Observation: People that argue that violent video games have a bad influence on you, will counter the argument that violence also occurs in film and television with; “Yeah but in games you are the one doing it, instead of watching passively.” Which is a flawed argument, since the things are still being carried out by someone: the actors.
Assuming the role of someone you are not, is exactly what video games are about. And it’s also the reason why actors enjoy acting, even (or especially!) characters that are violent, unlikeable and nothing like their real selves. We don’t question the motivations of an actor playing a criminal, bigot or psychopath, nor raise the question if their job would somehow make them violent or dangerous. We even find it endearing to hear an actor tell how much they enjoy playing a bad guy or find it impressive to hear them discuss the difficulty of performing the role of a truly abhorrent individual.
But I suppose nobody would be interesting in hearing me tell how I felt conflicted about killing innocents in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. That game is bluntly considered as fetishising violence and going for shock value by letting the player act out a terrorist attack. It made headlines, back when it came out, and the game even offers the player to skip the entire sequence. In Russia the segment was cut out of the game entirely.
Some people do argue though, that perhaps there’s not too much violence in games, but certainly too many violent video games. I too have written a piece on this debate before. What’s often troubling the developers of any game is that conflict is such a fitting element to use. No matter if you’re talking about challenging gameplay, a good story or any sense of adventure and escapism; conflict, combat and violence are a perfect fit. Every game out there that is not violent, is usually either a sports game, a puzzle game or some type of simulation or interactive story that may or may not also have some indirect violence involved.
In the end, video games are interactive stories. And stories, fiction, are about escaping the real world and finding the thrill and adventure of the fictitious. To create a story arc, to offer a player a challenge and something to do, there has to be something to overcome, a form of resistance from an opposing side. It can be an enemy with a gun, a player who wants to kick the ball in your goal or the unsolved state of a logic puzzle. The thing is: a game is hard to imagine being fun when every element in it cooperates with you and helps you along with your task.
The Opposite of Murder
That brings me to another point I was mulling over lately. Implementing any sort of gameplay that goes against violence is potentially problematic. Purely as a thought-experiment I was thinking lately; what would be the opposite of killing someone? I was reading about the latest Hitman DLC and realised what an amazing game IO Interactive has created. A dynamic online world, that changes all the time. Not a multiplayer world though, no MMO: it’s a single player game that is constantly changing for you to find new challenges in. Would that be possible without violence? Hitman is a large open world where you can visit densely populated locations and face the challenge of covertly track down, isolate and murder a person without being seen. That’s when the thought occurred to me: what would be the exact opposite of killing someone? And the first thing that came to my mind was: having sex with someone. But that’s where it gets complicated. Consensual sex, out of mutual love, yes, that’s kind of the opposite of murder. But that wouldn’t make much of a game. Agent 47 rings up his love interest, they agree on a location and you go there for delicious banging. The only way to add an element of resistance… Well, let’s not go there. Let’s say the only morally acceptable variant would either be other people being in the way to prevent you from doing it, which is a bizarre-sounding narrative, and would ultimately defeat the purpose of where this whole thing began with, because there would again be an element of conflict.
Of course we have dating simulators, interactive stories and games like The Sims. But those are in their own way isolated to a particularly genre and audience. The Sims are actually a good example where a positive, non-violent goal has to be achieved through non-violent means. But that comes with its own set of problems. Falling in love and sleeping with someone in The Sims basically comes down to clicking on interaction with another character enough times to fill up the love meter. It’s just a game of course but it’s a jarring parallel with problematic behaviour of many men in real life that consider being nice and doing things for a women entitles them to her attention and sexuality.
I suppose, we can have games to relax and enjoy the ride and games that challenge and thrill us, and the latter is always going to have a form of violence or conflict in it. And that’s okay. It allows us to explore and comment on contemporary culture, history and the paradoxes, dogmas and questions of our life and society. It might be just our understanding of violence in games that has to change, not so much the games themselves. It will allow us to find variety, reflection and deeper layers of storytelling and world building.