Is there too much violence in videogames? Not so long ago I would firmly answer “No” to that question. Because I don’t have a problem with violence in fictional media and I don’t believe it encourages people to be violent in real life. But there’s an interesting case to be made for this that I hadn’t thought of before. This basically starts with defining the meaning of “too much violence” in our question. Let’s break it down into three interpretations.
“Too much violence” could mean: 1: Too much violence in terms of intensity and extremity of the depicted violent visuals in the average game, or 2: Too many games with violent content as opposed to those without, or lastly 3: Too much violence, as in frequency and predominant type of content in each individual game.
The first definition is the one that is used the most by anti-videogame activists. They have a problem with particular brutal, intense and over the top violent content. Think of Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto or the infamous Manhunt. This is something I do not agree with. Although I do think violence should serve the purpose of fun gameplay and/or interesting story and thematics. Blunt, meaningless violence just for the sake of it, is kind of boring. But in the essence: violent media is just part of cultural expression and storytelling and it’s old as the ages. It can be part of a pastiche, a deliberate over the top camp title like the aforementioned Mortal Kombat. Or violence can serve a purpose as tone for the atmosphere and dynamics of a fictional setting. It can convey a realistic, unforgiving world both in realms of history or fantasy or simply fit the bill for a sense of horror and discomfort it tries to bring onto the player. Fiction is everything and can be everything and it includes violence.
Almost every game on the market is based on conflict. That is not up for debate; it’s simple statistics. Gamers want to shoot, stab, bludgeon and blow things up. But there is no lack of choice. Puzzle games exist, the mobile and browser game market provide enough resource management games and in the indie community you can find plenty of titles that let you do other things than kill and maim. Although it can be frustrating, especially if you like games that explore other themes than warfare, that you always have to dig a little deeper to find your gems. Indie games often fill a void that the top of the market leaves open; it caters to niche groups and can allow itself to take risks whilst the triple A market wants to please a target audience and recycles former success. But generally I do believe that this gap is too big and the top market really shouldn’t be that shy of learning a bit from their little brothers down in the gruff.
Things get interesting when we look at each individual game and the amount of violent content throughout its experience as a whole. This especially counts for triple A games. This debate has been going on for a while already with interesting points from Warren Specter and Clint Hocking (famous for coining the term “Ludonarrative Dissonance”) regarding the overly dominant role of violent gameplay in favour of other elements, and how it often conflicts with the story narrative of the title. BioShock is a great example and the source for Hocking’s theory. Addressing such heavy philosophical themes as objectivism, conservative religion and racism, the game hurt itself by drenching itself so deep in its own blood. And that brings us to the core of this third definition.
I recently played Far Cry Primal, and noticed another fine example of this phenomenon. The game puts you in the stone age, with a community of hunters and gatherers. Seemingly a perfect setting for lot of exploration, survival based gameplay and things like crafting, developing skills and managing resources. Primal never lets you take a breather though. You can’t walk ten yards without being attacked by an animal or walking into hostile tribes and having to defend yourself. Pick-ups and activities are everywhere and the game constantly rushed you to kill things.
A solution seems easy: just don’t play Far Cry, then. There are other games, where you can explore and gather things at your leisure. And that’s true, of course. But I don’t think it’s necessary. When I play Far Cry Primal I see a game that is scared to be boring. It created a beautiful, lush game world and dozens of creatures and plants and minerals, and crafting resources. But it got so scared of not appealing to the mass market, that it stuffed it chock full of violence and bloodshed, to the point where it almost eclipses everything else it has to offer. I think it doesn’t have to be this way. It can offer a middle ground. Something between an entirely violence-free game and the hyperactive slaughter fest is is now. Dial down the amount of animals and hostile tribes with 75% and put more effort into crafting, building and learning. Put in farming, animal husbandry and trading. It’s okay, don’t be scared, people will like it.
So yeah, actually there is too much violence in videogames. Not because it’s too bloody or because we have too many violent games, but simply because some games just need to chill the fuck out and give room for other things to do than just crushing skulls. We don’t need less violence, just a little less of it.