Monday, February 15, 2010

HD Violence

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Violence permeates our culture and entertainment in the United States. The film industry shows just how deeply our fascination with violence runs: the highest-grossing films of all time are mostly violent ones, like The Dark Knight and Avatar, and many of the most critically acclaimed films are steeped in violence as well, like City of God and The Wrestler. Some movies and television shows take a critical eye to the effect of violence on our culture – The Wire springs to mind – but not to the point of removing the violence from the finished work.

It goes beyond fictional entertainment as well. Football, our most popular sport in terms of television viewers, is about human beings hurling themselves into each other at high speeds, and serious injuries often result. Nascar is popular for the racing and the cars, but also for the possibility of a crash. Ultimate Fighting Championship and local fight clubs have become increasingly popular in recent years. And don’t get me started on the Saw and Hostel movies.

But nowhere is a culture of violence more clearly shown than in the world of video games. It is difficult to find non-violent video games aimed at an adult audience. In movies and television, there are comedies, histories, biographies, dramas and even musicals, none of which require violence to be compelling. But in video games, most funny or dramatic games still have violence; in fact, violence makes up the majority of gameplay. Think about the games that have come out this year. How quickly does the game teach you which button is the “attack” or “shoot” button? Even Mario leaps on his enemies’ heads and kills them. For points.

I don’t object to the idea of having violence be a major part of video games. In fact, I think many of the most impressive video games ever made have used violence as an effective part of the narrative. Half-Life 2 is a compelling story of one person’s struggle against an authoritarian government’s military might. More recently, I’ve been playing BioShock 2, which shows a world gone mad with violence as the result of political philosophies taken to their dark extremes. The violence in these games does not feel gratuitous because it serves the concept of the game. The mature content is present to fulfill the narrative and thematic goals, and not the other way around.

It is a shame, however, that the number of intelligent games that do not involve violence of any kind is so few. Non-violent, mature games are also almost entirely limited to the independent video game makers: Jason Rohrer’s Passage and thatgamecompany’s Flower are stellar examples. Portal was practically non-violent; the threat of player death was present, but for the most part there was no direct confrontation or harm caused by the player. But even less action-oriented games have become more violent in recent years: racing games have come to pride themselves on their realistic car crashes and vehicle damage. Some hockey games have whole mechanics added so that the player can get into fights in the middle of the game.

I bemoan the lack of variety in video games today, and the fact that video game makers do not believe that they could make compelling gameplay without violence, but most of all I am disturbed by the obsession with making violence more brutal, more detailed, and more gruesome. Violence is disturbing enough in reality; why would we want to make our leisure activities as horrifying as a real war or an actual car crash? Upgraded graphical possibilities lead us closer and closer to violence which looks and functions like violence does in the real world. In God of War, when Kratos pulls a polygonal enemy in half, it looks cartoonish and exaggerated. In God of War 3, when he splits open a centaur, its intestines spill out onto the ground. Suddenly this exaggerated series about the world of Greek myth is becoming gruesome and difficult to stomach.

I’m of two minds with the development of high-definition, realistic violence: in one sense, I don’t think violence should be easy to stomach. Violence is a terrible thing, and making it look less real for the sake of the audience is essentially whitewashing a real issue and creating unrealistic ideas of the consequences of terrible, violent actions. On the other hand, filling our entertainment with brutal, realistic violence desensitizes human beings to the realistic nature of violence. My stomach still turns when I see a drill in BioShock puncture a human being, no matter how spliced they are, but I am sure that there are some people who do not have that reaction. There are people across the United States, and elsewhere, who get excited about the blood and gore in the new Aliens vs. Predator game or the next in an unending series of torture porn movies. This disturbs me deeply.

Obviously, it is up to the parents of children to teach them a moral compass, explain the horrors of violence, teach them to be peaceful and kind, and keep them from consuming extremely violent media at a young, impressionable age. But as it becomes easier and easier for video games to portray realistic violence, game designers should examine how much they are willing to contribute to our society’s obsession with blood, guts and violence. While a great movie like Pan’s Labyrinth may have a few moments of brutal, realistic violence, games like BioShock 2 and God of War 3 make it the central gameplay mechanic of their entire games. Instead of one shocking and horrifying scene, gamers are playing through bloodbath after bloodbath, sometimes for hours at a time. A person with a solid moral foundation and a clear ability to distinguish fantasy from reality should be able to separate this from the real world, but that does not describe all people from all families.

Game designers should ask themselves how much responsibility they are willing to foist off onto the violence in other media and the failure of parents. Video games are not solely responsible for violence in our culture, but they are contributors, just like movies, television, and news outlets are contributors. As graphics become more realistic and the world’s fascination with violence grows, it begs several questions: How much violence do we want to add to an already violent world? Should we be striving for more realism in video game violence, or keep it so unrealistic that it is clearly separated from reality? At the very least, aren’t there a lot of other options for how to make an incredible game?


  1. Definitely agree that games can use a little variety.

    "Violence is disturbing enough in reality; why would we want to make our leisure activities as horrifying as a real war or an actual car crash?"

    Because thankfully, most of us don't experience these things very often.

  2. I agree with the idea that one of the big appeals of video games is placing oneself in situations one would not otherwise experience, but I don't as clearly see the attraction to making violence as realistic or bloody as possible. There are a lot of other things I don't experience very often, and I am grateful for that. I have no intention, for example, of experiencing food poisoning any more often than I already have, even in simulated form. I had that last week, and it was terrible.

    There's a large separation between what is realistic and what is worth exploring in detail in video games. Most video games, for example, don't require the player to go to the bathroom from time to time, or in most cases even eat. I'm not saying we should cut violence out of video games entirely (like we have with toilet use and food consumption), but I do think developers should examine how necessary the level of violence and bloody detail is in their games.

    Does it serve the narrative? Is it there to inform the narrative, or to titillate the audience? Would the game be just as good without a detailed depiction of a beheading? What does it really add to the experience, besides appealing to an increasingly bloodthirsty audience?

  3. There are a few different issues here. I would love to see some more complex and nuanced ways of interacting with and affecting our gaming worlds beyond chopping them up or shooting them in the face. I feel this change alone would allow the violence to be placed in context within the medium, allowing it to rediscover some of the power it has lost. This seems to be the case in cinema, where the vast array of violent movies has not lessened the impact (in other films) of a single moment of shocking violence. The fact that our fundamental interactions with games are so violent means that this is pretty tough, since that contrast cannot currently be drawn easily. (Notable exception: Alyx and the hunter in HL2:EP1) As an aside, this may be why horror is so hard to do in games, maintaining that tension and providing terrifying moments is tougher to do when the players main relationship with the world is to shoot it. (all imo, obv)

    The increasing realism is another question entirely. I must confess that when playing 'Meaty Chunks 4: Gib me Harder', after I've chopped my dastardly foe in half, I have no particular need to be able to identify what he ate for lunch. However, I'm also aware that we are still a long way off photorealism (or even uncanny valley territory, for that matter) - there is no danger of any of this being construed as happening to actual people.

    When the original God of War came out, I'm quite sure that there were folks decrying the realism of the decapitations, just as they did for Carmageddon ketchup splodges, way back in the mists of time. To play devil's advocate for a moment: is it possible that we become 'conditioned' by our early exposures, forming a baseline from which further experiences are judged? Is it therefore possible that to today's youngsters this hyper realistic blood letting looks 'cartoonish and exaggerated' and will form their baseline, to be trumped in 15 years by the next wave of graphical advancements? And if that is the case, where is the line to be drawn? (Apologies if this is childishly simple thinking, but hey, I try)

    All that said, the questions from Daniel in the post above are good ones, and the answers to them reveal that astonishingly little of this furthers the narratives or adds much to the games. There does seem to be a giant realistic graphical violence jerk off within the industry, but I question whether this is driven by the audience's increasing thirst for blood or by a profit driven development process (or perhaps both, feeding off each other). I guess my overall position is that the greater realism doesn't bother me that much, it's just graphical progress, and we are not yet at the tipping point (for me at least, this is clearly a highly subjective issue). That said, it pains me to think that developers are spending time creating translucent intestines when they could be improving modes of interaction, including deeper themes or any one of a hundred other things that would not go in a bullet point on the back of the box.

    Am I agreeing with the article? Even I don't know any more. A very thought provoking post.


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