Death And Ethical Violence

It is no secret that much of the world sees our beloved hobby as a nothing but juvenile, ultra-violent and ultimately irresponsible. Some have gone so far as to coin the term "murder simulators" for first-person shooters and titles like Grand Theft Auto.

These statements are often met with either blind rage or immediate dismissal by the gaming community (at least the part that follows industry news). This is fair. More often than not, those making blanket statements like these are entirely uninformed. However, I have come to the realisation that while I do not believe violent video games to be the cause of real world violence, there have been enough noble attempts and genuine progress made in the area of taking death and the act of killing a little more seriously in games lately to warrant a discussion on the matter.

For me, the biggest problem a game can have is a disconnect between myself and those I am being asked to ruthlessly gun down. I like to know why I am killing that guy or blowing that building up. If I am thrust into the body of a character and tasked with a very serious act, one that I would morally oppose in the real world, I am extremely turned off if there is any confusion as to why. It can be something as simple as "These guys are invading Earth!" or "Your kidnapped daughter is in there!" Sure, I would prefer it to be something a bit more meaty and original, but without any proper context behind the violence, for me, the immersion is immediately and irreparably broken.

I would like to preface the remainder of this article by saying that I am a longtime player and lover of all video games, many of which could be considered incredibly violent. As with all entertainment mediums, I have no issues whatsoever with the use of violence in games as a central gameplay element or a narrative device. Nor do I take issue with others who bask in the glory of a head shot or squeal with delight at the death screams of a grunt you just lit on fire. This article is meant to examine an emerging trend in video games in which the player is asked to take the act of killing more seriously, and consider the moral implications and consequences.

Ever since I was granted infinite time to pull the trigger at a certain heart wrenching moment in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, I have truly valued being given a little time to stop and think when tasked with serious ethical decisions in games. To me, "its just a game" has never flown. No. This does not mean I think all games have to be completely realistic and utterly serious. I for one have no issue at all with the violence levels in many of the most highly criticised and controversial titles. Plowing through a dozen innocent bystanders in a stolen 4-door coupe in GTA isn't fine with me because "its just a game". Its fine with me because Rockstar Games presents the scenario (to all but the most stubborn onlookers) with a palpable sense of absurdity and satire.

In more universally accessible and popular forms of entertainment, senseless violence is not tolerated if presented in a such an inconsequential manner. Over the top gore and dismemberment is reserved for specific genres, often presented with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Either that, or when the violence is meant to be unpleasant - bringing the viewer into the atrocities or war, for example. When there seems to be no reason or justification behind the violence, or no self-aware or comedic tones, the violence is viewed as irresponsible - both morally and artistically.

Certainly then it is possible for a game to be irresponsible with its use of violence, especially with it's handling of player-controlled killing. Why should video games get to slip by without considering such things? With guns and death a part of nearly every major studio release, there are a rare few moments when we are asked to actually think about our actions. Pulling the trigger has become second nature. Its no longer about taking a life, but clearing the next checkpoint. Here are a few recent examples of games that take a moment to shine a light on the decisions they are asking their players to make.

Modern Warfare 2 - No Russian

Arguably the most controversial level in any game of the past few years. When news first broke of this levels inclusion in the game, I began to feel almost guilty about what I was going to have to take part in. After finally playing through it, while it did leave me rather unsettled, I felt that the developer's intent was clear. Could the same information been given in a cutscene? Of course, but I do feel that the emotional impact for players willing to take the scene seriously would have suffered. Infinity Ward took a very big risk allowing players to take an active part in a massacre of innocents. At the same time though, they were giving players the chance to play it passively, walking at deliberate pace, taking in the savagery around them. For those willing to see the level as more than "just a game", I think there was something pretty powerful to take from that. Was a Call of Duty game the ideal venue for such a statement? Perhaps not. Nevertheless I find such a compelling attempt at bringing real world ethics into play commendable.

Heavy Rain – I'm No Killer

About two thirds through Heavy Rain, one of the protagonists is tasked with killing a complete stranger in order to receive valuable information. This plot device is not new. Countless games feature execution missions. In Heavy Rain though, the severity of the task is always on the player's mind. At first, I was disappointed that my character even walked out the door to go begin the mission. It seemed to go so strongly against the nature of how way I had been playing up until that point. During the mission itself though, Quantic Dream's intentions became evident. At the height of the drama, I stood there, gun pressed against a man's head. Did I have the guts to pull the trigger? For a change, I didn't have to.

Bioshock 2 – Savior: 25 G

Having some degree of a morality system is practically mandatory for all current generation RPGs (or role playing shooters). Giving the player the option of good and evil allows us at home to feel like we have even more control over our avatar than in more linear titles. Honestly though, these choices, more often than not, amount to little more than doing what is morally the "right" thing to do or being a comic book style villain. Sure it can be fun to take the dark path, but being "evil" in a game with a morality element hardly ever feels like a realistic path.

At a few key moments in Bioshock 2, the player, after being informed of various key bits of backstory, is offered the opportunity to kill a character. Through brilliant use of unreliable narrators and contradictory advice, these decisions can be truly difficult. We are left with our gun pointed at a quivering man or woman, at their most vulnerable. With the information at hand, are they worth being kept alive? We are given all the time we need to make out choice. Pull the trigger, or just walk out the door?

Brutal Legend: A Fallen Friend

I know. This is one of the last games anyone would expect in a list like this, but there was one moment in particular that really stuck with me. It came after the entire story was over and I was just roaming around the open world. I came across the grave of a character that played a major role in the game until his untimely death in battle. Exiting my car, I walked over to the monument. When I got close enough, it triggered a change in camera angle that pulled back, revealing a gorgeous landscape view as my character knelt down and paid respects. For as long as I didn't touch a button, this angle would remain, allowing me to mourn and reflect on all the life lost in the battles that got me to this point. Overall, the game carries a very light and comedic tone throughout, but by giving us the chance to stop and take a breath, Tim Schafer and his crew allow the player to think back on everything they just experienced – a very rare and very special moment.

An important detail about instances like these is that they do not all end in the player deciding to be morally "right" or "good" and putting down the gun. It is when I am asked to take my own morality into consideration before pulling the trigger, and I still go through with it, that I am truly surprised. When an in-game decision teaches you a little bit about yourself, that is a powerful moment that no other entertainment medium can provide in quite the same way.

There will always be those who miss the point and exploit a game for less honourable means. Graphic imagery will always trump artistic intent for a certain section of the population. That should not, however, be seen as the fault of the artist. Game developers who look to progress the medium, like all artists who do so, should be commended for bringing a bit more significance and weight to the stories they tell. Violence, when used properly can be an incredibly strong narrative tool. It is only when proper artistic intent is absent that a problem arises.

From allowing the player to develop a deep understanding of their soon-to-be-dead enemies, to trusting in the emotional impact of being asked to pull a trigger only once rather than thousands of times, game developers are advancing their treatment of death in the medium. As technology improves how realistically people and faces can be rendered, it is important to improve how realistically serious acts of violence are represented. To me, nothing is more immersive than having actually pause the game and think about the tasks I am being asked to carry out. Not because we "must please think of the children", but because it makes for a richer overall experience.

Feel free to share your thoughts and favourite moments like these in the comments below.

Reprinted from The Geek Beast: It's Just a Game with permission of the author.

Daniel Carbone (Female Orca) is a filmmaker and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Co-creator of Geek Beast ( and lifelong lover of video games and all things interactive, he hopes to play even the smallest part in further elevating the medium to the level of respect and attention it deserves. He can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected]


    The Modern Warfare 2 example was pretty funny. The people weren't quite realistic enough to have a dramatic impact for me, seeing those mannequin-like people flop to the ground felt more like slapstick. It didn't help that there were so few variants of civilians that it was drilled into my brain that I was just killing repeated video game NPCs.

    While you may think about whether it's morally correct to kill or save someone in a game I think a for a lot of people it boils down to "What super power will I get if I am good or bad?"

    In a button mashing chainsaw fight in gears of war, who is thinking about what they are about to do in the game is justified or not?

      That's very true, but if you think about it, no-one cares about the Locust. They're the enemy. They invaded/surfaced on Sera with the intent to kill all humans.

      As for the article, it's nicely done. But I think in the end, most people don't think too much. Society's been overexposed to violence, imo, and people don't care too much about they're taking a life, they find it amusing or fun. Some of my friends play GTA4 just to run people over and say haha, look at him go flying....

      Point is, while they are some people who really think about when killing someone in a game, chances are, most people don't give a sh*t.

    So, NotoriousR, are we going to boil *everything* down the to the lowest common denominator?

    Asimovy's post up there is exactly the gist of an entire article I wrote about Bioshock. The option to kill or rescue the Little Sisters is just that, optional. But gamers, because they've been trained to do so, measure them not in terms of morals or narrative, but in terms of points and power. They are a form of power-up for a lot of gamers. They probably always will be.

    But for those of us who actually like reading books for the story, watching movies for the experience, rather than (only) waiting till XYZ starlet flashes some sideboob or something blows up, there is massive potential to allow games to tell us something about ourselves, as was said in the article. What if in Bioshock the ADAM gain was equal, whether you kill or rescue a Little Sister, but the narrative responses from other characters were more intense? (Ie. Tennanbaum being very upset with you or Atlas cackling with glee). Would that make the choice meaningless (because it doesn't matter to the game mechanic) or more meaningful because the player has to ask himself "Why did I just do that?" What if rescuing the Little Sister actually made the game a lot harder, instead of just a little harder, so the choice to be righteous was a real sacrifice?

    The pressure to keep a game 'balanced' is a problem for this kind of scenario, but its also possible to keep everything perfectly balanced and just see what happens.

    As for violence and death generally, I wonder if this is really only being asked now because developers' designs and tools are becoming sophisticated enough to enable more diverse character states than 'on/off' 'alive/dead'? Those are easy, but how about 'angry/scared' or 'happy/sad'? Those are much harder to render in a simulation, but seems to be where we are heading. Quite rightly.

    Being a game though if you do think about it, it is usually a question of "how will the affect the rest of my game?" not "is this right?"
    Bioshock 2 for example: I spared the characters because I thought they might be more useful to me alive, not because I cared about their existence.
    Also: Achievements. If your actions are guided by chasing them they you will often miss such moments.

      Author of the article here. To all on this thread, thanks for reading the article. Whether in agreement or not, it seems to have people talking and I could not be happier to see that.

      I wanted to comment on your mention of achievements. You couldn't be more on point in regards to their affect on the way players look at narrative. I enjoy unlocking one as much as the next guy, but it always bothers me when some are linked only to specific good or evil acts in games. Heavy Rain did this a few times and while I understand the reasoning (getting people to play though each chapter a variety of ways, experiencing all the outcomes, etc) I do wish they didnt sway the player one way or another in a game that plays so much on our own instincts.

    I know we as gamers like to make out that we aren't the sick detritus of society but doesn't this article reek of pretentiousness?

    My limited intelligence is insulted. It's the equivalent of chatting a supposedly virtuous woman up at a bar and finding out that what she says and what she does are totally different things behind closed doors.

    I love games and not just just for the mindless violence. I like the escapism and appreciate the art of them. But there is such a thing as human nature and believe it or not, humans like violence when it isn't directed towards them. To pretend you don't to some extent is just ridiculous. Some violence is just abhorrent, but let's not go so far as to make out that our shit don't stink.

    The same guy who wrote the article will tell you that he's never masturbated.

    If gamers want credibility then don't talk the kind of nonsense that politicians do. Or at least be more subtle about it.

    I like the idea that such choices can tell us as much about ourselves. I just couldn't bring myself to harvest Little Sisters. It'd be interesting to have such a choice where there was a much more serious impact.

    While I know plenty of people who play GTA in the way NotoriousR describes I do think a large amount of it is in the way GTA is presented. There is no way you can form an emotional connection, or even see GTA pedestrians as fundamentally human. They're just sticks that go flying when you're near them in a car.

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