Critical Breakdown of Violence in Games

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
9 min readJun 17, 2016


The potential of interactive violence for harm


Normally, when people criticize computer games, it’s the tired old simplistic story of learning to mimic violence by playing at it as if by osmosis. That’s why J.P. Lawrence’s article intrigued me, because it explains the potential harmfulness of the message of games through the lens of the instrument of propaganda, and that opens up this debate to all of the necessary nuance.

I do agree that it is the context of the violence, if anything, that would make the difference, and I’d like to explore a bit more a wider range of common violent types of games in terms of the message that they give about the use of violence. By being used in a game, violence could be normalized, but also problematized, and perhaps only specific kinds or targets of it.

Shooting Simulators

Given the overwhelming popularity and ubiquity of the First Person Shooter genre (previously known as Doom clones), I suppose it’s only logical to look into it first. The reason why I stress the term simulator in regards to this genre is that games with modern firearms tend to be more realistic in the depiction of violence and real-world combat overall than their fantasy counterparts.

I’m sure someone could find examples of fantasy gunplay, or at least serious first person marksmanship in some game somewhere, however in general, what springs to mind more readily would be games like Counterstrike, Call of Duty, or Mass Effect (on the more futuristic end of the spectrum). Fighting in large battles is not unusual and teamwork is often accentuated to necessary.

There’s some variety, of course. Sometimes they’re very story focused, like Half-Life, sometimes more RPG-oriented like Deus Ex, sometimes frenetic to senseless like Doom itself. But the important thing is, from the message standpoint, that only very rarely do they offer the player the choice to resolve a realistic looking combat situation non-violently. Which is truly unrealistic.

The shining, though not perfect, examples of legitimately peaceful or diplomatic options can typically be found in the sci-fi subgenre, especially in Deus Ex (by stealth approach and non-lethal weapons) and Mass Effect series (generally by paragon conversation options). The potential for harm is hidden precisely in the idea that FPSs are supposed to be the most realistic games.

As I have already written long time ago, realism is still a genre of fiction, only more dangerous, because it implies greater extent of truthfulness to life, but it doesn’t and cannot really have it, even in comparison to fantasy and sci-fi. Especially in the moral dimension, which is not about the photorealism of tangible visual things or the physics of objects at all. Let’s look at Deus Ex.

I have played Human Revolution for the first time only recently, and it gave me actual whiplash. All of a sudden, some enemies would be legitimately immoral to murder, and yet they were obstacles between the player and her objectives (such as the policemen at the police station, or various misguided, but largely innocent goons along the way). Clearly, this is much more real.

I do agree with Lawrence that it is especially the contemporary military games like Call of Duty that have the potential to be the most propagandistic of all violent games, precisely because of the combination of assumed realism with purely violent resolutions to combat situations, if you fight there as a member of your national army which is always in the right against external enemies.

That’s a clear case of normalization of violence, which can be dangerous given the close connection to a real-life career one can pursue. It’s no wonder that militaries all over the world are interested in this kind of games for recruitment and training purposes, and it does eerily resemble the villain plot in the 1992 Toys movie with Robin Williams. Seems less contrived every day.

Gruesome Games

In contrast to generally relatively clean-killing FPSs, in some games violence takes center stage. In games that are focused on violence for the sake of violence, more viscerally thrilling forms of violence are not only given to the player as basic options, but the player is encouraged to go ahead and super-murder and brutalize as many people (or other creatures) as possible.

This genre of hardcore violence does surely contain countless obscure titles, but I’d like to focus on the most famous example by far — the Grand Theft Auto series. What qualifies it into this category is that there’s no specific need for the violence apart from wanting to go around town f**king s**t up, but there’s a plethora of violent options, including some sexual violence.

However counterintuitive it might sound, I’d actually say that all but the most mean-spirited of these games can actually work to diminish violence in people who play them. If any games are able to give player catharsis through violence and thus calm down her natural violent urges, it would logically be the most absurdly violent of games, loosening the dangerous tether to reality.

In the sense that these games depict reality of violence, like in the infamous torture scene in the GTA V, it can also be helpful, because again unlike the clean FPSs, a hardcore violent game would show the ugliness, repulsiveness, and horrificness of violence. It is not distant killing, both physically and emotionally, it’s not cold and remote, it’s in your face and disturbing.

Again, that’s much more real than the presumed realism of modern warfare simulators. And while one can easily enter a military career after being inspired by Call of Duty type game, being a super-murderer is still super-illegal. It may only be a coincidence that increased playing of such games coincides with decreasing crime, but it means it hardly makes new criminals.

Strategic Slaughters

A genre of games that makes violence the most abstract in the way of putting player at a distance from it are strategies which include an element of warfare. While that inevitably makes violence much less graphic, maybe it’s not a good thing. Maybe the actual danger never truly lied with the the amount of gore, but with the emphasizing of violence as a legitimate tool.

Among strategy games, there’s of course great variety in the degree of the inclusion of violence, its scope, purpose, or level and kind of control over one’s forces. Some strategy games like Sim City involve only random acts of destruction beyond the control of the player (unless they find the cheat that allows them to summon Godzilla at their command), others much more.

As with the FPSs, the danger of reinforcing the good guy and bad guy stereotypes should be considered especially in the example of warfare simulators from a contemporary setting, but even then, strategy games tend to have an inherent advantage — you usually can play any side. In Command and Conquer: Generals, you can actually play as the Arabs and the Chinese.

Realistic combat also often comes in strategy games in the form of historical retelling of important military campaigns, all the way from the ancient period right until the 20th century. As with C&C: Generals, you will never escape the human need for treating other cultures in a simplified, stereotypical way, or the bias of historical retellings made by winners, but it can properly educate.

In terms of gameplay mechanics, the one fundamental split in the kind of control over strategic (or tactical) combat within the strategy genre is the difference between the RTS (Real Time Strategy) and the TBS (Turn Based Strategy). The first is more visceral and gets your adrenaline pumping as you need to issue orders rapidly, while the other is like chess, requiring foresight.

If playing at violence is supposed to help players achieve catharsis, to calm them down by relieving tensions and frustrations, the real time combat in strategy games can provide that, while the turn based combat is one of the most abstract and passionless treatments of violence in games. The turn based approach literally transforms death into statistics, and often doesn’t show it.

Again, the question is which is more dangerous, a very gory combat, or a very clinical combat, but ultimately, I think it is the context, the role or purpose of the violence, that makes the difference. In fantasy strategies, the war usually happens between different conceptions of good and evil, while sci-fi strategies tend to explore different visions of future societies clashing. That can teach a lot.

Survival Struggles

Survival horror games make it very clear what the purpose of violence in them is — fighting for one’s survival. The scenarios can usually be hardly considered realistic, especially in the currently extremely popular zombie survival subgenre, whether it does or does not attempt scientific explanation, which goes all the way back to classic Resident Evil and probably beyond.

The violence in such games of course tends to be gruesome, but my reasoning for making them a standalone category is the emphasis on horror. This kind of game is likely played for much the same reasons why people have enjoyed to be scared by ultimately harmless horror stories since before the recorded history. The interactive element only adds additional level of immersion.

Morally speaking, violence used in self-defense in a life-threatening situation is the most justified one in the view of most cultures and legal codes in the world. Moreover, the zombie apocalypse scenario in general has been used to teach basic survival and anti-epidemic preparedness skills even by reputable health organizations. Killing zombies can also be considered a mercy killing.

For all of these reasons, the potential for a harmful propagandistic framing of such a game is comparatively very low, as is the chance that it would give a mentally healthy person some dangerous violent ideas. I would even go as far as to say that increased amount of violence may even make these games safer — violence here is to be dreaded and ideally avoided, not sought or enjoyed.

An intriguing form of a survival game with much more abstract violence would be something like FTL, a game where you control a crew of a spaceship going from point A to point B and just trying to survive the trip. Again, violence is to be avoided at all costs, since your ship is relatively fragile and your resources limited, and non-violent resolutions can often be achieved.

There’s also an element of being at the mercy of a random, cruel universe, and a big part of the fun of the game is in experiencing failure over and over again and trying to learn from it. As with the zombie survival games, here is also plenty of potential for learning of useful skills or facts, in this case about the hazards involved in travelling through a dangerous territory, or life itself.

Evil Eradicators

And finally, after realistic personal simulation, thrilling excess, calculating conquest, and sheer survival, there are also games that treat violence in an almost religiously moral way, or at least attempt to. While plenty of games have villains or assorted enemies to dispose with violently, it’s not the same in terms of the framing of violence as in those games that have you fight evil itself.

A very clear-cut example of it would be the Diablo series. In these games, you’re facing literal manifestations of various evils or sins made flesh, and combat against them can almost be considered a form of meditation on the nature of evil. Such foes have nothing to do with real life racial or national or other stereotypes, the violence becomes almost transcendental in this context.

Even in the forms of violence that you can perform as a player, the emphasis is not on realism, though the violence is still supposed to feel tangible and impactful. You can attack the manifestations of evil as a specific manifestation of certain virtues, or if not virtues, then normal human mindsets representing different ways of dealing with evildoers. You can become light, vengeance, genius, etc.

If one doesn’t count Christianity itself, the original fantasy inspiration of such psychoanalytical approach would be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As it is with Sauron and his ring of power, beings or objects are treated as manifestations of personality traits or essences of higher powers working presumably in our own universe as well, whether we’ve made them up or were made up by them.

It’s ironic that most conservative religious groups oppose games purely on the basis of the graphicness of the violence portrayed, when games that use violence in the way that Diablo does could actually be used to teach moral lessons not only about violence, but also any other human vices, likely more effectively today than conventional catechism. Again, context is everything.

If you enjoyed this essay, let me know what else should I tackle in games.



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