In light of [insert recent atrocity here], you’ve probably noticed that the whole “video games cause violence” argument has reared its ugly head again.
Yep, no matter how many times we think we’ve laid that particular debate to rest, just like any given Disney franchise, there’s always somebody determined to keep digging up its bones.
But I’m not going to argue that point right now. There are already loads of places where you can look at the facts and read the studies that find no discernible link between video games and real-world violence. Chances are, I’d only be preaching to the choir anyway; if you’re reading this you probably play video games yourself, and yet despite this fact, you do not possess the urge to slaughter your fellow man.
No, today I’m going to be tackling a slightly different question: Why are video games so violent?
This question is a bit more complicated, and much less explicitly hostile to the art form. I’ve had my parents and in-laws ask me this before, but it’s a question that’s been pondered by gamers too, including in a popular video essay by Jonathan McIntosh (aka the Pop Culture Detective) entitled ‘The Unfulfilled Potential of Video Games’.
Of course, there are many examples of non-violent video games you could point to. Racing, exploration, puzzles, dancing – there is a whole world out there if you’re willing to look for it. The point remains though, that especially in the mainstream AAA console market, the vast majority of games are based around combat. This can range from spaceship battles in No Man’s Sky to slinging spells in Skyrim to squishing goombas in Super Mario, but in each case it boils down to a physical battle with your enemies. Why is this the case?
Watch our video version of this essay:
I’m tempted to just pull a Quentin Tarantino here, shout “Because it’s so much fun, Jan!” and leave it at that. Because it’s true; there are definitely psychological factors that help make simulated violence popular. The ability to experience danger, action and peril while still enjoying the subconscious safely of an entirely fictional context is lots of fun – and this applies to books, films, comics and TV shows just as much as video games. However, I think there are also some very good technical reasons for the abundance of violence in games, and to explain it we need to get into the differences between organic and contextual gameplay.
Organic gameplay is a tool that you, the player, have control over and are able to use as you see fit. The most basic and common example of this is movement – in most games you control an avatar in an environment where they can move relatively freely using tools such as running, driving, turning, strafing, jumping, maybe even flying or gliding. The point is you can use these tools however you want within the space to get from A to B in an organic fashion. One player might head straight to an objective as the crow flies, while another might stand still for ten minutes, run around in a circle then bounce repeatedly against a wall pretending they’re a human squash ball.
Contextual gameplay is the opposite. The player may be given a limited number of choices, but ultimately the consequence of each choice is determined by the game’s designer, not the player. This would be the realm of dialogue trees, turn-based combat and quick time events. The result of a contextual action will usually be entirely pre-animated, and is basically a short cutscene triggered by the player. A good example of this would be pressing a prompted button while behind an enemy to initiate a takedown animation.
Both styles have their place, and they exist at opposite ends of a wide spectrum. Neither is objectively better than the other in every situation, though I would say as a general rule, if you can do something organically then it is usually going to be more engaging. After all, an epic boss fight that tests your skills to their limits is going to be much more fun than a long, boring cutscene with quick time events.
Why is this important? Well, in the video essay I mentioned above, Jonathan McIntosh correctly identifies that conflict is an integral part of storytelling. He goes on to say that there are many different types of conflict and resolution, though because games often restrict themselves to using physical combat to resolve conflict, this limits the type of stories they can tell. The implication being that games as a storytelling medium are not fulfilling their maximum potential by focusing so heavily on combat.
The problem here is that in video games, physical combat is one of very few ways that we’ve managed to represent conflict in a truly organic fashion. There is also stealth, another subsection of “movement”, where you hide or flee from threats; and sports games like FIFA or Forza represent a kind of competitive conflict as well, but these generally don’t have much in terms of structured narrative. No, by far the main method is combat, because it is simple enough to be represented very organically yet it can have a wide variety of contexts or stories built around it. This matters, because although there’s nothing inherently wrong with contextual mechanics, organic gameplay is not only more engaging but it’s also the one thing that really makes games stand out as an art form.
Remove all organic gameplay from a project and you’re essentially left with a visual novel, which do have niche appeal but a lot of people don’t even count them as “proper” games. Conversely, remove as many contextual elements as possible from a game and you get a simple and streamlined experience like DOOM (2016) – which recieved universal critical acclaim, and was a breath of fresh air from the less organic Call of Duty style shooters. It’s all very well for McIntosh to pitch an interactive story that focuses on de-escalation rather than fighting, but I don’t see how this could be amount to much more than a series of contextual dialogue trees.
People were making non-combat focused games as far back as the 70s with Colossal Cave Adventure and the many consequent text-based adventure games that followed, so when you act like a game simply being nonviolent means it’s pushing the boundaries of the medium, you sound a bit ridiculous. As good as Undertale and Papers, Please are, the only thing they really achieved (through stellar writing and world building), is to make the process of going through a checklist fun and engaging.
This just isn’t revolutionary in the same way that something like Half Life was. At a time when all of the narrative-based games relied on contrived inventory puzzles and all of the gameplay-focused titles had no story besides “kill the demons” or “save the princess”, Half Life came along with a serious plot built around organic gameplay with unprecedented levels of depth and realism. Other shooters at the time still had glowing powerups floating three feet above the ground for god’s sake.
This is where the future of gaming lies. We won’t get there just by coming up with different types of stories, but with different ways of telling those stories through organic gameplay. I agree with McIntosh’s overarching point that AAA games should get more creative and explore the potential of the medium; I just think he misdiagnosed the problem. If the general notion of “combat” can produce titles that range from Manhunt to Dark Souls to Banjo-Kazooie, I don’t think you can honestly argue it’s all that restrictive.
I’m definitely excited to hear original ideas for pacifist gameplay, and McIntosh offers a couple in his video. The problem is, although playing as an “interplanetary veterinarian” sounds interesting, it’s not a design document, it’s just a single story idea. He provides no explanation of how the idea could be actualised without making it almost entirely contextual. If all you’re offering is non-violent story fragments without discussing ways to intuitively integrate them into a framework of organic gameplay, you’re not trying to advance the medium, you’re just grandstanding. Go write a choose-your-own-adventure story and leave the rest of us to happily blow up zombies in peace.