Traveling the Oregon Trail of Video Game Violence

You have died of dysentery.

The terror of those few simple words not only highlighted the terrible plight of the colonial settler, but were the first indications of the future of video games. A violent future wrought with death, destruction and disappointment.

The visceral text death of deadly diarrhea only proved to be the gateway action to decades of brutality and blood. Aside from dying of the shits, this early incarnation of video game violence killed through measles, snakebite, broken bones, drowning, typhoid, cholera, and exhaustion. Yet, third graders were quick to adapt to the fictionalization of this violence. Desensitization started at a young age and while Oregon Trail offered little in the way of true gore, at least you got to shoot animals.

So what does the plight of 19th century travelers have to do with Lara Croft lodging her pickaxe in the skull of some hapless henchman? More than you might imagine. For many of us, our video game education started with those early Apple II and Commodore games that presented violence as well as they possibly could. If Visual Basic allowed for brain splatter then they would have surely added it. While we might not think of the Trail as violent and deadly as it is, we have to look to the past to understand the future.

There have been some complaints lately about the level of violence in games such as Tomb Raider and Bioshock: Infinite - violence that detracts from the story rather than add to it. We only have to look to the Oregon Trail to understand why this violence plays such a heavy role in gaming, and why most of us from that generation don't pay much mind to it. Staunch defenders of violent video games as we are, we tend to overlook the fact that we died of dysentery - and laughed about it. At first, it was shocking, we named the characters in our party after our friends and family, but then it became something of a joke. It was this early trend - deluding ourselves into thinking that it wasn't real - that led to the gore we see in games now.

Sure, you are wondering how I can make a logical connection between a text message informing us that one of our party has died from some now curable disease to the aforementioned Lara Croft stabbing someone in the eye with an arrow. The connection isn't visible, it's cognitive and our brains know that death is one in the same, no matter the visual output. The fact is, we care less about killing than we do about dying when it comes to video games, because we'll come back to life. The henchman won't. This disconnection started with Oregon Trail, when all there was to inform us of death was that haunting text message. By the time we were killing other people in video games, circa Wolfenstein 3D, we simply saw the blood and gore as an extension of that text message. "The Nazi has died" became a pool of bright blood and shell casings.

From there violence in video games has descended (or advanced, depending on how you consider the technology involved) to extreme gory detail. Yet, no matter the imagery the message remains the same. Someone has died. So without devolving too far into a political debate, the question has to be asked - what is it about violent video games that sparks such concern? Is it the violence itself, so often full of minute disgusting details, or is it the death? Is it the act of killing that incites rage among the detractors of violent video games? This killing that has been shown to relieve stress through a fantasy world - yet serves as a trigger for those with existing psychological problems? Would dying of dysentery ever have prompted a mass killing? Doubtful.

At the same time we can't discount our pleasure in reading that text message after a time. The same pleasure we get from shooting down row after row of mutant warriors in Gears of War. The same triggers in the brain are engaged - our action caused a reaction from the game resulting in the fictional and over the top death of a character. From knocking Donkey Kong off his perch, to stomping turtles in Super Mario - video game violence has always been there.

Death has always been there. That hasn't changed. Like everything else in the technological world, death in video games has simply evolved. Booker DeWitt savagely gutting someone with that twirling hook thing is the same thing as someone on your wagon dying from the pox. It's death. And while the colonial settlers were affected by it, on this side of the screen it's just part of the game. Like Gandolf famously said, "death is just the beginning". Especially if you just passed a save point.