Is ‘All This Violence’ Really What Video Games Are Made Of?

Is ‘All This Violence’ Really What Video Games Are Made Of?

Last week, in the chaos around the total meltdown of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning developer 38 Studios, one line stood out.

Commenters on this site as well as on every other site that covered the story all zoomed in immediately on one specific statement from Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee. Twitter absolutely lit up with the quote, and a world’s worth of “WTF” responses.
I didn’t meddle. If I did meddle there wouldn’t be all this violence. All this horrible sexism in games.

Several readers took it to mean that the governor was yet another politician who just didn’t “get” games and gaming, that he was out of touch. He doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, the mob reasoned.

But it seemed to me that in fact, governor Chafee knew exactly what he was talking about. The majority of big-budget mainstream games, especially as seen from an outsider perspective, are violent, sexist or both.

Now it is absolutely, unequivocally true that not all video games rely on sex and violence; more on that in a moment. But in our AAA, blockbuster extravaganzas, the major method through which stories are told is combat. Consider: BioShock is routinely held up as an example of “games as art”, and yet the point in the game that makes that argument most clearly is an unavoidable cut-scene where a man is bludgeoned to death.

Looking at 2012’s big games, Max Payne 3 revels in its kill-shots. Mass Effect 3 is, at heart, a shooter, and Cerberus and Reaper enemies alike explode with gore if you nail ’em with a headshot. Prototype 2, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Ninja Gaiden 3, and half the other games we’ve reviewed in 2012 exist for the variety of ways in which the player character can do violence to people and things. And that’s not even looking at the two most anticipated titles due later this year, Assassin’s Creed III and Call of Duty: Black Ops II.

There are, of course, games that don’t exist for violence, or at least exist in the realm of more cartoonish, stylised or abstract violence. Turn-based RPGs tend to step back from the violence implied in their combat systems, and there are genres galore that don’t rely on putting a virtual gun into the player’s hands. And even a game that does put a virtual gun into a player’s hands can do it for the sake of science, rather than death.

Minecraft, all about exploration and imaginative construction, is ludicrously popular, now on Xbox as well as PCs. Journey is gorgeous and meditative. Fez is cute, quirky and mind-bending. Trials: Evolution presents challenges of speed, not of aim. These are all examples of non-violent gaming that have, in one way or another, been smash hits this year.

I know all this because I follow games. I’m a gamer whose friends and colleagues are gamers. But what do people who don’t follow games see?

I asked my father, a definite non-gamer who lives in the Providence TV market, what games he remembered seeing TV commercials for this year. He answered, “The MLB game, the NFL game, the college football game, the NHL game, the NBA game, the space one you like so much, and the Rockstar game that isn’t a Grand Theft Auto.” So aside from the sports games, what did he see?

This is the long version of the TV spot that EA put together just after Mass Effect 3 was released. I kind of love it, in all its overwrought action-movie goodness, because I enjoy that sort of thing (and because I loved the game). But it mainly paints a picture of fireballs, explosions and guns.

This isn’t the exact same Max Payne 3 TV spot that caught my attention during The Daily Show late one night this month, but it’s extremely similar. Again, it paints a picture of violence done for the sake of violence, of the particular kind of stylised slow-motion bullet ballet that comes from a particular kind of game and movie.

So looping back to governor Chafee’s comments about 38 Studios’ products, here’s the E3 trailer, last year’s big showcase announcement, for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. It follows a pattern that by now, we know all two well: 30 seconds of pastoral landscapes, followed by 60 seconds of mayhem and murder.

Violence in games isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even the ever-popular refrain that violent games make children more violent is looking pretty played out these days. I enjoy a shooter as much as the next player and don’t have any problem with them being made, played or sold.
The sexism, on the other hand, really is a problem that needs to go away. And it shows up over and over. It shows up in games and in the community, in players and in fan reaction, in comments and, well, everywhere.

In the end, the face of gaming that gets presented to outsiders is, sadly, one still mainly full of exactly the sexism and violence that the governor seems to abhor. As a result, it’s easy for someone who doesn’t play many games to come to the conclusion that, well, that’s all there is.

Whether or not the governor’s “meddling” in either Amalur or Project Copernicus would have helped either the games or the studio is a question with no real answer. But was he right to observe that games are all about violence and sexism?

“Games?” No. But the games that scream the loudest into into mainstream cultural consciousness? Yes. And until or unless that changes, people like governor Chafee will keep seeing only the worst of what the medium has to offer, instead of the best.


  • I agree with pretty much all of this.
    Games don’t need the violence cut out of them, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some less violent games take more of the AAA mainstream spotlight.
    Small steps, I guess.

  • One could make a similar argument for films. A large majority of blockbuster releases use violence as a vehicle for their characters, if slightly less repetitiously than games do.

    People like violence and sex. Go figure.

    • As unfortunate as it is, this. Over recent years, AAA blockbuster titles in all media have generally featured sex, violence, or a mix of both as a large part of their product. Transformers is a good example film-wise, Twilight is a good example literature-wise, and yeah, games like Prototype 2 are good examples of this game-wise.

    • It doesn’t need to be unthinking though.

      Take the Bourne Identity for example. Before Bourne learns about his background he finds himself using violence instinctually without knowing how he can do so; on a number of occasions he disarms people attacking him, then throws the gun away when he realises that he has taken it.

      Compare Mirror’s Edge, where Faith has the ability to use guns but is far more efficient when using non-lethal force, and indeed will throw away guns that run out of ammo.

  • When I read the comment I didn’t agree that games have too much violence in them because as I see it there are pleanty of games out there that don’t feature much violence at all or if they do feature violence it’s really toned down and not overly gory or anything. I can certainly see how someone who’s not a gamer and who gets all their gaming knowledge from TV ads and the like would think that though.
    I do agree with him 100% on the sexism thing though. Games and gaming culture is incredibly sexist and I think we should be focused on getting rid of that before we even think of assessing the violence in games.

  • Gaming has -so- much sexism inbuilt. But does Kingdoms of Amalur? I never did play that one enough to find out.

  • Violence is there for several reasons, the two main ones being 1. It is easy, and 2. It is established.

    To elaborate,
    1. All forms of art or entertainment aim to inspire an emotional response from the audience/player. The more primal the emotion, the easier it is to invoke. So, the absolute easiest ways to get emotion out of people is to excite, scare or enrage them.

    2. Since in the early days, games used violence because it was easy and effective, much the of mechanics now associated with popular genres are inherently violent. Because people have grown up with these mechanics, they have developed a deep understanding, and a have a skill investment in said mechanics.

    This unfortunately makes it very difficult for non-violent games to be successful, because not only do the developers have to tread new ground most of the time, they have to be able to overcome their audiences familiarity, and thus preference for, the more violent competition.

    Fortunately, now that indie games development can be a significantly viable option, a lot more people who feel strongly about making non-violent games can develop and distribute them without the need to complete in the AAA retail space.

  • Isn’t it the point of games to allow us to experience and act out things that aren’t always possible within the real world while delivering stories? We read books, watch movies, tv shows even board games that’s central themes are conflict and sex. The point is, these things are central to life it’s self. It is in human nature to be violent and to wish to prevail over one another. We certainly wouldn’t be in the state we’re in now if that were not the case.

    I can agree with the comments, and yes, there should be better quality games that appeal to both genders equally. But really, if you are going to play as a human being in a free world, one of the main tools that will be used is violence. Just like people use it in life. In a way, developers provide the weapon and we use it. The only reason most games have violence is because that’s what a lot of people want to see.

  • If the push for less violence and sexism in games means more games like Journey, Fez, Minecraft and Trials then I’m right behind it.

  • I note that I can’t think of a single (non-kinect/Wii) retail game since Portal 2 that doesn’t employ violence of some kind, all the non-violent games you mentioned are download only, and even some of those are violent in small ways (tell me you don’t wince whenever your Trials rider smacks his head into an obstacle for instance!)

  • Are games really getting more violent? Or is it just that we now have the technology to make it more realistic? If pong was developed today, it would probably have had a ‘pong time’ kill shot..

  • Mario jumps on Goombas, they die. In a sexist quest where a man must save a princess that is a woman.

    • Don’t forget the cruel way he uses Koopa shells to dispatch his enemies. Mario is the certainly the old Damsel is Distress tale.

      Violence in games is fine. Whether it is entirely mindless or it is to achieve a worthwhile goal. Sexism in games isn’t as ubiquitous as the author is suggesting. Most of the links in her article are about the sexist behaviour of gamers, not sexist content of games.

      Then again, maybe because I’m a dude I don’t notice sexism in games. Or perhaps it really just isn’t there.

  • Asking why there’s so much violence in games is like asking why there’s so many balls in sports.

    Violence suits games the same way balls suit sports, its intrinsic. From the first games where you could turn a pixel off and somebody said “it’s dead!”

    Not all games will have violence like not all sports will have balls. But most will.

    Violence in games is not a bad thing as anyone who plays can tell. But there’s those outsiders that do not understand the experience and will always cry wolf.

    I put this out there: I think violence on TV / movies is worse. If you were to watch (out of context) a realistic video of a battle field, camera shaking, people dying… Would you be able to tell if its a movie or a news reel? No you wouldn’t.

    In a game its always 100% clear the violence is just fantasy. By the virtue that you are holding the controller and pulling a (digital) puppet’s string. You cannot get away from that.

  • Max Payne 3 is violent, there’s no arguing that.

    But I think it may be most appropriately violent game in a long while.

    Unlike Nathan Drake, the loveable treasure-hunter who’s killed over a thousand people, Max Payne is a flawed character, a seriously flawed character. His violent streak ties explicitly into the character of Max Payne and the tone of the Max Payne titles. Even though Max Payne 3 does show and focus on its violent nature, I think it’s totally in-tune with the story and character of the “protagonist.”

    The “Bullet Cam” effect at the end of a wave of enemies, in which you can slow down time and even continue firing into the last enemy as he falls to the floor, is very violent but also made me feel like a real jerk. I would only really embellish in some extended violence in those instances if I was especially mad, or frustrated, which is how I would expect Max Payne to feel in some instances.

    You kind of have to forget that Nathan Drake knows how to wield an AK-47 when he’s quipping in a cut-scene and that my Paragon Shepard killed a few thousand folks to save the Galaxy.

    Max Payne’s body-count is not ignored and impacts on Max in a meaningful way. Max is a violent killer who hasn’t the will to pull himself out of the gutter. He acts on impulse,, knowing it’s a dumb decision because he’s self-destructive. Throwing himself into barely liveable circumstances allows him to rationalise away his violence as self-preservation, when the truth is he just angry at the world because he’s lost everything that ever connected him to it.

    TL:DR Max Payne Games are violent because Max Payne, is violent.

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