Why are videogames so violent?

There’s the trailer for The Last Of Us Part II, the sequel to Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed 2013 violent, cinematic zombie stealth-action-adventure. The sequel will be just as violent, judging from the trailer. It ends with returning protagonist Ellie’s declaration:

I’m gonna kill every last one of them.

And the reaction? Largely positive. The hype is real, as they say. I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Pop culture critic Jonathan McIntosh, long-time denouncer of gaming’s obsession with violence, tweeted thus:

Ah, the genocidal proclamation of every video game protagonist ever. #lastofus2″

Video games are trapped by their own mechanics. And they will remain trapped until killing stuff is no longer the core gameplay element.

Gaming as a medium will be forever relegated to the cultural toy aisle unless the industry moves beyond killing stuff as its core focus.

Videogame violence is prevalent.

Games are toys, and they’re violent. So, what? Is this fact preventing games from living up to their full potential, as McIntosh indicates?

The title of this article is a question I intend to answer. Coming from me, It’s not a lamentation. I know it could easily be interpreted like that: why’s it gotta be this way?

I like violent games. Some of my favourites can be accurately characterised as ultraviolent power fantasies, like Doom from this year. So am I writing this article to defend game violence? Well… the case I’ll make means that it really doesn’t need any defence from me.

DOOM 2016: a game about tearing up demons on Mars.

Here I’ll point out someone else who shares the anti-game-violence attitude: Jonathan Blow.


He’s developed some of my favourite puzzle games. I encourage everyone to play The Witness.

The Witness: a game about exploring an island and solving maze puzzles.

So, gaming’s full potential. What does that look like, eh? A bigger gaming audience, that seems like a safe, popular choice. More players mean more money for the industry. That extra cash might mean bigger budgets. Or it could be spread around a larger number of developers.

But neither necessarily imply superior game quality… unless that money gets into the right hands. The right hands being: those with the insightful, evolutionary, progressive vision for the videogames of the future, and the capacity to realise it.

Who are they? That’d be a key point of contention!

“Interactive experiences can offer us deeply emotional, human stories about love, connection and empathy. The possibilities are endless.”

Sure, games can be about potentially anything. They are interactive simulations, and we can simulate anything imaginable.

It’s natural to focus on the human element as a key point of interest. People are the most complex beings in the known universe, and therefore the most interesting. We’d naturally expect to see people prominently featured in our simulated realms. Which is precisely what we do see. Games are toys, and people are the funniest playthings. We love game characters; they’re a valuable part of videogame intellectual property.

So, characters are compelling. What do our beloved game characters do? Much of the time, acts of violence. Why this, and not acts of love, connection and empathy?

I say: profound reasons that cut to the essential nature of videogames! My previous post On cinematic games is the preview to the point I’m making here.

Human interactions that amount to love, empathy, etc. have a great deal of subtlety to them. They are navigated using finely tuned instincts, and a broad range of possible actions, from handshakes to hugs, smiles and caresses, and the infinite complexity of language.

And what about violent actions? There’s complexity there too, effective fighting involves a great deal of finesse.

Limitations of a control setup are inherent in videogames. This may give our protagonist, in a combat situation, a limited repertoire of punches, kicks, grabs, and throws. Say, 10 actions, combos and all. That’s enough to effectively fight, depending on the simulated opponent. Even if the opponent has a a wider set of moves (not being subject to control limitations), we’re not necessarily at a disadvantage.

Now, what would social interaction with a human person be like if you had 10 possible gestures, or a vocabulary of 10 words?

Again, in a simulation, it’s similar to the combat example: it depends on how our NPC works. He could be a friendly dude. Imagine if he’s programmed to respond to a wave, and start asking simple questions, to which the player can gesture their response. At the end, if the NPC is satisfied with our responses, we celebrate our newfound connection with a fist-bump.

That could be nice. It’d be shallow. How could it be developed further? The NPC’s communicative superiority (he can ask questions, you can’t) places limits on the sort of relationships portrayable. We’d want to get past that one-sidedness, somehow. By reducing the NPC’s abilities to match the player’s? So, abstracting away conversation? That’d be the silent film approach, or something like The Sims, with its fake language.

You need to go beyond 10 basic actions to get a deeper sort of interpersonal connection.

So how does a protagonist perform a wider range of appropriate actions? Typically, cutscenes. Or context-specific actions, and sometimes with multiple choices.

You have plenty of this in, say, AAA action games. And the adventure genre (and subgenres).

These approaches are connected with greater reliance on narrative scripting to make things happen, rather than consequences determined by the rules of the simulation, in response to the player’s actions. Effectively, making these aspects less of a game as such, more of… something like a film.

Films are fine. I like films. I also like games, and I want them to become what they are, to fulfil their potential! To me, that looks like: games with more interactivity, more complex, cohesive simulations of cool stuff to experience. And probably more violence. Because games are better at doing war than peace.

Violence is fundamental to what videogames are, and what we are. So don’t worry, it’s not going away!

Wolfenstein: The New Order – a game about killing Nazis in an alternative history.


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