Friday, September 3, 2010

Another Perspective on Violence and Video Games

With one of the top video game blogs dedicating this week to posts about gamers’ love affairs with guns, and with several bloggers in the past month or two also discussing violence in video games, I thought it was a good time to analyze what’s being said and how it differs from the usual take on video games and violence. Before I do that, though, I’d like to introduce myself.

I’m Benjamin Nanamaker, and I am currently a University Library Associate at the University of Michigan’s Art, Architecture, and Engineering Library. As part of my job duties, I occasionally assist the rest of the staff at the Computer and Video Game Archive with various tasks. One of those will be posting periodically to this blog.

So what’s been said about guns, violence, and video games recently? Plenty of interesting things. Kotaku, the blog I mentioned above, is currently posting several articles looking at guns and video games. These include interviews with game developers about their experiences with actual guns, the history of headshots, and an interview with the inventor of the light gun. It’s been interesting to look at how gunplay has become one of the dominant forms of action in games.

Another intriguing topic that has popped up on several different blogs is how violence is used in video games. Typically, most mainstream discussion of video game violence tends to center on whether or not it is “bad” for children and teens, or whether it inspires people to commit actual acts of violence. There is a split between those who think violent games lead to violent behavior, and those who do not.

Less frequently examined is the way violence affects gameplay and narrative. Within the last couple of months, however, many bloggers have examined this. A post earlier this summer on Kotaku argued that some games (Crackdown 2, Mirror’s Edge, Fallout 3) would have been improved by decreasing the amount of combat in them. Another writer over on Gamasutra pointed out the disconnect between the way characters are presented frequently in cut scenes – as complex, well-written personalities – and their behavior during actual gameplay – as mass murderers mowing down dozens of faceless foes. Steve Gaynor argues on his blog that the problem with violence isn’t violence in and of itself, but rather, how the violence is treated within the narrative itself: he compares the death of Shakespeare's Hamlet to the deaths of nameless goons in Rambo, suggesting that developers should shoot for deaths more like the former example and less like the latter.

But perhaps the most potentially controversial argument I’ve seen recently dealing with video games and violence comes from Michael Thomsen of IGN. He suggests that designers should make games even more “violent.” By that, he means that while developers have gotten quite good at presenting the illusion of what violence might look and sound like, they haven’t figured out how it might feel. This is why there is a disconnect between characters presented in cut-scenes versus their ultra-violent behavior in-game. He argues that by presenting cues similar to those that gamers see when winning or losing in a game, like changes in graphics or sound, violence can be made more emotionally impactful, less detached.

What do you think? Do games trivialize violence? Would some games be improved by removing some of their combat elements? Should designers attempt to make violence more meaningful?

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