Is violence a necessary part of video games?

Before you answer this question, I want you to look at your shelves and on your various electronic devices. I want you count up the games and put them into two major categories: those who include violence as a core mechanic and those who don’t. Now, I want you tally the percentages.

If you are anything like me, it’s probably close to 97% of the games you have can be placed in the violence category  From game series like Final Fantasy to even Fable, most of the games I personally own feature violence of some kind. And I’m not even thinking about the more destructive titles like Just Cause 2 or even Grand Theft Auto 4 (two games I finished within the last two weeks). It’s not just guns and mayhem, but the simple mechanics of killing other creatures for experiences points or story progress.

The more I’ve thought about the issue this morning, the more concerned I’ve gotten about my own collection. For someone who usually advocates pacifist takes on most things and has a general aversion to weaponry of any kind, I’ve found myself taking a quite laissez-faire approach to policing my indulgence in virtual violence. I’ve become willing to murder millions in a video games while I ask others to find a peaceful end to conflicts.

When I read Corvus Elrod’s statement that he was thinking of avoiding buying both AAA and indie titles that have violence as a core mechanic, I began to consider if I could do the same thing. Here was a person who I respect in the community trying to decide if he wanted to avoid violent games in the future by making a fiscal choice about it. It’s made me think about my own buying habits and if I could do the same thing.

I don’t think I can. Avoiding the fact that I need to be open to covering any type of game for my work for Indie Game Mag Radio, I don’t think I could give up my love of RPGs — or even shmups. I’ve spent too much time with these genres to give them up now. Even if I could limit my intake, I’m more likely to pick my next game over its price than parts of its content.

Which, of course, brings me back to the central question: “Is violence a necessary part of video games?” I’d like to think it isn’t, and that I could name many games that I loved that didn’t feature violence of any kind. Yet, I can’t. Those games I’ve invested hundreds of hours into like Final Fantasy 7 or even World of Warcraft have me killing others for personal gain. It’s practically endemic to the medium; even Angry Birds has you seemingly taking out one type of animal for another.

I can’t ask you to give up violent games. Since I can’t even do it myself, how can I ask you to do it? Yet, I want you to think about your games. As many of us take a break before starting a new year of playing video games, I ask that you consider each new title and its content. How are you spending your money? What is the game asking to you to do?

For the few game developers out there who might read this, you let give you an extra challenge. For your next project, think about if violence is really required. Can you remove it? If you took out the shooting or even the destruction, would that fundamentally change the game? If the answer is no, shouldn’t that be something to take out?

For 2013, let’s all take stock of where we are and where we want to be. If we don’t like it when video games are painted as the singular influence of violent content, let’s do something about it. Let’s spend our money and time to shape our medium. Let’s make the games the we want to play and buy the games that we agree with in 2013.

In a few days, it will be a new year. Let’s greet it together with a resolution to be better, even if it only small steps toward that goal. I’ll try and I hope you will too.

12 thoughts on “Is violence a necessary part of video games?

  1. Hi Dan,

    I think that the question you’re asking here is an important one, especially for anyone who is venturing into the field of game-design, like me.
    Like yours, most of the games I own do include violence in some sort of way. I haven’t counted all of them, but on a quick tally it’s about 80%.

    Why? is the question, I asked myself first. Why is there so much violence?
    The answer is simple: games are a reflection of life, and life is violent. It’s not only wars and murder, reflected in first person shooters like Modern Warfare and strategy games like Civilization. There’s violence in every person’s life, sometimes indirectly when one eats a steak but hasn’t killed the cow oneself (no, I’m not a vegetarian) but often more directly and apparent.
    Violence is part of the struggle for survival, which takes place on every level of life. Even many plants are not truly peaceful but poison their enemies with toxins.

    Killing people is certainly the strongest form of violence, but killing animals and ‘other things’ does not necessarily have to be as violent. It may just be the necessary way to gather food, be that in real life or a game. It is usually violent, but does not have to be. You could, in theory, tranquillize the cow, and kill it afterwards. You also could just not eat any meat. There are also people, me definitely not among them, who would argue that plants are essentially alive and you should not cut down flowers to put them in a vase on your living room table. What violence is and how we perceive it is different for everyone.
    But games influence that perception strongly. They can blunt or sharpen our moral compass of what is right or wrong, acceptable or not. Perhaps more people would agree with the living plant point of view if they had played a game with living plants crying terribly as they are cut down, one by one (That is actually a pretty interesting game idea).

    There are games that do not need violence at all. One category is puzzle games, where Night Sky comes to mind as an example.
    Then there are simulation games like SimCity or Minecraft. Sure, there is the disaster option in SimCity, but it is not part of the core mechanic and not necessary for successful play.
    In Minecraft there are enemies and animals you kill, but you do not have to do so. You can avoid them, hide, eat grain instead of meat and build along peacefully.
    Plus there’s creative mode which is endless fun without any violence at all.
    Then there are all the sports games of sports that do not have violence in real life. Many (realistic) racing games fall into that category.

    There are at least two more things to consider.
    One: how do games deal with violence? Do they attempt make the game harder when playing violently (like most stealth games do in some sort of way)? Do they look critically at violence, not unlike so-called anti-war films?
    Two: how does the player deal with violence and his available options? I’m a huge fan of Fallout. Fallout, as a game with an almost infinite amount of choice, allows you to run from the start to the end, shooting everything and
    everyone you like (unless you’ve got a German version without kids). It also allows you to take your time, talk to everyone and kill only very, very few people, animals and mutants. It it not a game that allows absolute peaceful behaviour. But neither does life. It’s always about the choice a human being makes.
    In that context we return to the importance of how violence is presented in games. Is it glorified or criticised? Is it displayed in it’s strongest detail with maximum blood and gore or set aside as a tool, a mere necessity without major rewards.

    I made a jump’n’run game as a Christmas present for my father. Unlike the old Duke Nukem you cannot shoot, you can’t even jump onto enemies like in Super Mario, simply because there are no enemies.
    But I’ve asked myself if things like collecting items and moving platforms are enough of a challenge to keep the player playing to the end. Will I need to introduce opponents at some point?
    If so, will it be enough to use a stun-gun like Commander Keen? Should I try to steer the player away from violence by putting in incentives like bonuses for getting through a level without firing a shot?

    I’ll try to create at least 12 games next year, being part of the One Game a Month challenge. I’m sure that most games will not incorporate violence but also, that some will and that they will not be any worse for it.

    So to answer your question: yes, most games do need to include violence and destruction because they are a reflection of life, which has both in abundance.
    The amount and quality as well as the presentation of these components which is necessary to create a good game may vary strongly, though.

    There’s also the question how closely games need to reflect life to be still interesting to a mass audience.

    1. Dan Cox

      I think you have done a much better job at articulating the problem than I did. Perhaps it was just me reacting to reading Corvus’ initial post and, as I wrote about, considering my own collection, but I feel like I just threw the question out there for others. I didn’t really address it much.

      Jumping off your two questions, then, I think you make an excellent point about the power of games to present choices — and consequences. Presenting violence for the sake of showing how “extreme” your own violence (as I feel many of the Modern Warfare games have tried) is ultimately self-defeating. There will always new highs — lows? — depending on both the player and society. What was once shocking, at the time, often seems timid many years later.

      The strength of the medium will always be in the intersection of narrative and mechanics. What the choices the game gives us, and how we use them to craft our experiences, is what we remember — it’s our stories. Those times when all choice was taken away, or we were able to “discover” another way (stealth, dialogue or otherwise) to solve a problem is what remains with us after we play.

      It’s what Corvus replied back to my comment: without an alternative to violence, the decision is basically meaningless. That doesn’t mean to give up on all violence, as you wonderfully noted, but to make it meaningful — make it matter beyond a few more experience points.

      It’s what we as developers and designers should try to accomplish: make games that matter. Among other nebulous qualities like “fun”, “engaging” and “interesting”, perhaps we should try for “thoughtful” too. It’s a tall order to be sure, but worth trying for if we want to move the medium.

      Just as not all games need to be violent, they don’t have to be non-violent either. However, I do think that the reason to include violent actions (and their targets) should always be questioned. If we learn through play, what are we teaching others with our games?

  2. Jackson

    Whenever this comes up I like to point people to errant signal’s video on violence in video games. To summarize, it’s not necessary, but it is a LOT easier to make game conflicts abstract or violent than any other kind.

    I know canvasser has been giving me hell just being about persuasion.

    1. Dan Cox

      I had a quick back-and-forth with someone on Twitter yesterday who said a very similar thing. And, of course, you’re both right. If I go looking for violence, I can find it easily enough. That doesn’t mean it’s the main ingredient, merely that I already had a bias toward seeing it in the first place. It’s not everywhere and in everything, but, like you wrote, it’s easier to conceptualize conflict (usually external) as violence toward another in video games — and much harder to convey inner conflict, even in just writing.

      I am curious to see how Canvasser turns out. Persuasion, as you note, is not at all easy to convey. I’ve seen a few games approach it with numerical value checking (like a D&D skill check). That’s usually pretty successful — odd sometimes, but successful.

  3. Prompted by this, I looked at my list of games I’d played last year; less violence than I’d expected, which is in part a conscious choice. And in part my obsession with Rock Band and, more recently Rocksmith. But you play Rock Band, too!

    And then there are the boundary cases. Does Super Hexagon (another game you’ve played) feature violence? Triple Town? Ascension? Spaceteam? Journey? For what it’s worth, I ended up with: 11 games definitely featuring violence, 5 definitely not, 7 boundary cases.

    1. Dan Cox

      Part of this post came out of my playing of Just Cause 2 and Grand Theft Auto 4 back-to-back. In around 48 hours worth of playing, I started and finished both games in less than a week combined. Part of my mind, then, was dwelling on how fascinating (and beautiful) their virtual worlds are, but how much both games are mired in their own violence — something GTA4 addresses but JC2 rewards.

      You make a good point about Rock Band 3 and Super Hexagon though. If there is violence in either game, it’s abstract. The same with Triple Town and Journey — although there is definitely a case for technology equals violence equals bad with Journey. Yet, no matter how many games like Puzzle Agent or Proteus I might play, there are also Batman: Arkham City, Torchlight 2, and Castle Crashers. All of which have high body counts, even if you don’t strictly “kill” as Batman.

      Looking at the games I’ve been making, and those I want to make in the future, I’ve gotten concerned over my own metaphors — as Jackson wrote a few days ago — of conflict. Do I turn to violence against objects as a way to express that? Should I? Like I wrote, and have done, I’ve certainly “murdered” my fair share of virtual people and animals.

      It’s become a bit worrisome to me. My video game collection is often influenced by others. For example, I wouldn’t have invested nearly the same amount of time in Super Hexagon, David, if your score hadn’t climbed ever upward about a month ago. Looking at what I own makes me look at myself some too.

      Am I buying — and making — games because I like them, or because I think others will like me for them? I generally don’t like violence, yet have invested many hours into games like Borderlands and the newer Fallout series, all of which are quite violent in tone and content. Basically, I’m questioning my own choices as much as I might be asking others to do the same thing. So far, I’m not happy with the reflection I’m seeing and not at all sure about how to go about fixing it.

      1. You mention influences, and certainly social influences are important in ways that are relevant to this question of violence. I used to work on Facebook games, for example; people in our video game blogging circle normally never play them, some of them are violent (though generally in a more abstract fashion than GTA4), but a hundred million people played Farmville, with no violence in it. (And the one Facebook game that I’ve heard chatter about recently in our circle is The Friend Game, which doesn’t involve violence.) And my wife spends lots of time playing Drop 7, solitaire, and Bejeweled, none of which feature violence; but also 10000000, which does, albeit in a more abstract fashion.

        1. Dan Cox

          I wrote a blog response recently to your “games and shared spaces” post from a couple weeks ago, David, but decided not to publish it. Part of the reason was that I covered my own feelings on the subject in our quick conversation via Xbox Live a few days after I wrote my comment. Basically, that I don’t have — and haven’t had — the same relationship to game spaces you do; I’m the “single” archetype you wrote about.

          Which makes it kinda funny to me to think about the “video game blogging circle” in this context: I rarely feel like I am a part of it. I mean, sure, I cover games for Indie Game Mag Radio (sort of), but that’s driven by my own interests more often than not. I haven’t been paid (and probably never will be) for any past (or future) work for them. I bought and played the games because *I* thought they were something worth looking at, and then sought out the developers afterwards.

          My frustration, then, comes out of this social influence aspect, specifically Twitter. That’s, in case you (or anyone else) ever wondered why I’m never “on” Twitter, why: I can’t afford the latest games nearly all of the time and, even if I could, I don’t have the time to play them. It’s highly annoying to me to read game spoilers (and see constant arguing). My solution, since I can’t seem to avoid the people, is to avoid the platform altogether.

          Writers I respect like Kris and Patricia (who are trenders of the video game blogging circle) write about violent games knowing there is an audience there who wants to read about them too. In turn, the positive feedback cycle reinforces itself because those games get attention and prompt others, who might have bought them yet, to do so. Of course, it’s not a closed loop — there are other variables in there too.

          Yet, as you can probably tell from my long comments in response, I’m highly conflicted about the subject. I wish I could talk, write, and create games that lacked violence, but feel pulled, particularly as I get drawn ever deeper into being a part of several groups, to act more like a responsible member. To get attention though, I seem to have to take certain actions — and cover certain games.

          All of that, plus getting one year older recently and becoming a community leader for One Game A Month initiative, has made me want to point others in a direction to be better, to think about violence in games and how it might be used (or removed) for more than a shorthand for survival or external conflict. I’d like to be more like Corvus and just make a choice about it, and not have to worry about the social fallout from such a decision, but don’t see myself doing that any time soon.

          1. I’m certainly sympathetic to not being able to play all of the latest games – I can’t either, and that can make Twitter and blogs frustrating. Though both on the question of violence and of access (whether the latter translates into time or money), I’ve found this year a little refreshing in that regard – the game du jour has often been something relatively short/cheap and low or no violence, e.g. Journey or Super Hexagon or Letterpress.

            But nobody’s writing interesting blog posts about Letterpress, and not many about Super Hexagon; so yeah, a lot of the discussion is still about the longer games (especially the ones with a large dose of narrative), and those are almost all steeped in violence. Sigh.

            (This idea of writing many smaller, less violent games reminds me: have you played any of Jordan Magnuson’s games? I thought his Gametrekking project was great. Though that website seems to be down right now, I hope it comes back…)

  4. cweatherbee

    You bring up a great point Dan. Looking at my game selection, I’d have to say the majority revolves around violence. Halo, Skyrim, Dishonored, Assassin’s Creed, all involve a significant amount of violence.
    I’m not one to advocate violence in real life, but sometimes the violence in games can serve as relief. Have a fight with your brother? Go kill some zombies in the Walking Dead. Tired of dealing with your parents? Go slaughter a few pirates in Far Cry 3. I try to look at the violence in games that way.
    Some games are ridiculous in the sense that they are mindless killing, no story, no real purpose. Those games should really take a look at what they are doing and ask themselves why? Other games, like The Walking Dead, are real pieces of art. There is a lot of violence, but the complexity of the game, the story, the characters, all back it up. I still cannot comprehend all the different factors in that game, it blows me away every time.
    There are definitely a lot of games that don’t have violence: Flower, Rock Band, sport games. In the end though, the general goal is to make the most money, and what sells? Violence.
    I hope that the violence doesn’t go away, but that the game companies will focus more on the story to back up the violence, the reason.
    Please come check out my blog!!

    1. Dan Cox

      You make a good point about stress relief and the fact that violence sells more often than not. However, that’s actually the troubling part, at least to me, too. While it’s great to relive anger, taking it out through violent actions might associate wanting to feel better with wanting to hurt something in the future. (At least, that’s the fear of some psychologists.)

      That’s not my way of way of saying to give up on violent games though. Like I wrote, I play them too. For example, I really like The Walking Dead. It does some great things with limited violence and makes it matter. It’s all those small moments of choosing what to do next that Telltale does so well that I’m writing about. Not just killing — re-killing? — every zombie in sight Left 4 Dead style, but picking the right time to take down a zombie.

      I absolutely agree that Flower and Journey are fantastic examples. They isolate the verbs of movements (running/flying) and link them to progress in a game. When you experience “pain” (loosing petals or bits of scarf), it heightens the tension for the player. It’s both a visual effect and a “loss” too. thatgamecompany makes very powerful games using (seemingly) simple metaphors.

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