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A History of Violence

Something about that Jennifer Helper interview and the misogynerd flamefest that ensued bothered me. Not because she asked for a combat skip button in games—it's been experimented with before, and even Bioware offers a “combat-lite” option in ME3. No, what struck me was the fact that someone felt the need to ask for one in the first place. Here's what she said in her own words:

Games almost always include a way to "button through" dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don't enjoy listening to dialogue and they don't want to stop their fun. Yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combats even if you're a player who only enjoys the dialogue. In a game with sufficient story to be interesting without the fighting, there is no reason on earth that you can't have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.

Now after you get over the obvious knee-jerk reaction thinking that no “true gamer” would say this, think for a minute about what she called herself: “a player who only enjoys the dialogue.” Hmm. This statement stuck in my craw for a good while, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. After some time it finally occurred to me why the answer eluded me; it’s because Ms. Helper posed the wrong question. The real elephant in the room isn’t “why can’t you skip combat.” It’s why are violence and video games two such inseparable concepts?

For years, my mom would quizzically poke her head into my room and ask, “who are you killing today?” I would always in turn scoff and roll my eyes, entrenched fully in my belief that 'parents just don't understand', then resume decimating another defenseless legion of henchmen. But think about that for a moment. Gaming, our beloved pastime, looks like an endless buffet of murder to a casual observer. Have you ever had to take a public conversation about a game down a few notches to avoid a situation like this?

One really has to sit down and re-examine their hobby when a casual conversation between two enthusiasts makes them seem like psychopaths to the uninitiated. Now I’m not saying that putting a pretend bullet into a polygonal representation of a human head is anywhere near the same thing as witnessing or participating in actual murder (I have no desire to take on Jim on this) but what I am saying is that as every day goes by, video games are slowly crawling their way out of the uncanny valley, and it’s already getting hard to be able to tell the difference between real and simulated brutality. And what then? Will there be a tipping point where games just get ‘too realistic” and our gamer bloodlust begins to waver? And is it possible that there a separate uncanny valley for graphic violence, one that we will slowly begin to trudge out of until the depictions of violence become too real? Or is it more likely that the slow graduation of graphical fidelity is just subtle enough that we won’t notice when things go too far: like a proverbial frog in boiling water.

Every once in a while we should hold a mirror up to our culture—and more importantly ourselves, to make sure we like what we see.

Lets try an exercise. Try to forget we're gamers for a moment, that we don't have three decades worth of deeply entrenched mores and expectations associated with video games. How to enter the Konami code, throw a fireball, or that plumbers are excellent at resolving royal hostage situations. Now look at this list of games that were released for the Xbox 360 in 2011.

See any patterns there? The vast majority of these games include violence towards people, or at least reasonable facsimiles of them. And half of the few games that aren’t, are sports games. WTF? Is it not the tiniest bit alarming, if not altogether creepy, that our favorite hobby is so enamored with the death, torture, and suffering of incredibly realistic pretend people? Hell, even our driving games are violent now. Murder Simulators, indeed.

As my favorite Salarian biologist would say: Chances of survival...slim.

Critics of this view inevitably roll out the same platitudes every time. “Of course it isn’t real” “They’re just games anyway” and the like. Now this is all fine and good, until you have to reconcile the fact that games have been trying to transcend the “just a game” stigma for a very long time. Practically every other title released today tries to reach some part of your humanity, to make you believe for even the most briefest of moments, that those avatars on your screen are real—people with hearts and souls, dreams and desires, entities deserving of your love. If this wasn’t true, people wouldn’t talk about how Aeris’ death made them shed real tears, or how Celes’ leap from that cliff still sticks with them to this day. And if Red Dead Redemption didn’t affect you in any way—you may already be one of those innumerable zombies you've mowed down with a shotgun.

Isn't it weird though? That we aren’t supposed to care about those people on the other end of our cross-hairs? These motion captured, intricately detailed computer representations of human beings? It wasn’t so bad in the old days; when you could shoot a bad guy and he would crumple to the ground, only to flicker and disappear moments later like a flame in a brisk wind. Today, you’ve got designers that dedicate their lives to making those pixels on your screen move and sound as real as possible--some even beg for their lives as you kneecap them and slowly walk up them, in a writing heap, and execute them in the most brutal way imaginable.

So lemme get this straight: during cutscenes gamers are supposed to open our hearts, exposing ourselves to the intricacies of love, loss, and sacrifice; and 30 seconds later we’re supposed to be stone cold harbingers of torture and death, reveling in every kill as the mutilated bodies stack to the ceiling. The cognitive dissonance at work is deafening. Yes, most games require a degree of suspension of belief, but should we also be required to leave bits of our humanity outside on the coat rack, every time we power on our PS3's?

Another argument I seem to hear a lot is that games are really about “escapism” and “wish-fulfillment.” That we play games to do things we only dream we could do, but could never get away with. To that I say: is that really what people walk around wishing they could do all day? Aspiring to eviscerate every living thing within arms length? Honestly if it is, we’ve got some far more pressing issues within our culture to address than who lives and dies in a computer game.

"...as games get ever more immersive and lifelike, it starts to feel less like healthy play and more like unsettling aspirational fantasy to me. And as the economic competition around the genre heats up, the push for bigger-bloodier-more seems especially opportunistic and shameless. I don't understand the continuing appeal; I don't understand the unquestioning audience." – Leigh Alexander "Who Cheers for War?"

But it is obvious that wish fulfillment is definitely an aspect to games, as people have long yearned to be rock stars and they responded to the arrival of Rock Band by filling their houses with hundreds of dollars worth of plastic instruments. So yeah, people can have fun without needing to kill things--it just feels like we forgot how. Is there any wonder why non-gamers have such a tendency to gravitate towards violence-lite console choices like the Wii and DS? Most people--especially women (not all, of course. shout-out to all my lady fraggers!) do not enjoy playing bloody gib-fests to relax after a long day at the office. As long as gaming remains the domain of mindless brutality and careless violence, what's keeping the average person from continuing to assume gaming is only for immature teenage boys?

Is there any wonder that games, much like comic books, are seen as near-impenetrable to women? But that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. In 1989 there was a groundbreaking graphic novel by Neil Gaiman named “The Sandman” that took the comics world by storm. It stepped forth into an industry full of testosterone, capes, overdeveloped pecs and endless violence, and turned it on its ear with thoughtful tales of life, love, and the human condition. And then, a funny thing happened. Women started buying it in droves—eventually becoming half it’s readership and even outpacing Superman(!) in sales.

And I fully believe that video games could do the same thing. The real beauty of it all is the fact that finding a non-violent game didn’t used to be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Just a few short years ago we had Grim Fandangos, Monkey Islands, Mysts…games that didn’t require twitch reflexes and an insatiable desire to inflict pain on other people. They relied on things like character development, atmosphere, and imagination to draw the player along. What happened to our sense of adventure? Even though I have an all-around distaste for the Elder Scrolls series, it warmed my heart to see gamers of every kind having so much fun just playing and exploring in Skyrim, creating their own unique experiences rather than just hitting things with swords until all the hit points came out.

“As an industry, I’m ashamed that we explore only a generally tiny slice of the human experience,” he continues. “If we want to reach a broader audience, we need…to make our games about feeling differently from ‘fight or flight’.”--Double Fine's Nathan Martz

There was plenty of killing to be had in Skyrim too, but it wasn't the only appeal. Too often, games that weren't originally action heavy are devolving into balls-out shooters. *coughResidentEvilcough* And let’s be honest, was there any need for L.A. Noire’s action scenes? The controls were stiff and unresponsive, and they were generally very short and uninteresting. Most of all, Team Bondi’s hearts didn’t seem to be in it anyway considering they let you skip them completely if you failed too many times. And I thank them for it. Far too often, games aren’t allowed to simply be what they are—they have to be an RPG, a first person shooter, a driving game, an RTS…with stealth elements.

Here’s another consideration, how about games with just less killing, or even better, more mindful violence? Hideo Kojima seems to be acutely aware of the myriad of issues that war presents, and wants you to too. I’ll never forget The Sorrow from Metal Gear 3. In quite possibly the most non-standard boss fight in history, in a game full of convention-shattering elements, Snake was forced to slog through a swamp of a soldier’s personal hell. Every knife to the sternum, every headshot, every snapped neck you inflicted upon your enemies and forgot about, was thrown back into your face in ghastly detail. You were forced to look every one of those people in the eye, and face the horrors you had inflicted in the previous 10 hours. The Sorrow couldn’t hurt you physically, but by the end of the scene, you almost wish he was launching stinger missiles at your face rather than heat seeking daggers of remorse into your conscience.

After the brief exchange was over, and I was back on my impossible mission to save the world from thermonuclear war, I shook my head and got back to work. The thing is, when I encountered the next generic, army-fatigued solder and pulled out my silenced M1911A1, I froze. For just a second, I thought of all of those “men” I had sent to an early grave. Eventually I did pull the trigger, but I didn’t feel any satisfaction after hearing the hammer’s click launching a bullet into the guy’s skull. Instead I felt an ever so slight pang of regret, knowing that I had sent yet another number to the parade of victims I had just met. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t escaped that tango with The Sorrow unscathed after all; in fact, he and in turn Hideo Kojima, had won. Of course I did finally finish my mission, taking out whoever got in my way, but murder was never quite as automatic as it had been before.

Listen to the voices of the dead...

A game that makes you weigh the consequences of every life you take is quite the game indeed, and any game that allows you to solve conflicts non-violently but still allow them to be fun, should be commended. Why don’t more games allow you to do this? About halfway through my Red Dead playthrough I got bored shooting everything that moved and started disarming and lassoing bad guys whenever I had the opportunity. Sure it wasn’t easy, chasing down some perpetrators for miles in in order to get close enough to rope them, but it added an interesting layer to the gameplay and my character, as I tried to play Marston true to his story, an ex-gunslinger turned family man reluctant to return to his old ways.

It begs the question that after all these years there really has been no police game that focused on apprehension of criminals with minimal collateral damage. The game could make you get creative in catching the criminals, forcing the player to ram cars to cause spin-outs instead of just filling them with bullet holes. Or maybe using pepper spray, tasers, and cuffs in addition to a realistic grappling system like UFC games to bring bad guys to justice. Maybe sometimes you do have to get all Dirty Harry on some asses, but it means you get your butt chewed out by the chief back at the precinct. You're off the case Mcgarnicle! It would certainly be more interesting than what every other game tells you to do:

Now I enjoy violent games just as much as any other John Q. Gamer. I’ve been playing First person shooters since Wolf3D, and I still remember most of the fatalities and the blood code from Mortal Kombat on the Genesis (I'm a blast at parties). And I understand the instant gratification from pulling a trigger and watching something die on the other end of your gun--it's game design 101. What bothers me about all the violence, is the blind ubiquity of it all. The fact that people don’t question it, and eventually don’t even consciously see it anymore. And if you don't like playing these very specific types of games, you don't belong here. Get the hell off our playground.

One reason there are so many violent games, is because violence is one of the easiest ways of stimulating or generating arousal in somebody. I don’t deny or dislike violence per se in games, but I don’t like the use of violence merely to bring about this sense of heightened, excited emotional state in humans. That I don’t like. If the violence is used to make the player realize that violence is a destructive and often negative force, if it is used in a ‘balanced’ way, then I don’t mind violent content in games. So I wouldn’t say I was ‘anti’ violence, I just want to bring so many other elements into games in terms of proper pacing and a better variety of emotional responses…which I think leads to a much healthier gaming scene. – Yasuhiro Wada, creator of Harvest Moon

It sorta reminds me of...porn. We're encouraged to perform these repetitive motions until we're rewarded with a messy, briefly satisfying moneyshot. Aim. Shoot. Splat! Its thoughtless, its mindless, its excessively masculine and gratuitous. It's without context. It strokes our boners for destruction and not much else. No wonder people are always saying “games don't need stories.” Porn doesn't need them either.

I'm aware of the irony here, but Roger Ebert said something about movies that when tweaked, I think translates perfectly to video games:

Many games diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life...they're fun, but just scratching the surface of what they are truly capable of.

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About konaone of us since 10:16 PM on 10.21.2011

Ever since my dad held me up to a Pole Position cabinet to steer as he worked the pedals, I've been absolutely hooked on games. It just took me 25 years to figure out that I loved writing about them too. I don't have any particular genre biases, I'll play just about anything that involves pressing buttons (that's probably why I shouldn't visit hospitals...). This blog is just the thoughts of a guy who loves games, but is occasionally frustrated when they squander their potential.