Friday Roundtable: Are Games Too Violent?

Recently, we posted a humorous image to our Facebook page depicting the biggest blockbuster games of 2011-12: featuring the likes of Modern Warfare, Battlefield, Far Cry and Dead Island, as their mainstays, every single one involves the player looking down the barrel of an angry gun, spitting bullets towards galleries of suicidal bad guys; each promises shooting, but with a slightly different hook: perks here, perhaps, or 64-player carnage there.

When one considers the colossal sales figures behind Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops, and the record-breaking number of pre-orders for Gears of War 3, should we be genuinely surprised when an uninformed non-gamer sees only the heavily advertised surface and presumes the industry is nothing more than a virtual blood sport arena? With that in mind, have games – particularly in the mainstream – become too violent? Have developers come to lean on violence like a crutch, using it as a guaranteed way to sell games, with little thought given to more creative or intelligent aspects of play? Or, is it nothing worse than the most popular cinema, music, or literature? Is it just what we like?

It’s all severed limbs and bruised knees in this week’s Friday Roundtable as Declan, Pascal, Rexly, and Sebastian discuss the ubiquity of violence in gaming.

* * * *

Excessive?

Declan:

If a non-gamer were to read through the blurbs of gaming’s biggest blockbusters, confronted with the likes of killstreaks, headshots, “tactical dismemberment”, and similarly death-obsessed achievements and trophies, could we blame them for assuming that a sizeable portion of the industry and its consumers have a morbid fascination with virtual murder?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on a moral crusade here; I enjoy blasting my way through hordes of demons and aliens as much as the next guy. Most of these violent titles are polished, compelling experiences, but that doesn’t change the fact that the subject matter is usually always the same: Sgt. Flint Steel – armed with a pump-action shotgun and a bandolier of grenades – is given an objective and must shoot his way to it through torrents of blood and gore. Again. And again. It’s B-grade action movie stuff. Indeed, let us consider some of the most anticipated titles of 2011 and 2012: Gears of War 3, Resistance 3, Halo 4, Max Payne 3, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Dead Island, Space Marine, and Rage are all major releases, and all hand the player a weapon and command they shoot, slice, and punch their way through waves of bad guys with small shreds of narrative to keep up the pace.

Taking a look at my 360 collection, barring about three titles, each one contains varying degrees of violence. Though I may take pleasure (for want of a better word) from stoving in the heads of zombies in Left 4 Dead or slicing the throats of guards in Assassin’s Creed, am I the only one thinking that our prime focus is on graphical death and destruction? Could an abundance of game development talent be better directed to a mainstream of more creative, dramatic, or intelligent experiences?

Effective horror storytelling or shock tactics?

Pascal:

Dec, you’re absolutely right: almost all of gaming is focused on causing death in some sense, whether you’re confronting members of the opposite faction in Call of Duty’s multiplayer or taking on Kombatants one-on-one in Mortal Kombat. Hell, I’d go so far as to say that most games have you killing in the name and defense of humanity. When you’re exploding zombie heads with your shotgun at point-blank range in Resident Evil or severing Necromorph limbs from their bodies in Dead Space, you’re killing just as much as you would in any other game. The difference is that you’re killing the “non-human/evil/alien” beings that are a threat to mankind. If it doesn’t look, sound, or taste human, it’s okay to blast it to pieces. For that matter, even games outside the action and horror genres are packed with violence. The musical/visual extravaganza Child of Eden revolved around shooting and destroying your adversaries. But since your opponents weren’t human, that probably doesn’t really count as violence.

So, yes, videogaming is focused a hell of a lot on violence and destruction; it just works for the medium. Contrary to books and movies, which are passive entertainment, videogames require active participation. And, for better or worse, actively participating simply requires there to be something that’s challenging you to act, such as an opponent that needs defeating. But the initial question wasn’t whether games are violent, but if they’re too violent. When compared to the motion picture medium, for example, where movies like Saw and Hostel have made a name for themselves by being focused on the most outrageous displays of violence and torture, videogames seem rather tame. Fatalitites in MK are really the closest thing I can think of for comparison, and that’s a sole example out of thousands of titles. Given that violence almost seems necessary in videogaming, and that the focus is usually on jaw-droppingly cool slow-motion action sequences a la The Matrix, I don’t think that videogames have crossed the boundary of good taste. Violent, yes. Not suitable for certain audiences, sometimes. But too violent overall, no.

Rexly:

I agree with Pascal. While games have not crossed the “too violent” line, I do believe that the reason why people think that games are too violent is because of increasing realism. In other words, it is the graphics that make the game look violent. Think about it: the violence of Gears of War would appear so much more toned down on a console like he NES. The amount of blood and gore that results from chainsawing a guy in half is overwhelming, and many parents cannot handle that. Thus their outrage at games being “too violent”.

As for the question of if or when games will cross that line of too much violence, I do not think it will ever happen: if games were ever to become “too violent”, then it would be unconventional, unprecedented depictions of violence, something like launching babies at a chopper or something. When a game in its entirety is over-the-top, heinous destruction, only then will games be considered “too violent”. Fortunately, I can’t see that happening.

Mortal Kombat is not for the weak-stomached.

Declan:

My problem isn’t so much with specific acts of violence, but an over-reliance on it in general. I’ll return to that in my next point, but Rexly, you talk about over-the-top acts of violence making up whole games, but would you not consider something like Mortal Kombat overstepping that “too violent” line? While there’s no baby launching, there are some incredibly grizzly depictions of people being sliced in half, decapitated, skinned, and torn limb from limb, all with an array of stomach-churning sound effects. It’s not that I can’t handle it, but it seems like the industry uses violence and destruction as a crutch, touting the killstreaks and “tactical dismemberment” I mentioned previously as unique selling points. Cliff Bleszinkski said recently that he didn’t want his legacy to be “a fucking chainsaw gun”, but to me, the most memorable bits of the Gears of War series have always been the gruesome bisections and curb stomps. We’re not going to be sitting back in ten years and remembering the convoluted narrative, are we?

David Cage, creator of Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain, recently lamented the state of writing in the games industry. He suggested that designers spend less time adding extra helpings of gravel and gruff to their space marines’ voiceovers and more time crafting intelligent plots with relatable characters, ones that don’t necessarily smother themselves in tripe when they wake up in the morning. While you may dislike the overall mechanics of his own games, he’s got a point. Blasting through bad guys has and always will have its place in the industry, but when nearly every single recent blockbuster has you aiming down the iron sights of a gun justified only by the weakest of airport paperback stories, is it possible that our love for the smell of spent bullet casings is just a result of a dearth of decent writers?

Pascal:

I don’t think so. I think the industry produces products (and writers) to accommodate consumers’ tastes. I’ll compare once again to the movie industry. Avant-garde and indie games have their places, and are often appreciated for pushing the medium forward in novel ways, offering truly unprecedented game experiences, and relying on gameplay that’s out of the box. At the same time, you’ve got your sports flicks, mystery yarns, and even romantic comedies (Catherine, anyone?). But what do most summer blockbusters in the movie realm have in common? Barrages of bullets, badly blasted bodies, and buxom blonde bombshells. It’s what thrill-seekers will gladly put their money down for. And appealing to and satisfying our base cravings of violence and brutality seem the simpler alternatives. Perhaps some of the supposed “male gamer base” machismo also comes into play here.

There is a sub-group that will unfalteringly educate you on all the ways in which videogames are too violent for society: those that hold the belief that playing violent games leads to actual aggressive behavior or worse. Despite what you may feel about violence in videogames on a personal level, what say you about this issue, good sirs?

Sebastian:

Thank God you asked that question, Pascal! You’ve literally responded with a completely detailed form of everything I wanted to say almost exactly how I was going to say it. With this, you have effectively questioned my very right to exist. You, sir, are evil Dr. N Cortex.

Are first-person shooters the blockbuster staple?

To Dec’s point, I will say that part of the industry does just tend to skip over game writing, especially to work on the metaphorical “polishin’ mah gunz” (obviously a sub-genre of “chargin’ mah lazer”), but that’s because not enough people are effectively asking for it. Critics and smart gamers want to see more of a story in games, but everyone else? They kinda just want to play Modern Warfare over and over and over again. Like it or not, Modern Warfare is the face of the game industry right now.

I think the phrase “too violent” is sort of a disguise. Mass Effect could be considered, to an outsider, a violent game, but to us, we don’t see the violence, we see the storyline. The violence in that game is clearly to give the player something to do, a way to take out the bad guys, but again, in big-budget videogames, there doesn’t seem to be a way to effectively give the player something to do without some sort of violence. So while there will always be a degree of violence in games, I think it’s more that everyone is following the same standard (supersoldier taking down everyone in his path), more so than games being too violent. Mortal Kombat is really a strawman; as we know, that game is supposed to be violent and gory and bloody, and isn’t really representative of anything else in the industry today. Nobody is even copying Mortal Kombat.

To Pascal’s point, “Those that hold the belief that playing violent games leads to actual aggressive behavior or worse”:

Dear people who hold this opinion:

Hey,

Between you and me, I know it’s been a long hard road for you guys, trying to make up things that aren’t true so you can get your kids to stop doing things you don’t particularly understand. But what I want you to do now is try this radical new idea I’ve thought up: Try looking at what you buy your kids first. If it has the name of a major crime in the title, maybe it isn’t a good idea for your kids. But tell the truth. You know as well as I do that videogame playing doesn’t make anyone more violent or aggressive. Teen crime has gone down, videogame sales have gone up. That should be more than enough to displace any remnants of an argument you may have had.

The game industry loves you, and your kids love it (no matter what they tell you), but seriously, stop it. It was funny before, but now you’re making everyone collectively facepalm. Don’t worry, though: soon there will be some new entertainment phenomenon, and you can tell us then about how its “ruining our kids”.

Thank you,

The committee for pointing out how you are wrong and your argument is stupid.

Enough of your snide insinuations, it's all part of the story!

Rexly:

From your response, Seb, I feel like you are putting violent games into two categories: games that are really just all about the shooting and curb stomping, and games that have stories that justify the violence in them. I can see a majority of blockbuster games falling into either one of these two groups, and we all play games from both. At E3, how many of us dropped our jaws at the Battlefield 3 gameplay and did the same for the Mass Effect 3 demo?

Which brings me to Pascal’s point. As he said, games do of course come in a variety of different flavours and often go beyond simplistic running-and-gunning. While it seems that the majority of gamers love the FPS genre, there are those who dare to venture out and look for other experiences that treat mechanics like story or problem-solving as first priority and violence second, and it is for this reason that we have the likes of Mass Effect and Little Big Planet. They sell, so it can’t be said that gamers are truly bloodthirsty.

(Oh, and Seb’s letter should be on the inside cover of every violent videogame.)

* * * *

Share Your Thoughts: BnB writers have shared their thoughts, and now it’s your turn. What do you think? Are games too violent? Are we overly reliant on graphical depictions of blood and gore to tell stories, or is gritty realism what makes these things compelling? Or, are we all being giant pansies?

The table is yours.


Comments
3 Responses to “Friday Roundtable: Are Games Too Violent?”
  1. Kara says:

    These Friday roundtables would make for a great podcast, just saying.

  2. Gregg B says:

    I’ve nothing to add but great roundtable guys! I personally prefer this format because, aside from knowing that a text article is a damn sight easier to organise, record, edit and post than a podcast is, I can read it at work in my ‘cheeky window’ without anyone knowing 😉

  3. Games Guy says:

    There were some great points, from everyone in the round table. I personally don’t think that games are too violent, at least from a player point of view. but from a marketing point of view it obviously sells or they wouldn’t do it. Not that its right, just that they are obviously trying to appeal to a certain audience. However I do wish that game companies would focus more time on open world educational “Sims” type games that can be fun even without the violence.

    Just my two cents. Great read guys thanks!

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