Depictions of Violent Death in Games

Fight Club

Opinion: The “Virgin Mary” of Video Games? is a piece at GameDev.net by Lew Pulsipher, a board game designer and game design educator, which analyzes the predominance of games that depict violent death.

He links to a short post by John Sharp in 2009 which asks the following question:

If representations of Mary are used as evidence of the centrality of Christianity in the culture of the Italian Renaissance, what does the preponderance of guns say about our culture, and more specifically, the cultural form of games?

Pulsipher argues that guns are too specific, especially when you consider the vast majority of games set in a fantasy environment in which there are no modern weapons, and posits that a large number of games depict violent death.

He doesn’t question why it is so. He doesn’t demand the game industry account for itself. He and Sharp both simply question what it says about our culture that our entertainment is so violent.

And they’re not the first ones to ask this question, and it isn’t just games. Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment is a book from 1998 that explicitly analyzed not how violence in our entertainment affects us but why we specifically look for it.

There’s an article on video games by Jeffrey Goldstein in this book that mentions Mortal Kombat. If you recall, there were two versions released for home consoles at the time. The Sega Genesis version had all of the blood and gore included, but the Super Nintendo version was toned down.

Although there were more Nintendo than Sega game systems present in U.S. households, the bloody Sega version of Mortal Kombat outsold the less violent version by about 7 to 1.

The article goes on to discuss the distinction between aggressive behavior and aggressive play, and it says that there are 25 possible reasons for an appeal to the latter ranging from biological to psychological to social reasons. One reason children war play or enjoy violent media is surprisingly out of a need to seek out justice. After all, it is more enjoyable to see a film about a violent criminal who is caught and brought to justice than it is to see one about an unresolved murder.

And again, the book that this article comes from is from 1998, so the questions asked aren’t new. I do think, however, that there aren’t many answers that have been provided since then. There is, of course, the notable exception of Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson. Johnson argues that the content of the video games isn’t as important as the form. That is, the systems of the game provide the appeal and benefit rather than the actual content.

But it doesn’t explain why a bloodier Mortal Kombat sold so much better than a toned-down version, although marketing could have much to do with it. And it also doesn’t explain why video games tend to focus on conflict and violence as themes, especially if they don’t need to do so.

So what does it say that most video games are violent? Pulsipher says he doesn’t know and would like his article to stir up some discussion. Goldstein mentioned a number of possible explanations, but he admitted that there isn’t much research to indicate what may or may not be the case. Hasn’t there been any more thoughts on it? Are depictions of violence in video games indicating a problem or a cultural bias in learning, or is the content unimportant?

To put it another way, what would it say about our culture if violent depictions in video games were incredibly rare? Would it indicate that gamers are more civilized? Would it mean people weren’t gaming anymore?

Does violence in video games stop appealing to gamers as they mature, or is it a certain type of person who specifically doesn’t enjoy games which feature violence heavily in their themes?

Do you know of further research which indicates what violence in our cultural artifacts means? Are games inherently good for exploring themes of violence, struggle, and survival, or is it simply easier for game designers to focus on such games?

(Photo: Fight Club by Polina Sergeeva | CC-BY-2.0)

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3 Comments

  1. It’s the path of least resistance. Most games have at their core the concept of “do something hard to accomplish something”, coupled with “and there’s something standing in your way making it harder”. That is, just like books or movies there is a general need for an antagonist to keep things interesting. The easiest way to implement “player vs. antagonist” is to have them fight or engage in physical combat of some form, because that’s the simplest to understand (both for the player and the game designer).

    Whether it’s Mario jumping on Bowser’s head over and over again to “kill” him or a marine head-shotting a terrorist with spurting blood, the underlying concept is the same: The player has a goal, something is standing in the player’s way, eliminate that something with extreme prejudice.

    The rest is all a matter of degree.

    (There are other game concepts, of course; I just finished playing World of Goo, which is a awesome game and has no violent aspect to it at all. But “accomplish goal and defeat anything my way” is still the most popular game concept.)

  2. I think it is a very American preoccupation. The rest of the world is ok with showing more sex, less violence. We can’t show sex, so we substitute it with violence. I see this in both movies and games.

  3. So the answer to violence in America is having more sex in America? I am OK with that…

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