The recent tragedy in Colorado was, I wish I could say, unimaginable. Unfortunately we live in a society where violent crimes happen all the time. Even with the prevalence of violence, we still cannot fully process the how’s and why’s of these events. It took me a little while to get my thoughts together for this article. We’ve all read the studies that say violent video games don’t lead to crimes, that media in general doesn’t necessarily facilitate a more violent society. I’m not going to rehash those arguments and studies. When it comes down to it, the majority of video games feature violence. From Mario to Mortal Kombat, violence exists on some level. So the question is not why won’t it go away or what effects it has. The question I want to ask is this: Why do we play violent video games?
So first: why the need for violence in our games? Let’s break down a violent scene in video games to it’s most basic structure. For this example, I’m taking the mother of all violent games, Manhunt 2, and an execution move using barbed wire. A successful kill scene involves sneaking up behind an opponent, wrapping the wire around his neck and legs and pulling until decapitation occurs. If you’re playing on the Wii, you have the added bonus of acting out the scenes with the Wii Remote. Gruesome, right? But what are you really doing in this scene? You are moving an object around a 3-dimensional environment, avoiding another object which has a limited cone of vision that you must remain out of and can detect you based on “sound,” which comes down to moving faster or slower around the environment. If you position your object behind the enemy object, you are prompted to enter a button combination or perform a set of gestures. Depending on the success of your input, your object will remove the opposing object from the environment. That’s it, that same structure, somewhat altered, occurs in every violent scene in a game. RPGs might add a number value to determine success, but otherwise it’s one object removing another. To be quite honest, that formula is a bit stale. Which is why it’s not what we input that gives a player satisfaction. Instead our rewards are displayed on screen through suave swordplay, amazing acrobatics, or bone crunching violence. No matter what new technologies are invented, the core of our interaction with games has not changed.
Knowing that the structure is always the same, it falls upon game developers to give us something to keep coming back for. Just like Lost World: Jurassic Park gave us TWO T-Rexes (and a baby) because two is better than one, games have to one up themselves as well. Good or bad, we’re on a one way trajectory with violence in games. Frankly, without the one-upping of violence, we’d grow bored. I can sit on a soapbox and shout that exploding the heads off zombies with a shotgun is destroying the moral fabric of our country, but if the next zombie game released did away with visible body damage, I would see it as a step back. If I am going to be forced to play the same game structure over and over and over again, something has to keep my coming back, and it ain’t going to be the storyline.
Video games, are, by their very nature, about competition. Whether you’re trying to achieve the highest score in Tetris or you want to rack up the most points in Modern Warfare, you want to come out on top. Even in co-operative games like Rock Band, there is still the desire to do a little bit better on drums than the dude who wussed out and played bass. Flashback to over 2000 years ago when gladiatorial events gave us the ultimate competition. A fight to the death. We claim to live in a more civilized society, so we don’t really condone deadly competition. That doesn’t mean we still don’t want to see it. So if you can’t act it out in real life, how about doing it in a virtual world?
But why violence? Why is kicking someone in the face in the most satisfying (not necessarily the most realistic) manner so damn important? Because it’s what we want to do, but can’t. I have a theory that I don’t presume to tell anyone is correct, but it’s what I believe. Mankind is not all about peace. In fact, peace goes against our very nature. We’re the top of the food chain, we want dominance over everything beneath us and because we have that dominance, we then want it over members of our own species. Human history is full of events that show mankind favors violence as a means to an end. When you get really really angry, do you want to talk through it or is your first instinct to punch something? Yeah, I chose the latter as well. We make a conscious choice to choose peace over violence in our daily lives and the choice is based on fear. Fear of consequences for our actions. That fear, it doesn’t exist in games. Take fear out of the equation and we can go a little bit primal. Video games allow us to live that out without lasting consequences. Sure, our on-screen avatar might become feared by villagers or thrown into jail, but we have the ultimate dominance over him. We can erase his existence with the press of a button.
Going off the fear angle I previously mentioned, I want to share a really short story. I was talking with a friend of mine who, at the time of writing this, is serving in Afghanistan. He’s a huge gamer as well and spends his free time there playing Disgaea. Anyway, he asked me what I had done the night before and I shared with him that I was playing Resident Evil: Revelations, because nothing says awesome like playing as a special-ops team taking out a terrorist threat. As for my friend? He spent the night before honoring one of his fellow soldiers who had died. At that moment I realized that playing video games, violent or otherwise, could never possibly prepare me for real violence. I can be the hero and shoot terrorists or zombies or whatever, but none of it is real. That’s what I want to get across. I play games because no matter how violent they may become, the real world is infinitely more violent. Because you can’t create the emotions real violence creates. Fear, anger, pain, confusion. There’s no comparison.