Violence is a pervasive presence in our culture. Although there's no proven correlation between the fictionalized portrayal of horrific scenes and real-world atrocities, there is no denying the prevalence of brutal acts in our media. As lawmakers attempt to find a way to curb the gun-related crimes that populate headlines, they've focused on a wide assortment of potential causes, including video games. Bill H.R. 287--known as the Video Games Ratings Enforcement Act--is currently being debated in Congress. If it passes, retailers who sell AO- or M-rated games to minors would be punished by a costly fine. Is this measure the result of a reactionary governing body, or does the blame lie with the industry?
There is no denying the prevalence of brutal acts in our media.
Violence has been a part of gaming from the outset. The most basic form of interaction is, and always has been, physical contact. Impartial observers would be hard pressed to take issue with blasting alien ships in Space Invaders or chomping on wide-eyed ghosts in Pac-Man, but beneath the rudimentary visuals in these games lies the foundation upon which the industry has built itself. As graphical detail has continued to improve, and blood has become a commonplace sight, concerns about the damage of such entertainment have begun to rise. Doom and Mortal Kombat are among the games that have forever changed how people view the medium. Their immodest approach to violence drew the ire of those fearful of digital gore, resulting in the formation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
Heated vitriol has been directed at the gaming industry for the perception that it warps the minds of impressionable children. California State Senator Leland Lee recently lambasted those who enjoy video games with a dismissive and damaging generalization. "Gamers have no credibility in this argument. This is all about their lust for violence and the industry's lust for money." Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy has a similar stance on the effects of gaming violence. When discussing the motivating factor of the Sandy Hook shooter, he said, "I think there's a question as to whether he would have driven in his motherís car in the first place if he didnít have access to a weapon that he saw in video games that gave him a false sense of courage about what he could do that day."
We've turned a blind eye to any culpability we may have.
For those invested in this industry, it's easy to shrug off this rhetoric as ignorant. Millions of people have spent countless hours playing games that depict violence, and yet only a miniscule fraction have dared to commit those same gruesome acts in real life. However, in our rush to condemn those who have taken an aggressive stance against our favorite pastime, we've turned a blind eye toward any culpability we may have. As video games have become more realistic, the violence has taken a turn toward the gratuitous. How can we wash our hands of any wrongdoing when the games we so often enjoy continue unabated down a dark and disturbing road?
Violence for the sake of violence is a troubling trend that has skewed the perception of gaming in popular culture. Many of the most wildly publicized games glamorize savage brutality, and though there's visceral pleasure to be derived from such experiences, it's no wonder that those who view games from the outside have trouble stomaching these ventures. Look at how God of War uses violence. Kratos is possessed by the specter of vengeance, willing to mutilate anyone who stands between him and his quest for redemption. Elaborate execution sequences display the death of your foes in stunning glory. Seeing Kratos rip the head from Helios' shoulders gives us insight into his character and the rage that consumes him. But how many times does that point have to be made? The brutality of God of War is one note, excessive, and only highlights how thoughtless the use of violence can be.
The same could be said for Gears of War. Marcus Fenix curb stomps downed attackers with the same unquenchable rage as Kratos. He's an angry man fighting desperately for the fate of the human race in a losing battle against the Locust. Raw emotion flows forth from Fenix as he tears his enemies to shreds. There's a sense of empowerment that this savagery communicates, amplifying the intensity players feel. But at what point does this display of violence become senseless? Every successive Gears of War has heralded new forms of executions, but there's no thematic need for such bloody conquests. Instead of exploring new aspects of Fenix's psyche, the games merely aggrandize the already shocking violence from the first game.
These games epitomize what's wrong with video game violence. There is no doubt that they are well made and that their unabashed display of carnage provides incentive to slay your many adversaries. But instead of using their bloodshed to make a point, they say nothing deeper than "killing is fun." Can you blame politicians for seeing what these games contain and trying to construct a legal barrier to shield minors from such content? Can you blame them for condemning an entire industry when many of the most popular games contain such remorseless combat?
Digitized violence is not something that should be shunned
However, digitized violence is not something that should be shunned. Thoughtful games use blood to further their narrative, and to censor these offerings would destroy the impact of their message. Spec Ops: The Line draws on the transgressions of a wayward soldier to explore the haunting realities of war. By performing gory executions on fallen enemies, and seeing the damaging results of your actions, the power fantasy that fuels most military shooters is flipped on its head. The extreme violence cements how wrong the path you've chosen is, and developers must be free to create such striking forms of creative expression.
In Papo & Yo, the threat of violence dictates your actions. The monster who serves as your friend for much of the adventure has a terrifying temper that cannot be quelled. Once angry, he charges at you with uncontrolled might, tossing your feeble body into the air. You cannot retaliate to his aggression, so you run as quickly as you can through the city, wary of the threat that rumbles behind you. Just like in Spec Ops, the violence in Papo & Yo is used to further the narrative. Fear is a motivating force for the protagonist, and you need to feel his helplessness. Games such as these show why any attempt to control content should be fought against. We need developers to feel as though they can make anything they want. The problem is, developers often use their freedoms in reckless ways.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that a California law very similar to H.R. 287 was unconstitutional, and there's a good chance the latest attempt to regulate games will be met with the same verdict. But just because it's legal to produce borderline offensive games doesn't mean that the industry should churn out so many that glamorize violence.
Video game developers and the buying public have to take responsibility for how others view our medium. We can no longer point the finger of blame at other areas of society without examining our own impact as well. It's time that we break free of our infatuation with gratuitous violence and instead highlight just how incredible games have the potential to be. Games can be much more than bloody fantasies; they can explore meaningful and mature topics that help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. Because of that, we need to stand strong against anything that could in any way censor us, but instead of reacting with knee-jerk backlash when politicians swoop in, we should focus on self-reflection. Violence has been a crutch of game design for far too long. We need to embrace the endless possibilities of video games and prevent any limitations on our creative expression.