The discussion on violence in videogames seems to be an never-ending topic. Along with sex (this depraved and horrendous human act!) violence in videogames is always the focus during an innumerable number of debates. Often these debates are so polarized and unintellectual that they are quite uninteresting – and that goes for both sides. On one side we have people how are all to critical towards videogames, with no more evidence than clinical studies that seem to say very little of the “real” world. Sitting opposite to them we have the game defenders – bent on defending their beloved media come what may. These debates are, of course, not the only ones but unfortunately seem to be the one most prominent.
So, where do I stand? Well, let’s make some things clear. First of all – videogames affect us. We feel them, we are moved by them, we are influenced by them. To claim the opposite is quite strange – why else would we play them? They make us happy, sad, angry and confused. In that sense they work just like all other experiences in life. This seems to be forgotten sometimes. Yes, people can get quite angry by playing games. However, people get just as angry by watching soccer, looking at a film or playing boardgames. Does this mean we become so filled with rage and devoid of empathy that we go out and hurt other human beings? No, there seems to be no conclusive evidence on that point. On the contrary – to some extent we need these different feelings – to live is to feel. It is however important to remember that we must be able to reflect on these experiences. Because of this fact I firmly believe in age limits (even though I do not believe that they have to be draconic or exact). Young people may sometimes have a harder time to filter and reflect on what they are seeing and what they are doing. This means that explicit content may be percieved as very disturbing and uncanny. Of course older people may as well find content to be disturbing but has often a better ability to reflect on this. So, to put it simple, I believe the following: violence in videogames? Yes. Age limits? Yes.
Now, let’s look at the nature of violence. How is it portrayed in videogames? I would like to be bold enough to divide the portrayal of violence (mainly in films and videogames) into three categories: stylized-harmless, reflexive-realistic and unreflexive-realistic. The lines between these distinctions can often be quite blurry but I think that they will help to structure my line of though.
The first one is either characterized by an over-the-top aestethic; think bold colors, extreme amounts of blood and a cartoony feel (stylized) or violence with a minimum of blood, gore and displays of fear, pain and so on (harmless). Examples of stylized violence would be Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) and Mad World (Platinum Games, 2009). Older James Bond movies, like Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979), and the different Mario-games would count as harmless.
The second one, reflexive-realistic, is characterized by being realistic (and thus feeling very disturbing and disgusting) but also having some kind of reason for it’s realistic portrayal. There could be a multitude of reasons, for example trying to show the horrors of warfare or the extreme terror of violence. Some examples worth mentioning could be American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998) or Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998). The exact definition of reflexive can be hard to pin-point but it a combination of a multitude of elements (story, acting, music, themes) that together form an (from the creators point of view) intended experience. Now I would think that my last category seems quite self-explanatory. The unreflexive-realistic is a portrayal of violence that does it’s best to seem realistic but lacks the reflexive aspect. The only goal seems to be to create a depiction of violence that is realistic but without any though of what that actually means and how it might be percieved. I find that many modern FPS-games (and some films as well) end up in this category (and as you’ve perhaps guessed I’m not too happy with that). The graphical direction of videogames, at least when it comes to FPS-games, seems to be an ever-increasing photorealism. The human beings depicted look, act and move more and more like real humans. The thing is – they also die like real humans. To be honest there have been situations in videogames (and trailers for upcoming ones) that have disgusted me with their portrayal of violence. Disgust isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I said before, we need to feel all kinds of emotions. The problem is that this disgust doesn’t come from an experience where I feel that violence and killing is terrible – no, it originates from the combination of realistic violence and “fun” gameplay. Characters all around me drop dead but I’m just having a good time shooting these very lifelike enemies.
So, to try and wrap things up, do I believe that this unreflexive violence will turn individuals into people who like to hurt other human beings? No, absoutely not. On an direct, individual level I don’t think they are bad for us and I have no intention of placing myself in the “moralist category”. I do however believe that the norms, beliefs, ideas, concepts (and so on) in societies are made up of a huge number of influences. Different cultural expressions and experiences are both made up of and make up these ideas and concepts. We cannot believe that the experiences and portrayals of different aspects (be it love, violence, sex, work or whatever) doesn’t matter. In some sense everything matters. What I want is basically to see more reflection in the portrayal of violence in videogames. Why do we need this photorealism and why do we have to portray violence in such a realistic way? If we can answer that then we can also try to match the rest of the game with this purpose. If we want the show the brutality of war – then let’s try and make it not fun to shoot enemies.
In the end what I would like to say is basically the following: Please, try and reflect more on how you portray things. I’m quite certain this would make videogames much more interesting.