This time round we’re talking about game design and the inevitability of violence in video games. To assist us we've dragged in Leigh Harris, a local games industry veteran and all round thoughful dude. Leigh has recently started blogging here.
Let's get started!
MARK: We've talked about videogame violence plenty at Kotaku and, personally, I've never had a problem with it - my issue has always been with regards to the weight of violence. In gaming mass murder can feel flippant, yet still be undertaken by protagonists we’re supposed to empathise with. I hear people talking about the ‘impact’ of violence in games, particularly with reference to the R18+ debate - but my problem has always been that violence in videogames has no impact. In fact, violence in games can often feel flippant – which can’t be right...
LEIGH: It's a particularly easy subject to bend out of all proportion as well. If you wanted to turn some videogame violence, which really doesn't carry that much weight, into some positively harrowing text for a news story, look no further than No More Heroes 2. If you were to describe the actions being portrayed in that game, you'd be talking about some incredibly sick and twisted stuff. In fact, when media are arguing against the R18+ rating, they usually cite examples of games where you 'get points for more violent kills'. It's not exactly difficult to find games where the stronger attacks earn you higher rewards, but they keep trotting it out like it's an atrocity!
MARK: I think that’s where the mainstream media often gets video game violence so wrong – using No More Heroes 2 as an example of extreme video game violence would be about as useful as me referring to Tom and Jerry as an extreme example of television violence. For violence to have an impact, it has to ring true.
It’s a weird contradiction of sorts – the mainstream media often attacks gaming for desensitising children to violence, but violence in videogames is meaningless, almost frivolous, and doesn’t desensitise anyone to anything. It has no connection to real life whatsoever. The irony here is, that for games to mature, and be taken seriously as a medium, we almost have to get better at presenting violence properly and responsibly. And I think part of that responsibility is to show the real consequences of a violent act.
LEIGH: I think it speaks to the disconnect between players and observers. The majority of videogames' critics aren't people who play the games themselves, so let's compare the experience of violence by the player and by someone who is watching their child play.
For the player, that moment when you've managed to pull off three headshots in a row is exhilerating and incredible. You're in a non-existent play world with its own set of rules (think sports for a decent comparison), and you've managed to eke out a huge accomplishment within that world. So you're stoked and, more importantly, you're not surprised by the violence, because each and every shot came from you pressing a button.
For the observer, there is no sense of achievement, and no sense of control. They're witnessing an unbroken chain of violent acts with seemingly no purpose. To them, each shot is a surprise (since they're not pressing 'shoot') and is therefore shocking. So they're seeing shocking violence, lots of it, followed by jubilation! Of course they think us gamers are deranged.
MARK: Absolutely! You are in a universe with its own set of rules. The actual act of violence, in and of itself, is not necessarily important – it’s just context – what’s important is the mechanic, the rules of the game and how the game rewards you. Much is made of the fact that games often reward acts of violence, but to an extent that is meaningless. What’s important to a gamer is that he’s done a good job of playing within the rules of a game’s universe – whether that’s scoring a goal in FIFA, or shooting your friend online in Halo – it doesn’t really make a difference.
I think that disconnect between player and viewer is one of the greatest challenges gamers have to overcome when it comes to the way gaming is viewed by the mainstream non-gaming public. Unless you’re part of that culture it’s practically impossible to understand it.
LEIGH: The action genre has employed the same basic mechanics since the beginning: you have an avatar and are navigating a space to achieve an objective. The most natural extension of those precepts is a protagonist who must defeat enemies, and the simplest exchange you can use to resolve a scenario like that is violence. One green pixel strikes at a red pixel and the red pixel disappears.
Videogames' attempts to move outside of those mechanics are varied in their success. Adventure games in the 90s did it successfully, life sims (such as The Sims) have, strategy management games (Tropico, Transport Tycoon etc) are also there. But each one of those genres is appealing to a different type of challenge. Within the action genre, the best examples of doing without violence position you as the victim rather than the aggressor (such as survivial horror games), but it's still employing violence.
MARK: Exactly. Because they’re interactive, videogame mechanics need to be focused and consistent, and very often you can only interact with the game world in a handful of ways - because attempting something different would bloat the game with needless, unnecessarily complicated mechanics. In Assassin’s Creed you climb and you kill. In Grand Theft Auto you drive and you shoot. And that makes sense in terms of game design because you can build a world that allows you to interact using those simple mechanics. The fact of the matter is that the limitations of videogames as a medium often drives the violence, and is the reason for the violence.
LEIGH: And it's not just a limitation of the games' design either, but of the way we interact with them. Controllers have several buttons and triggers, and two (typically) thumbsticks which navigate on two axes. One dictates geographical location, the other perspective/direction. Of course, not every videogame has to use these things, but the vast majority of them do. And what does the ability to move and look around denote? Action. Movement is action, and action as a genre (in plays, books, television and film) is centred around violence.
It's not that we're a crazy race of violence-hungry beings, we're just in our infancy. Maybe when Kinect can detect whether or not we're lying through cunning use of facial detection we'll be able to 'play' drama in the same way we play violence now. But for the time being let's just make the best darned violent games we can.