Objection! Solving Our Problems With Guns

Welcome to Objection! This is where we take the time to go on-depth on gaming issues, and let you guys continue the discussion in the comments section.

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.


    I thought Heavy Rain did a decent job of giving violence some impact. There weren't many times in it when you even had the opportunity to shoot somebody, and when you did it generally gave you reason to stop and think before pulling the trigger. Or after pulling the trigger.

    Of course, as great as Heavy Rain is, you wouldn't want every game to be like it.

    This is a great discussion. I am about to start preparing a nice sit-down dinner right now though so I can't really respond. But cheers to you both for a good read again.

    This Objection stuff is great.

    Another fantastic interview. Genuinely fascinating.

    I agree with you Mark that the problem with violence in video games isn't so much its presence or frequency, but the lack of consequences that often go with it. In a purely abstract gameworld with defined rules, weightless violence is and would be fine - except that most modern games marketed at adults tend to adopt a realistic (or 'realistic fantasy/sci-fi') tone for the sake of immersion. On the one hand these games try to plunge us into a realistic, or at least possible, gameworld; on the other they promise few consequences for violence that would carry enormous weight in 'reality'. Competitive violence (multiplayer Halo, for example) is less about the violence itself and more about skill and achievement - but the same can't be said for the single-player storylines of many many 'violent' games.

    I also found Leigh's comments on the limitations of technology really interesting. It's very true that current actions within video games are constrained by the methods of input or control - widen these modes of input (as Kinect does, or promises to do) and you open up whole new ways of interacting with and 'playing' games. It's been over-hyped that Kinect 'makes you the controller', but with the addition of facial recognition, voice control and motion-tracking, the number of possible ways of playing a game (even traditional shooters) hugely opens up. I'd love to see the kinds of games that are possible as technology improves beyond a physical controller.


    Yeah I agree that the potential as we open up new methods of control is exciting, but I'm also a big advocate of constraints breeding creativity. You need look no further than EA's Skate to see how possible it is to breathe new life into existing controls. I think almost more interesting than the possibilities Kinect/Move/Wiimotes open up for games based entirely around them are the possibilities for games which still use controllers to incorporate them in more subtle ways.

      I see your point - integrating existing controllers in a less overt way would give a large(r) amount of control to the player while making it more immersive, perhaps?

      As for constraints breeding creativity, this is an important point. The number of unique and innovative control schemes we've seen even with the basic 'buttons and control sticks' of the current gen's consoles (not counting Wiimotes) are a testament to the ability of designers to adapt control schemes to fit almost any desired outcome. I'd love to see the results when these are augmented by other forms of input; a hybrid of voice control/gestures/facial recognition as well as existing controllers would allow an incredible level of control and immersion.


    So necessity is the mother of all invention, that kind of thing? Honestly, it's hard to think of many other games to provide a deep multiplayer experience outside of co-op campaign than the standard console shooter multiplayer. I mean, RTS works fine on a PC but we've seen it struggle on the 360 with both stormrise and halo wars.

    Perhaps it is this attachment to the console controller that is holding us back from making the next big thing in console gaming however, I don't think the technology is there yet. Besides, how many games can you think of on the top of your heads marketed to children and were essentially a sidescrolling shooter or beat-em up back in the NES or SNES era even though the mechanics weren't all that different? I'm assuming it's a lot and there's a reason for that in my mind. Much as necessity is the mother of all invention, limitations force creative ways to remake the old.

    Changing the motif of a game and giving it a rebrand is how to make the same game feel entirely new. As a recent example, Bayonetta and Devil May Cry are very similar games but the feel is entirely different even considering they're both of a style a bit to0 campy for me to be comfortable. What is the main difference? The protagonists for one are opposite sides of the feminine/masculine spectrum. I could go on, but these are the things that makes a game feel new despite seeing it all before.

    My point is that a game can be as violent as it wants to be depending on how things are made as far as style and general tone is concerned. Anyone reading probably knows the violence in both Devil May Cry and Bayonetta and the sexual overtones present in Bayonetta but let's compare it to something a little more kid friendly. Consider Sonic or even Mini Ninjas. Enemies that do not actually die when 'killed' in order for the character to progress, this makes a game incredibly kid friendly despite the potential violence it could imply. There is no wrong in destroying those robots or evil samurai and I think there's room for these kinds of developments in the industry too. Kids shouldn't be forced to consume shovelware because it's the only thing that they will likely find suitable for their age bracket, games made for kids can be enjoyed by adults too and until we realise this, games that appeal to children beyond branded, eyecatching shovelware will be sparse.

    I hope I didn;t move too far off topic there. I'm not normally this ranty.

    The very fact that violence is not assigned negative repercussions in some games only makes them less realistic and a less believable representation of how you might interact with people. This obviously invalidates much of the "negative impact" games might have on the world.

    Frankly, I can't imagine having frustrating real-life scenarios with no easy solution and too much compromise as entertainment. That sounds exactly like the type of stuff I don't want in my interactive entertainment.

    I think Ty makes an interesting observation here, saying he doesn't want the 'difficult stuff' (not being condescending, just summing up) in his 'entertainment.' I think that's exactly where videogames are stuck at the moment. Most people want them to be entertaining, rather than artistic. Art is definitely concerned with the difficult stuff in life, where as entertainment doesn't have to be. Entertainment can be about simplifying things, confirming ones values, escapism, etc. Art, on the other hand, is largely about questioning the status quo, exploring options, revealing hidden or subversive meanings in the world.

    How do we do all that with a gun and a trigger finger? I have said the same thing as Leigh did above: its very difficult as a game designer to create situations where the solution to the problem isn't pulling the trigger, when pulling the trigger is the primary (only?) method for interaction your player has. That's actually really bad game design :P You can't give the player a problem he doesn't have the tools to solve. By solve I don't necessarily mean resolve in a perfectly happy manner, but when someone asks you a question, you need to be able to answer. How many stories does it make sense to answer questions with a gun? Some, but not many.

    You're spot-on about the meaninglessness of violence in a lot of contexts though. The play's the thing, the conflict, the challenge and surmounting of that challenge whether against AI or other human players. Especially when the gameworld is populated by faceless, nameless drones that line up like ducks in a shooting gallery, how are we meant to ascribe to them any kind of humanity? In the case of Heavy Rain, we do see the humanity of the characters we have the option to kill, especially the drug dealer father. That's also a game where the trigger buttons don't fire a gun...

    I think the complete lack of consequence or repercussion for violence in games is too far in the opposite direction. You want the violence to have some reaction from the gameworld, but nothing gamebreaking.

    I'd say the Grand Theft Auto games nail it in two ways. Firstly, getting a wanted level is a suitable response to violence committed by the player, and its ability to escalate makes it useful as an emergent narrative tool. Secondly, GTAIV began the prospect of certain moments where your choice to kill (or not kill) certain characters came back to haunt you.

    You want to be able to suspend disbelief, without being chastised for indulging in the fun of pure consequence-free chaos.

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