One afternoon in university a classmate asked me what I wanted to do after graduating. I immediately said “Video games!”, and she was surprised; she thought I’d go off to make weird Arduino-based projects for the Surrey Art Gallery or something. She didn’t think me the type to play or want to make video games. Eying me suspiciously she asked: “Aren’t those really violent?”
I was expecting this; I was, in fact, prepared for it in the way only an obnoxious know-it-all like myself can be prepared. “Well actually…” I began, eager to waste the next two minutes of her life ranting about my favourite subject. “The medium’s fixation on violent conflict is an unfortunate artifact of early design constraints. Just underneath the blood spatter are interesting spatial and temporal problems that constitute the actual game, and designers dress those things up with violence only because the precedent has become deeply ingrained and difficult to erase.”
Mind you, I am the type of bullshitter who believes his own bullshit. It isn’t hard to understand the popularity of violence in computer games; the argument is simple enough. First, what is the most fundamental form of game available to humans? Probably it involves a symmetrical contest of skill between two parties wherein flexible minds can manipulate simple rules to wondrous effect (e.g. Go, chess, both varieties of football, etc…). And what is the most basic form of virtual reality producible by computers? Well, you give each participant an avatar that resembles their real-world selves and you let them interact in some primitive way. How, then, do you make virtual reality into a game? Easy: You design a symmetrical contest of skill between two avatars whose rules and victory conditions include as few game entities as possible (say, for example, you have only those two avatars plus maybe some projectiles they can direct, and the game ends when one of those two avatars gets hit and ceases to exist). The simplest form of video game, in other words, is a two-player fight to the death.
Games have been layering increasingly elaborate mechanics and aesthetics atop this essential premise ever since Spacewar! first introduced it. We discovered character and asymmetry, so spaceship dots firing missile dots at other spaceship dots became Ryu fighting Chun Li. Primitive AI routines permitted the development of games that pit one intelligent, powerful human bullet generator against legions of similar yet weaker/stupider AI bullet generators. Simplicity demanded that the 2D collision volumes being created and destroyed become our characters, and that their creation and destruction become our stories; entire genres (such as the first person shooter) were thus built around the metaphor of committing and becoming victim to various forms of violence. But the thing is, back then it was mostly of the ‘cartoon’ variety; it’s not like Doom adopts violence as a literary theme in the same sense as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird. What is the meaning of killing a Cacodemon in Doom? Is it supposed to resemble the experience of being Atticus Finch and having to shoot a local dog who has developed rabies? Probably not. How about killing virtual human soldiers, then? Does that have any relationship, beyond the superficial audiovisual feedback, to murdering a real person? I don’t think it does. Rather, the violence in Doom is metaphorical, offering fictional context to an abstract game of skill that at its core is not so different from something like chess. Doom is really about using speed to outmanoeuvre your opponents; it happens to have a thin layer of action film power fantasy sprinkled on top, but that stuff is less important. And barring a few notable exceptions, this is the case for shooter games generally: They want you to feel powerful, but not like a murderer.
As I told my classmate all about this and her eyes began to glaze over, it occurred to me that saying I play games that depict murder purely so I can enjoy the interesting spatial puzzles is almost exactly the same as saying I read pornography just for the articles: It could theoretically be true, but it invites suspicion regardless. In our culture there is a weird sense of equivalency between sex and violence, which is a whole other problem in itself, but it turns out that if I drew a Playboy from my book bag, casually opened and passed it into my classmate’s hands, and then told her I wanted to write columns for the magazine (y’know, like the one one on this page about that centrefold’s humorous online dating experiences) she’d probably forget every word I said in her anxiousness to get away from the weird guy trying to show her porn. Well, what if I showed her a game where you kill 25 people in under 10 seconds and then said I was super interested in its encounter design? Look at all those interesting spatial and temporal problems! They’re right underneath the 25 human corpses. Here, let me use the X button to drag these physically-simulated dead bodies out of the way so you can see the interesting spatial and temporal problems.
I’d like you to watch this video. It’s a demo for the forthcoming Medal of Honor game:
I hate to pick on any one example as no individual game is the source of my complaint, but I saw this one during 2012′s E3 coverage and I must confess it made me a little uneasy. That demo contains a sequence where you use a remotely-controlled robot tank thing to kill about a dozen people. Design-wise, what is the purpose of this sequence? Is it a statement about how the mechanization of combat has led us to forget our humanity? A nested metaphor for the player’s robot-like operation of the main character as that character operates an actual robot? No. Probably the reasons they included the robot are so that 1) The player gets to turn and accelerate in a novel way, varying the pace; 2) The player gains access to different weapons for attacking the enemy; and 3) The player can fit through somewhat smaller holes in the wall.
The casual observer sees a human-operated machine killing a dozen other humans (and is invited to operate that machine), yet what we see is the opportunity to travel through smaller gaps in collision geometry. Think about that for a second. That’s weird.
If the violence is truly a metaphor, and its increasingly extreme manifestations merely conceits to expand the game design, why is that metaphor so difficult to replace? Do I truly play violent games just for the spatial and temporal puzzles, or is there something more going on there? Will we run out of creative ways to shoot guys in the face before the porn industry runs out of creative ways to penetrate the human body? If you will permit my double entendre, we seem to find ourselves trapped in a race to the bottom. It isn’t 1993 anymore; Doom has been out for nearly twenty years. There are many in the world who find the concept of violence intrinsically unappealing, and although we are wont to blame ignorance and shady reward systems for the rise of social gaming, I think it might also have to do with the fact that you don’t go around dismembering hundreds of people in Farmville. It’s gotten weird, people, and it’s getting weirder. We need to discover some new metaphors, or else I’ll have made a liar of myself.