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The Wasted Potential of Video Game Violence

The Wasted Potential of Video Game Violence

Scorpio, a well-built Hispanic man dressed in black and dual-wielding submachine guns, takes aim at a group of armored soldiers. He guns them all down in rapid succession, jumps on a motorcycle and speeds toward the edge of a cliff, only to be quickly pursued by several military Jeeps and a helicopter. Scorpio launches off the cliff and in midair releases a parachute, leaving the motorcycle to fall. The helicopter sends bullets screaming past his head. Scorpio turns his parachute toward the helicopter and shoots it with his grappling-hook-gun, zipping instantly to the bottom of the chopper. He quickly dispatches the chopper pilots and commandeers the vehicle. Seconds later, the chopper is hit by a missile, sending it into a tail-spin. Scorpio manages to jump out and latch his hook onto a Jeep speeding below him. He dispatches the Jeep’s driver, but takes control of the Jeep too late, as he skids off the side of a steep mountainside and rolls several hundred feet to the shore of a river. He climbs out of the smoking Jeep. For the time being, it appears he has escaped his pursuers.

This isn’t the latest Michael Bay film. This is something that happened while playing Just Cause 2, an open-world action video game.

Just Cause 2 is the ultimate male power fantasy. It appeals to every young man’s desire for take control of his environment, overpower his enemies and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. At 28 years old, part of me feels ashamed for taking such delight in the power trip that is JC2. However, this scenario also points to what I find most fascinating about video games: They have the potential to provide us with truly unique play experiences.

Video games are dynamic. Great games don’t merely entertain us—they ask us to make our own entertainment. Rather than presenting us a scripted narrative, games ask us to take part in the narrative itself. This sense of agency is what makes video games special.

This, however, is also where games often fail us. Many games attempt to mirror our own world. In JC2, you are a special agent. You drive vehicles, fire weapons and kill people in ways that are meant to mirror the real world to some degree. In so doing, games like JC2 are lying to us. They give us tremendous power over a world that mirrors our own but rarely confront us with any of the consequences of exercising such power.

Chris Hecker (former editor of Game Developer Magazine, member of the team that developed Spore and developer of forthcoming game Spy Party) says:

“Power fantasy is the thing we do best in games. We excel at giving players a feeling of power over their surroundings, at letting them feel the satisfaction of starting out weak and becoming invincible, until they are the kings of the world, the rulers of the universe, they have vanquished evil, saved the girl, and finally gotten to that really high ledge by exploding a rocket at their feet. However, I think power fantasy is pretty cheap. We need to eschew it and find better, deeper, more meaningful ways to entertain and compel players.”

This prevalent problem with so many video games is not inherent to the medium. The problem is us. We want power fantasies. They grab us and play to our basest instincts: power and the subjugation of others. Consequently, despite their unique ability to provide meaningful experiences, video games often feel like a creatively impoverished medium. The industry seems to produce game after game with the same premise: One tough guy with lots of guns kills an army of enemies, blows lots of stuff up and narrowly escapes death.

How can we right this trend? Perhaps we need to ask for games in which the characters actually have to face the consequences for abusing their power. For instance, if Scorpio were a real man, he would either have serious psychological issues or he would be a monster—a shell of a man who will go to any length to get what he wants.  

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling of California’s ban on mature video games as unconstitutional has revived the subject of violence in video games and established video games as a constitutionally recognized art form. Certainly, “Mature” video games should be kept out of the hands of minors. However, given that the average gamer is not a minor (the average age of gamers today is 37), we should consider the proper place of violence in video games as an art form.

We live in a world plagued by violence. Lest we deceive ourselves, we need to be cognizant of the reality of violence. The Bible does not censor violence (1 Samuel 15:32-33; Judges 3:20-25; Acts 1:18-19; Matthew 27:24-56). The depiction of violence is an essential aid in teaching some of life’s most somber lessons. Violence is often necessary if art is to speak truthfully. If Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List or even 127 Hours were not violent movies, they would deceive their audience when each has an important story to tell. Similarly, any painting of the crucifixion of Jesus that does not convey some sense of violence is telling a tale foreign to that which it represents. The violence in these instances is appropriate in part because it is not celebrated but mourned. Violence is most appropriate when its consequences are considered.

J. Nicholas Giest reflecting on the violent nature of Kratos, the protagonist of the action series God of War, writes:

"In God of War III, and most of the games I’ve played, violence simply is. Killing is a part of the vehicle of the game, the mechanism by which the story functions, some means to an end, or something the game’s developers took for granted. … It does not bother me that Kratos is violent. It bothers me that he learns nothing from his violence. He never doubts it or questions it. He loses nothing to it and takes nothing from it. It consumes his family, his life, his afterlife and his godhood, but his commitment to it never wavers. The consequences of his violence never touch him. I do not fear that violence in video games teaches us to be violent. What I fear about violence in video games is that it teaches us nothing at all."

This is where video games have failed us, but it is also where they have tremendous potential. Now that video games have been recognized as art, it’s time games to start taking an honest look at their subject matter.

Agency free from responsibility only leads to disillusionment. As the world begins to take games more seriously, we must ask games to take their content more seriously—to stop defaulting to power fantasies and take an honest look at the world.

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