Video Games and the Culture of Violence

Boom. Headshot.

Today’s post is the result of an article on Kotaku that piqued my interest.

When opponents of the gaming industry attack the medium, one of most common arguments against it concerns the violence that they feel is implicit in both the culture and those who are a part of it. They bemoan the terrible side effects of constantly being stimulated by such carnage, waxing on and on about how these arenas of digital depravity are warping adults and corrupting the minds of children.

Today, I’m going to take a rather unique approach, and pose a question to all of you- what if they’re right? Hear me out here. I’m not saying they’re correct about the side effects and the negative impact- we do not, in any sense, have a large enough body of valid studies to either confirm or deny their claims. Instead, I’m going to take an honest look at the culture of violence that hovers around the industry and ask, as Kotaku writer Kate Cox did…

Is this really all there is?

I don’t think many of us realize just how violent things are. Think about the last five games you played. Can you honestly say that there wasn’t at least one moment in which you were required to kill or cause physical harm to your opponent? Can you claim that there was no mention of battle, no war, no bloodshed?

Fact is, the vast majority of top-sellers on the market feature violence as a prominent element, the solution to your problems, the answer to your woes. Now, before you start inundating me with arguments to the contrary, I’m going to say right out the door- I know. I know there are many exceptions. I know there’s plenty of titles where violence is only a last resort, or doesn’t factor into the game at all. But the fact is, those only represent a small percentage.

Even some of the most critically acclaimed games of the past year are, at their core, bloodbaths. But why?

The Culture’s Roots

You could point fingers at the male-oriented, male-dominated gaming industry. You could claim that the largest player-base consists of teenage males, and the AAA titles pander to those individuals. You could try to point the finger at our current social environment, one of fear and hatred and terror. You could even point out that our culture itself seems to encourage violence. In a sense, you might be right on all counts.

Society certainly plays into the violence that’s implicit in gaming…but not necessarily in the way you’d think.

Face it: violence has been a part of our society ever since we dragged ourselves out of the primordial muck. It’s a primal instinct. It’s a feral drive. Like it or not, it’s something that’s been with us for as long as we’ve been able to think. It’s no surprise that we’d see it bleed into our culture- as indeed, it has. And just as it’s always been, the simplest, basest solution to a problem is often to physically break it.

Hence most video games, where it’s simply accepted that the guy on the other side of the battlefield is your enemy, and that this enemy needs to die. This sort of attitude is everywhere,from FPS to RTS to RPG.

Of course, this isn’t all there is to our culture- far from it.

The Other Side of the Coin

Beautiful musical scores that rival the pieces played by the world’s most eminent symphonies. Complex, interwoven storylines that could stand against some of the best-written novels. Painstakingly crafted worlds and environments that turn the game from entertainment to experience. Is it any wonder people argue that games are art?

Plus, there’s no reason that violence should be the only means to an end. More and more, we’ve been seeing titles surface that emphasize player choice. Certainly, you’re occasionally going to need to reach for your sword, spellbook, rifle, whatever- not every problem can be solved with words- but there’s plenty of titles that offer us the choice of talking our way through our enemies, or simply avoiding them altogether.

Plus, there are plenty of titles that emphasize competition without violence, as well- plenty of sports, racing, and puzzle games that pit your wits and skill against other players.

That’s to say nothing of incredible games like Portal and The Journey, which manage to stand on their own as pieces of art without even a hint of death and destruction. There’s rhyhm games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, adventure games such as the Myst series…you get the idea. Oh, there’s also Minecraft. I suspect I may be addicted to that game.

It may well be that, as the industry progresses further, the liberal application of force as a gameplay element will become less and less prevalent.

Unfortunately, it’s still the public face of our industry, and comes coupled with a very, very unpleasant partner-sexism. As I’ve covered the blatant, disgraceful oversexualization of women in the industry at length, I won’t be offering a comprehensive exploration here- I’m only going to say that this unrealistic portrayal of  women coupled with a predilection for over-the-top blood and destruction has given gaming a rather juvenile public image.

The irony is that the media which presents these attitudes seems blissfully unaware of their own role perpetuating them- and I’m not talking about gaming.

Media Attention

This is serious business, guys.

While I’m not certain anyone actually believes the tripe that’s spewed from organizations like Fox News, one cannot deny the fact that, as Cox noted, the bits and pieces of our industry that bleed over into mainstream culture have historically been, as a whole, largely negative. Thing is…look at mainstream culture itself.

How many times has a female actress been portrayed as helpless, sexual, or both? How many times has violence been used as a solution by the protagonist of the most popular films? Much of our society has a preoccupation with the very elements the gaming industry is condemned for. So why do games get such a bad rap?

Is it because they’re an interactive medium? Because they immerse us more than films, and therefore are more difficult to separate from reality? Or is it just because many of the industries behind the negative portrayal see gaming as a genuine threat, and fear that, in light of this new form of entertainment, they may no longer be relevant?

Goodness, I appear to have lost my tinfoil hat.

I’m not trying to use the fact that these attitudes are such a large part of our society to justify the negative publicity surrounding video games. Far from it- I think we need to do some very serious thinking, and rework things in a considerable fashion, if games are ever going to be considered a legitimate, intelligent medium by the general public.

Plus, there’s not enough good to balance out the bad, in public consciousness. Let me explain, because that statement on its own is horrible and vague and I’m not even entirely certain why I wrote it.

See, the difference between the games industry and other entertainment industries is that there are plenty of well known films and television series that aren’t all about sexism, or which character can rack up the highest kill count. There are artistic titles in these mediums that are presented as such, rather than, as Cox puts it “thirty seconds of landscapes followed by sixty seconds of mayhem and murder.”

Is Violence a Problem?

Honestly? In moderation, I don’t believe it is.

On some level, these games can be satisfying. Playing the Big Damn Hero, swooping in and saving the day whilst destroying your opposition; crushing your opponents with skill and strategy; or just wreaking havoc and watching things explode. On some level, it appeals to us- and before you try to claim that I’m being sexist, I know as many women who enjoy a good spot of action as men.

The implications of all this carnage never really occurs to us. We never think for a second that the soldier we’re controlling has killed what could amount to the population of a small nation. We never consider that what we’re doing essentially amounts to sociopathic behavior. And we never consider that, when developers use this penchant for violence to sell use these games- and fail to address the other merits of their title- it paints a very negative picture of us, and of the hobby we love so much.

Basically, we need less of this

Violence in games isn’t a problem. The culture that’s evolved around it- of childish machismo, blatant sexism, and a preoccupation with blood and gore- is. So long as this culture continues being the face of gaming, our industry might not achieve true validity in any sense. So at the end of the day, what am I saying?

Gaming needs to grow up,and step out of its angry teenage years into the shoes of an adult.

This is a complex issue, and given my current state of exhaustion, I’m quite certain I’m not approaching it with the acuity it’s due. I will be revisiting this at a later date, and examining what I’ve spoken of here in a more comprehensive light. For now, I’ll see you folks later.

Image Credits: Calite Review, Ehow, That Game Company, Wn.comDelta Attack

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