There are plenty of people who believe video games are too violent, but I believe the opposite: video games need more blood, gore and viscera, not less. The reason why relates to the origin of games, their roots in film, and the nature of humanity.
The Story of the Kelly Gang is often regarded as the first feature-length film ever made. Shot in 1906, the Australian movie tells the story of real-life Aussie gangster Ned Kelly. At just over an hour long, the film features many on-screen deaths, including a creekside shootout in which three people are killed.
The following year saw the release of the short film The Unwritten Law, which was little more than a dramatic recreation of the shooting death of Stanford White. Less than a decade later, movies such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation graced the country’s theater screens, featuring some of the earliest uses of on-screen blood in its gruesome retelling of the Civil War. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the Motion Picture Production Code was introduced, acting out its 30-year reign over the film industry by imposing restrictions on what could and couldn’t be shown on screen.
In the half-century since their creation, video games have developed a much closer and fundamental connection with violence. Some would even argue that, with video games first appearing on computers in DARPA research labs and some of the earliest titles including Spacewar! and Combat, the medium has violence literally written into its code.
In the years since the early days of both mediums, filmic violence has been further relegated to niche genres like grindhouse and extreme horror, while games have taken the opposite approach, sprinkling combat, shooting, stabbing, blowing up, bludgeoning and nuking into games all across the board. Some of the largest and most commercially successful video games have predicated themselves on dozen-hour-long campaigns of running and shooting.
Yet wherever there’s violence in games there are crowds of unhappy onlookers eager to condemn it. Game violence has long been cited as a corrupting and harmful influence, from the ridiculous limb-ripping of Mortal Kombat to the blood-soaked gunthusiasm of DOOM. It hasn’t helped that the Klebolds and Breiviks of the world have been perfect poster children for the arguments that increased exposure to violent media is turning us into monsters.
Game developers have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to appease these growing segments of the consumer population while simultaneously preserving the only type of major player interaction the medium has really ever known. The results range from the comical to the cringe-worthy, and as a result we’ve ended up with unfortunate industry tropes like ragdoll physics, which often cause dead bodies to careen around comically, and blood effects that can actually be toggled on and off in the options menu.
It’s getting a bit ridiculous, in other words.
THE TOOLS AT OUR DISPOSAL
Despite numerous studies, there still isn’t any conclusive evidence that violent games cause real life violence. But even more ludicrous is the claim that eliminating blood, gore and viscera while keeping the violent interactions otherwise intact is somehow “protecting” impressionable youth from desensitization and rapidly diminishing senses of empathy.
Unfortunately, that notion has it backward. It isn’t violence that’s harmful to players in the context of games—it’s the increasing sterilization that it’s subjected to. The act of killing a person is one of the most intense, severe, impactful things that one human can do to another. More than just the isolated act of violence itself, murder creates ripples that propagate endlessly throughout the lives of both the perpetrator and the victim. Yet we’re constantly treated to games that place players in a situation where the sole objective is to kill as many “enemies” as possible.
Some games, like Grand Theft Auto IV and Gears of War, even track how many characters a player has killed; it’s not uncommon for this number to climb into the hundreds or thousands over the course of a game that runs for a dozen or so hours. In our world today, a person who has murdered hundreds is the worst kind of monster. In a video game, we call such a person something else: the protagonist. Even games where the player embodies an everyman instead of a hardened combat vet—Uncharted, for example casts players in the role of an Indiana Jones-style explorer, not a soldier—still feature hundreds of player-committed murders, more in one level than Indy killed in all three films (who counts Crystal Skull?) combined.
But the problem isn’t that games encourage violence. It’s that today’s games make committing that violence too easy. In a world where simply pulling a gun on someone—to say nothing of actually firing it with intent to kill—is considered an extreme escalation, what are we to think about games wherein the characters’ guns are the only way they interact with the world?
Gore in video games isn’t just macabre window dressing. It’s a method for developers to illustrate the severity of these interactions, which all too often get filed down to the point of being utterly toothless. Shooting an enemy with a rocket launcher only to watch them gracelessly catapult across the sky isn’t just disingenuous, it warps the impact of the action we’re mimicking, lending a comedic element to what may otherwise be a cold-blooded on-screen murder.
One of the most prominent games to challenge the correlation between violence and victory was Manhunt. Like other popular games, the player has the sole objective of killing everyone they comes across. But developer Rockstar North—the studio also behind the Grand Theft Auto games—took a different approach to how this was portrayed.
VIOLENCE AS A VIRTUE
The hook on which Manhunt hangs its hat is its intense and grotesque executions. Players who could successfully sneak up on an enemy without being detected were rewarded with gruesome footage of the protagonist dispatching the foe with whatever makeshift weapon was at hand.
Interestingly, while players have no problem sniping the noses off of enemy soldiers with a high-powered rifle, many were made excessively uncomfortable at the site of Manhunt’s protagonist suffocating enemies with a plastic bag and hearing them gurgle, or stabbing them in the throat with a shard of glass and watching them slump unceremoniously in a pool of their own blood. The game was viewed as extreme, over-the-top and unnecessary. Both Manhunt and its sequel were banned in several countries, and even in critical circles, expressing appreciation for the game is seen as uncouth, like walking into a party and admitting loudly to the room that you enjoy snuff films.
Manhunt may have been critically panned and commercially stymied, but it did something unique: it reminded us what violence actually looks like. It brought us face-to-face with the horrible reality of ending a life. Grindhouse aesthetic and black humor aside, the message of Manhunt is clear: players have been committing murder for years, and now it’s time they’re reminded how their sausage is made.
Granted, not every violent game needs to be a soapbox for developers to pontificate on the importance of the Fifth Commandment. It’s only been recently that violence has been treated as the subject of games rather than merely the object. It’s doubtful anyone would argue that DOOM was a sermon on the horrors of war or that Gears of War’s famous chainsaw dismemberments are meant to inspire empathy in players.
Violence in the real world is a tool—something people use to get what they want, from political assassinations all the way down to gangland slayings. Yet so many games borrow only the form violence takes, inserting it as a primary interaction into games, without also considering the thematic context that supports it.
Seeing murder portrayed in graphic detail makes people uncomfortable. We all know what happens when a bullet pierces an internal organ, but we’re separated from that reality by a comfortable distance because most of us have ever had to watch that happen, or watch severed arteries pump weakening streams of blood out of a person as their life drains away. These things are horrific. They should make us uncomfortable. Our discomfort at violence is itself a form of commentary that our current society seems to sorely lack.
And, yes, carnage is ubiquitous in video games. But I don’t think that’s the issue. The real problem is the many layers of abstraction killing is filtered through. They scrub our hardwired human aversion to violence away. Developers don’t need to tone down the number of slayings, but rather just refuse to sanitize how such actions are presented. If developers and critics want to leverage meaningful, impactful violence as a narrative tool, it requires not a glossing over of the horrors of war, but rather an extended stay in the mud and gutters of these horrible actions.
Patrick Lindsey is a game critic and occasional developer living in Boston. He recently published SHOOTER, an ebook anthology of critical essays on shooter games. You can find him on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.
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