Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Violence in video games

(Note, the links in this post all go to violent scenes from games and films. View with caution!)

I was recently replaying Dishonoured, a PC game that came out in 2012. In it, you play the bodyguard of the Empress, who is murdered by unknown forces, and you are accused of said murder. To clear your name, you must hunt down and remove several notable figures in the city. Its a great game, where you use stealth to avoid or kill/disable guards, taking multiple routes to taking down your targets.

Alice was leaning over my shoulder as I was playing, and expressed disgust at this particular animation  (1.51). "No, it's ok," I replied, "I'm not killing him!" As I caught a man in a choke grip, and lowered him to the floor, presumably still breathing. If instead you choose to kill someone (which the game will moderately punish you for), you get this animation  (1:38). It's pretty gory, when you take the time to look at it. To be honest, throughout my entire playthrough I hardly noticed the violence in those scenes.

I recently played through Bioshock Infinite, a game which deserves a post of its own. But I wanted to talk about the first scene of violence in this game. Up until this point there has been no fighting: you don't even have a weapon, and you have been exploring the world of Columbia, a city in the sky. You have made your way to some kind of funfair, and you win a raffle. You discover the "prize" is to despatch of two non-white rebels (up til now, every character has had white skin), and the following occurs  (1:38). Now this, this I noticed. Its not entirely clear what the police officer is intending to do to you in this scene: its possible he was about to end your life, but your reaction is... extremely violent. You then proceed to dispatch of every other police officer in the area, most of whom are attempting to defeat you using only a truncheon.

Its an interesting scene, and I'm not sure how to take it. I am almost certain that the violence in Dishonoured is mostly unthinking. It is probably deliberately designed to entertain the audience. The violence of that scene in Infinite at the time jarred me. The protagonist of the game, at this point, is a down on his luck private detective, but as you learn of his history, his actions become perhaps a little more explicable. I don't know whether this scene is meant to make you think about who Booker (the main character) is, or its just another example of extreme violence in video games.

There are, of course, lots of non-violent video games out there, although most video games involve conflict of some sort (even in mario you are, after all, crushing your enemies beneath your heel, even if it is in a very bloodless cartoonish fashion). But it cannot be denied that many of the most popular video games explore and even celebrate violence. Now I don't think any individual example is a bad thing. There can be fun to be had with cartoonish violence. Film has been doing it for a long time. See this scene in the Evil Dead 2, obstensibly a horror film, where blood spurts out of the wall in truly comic volumes, or the fight scene in Kill Bill where limbs go flying off, and spurt out obviously fake blood.  But should video games engage with violence more?

I'm aware that some do, even some more popular titles, but for the most part violence is used uncritically to entertain, or purely as decoration. I would like designers of games to think about the choices they make when they produce games, and when they decide to have blood spurt from the fifteenth victims neck, for that to be a deliberate choice in keeping with the rest of the game.

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