence; every year’s E3 show reel highlights a collection of new titles dominated by trigger happy soldiers and stabby-stabby hack’n’slash.
Violence itself lies at the heart of the human condition and plays a vital role in our histories. After all, the axiom does state that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Anthropologist Raymond Dart theorised that our earlier australopithecine relatives (that eventually evolved into homo sapiens) were “confirmed killers: carnivorous creatures that seized living quarries by violence, battered them to death, tore apart their broken bodies, dismembered them limb from limb”. Influential science writer Robert Ardrey waxed lyrical about our tendency towards war, “We are Cain’s children… Man is a predator whose natural instinct is to kill with a weapon. It is war and the instinct for territory that has led to the great accomplishments of Western Man. Dreams may have inspired our love of freedom, but only war and weapons have made it ours.” From the scientific to the biblical, it is often said that brutality is in our blood; we are natural born killers.
In short, the violence of video games serves as a way to fulfil primal urges perhaps, to ‘let off steam’ and indulge in a healthy dose of ultra-violence that falls in line with our heritage. I for one am very much a proponent of the cathartic nature of entertainment and art. This would certainly explain how this penchant for death has remained marketable and popular. However, if we all gave into to primal urges, the world would be one hell of an ugly place, that’s for sure. There must be more to video games as a narrative art form than headshots and contextual melee kills, right?
At its purest, narrative often requires a central conflict to drive characters through their arch and to give a resolution to move towards. In its simplest form it is Bowser kidnapping the Princess, and Mario rising up to save her; hero seeks to restore the status quo. This will mean fighting against an antagonistic force that does not want this to happen. This in turn is where combat come in; objectives to overcome on the way towards your end goal and the realisation of conflict in a very visual and easy to digest form. Once upon a time these were turtles, spike pits and moving platforms. Now, more often than not, they are soldiers, aliens and robot in need of their heads being kicked in. The need to insert gameplay (often combat) into video games can often undermine their emotional core or themes; The Last of Us is a prime example of fantastic and mature story-telling, however the RPG style upgrade system and boss battles in the school gymnasium are all a little too traditionally ‘game-y’ for lack of a better term, and subsequently detract from the weight of the games thematic overtones.
There are plenty of video games out there willing to take an introspective look at the relationship between audience, video game, society and violence. The Last of Us, Hotline Miami, Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock Infinite are all incredibly violent; gorey bloodbaths of close up eviscerations and brutal decapitations. However, each of them examines the why their characters are the way they are, how this violence affects them and the societies and situations around them. They also point a finger towards the audience to ask them to reflect upon their own part to play in all the brutality. This shows growth as a medium, which is to be respected and gives a strangely comforting respite from the un-apologetic hyper-masculine depictions of murder and death that oversaturate the popular sphere. The question is of the dichotomy inherent in criticism of, or commentary on the violence which these games still indulge in. Can you be contemplative of a system whilst still inside it, whilst still trapped within the codes and conventions of ‘boss battles’ and ‘combat encounters’? Perhaps that is a discussion for a future article.
Other narrative forms simultaneously provide these exuberant and violent power and gore fantasies whilst providing more subdued alternatives focused on other modes of story-telling and other facets of what it is to be human. For every Saw movie, there is a Pursuit of Happiness, for every Poppy Z. Brite novel about rapist serial killing cannibals (yes, really) there are charming Nick Hornby novels like High Fidelity. Essentially, there are non-combatant forms of drama in other mediums, which video games struggle to meaningfully engage with for the most part. Perhaps video games could approach these forms of drama if they placed less emphasis on conventional gameplay systems.
Enter stage left: the emergence of ‘interactive drama’ that falls in line with the less-violent fiction found in other narrative-centric mediums. Most commonly referred to as ‘walking simulators’, titles like Dear Esther and Gone Home have themselves been steeped in controversy and community backlash. Gone Home in particular, whilst finding itself critically acclaimed for its atmospheric world building, evocative ambience and mature themes, was attacked vehemently by some gamers. Its sins were two-fold; firstly, that it didn’t have enough ‘gameplay’ for it to be considered a video game, and secondly, that it was pushing a supposedly ‘liberal SJW agenda’ due to it exploring themes of homophobia and feminism. Personally, I think Gone Home is one of the shining examples of non-violent storytelling done right. Without leaning upon the crutch of having a combat system it exemplifies how the exploration of a space and the culmination of audio and visual in an interactive world can provide story telling methods that are inherently unique when compared to any other narrative medium.
The genre as a whole is criticised heavily for its lack of conventional gameplay. Games like Gone Home and the Stanley Parable are rather relaxed affairs, focusing on immersion, atmosphere and story-telling as opposed to placing the player in danger or needing to threaten them with a fail state in order to heighten tension levels. Combat is completely absent, instead the game adopts an emphasis on exploration and piecing together of narrative threads as core driving force. The genre’s widely accepted name even sounds critical and derogatory; a group of games that simulate something that we already do, something mundane that we shouldn’t want in our entertainment, especially those forms of entertainment that traditionally involve the murder and disembowelment of alien super-soldiers.
And the backlash against such a genre is very, very real. Any comment section, or set of reviews for titles like Virginia are ripe with criticism not only of the supposed lack of gameplay, but the supposed SJW agenda too. Walking Simulators were caught in the cross-fire and residual fallout of Gamergate; a vocal minority of gamers appeared to hate these titles and what they represented as a departure from the conventional video game mode of conflict creating gameplay, whilst a collection of video game critics and journalists held these titles on a pedestal promoting them as the future of storytelling.
The problem I find with people being so dismissive of a fledgling genre like this is their lack of understanding about what makes this medium so exciting. Video games allow us to explore in real-time and to experience first-hand the environments in which we find ourselves; the dilapidated wastelands of Fallout, the sinister asylum of Outlast or the rain-slicked city streets of Deus Ex – they are all audio-visual delights to be explored. These aforementioned games also have traditional gameplay – combat and survival mechanics. But that isn’t what makes them great. It is the experience of exploring a world, and of being a part of a story. William Hicks of Heatst.com completely misses this point, stating “with walking simulators, the mechanics are the afterthought. They do not improve your relationship with the story, only superficially separate the game from film.” The exploration of an environment isn’t a superficial separation; it’s a defining feature. I would argue that needing to shoe-horn ‘puzzles’ or conventional gameplay mechanics into a ‘game’ hinders its ability to resonate as a piece of art. This medium is called ‘games’ merely as a nod to history and tradition; modern works are beginning to transcend arbitrary barriers of needing to ‘win’.
The extreme negative reactions towards these types of games is perhaps more telling of a larger more insidious issue between those consuming video game journalism and those writing it; a politicised debate with agendas on both sides that go far deeper than the fact that you can’t blow up the house in Gone Home.
Ultimately, these games present a different approach to story-telling that manages to drag itself out from beneath the imposing shadow of ‘video game violence’ and provide us with something so unique and independent of existing video-game codes and conventions that it is jarring just how different they feel when you experience them. So jarring in fact, they have polarised opinions and served as a proxy for a political war between liberals and conservatives.
To those of you so adamantly opposed to these kinds of games, for fear of them dishonouring what you define to be a ‘video game’, I would like to propose that these kinds of games can exist as a quieter, less violent accompaniment to mainstream action titles. The two different methods of story-telling can exist within the same medium. You can have games about LGBT rights, as well as cis-male empowerment fantasies. Similarly, there is enough room for games that are critical of the military industrial complex as well as games glorifying a career in the military. There is so much scope for experimentation and innovation. It’s a big old medium, and it has plenty of room for all of us.