**Allow us to re-present this article form our archive from last year, as the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting has, again, many pointing fingers at violence in video games.**
Violence in video games has gained more controversy than films or books ever did in their beginnings. Being so new a media and art form, any popular opinion on the violence within video games is one of ethics.
“Should we be subjecting our children to this?” and the all-time favorite “the violence of video games causes violence in the real world.” If any of it were true, Activision would long be out of business.
Violence has been a part of our cultural media for a very long time, but why? Why include violence in any story and why does it appear all the more in video games? These questions can be answered simply: violence can be used for emotional impact and to explore the human psyche.
Though, as I have said before, some games possess such poorly supported plots that they resort to violence in the extreme, especially against children. However now is the time to address the much more interesting and better ways to go about using violence for emotional impact and exploration of the human psyche. Moments where if the violence was removed, the power and impact would be lost.
The number one example is BioShock, the first game in the series. Violence is nothing new to the player throughout the game, from the moment your plane crashes to the very end. The violence of a splicer killing some poor sod right in front of you. You taking your first terrified swing at another deranged enemy. Indeed, you’re more than a little satisfied that in the next moment, you beat off a whole wave of them in revenge.
If all of the players vengeful and panicked swinging isn’t enough, there is so much carnage and death on display in Rapture. You come upon these scenes without any participation, you do not watch them being done (most of the time) nor do you commit them. They are simply the result of Andrew Ryan’s Rapture.
Yet none of that holds a candle to the climax of BioShock. Andrew Ryan reveals that you the player, are nothing more than a puppet, a slave. But this realization isn’t enough. Ryan repeats the phrase “a man chooses, a slave obeys,” hands you the golf club, and commands you to kill him. That sickening crunch and desperate helplessness as the player, you don’t even know your name, obeys. No matter how many times you play through the game, you wince with every hit, and recoil when you see the club sticking out of Ryan’s head.
It’s nasty, gruesome, violent. Yet without those noises and all the blood, it wouldn’t be the same scene. This violence is different from what you saw in the rest of the game. The carefully slaughtered red district, or Sander Cohen’s tableau, are not nearly as impactful as hitting Ryan in the head with a golf club against your will.
The latter moment is more significant because violence is far more about what causes it than the actual act itself. The act is merely the climax of anger, idealism, mental illness, passion, love, frustration, etc. The list goes on. Most of these emotions are completely relatable and watching their natural conclusion is like looking in a distorted mirror.
The phrase that Ryan repeats, “a man chooses, a slave obeys,” emphasizes the true horror of BioShock. The main character is a victim of psychological conditioning. Yet another reminder of how fragile the human mind is. How mere suggestions or orders can turn to actions, terrifying ones. How many times have you followed an order without question? Be it at work or at home? Suddenly a simple request like “pass the salt” can be filled with doubt. Are you obeying because you want to, or because you’ve been conditioned to?
Admittedly, this kind of strong emotional impact with violence does not happen very often in video games. At least not quite the way the first BioShock managed it. Most AAA games use violence to help you pretend to care, like almost anything by Ubisoft. Others use violence as a language to explain the world the player has been inserted into.
These are games like The Last of Us, Dead Space, Mafia, and most especially the Metal Gear series. All of these games would not have the impact they do without the almost excessive violence within them. The Last of Us would be nothing more than another Dead Rising without that initial emotional impact of violence. Dead Space wouldn’t be nearly as gross and horrific without having to curb-stomp nearly every alien you encounter.
The world in these games are all that of war, to some extent. Violence isn’t so much emotional here as it is a part of the window dressing. You are encouraged to seek violent revenge, or to kill enemies marked in red because they are Bad™. Violence is a language in video games just as much as color and animation is. Though that is a lengthy subject for another time.
The same could be said for a game like Grand Theft Auto V. Violence is used to build that world, it also goes far beyond that. GTA5 presents open world options to the player and states that there are no in-game consequences. You can be as silly, psychotic, or strategic as you like. Nothing is stopping you. GTA poses the question: “if you could do anything, without consequences, what would you do?”
That question is exactly what students of anarchy and sociology ask too. Luckily for them, video games like GTA provide the answer. Just Cause is even more so a game of violence and destruction without any real goal. As such, this violence is the perfect exploration into the human psyche.
Though this exploration is certainly not limited to the academically inclined. Virtual violence without consequences is an experiment for the player too. Next time you find yourself really into a game like GTA5, ask yourself how far you are willing to go with violence and what those actions (or in-actions) say about you as a person.
Are you the type to happily kick a civilian out of helicopter so you can ride around it, or are the type to formally purchase one to do the same? Once again, what causes the violence is significantly more important than the actual act.
Without the many options of violence in the aforementioned games, we wouldn’t know the limits of our own morality and emotions. What we can do in the virtual worlds of video games, and sometimes what a game can force us to do (This War of Mine), teaches us what we are willing to do in the real world. As what we do in the virtual world of video games is very different from what we would do in the real world in similar situations.
For example, in Far Cry 4 I was more than happy to leave a great deal of side missions to timeout. The amount of times I’ve ran by citizens being attacked by some variant of large animal are one too many. I hear them die until their last breath and I still don’t help the next time it happens. But in real life, of course I would come help if I had the capabilities of doing so.
But those moments did help me confront a situation like that. I knew that though I ignored the NPCs in a video game, I certainly wouldn’t in real life. I cannot tell you the amount of insistent squirrels and enormous ravens I had to wave off this last long weekend. The virtual world of games can help us learns such things, and if the idea hasn’t occurred to you until now, start. Bring the aforementioned questions with you the next time you start up a game.
Perhaps once you are done, bring your answers with you next time someone says that violence in video games is completely unnecessary. The emotional impact of violence cannot be underestimated. The removal or censorship of it would only harm what story a given game is trying to tell. Nor is violence as an exploration of the human psyche to be neglected. The cause of violence in both instances can teach vital lessons in morality and self-criticism by allowing freedom without consequences (GTA) and pushing the player beyond their emotional limits (BioShock).