Pull the (gamepad?) trigger … it’s for a good cause.

And by good cause, I mean saving the world or some grateful innocent civilian populations from some terrific, mad dictators/fanatic group.  Maybe you have heard that story about weapons of mass destruction?

That’s the most common argument that is sprinkled in modern weapons of mass distraction’s stories to morally justify the use of violence. Yes, I mean video games.

Catharsis’ hypothesis (in other terms if you watch a crime, you have less “chance” doing it or being tempted of doing so) is another way for seeing things, but is most of the time an inner professional justification for the people manufacturing these violent “artworks”. However, such a statement was never scientifically proved by psychologists.

More than 50% of today’s games contain scenes that according to psychologists create aggressive thoughts, and so cause violent behaviors in a long term or a short term. In such an intriguing “pot-pourri”, their definition of violence contains verbal (swearing) or physical violence, aggressive behaviors, sexual aggressions, harassment, thefts and murders.  It’s a wide definition, and the video games scenes on the dock for such a cause-effect link include explosions and car crashes.

Ubiquitous gamers answer that way: “I’m playing COD/Battlefield/Manhunt (cross the odd man out) and I’m not a killer, god damn” (You’re probably doing that at the same time you’re reading, let’s admit it). That statement is only partially right because concerning murder; video games are most of the time a risk factor drowned among others. Video games magazines and other media have had hard times understanding and transmitting that concept of risk factor. Other facts (alcohol, social and family instability, personal factors…) have to synchronize themselves for that risk factor to be clearly identified as one, and not only as being a way of distraction.  Doubt and uncertainty are perhaps not a concept made for wide scientific vulgarization and unbridled media sales. As it has already been proven, violent images on television are in fact bad for social life and security. Video games are still waiting for their turn (it will come soon).

The main aspect of violence lies in the stagecraft itself. The demonization of the enemy or the denial of his intelligence, emotion, humanity is a common point in modern video games. Even if the enemies are human being (or close to them); rare are the games that explore their motivations or the structure of their society. Such inquiries are for example something that could explain why a simple encounter (between humans and aliens) ends up in a terrible war or insane slaughter.

It’s much more convenient to stick a label on the otherness (not only in video games, ignorant reader… oh wait, what did I just say?), showing them as being crazy (Far Cry 3), heretics (Halo), oppressors (Assasin’s creed series… though lots of moderations made things less Manichaean) or just opponents by nature (Hitman: Absolution) or by the military system (Call of Duty).

The encounter of cultural differences (societies or just unique entities) is one of the great challenges of today‘s world and tomorrow’s struggle. And it’s one of the most notable absentees of games… not books. For example, in the book “The mote in God’s eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the first contact with alien species is presented as a total fiasco, an encounter between two ways of organizing societies, relations and the people’s mind. The merging link will fail, eaten up by ambition, incomprehension and suspicion.  Often war or hostility, are based on open hate or suspicion, the cynical thing is that often people forget why they are in that system when they are too much engaged. Trying to find justifications, where they can be found or created, is a way of dealing with the problem. This works for video games too. Some violent gameplays work like a hamster wheel, and this is valid for their stories too. Maybe it’s time to put a spoke in that wheel, just to gain lucidity on that question.

I still wonder if we could make an AAA game with less aggressive patterns and murders today. This surely shows the limitation of video games in relation to films and books.

I doubt that tendency can be avoided, and I will give a few solutions to make things more “acceptable” (if they can be). The younger a video game player is, the more subject to violence the player will be. This is why some age limitations and regulations are sealed on video game boxes (ESRB in the USA, PEGI in Europa, and the severe OFLC in Australia). It would be easy to set up at the cash desk of a store a simple identity control not to put violent games in irresponsible hands. The age limitation doesn’t work at all, this is why Germany and Australia often censor or forbid some games, making geeks extremely angry!

According to a psycho-study by E.Konijn, the more the players identify themselves to the character they embody in a violent game, the more violent they become afterwards. That effect can be maximized if the hero and the universe of the games are realistic and dive the players in the right immersion (e.g. a pleasant atmosphere, a realistic graphics and cut scenes close to movies).  But this is not a problem that will soon disappear.

However, we must not underestimate the power of gameplay and game design by only seeing the wrong or questionable aspect. There is a focus on violence because it’s a first concern of the media, and the governments. Should average citizens be even more concerned about violence? Tell me what you think.

Gameplay can drive violence (as we can’t erase it, it’s the law of the market) to a more moral field. For example, a few RPG games allow sometimes the gamer to choose whether fighting or talking is the best (or the more moral/ethical) way to handle an encounter or a situation. The possibility of choice shows at least that violence is not the only solution.

 For example, “The Witcher” and Bioware choose that path. Other games allow the same kind of things, plus the fact that speech choices (when you meet an enemy, you have options between different lines of dialogues) can be “good” or “bad” or neutral. A bad or a neutral way of handling a talk can lead to a quarrel, which gives a moral side to the play.

The virtual world reacts to your action, is regulated by its own rules and by … yourself. It’s not the world of anarchy and violence that everybody thinks it is at first. Gameplay liberty allows avoiding shooting battles.”Deus ex Human Revolution” allows finishing the game without killing a single soul (excluding a failed attempt and the 4 –if I’m right- bosses).

Have you ever asked yourself why Germany has forbidden some games with too much blood? Well recently, Christophe Barlett and his college from Iowa University have realized that with a game having blood effects on and off, players have more aggressive thoughts after playing the game with the blood effect on. However, they haven’t studied the effect of vampire movies (“Twilight”) on neuron depletion, something that would be quite interesting.

In the end, violence should be presented as something subjective, not omniscient and objective by its use. Our real world is not made of breathless conflicts (however personal conflicts are another piece of cake). In video games, subjectivity implies developed characters, like in books. People that will make you feel things or what they think. It can be a step for showing different points of views to understand a full problem. Violence can be at that moment only an accident, a necessary evil pro bono (term to be taken with the safety-first principle), or a voluntary error, instead of showing it like a ubiquitous pattern for solving disagreements. Can games create empathy, one of the most fundamental barriers to aggression?

Instead of aggressiveness could video games generate other feelings like responsibility, ambition, care and self-control? It has already been done but is it enough emphasized? We must not forget that video games are how developers choose to build them and what we decide to see , or feel, in them. We have choice in what we decide to retain. Let’s not let our subconscious decide for us.

Recently I’ve played Halo: Reach. Two half alien moons were looking at me, just waiting to be explored. While standing at the edge of a windy cliff, staring at the convoluted cluster of clouds overhanging a beige battlefield, amazed by the beauty of this landscape I realized that it was the reason why I was playing that game.

I will certainly forget the irritating grumbles of “grunt” or the moaning of an atrocious “elite”.

But not that sight.

Because that landscape wasn’t just anyone’s.

It was mine and it carried me out of the turmoil of the battlefield.


If you want to read more about that subject, take a look at: A.Anderson et al.  Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries in Psychological Bulletin, vol. 136, pp151-173, 2010.

and that article : Are video games really the villains in our violent age?

or those ones : Gun Violence and Video Games: Why This is Not the Debate We Should Be Having Why aren’t we Discussing Video Game Violence ?

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1 comment

  1. jefequeso December 12, 2012 12:26 am  Reply

    Well, I think that videogames certainly need to try exploring concepts that aren’t just based on mindless violence (although as an FPS fan, I certainly do enjoy some mindless violence). Or at least consider violence as something other than just visceral entertainment in and of itself. I think it has its place, and I think that in certain cases weightless violence is not necessarily immoral. I’m actually a very sensitive and empathetic person, yet I find the violence in many videogames detached enough from reality that it ceases to feel like real violence. It feels much more like paintball. But in other cases, the portrayal of violence in games can be rather… troubling. When I’m expected to enjoy the violence as something other than fantasy, and expected to enjoy feeling like I’m actually harming another living thing, I start to feel uncomfortable. It’s a strange and perhaps arbitrary line. But it’s very clear in my mind.

    Regardless, I fully support seeing developers try and deal with violence in more mature, sophisticated ways.

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