What You Should Know About Violence In Video Games

What To Know About Violence In Video Games In 2013, most of the best video games are violent. Dishonored, Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, Grand Theft Auto IV, Deus Ex, Hitman, The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, Planetside, Call of Duty, Torchlight II, Max Payne 3 and others almost all place the player in the role of…

What You Should Know About Violence In Video Games

What To Know About Violence In Video Games

In 2013, most of the best video games are violent.

Dishonored, Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, Grand Theft Auto IV, Deus Ex, Hitman, The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, Planetside, Call of Duty, Torchlight II, Max Payne 3 and others almost all place the player in the role of a character that kills to advance and survive.

Whether or not violent videos games actually cause violence is unclear. Most studies find little to no evidence that they do–at best, they find correlation rather than causation. But short-sighted witch-hunts as knee-jerk reactions are common social policy, unfortunately. Educators can likely sympathize with the desire for a magic bullet.

The problem of violence in games has been addressed before, most notably in 1994 when the video games industry adopted ratings similar to those used in movies with the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board). The ESRB ratings established a system for games that parents could understand, and that all retailers could use as policy, helping to keep “M-rated” games out of the hands of minors as an “R-rating” in movies is designed to keep children away.

But in an era where gun owners point to video game developers, video game developers point to retailers, retailers point to parental supervision, and all are called to task by politicians, such ratings have been called inadequate. None of this, though, answers a more primal question:

Why are the best games violent?

Does their popularity represent a blood lust on the part of children everywhere who beg to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Skyrim, or is there something else we’re not understanding?

The truth of the matter is, most of the best video games in 2013 are violent because the most talented developers work for the companies that are making money from franchises–such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare–that are inherently violent. Video games are big business made by people who make them as a profession. While video game developers like to innovate the medium with new ideas and artistic choices, the publishers of the games–often as publicly-held and trade companies–prefer cash-flow and profit. 

This means chasing crowds over creativity.

Early Video Game Violence

Video games started in the 1980s innocently enough, in arcades with Pong, Donkey Kong, Q-Bert, and others charming the masses with their whimsy and colors. But even Pac-Man’s a bit aggressive if you think about it–gluttonous little semi-circle gorging himself on pellets that belonged to passive-aggressive ghosts.

Donkey Kong threw barrels at the player to keep them away from a woman he held hostage.

Space Invaders required the player to destroy invading aliens (as have so many games since).

Frogger was among the most violent–a game that you tried to guide a frog through traffic, often to predictable results.

Once arcades died and home consoles and computers took over gaming, a handful of violent video games got very popular and continued the evolution, including Contra (Military-themed game where you kill mostly anonymous bad guys), Mortal Kombat (a one-on-one contest of fighting mechanics with extremely violent fatalities), Street Fighter (similar to Mortal Kombat, but with less violent, more cartoonish graphics), and Resident Evil (kill zombies). This was around the same time that new extremes in hip-hop entered the public discussion, including 2 Live Crew, NWA, and others that sent parents and politicians scrambling to censor and outlaw. 

More than anything else, this was a time of disruption, and even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, technology was at the forefront. MTV (which used to play music), The Box, and other new-age media outlets catered to the young rebellious masses who wanted something that’d bother their parents, just as the previous generation might have with Black Sabbath, and with Elvis Presley the generation before in a familiar cycle.

What Technology Serves

It might help to understand the context of video games as an entertainment form. The growth of video games dovetailed behind a change in television. Access to hundreds of television channels via cable, rather than ten through rabbit ears, allowed for the ultimate assimilation of previously diverse audiences and media forms. In the chaos of Reagan leaving the White House, MTV becoming a cultural icon, and rich white kids from the suburbs listened as Eazy-E advised them on the particulars of male-female relationships. Video games emerged as major players of youth attention not just in arcades, but in their dens and bedrooms.

In this way, increases in the power of technology yield increases in the diversity of how human beings can get their thematic fix. This means drama, suspense, uncertainty, and other human tropes that sustain us in our entertainment forms. The same stuff you get on facebook, twitter, and gossiping before, during, and after staff meetings.

Comfortably or not, violence is a part of this.

The temptation to be aggressive, fight, and blow stuff up is apparently part of our DNA. As a medium, video games allow us to explore things that fascinate us–other cultures, our own fears, or complex scenarios problematic to approach otherwise. Kind of like movies. And magazines.

And 50 Shades of Grey.

In 1998, the three top-grossing films were Armageddon, Saving Private Ryan, and Godzilla. In 2000, the top two were Mission Impossible II and Gladiator, and this was right around the time video games left the arcades and entered the homes as consoles from Nintendo, Sega, and Sony.

It’s problematic to expect video games to pursue themes of community, perseverance, and cognitive capacity when Hollywood wants things to glitter, moan, and explode.

What Probably Bothers Everyone

What Iikely offends the well-intentioned instincts of parents everywhere is the one crucial difference between movies and video games: interaction.

Film and video games both provide users the opportunity for narrative storytelling and visual discovery. But film is a passive medium, while video games add the element of interaction. To watch one character kill another on a Shakespearean stage is passive–you watch what’s happening with no agency or volition; hand that same Shakespearean audience a controller and let them control the characters–and watch as Hamlet gets on with the murdering much earlier in the play–might be enlightening.

Video games simply represent the latest in a technological evolution in which we, as a culture, have our innermost desires met by the technology we consume. And under a system of Capitalism, wherever there is demand, there is an opportunity for fulfillment.

Certainly it’d be difficult to argue that the suicides of Romeo and Juliette were less unsettling than the proceedings in a Quentin Tarantino film, much less killing a digital figure in a video game that immediately blinks back to life.

Some of this is framed as an examination of the human condition, the rest spectacle. Should we find one more justified than the other?

Video games as an industry is relatively immature; these are its rebellious teenage years, about ten years behind the development cycle of hip-hop music, 25 behind rock-and-roll, 50 behind film, and many centuries behind drama.

The idea that some politicians view them as “murder simulators” is startling, and a symptom of a lack of understanding, making makes me wonder what other myopic laws and policies we suffer under because we’re so busy as a culture, that we often don’t take the time to stop and think carefully; distraction is the new tyranny.

In 2013, mobile games are disrupting the video game industry, allowing smaller developers to create innovative games that will spur creativity and change how, when, and what we play moving forward. Some of this new thinking will eventually bleed over into genre of traditional games. It’s possible that film itself could become interactive, with personalized viewing experiences enabled by handheld technology, crowdsourcing, and even biometric technology that is involuntary, measuring pulse rate, gland production, and brainwave activity.

Then who do you blame?


If violence in society goes up, we look for models of violence that offenders have access to and blame them, rather than trying to understand the entire ecology. There is no simple answer here, and scapegoats are a fool’s prize.

Calling on the parents to be deeply invested in the lives of their children–and all the media they consume–is certainly a significant part of any “solution,” but there’s more that can be done to continue to push games forward as a medium. I’d personally love to see continued innovation in video games–those non-violent and those not–with new examples like Flower, Little Big Planet, and Portal 2 leading the way.

Today, even brilliant and admittedly violent games like Dishonored give players choice–the ability to complete levels without ever being seen much less killing a soul. This is partly because of improved technology, where developers can now create more complicated games that provide both spectacle (that sells games) and immersion (that keeps them playing).

But if all media forms should seek transparency and potential with the audiences that consume them, violence in video games can’t disappear. Rather than bleaching and homogenizing it all, a better response for game design might be nuance, choice, and self-direction.

Kind of like education.

Image attribution flickr user bytown and flickeringbrad; What You Should Know About Violence In Video Games