Saturday, December 29, 2012

Thoughts on Game Violence Part 2

     I was really tired when I wrote that post on game violence last night and didn't hit on everything that I wanted to or expressed myself in a way that I would've liked. I just want to elaborate a few more things.

     It isn't the violence in games themselves that makes me uncomfortable, it's how that violence is portrayed, the carelessness to which violence is inserted into games, and the feedback that games give to violent vs nonviolent behavior. Let's look at some examples. Generally, games like Iji and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP use violence in a conscious and thoughtful way, while the aforementioned SkyrimTorliight II, and nearly every first-person shooter and action RPG ever created use it in a thoughtless way.

     First, let's take a look at  Iji. At it's core, the game is a cross between Metroid and System Shock - your character, Iji, jumps through each level with a gun by her side and can upgrade her abilities as she progresses. Although it is possible for the player to shoot their way through the entire game, the player can also run through the game barely firing a single shot, instead simply dodging enemy fire and fleeing from all enemy encounters. What is genius about Iji is that the amount of violence that the player commits alters the protagonist's behavior, changes her personality, and changes the course of the story. For example, the first couple of times that Iji kills someone, she sobs and and exclaims "I'm sorry!", but as the game progresses and she kills more and more and she undergoes a personality change and instead yells "die! die! die!". She grows numb to her actions at first, but she eventually goes mad with bloodlust. Or, in another example, there is a character on the enemy side who, if Iji is pacifistic and effectively harmless, will talk to her, befriend her, and call for a temporary ceasefire. This character proceeds to re-appear in the story from time to time. However, if Iji is violent, then the enemy character will instead simply fire upon her like everyone else and die.

     Iji is such a great game not only because it accommodates and rewards both violent and pacifistic play styles, but because it doesn't take violence lightly and seriously takes into consideration the psychological effects that committing violence has on the protagonist. If the violence makes you feel uncomfortable, that's alright: it's supposed to.

     Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP serves as another example of an appropriate usage of violence in games, although for very different reasons. Unlike in most violent games in which you engage in hundreds of violent encounters and kill thousands of enemies, there are at most a dozen individual fights in S:S&S EP. This is because each fight serves some narrative purpose in the game - each fight with the wolf builds an adversarial relationship with the character that isn't resolved until the end of the game; each fight to tame a Trigon is necessary for the protagonist, the Scythian, to complete her quest. In contrast, violent encounters in most games exist only for their own sake - the narrative provides an excuse for the violence, instead of the violence supporting the narrative. I would argue that Mass Effect would still tell a fine story if you cut out about 75% of the shooting. In S:S&S EP, the violence is deliberately used as a means to an end, while in many other games violence is carelessly used as an end to itself.  

     Now, many people who play games do so primarily for the gameplay and not for the story - for those of you who do, having violence as an end in itself and not as a means to advance the story makes sense. In this sense, a game that features completely decontextualized violence - for example, a game in which green pixels shoot red pixels at each other on a black screen - is perfectly fine. However, when the pixels that are shooting and are being shot are replaced with people and when the black screen is replaced with a battlefield, a fortress, or a city, then the game is telling a story, whether the developers take responsibility for it or not. The game is making a statement about violence, and since the violence doesn't deliberatively serve the purpose of telling a story (even though that's what it effectively does), the statement is overlooked by players. There is a sense of the gameplay - the violence - and the story in a game are separate from eachother, but they really aren't. They're both part of the whole. Part of why I think that game developers need to tell better stories through games is because video games are by nature a storytelling medium. Any game that has a setting and characters tells a story, and developers need to take responsibility for the statements that they make as storytellers.


  1. [p1]
    I know this is a older, but this kinda blows my mind a bit.

    Firstly, what exactly are you trying to conclude? You say developers need to take responsibility of the portrayal of violence, but what exactly does that entail and why does it matter? Are you saying they are not aware of the violent atmosphere they create? That they promote violence? that violence in digital medians is bad? I don't understand what your thesis is.

    If this is going where I'm inclined to believe was the proper interpretation..

    What exactly is wrong with using violence in representing the way a fictional world is viewed. Violence is a setting of conflict and is an easy characteristic for people to relate to. The violence is often a stake of preservation, like fighting goblins in a forest or shooting the enemy team members before they steal your flag. If you don't then, there is no conflict and without conflict, there is no goal. If 75% of the gun battles were taken out of mass effect, do you honestly think people would play it? It might as well be a text based game at that point. The gun fights are a core mechanic and provide as a challenge to short term goals. The goal being to survive, invade a base, or defend a position. The reward is to get exp, a better tool, or to progress in the story as the player wants to know more. The player gets a lot more controller over the situation and has a sense of self progress from these situations vs just selecting predefined dialect.

    Even if games are "meant to display a story"(Which not all are) or most gamers only play for game play (That's not really true either in the face of RPGs,text base, and novel games. Some games are solely game play based like online only games- battlefield and planet side), most rely on some form of violence as the conflict. The few genres outside this are puzzle games and strictly down to earth story based games.

    Even games like frogger used violence as the conflict.

    The short term goal is to get a flag. The end goal is to get all flags and move the the next level. The reward is points and the players satisfaction that he got further than another time. The conflict is not getting ran over on your way to the flag. This conflict is the whole and only game play mechanic, dodging your untimely demise and ultimately being splattered. The game would have no premise or sense of tension without the violence(be it minor) of turning into road kill. No one wants to be road kill and so you put yourself in the frogs position and control him out of the situation. You want the frog to live.

    If you took the game and replaced frogger with a balloon, and it floated up through the sky avoiding sparrows or something, it would lose it's sense of appeal as you can't relate to the fear of a balloon popping. The suspense is gone and the game wouldn't be nearly as much fun as there is no danger or loss.

  2. [p2]
    Counter wise, games like gears of war are made off the backbones of extreme violence. The violence creates a thick atmosphere for the game story putting the characters in a hostile, tense environment.When in multiplayer, It's satisfying for the player to humiliate another competitor by chainsawing him in half. The emphasis on getting violent kills in that game comes from them providing a better reward. Shooting someone in the head and getting a kill is rewarding with points and satisfaction that you bested someone, but people would much rather beat their opponents to a pulp with their own appendages while they gurgle on their own blood begging for mercy. Why? because it's harder to do and less common, there for you get a better satisfaction from achievement. You also get a higher score and some weapons even give you special execution animations that are degrading to your opponents and visually stunning to you. I think you internalized this concept, but you don't actually know how to represent it. You even admitted you liked shooters a lot and you like to build them as your go to thing, so you do enjoy the conflict they present, violence stated or not.

    Players will ALWAYS do the thing that grants them the most satisfaction from accomplishments and that stems from conflict. If they can't do it, then they get disengaged and bored. Conquering conflict is easy to satisfy and is the backbone to plots. The best way to offer a level of conflict and goal is to involve some form of violence.
    This isn't universally true and you can have great games that don't have violence(Tetris, load runner,sports games, some card games) but for the most part, violence is a very important form of expression and easy to recognize method of installing engagement and conflict. Developers using it to any means to create an environment whether intentional or not is not really an issue.

    Even sorry ass games like 'Hatred' have a place in the matter and is a completely acceptable game. Though it sparks a lot of controversy (Probably its main design point), it has goals and challenges for the player to meet, even just running around racking up points killing civilians unwarranted. Is it morally ok? I don't know, that's up for interpretation and a subjective view. It does however apply violence in a way people are familiar with that gives it conflict thus creating a sense of progression and fulfillment.

    Now, addressing the uncomfortable bit. Violence in interactive digital media should not make you uncomfortable.I can't judge your personal experience. I have no idea who you are or what you have been conditioned to, BUT I can say that most sane people understand the deference between violence in a video game, and application of violence in the real world. Even younger children know there is real world consequences to violent behavior and that be instinct alone, through natural preservation people don't want to hurt other people unless they stand to gain something. People can be blowing each others heads off in games, but when faced with real world violence, usually have physiologic issues after because real violence effects people emotionally. Watching a real person die in front of you, or even on screen is a lot different then killing digital characters for kicks. Evidently why they do not show things like isis executions, but allow CSI, and video game ads on TV. Game violence has zero influence over people's reactions and response to real world violence and this has been proven time and time again from many schools and medical/physiology field professionals. If it makes you uncomfortable, then that is something you personally need to confront cause that is not normal behavior.

  3. [p3]
    On a final note, Ironically you talk about needless violence in games, but what actually sent me here was your game 'The void hero blues'. I get you tried to address violence in games, but you kinda double backed on yourself there. Not only did the game not have any end goal or short term conditions to meet outside live 9 minutes, the game encourages you to shoot others reason. It doesn't change the outcome, it does not satisfy any query, there are no points, or reasons to avoid shooting them. There is no surprise twist ending for not shooting them like I thought would be there. There is nothing. They literately have no point other than to drop vague, ambiguous statements and expressions, that I don't even know what you expected players to respond with? Was it supposed to be emotional(there was no setup for it or investment so that never would have worked)? Was I supposed to feel sorry for virtual characters and their non existent, non invested lives..seriously? Was it supposed to have some philosophical meaning or a plot? Was it to make me laugh, cause some of them were pretty edgy lol? I found myself just randomly killing these guys in order to find out what wondrous saying I could find next.

    There is no sense of progression of any kind and no pay off what so ever. It would be hard pressed to call it a game, but more of an interactive environment. Aside from that, the controls were heinous. The mouse is way too sensitive and goes outside the window, and the movement is tedious and unresponsive. The only accuracy in the game was moving forward while looking with the mouse to guild direction. Aiming was not so good however. Strafing and actually aiming where very very hard to hit anything as the motion is much to rigid and violent. The AI has no inaccuracy or aim ahead methods to catch the player off guard and add realistic flaws. I know the game was just a school project and I'm not putting it on spot just to rip it up. I'm just kinda curious on that matter cause it seems you got a bit misguided on game design theories and such. This project and the things you mention make it seem you took a massive slide backwards in design concepts, like you don't actually understand what engages a player.

    If this is what you want to do, then cool beans. Power to you, but you might want to learn more about game design outside just coding shooters and doing graphics if you want people to accept your work as something that actually feels meant for the audience and their investment. If you leave a contact, I could probably even help as I am a developer myself.

  4. I'm a little confused regarding your motivations for writing this. You play my game, dislike it, then go to my blog and dig through two years of entries. You then write a three page response to one of my blog posts in which you insult my game, insult me as a developer, and suggest that there's something fundamentally wrong with me because of my discomfort with specific game content. After thoroughly insulting me, you offer me to leave contact information so you can reach out and help me. I can't tell if you intended this to be constructive criticism, but it comes off as cruel condescension. I'm sorry if you're actually writing out of goodwill - please let me know if that was your intent. Otherwise, I'm not going to go into too much effort to defend this, but will make a few general points.

    First off, this is a very old blog post. I was 19 when I wrote it, I'm 22 now. A lot changes over the course of three years at my age - I would like to think that I'm a bit wiser now. My thoughts on game violence have become much more developed since then. You are correct that in this post, I do not reach any conclusions about why game violence should be more thoughtfully considered. I have never been of the opinion that games directly cause violence, and I think you were overeager to make that assumption, but I do think that game violence is worth thinking about critically for other reasons, primarily that over dependence on violence as a mechanic limits the type of story that you can tell through games.

    Regarding my discomfort at the time with game violence, this post was written around the time of the Sandy Hook shootings. Current events alter how we interpret our media. This is normal. I assure you that I am very capable of differentiating between reality and what I see on my computer screen.

    I am more aware of the flaws in the Void Hero Blues' design than you give me credit for. I did not realize how oversensitive the mouse controls were on some computers until after I released the game - I did not have access to the student computers on which the game was made for a month following its release, and have not prioritized fixing the issue since. Many of the design flaws in the game were due to time constraints and the nature of the project (I tried to make an old school shooter and a so-called "art game" in the same project, when I really should have done one or the other).

    However, many design decisions that appear as though they demonstrate a lack of understanding of "what engages a player" are actually very deliberate. Player regression instead of progression made more sense for the type of story I was trying to tell in this game. This isn't a game about becoming more powerful and accumulating weapons - this is a game about emotionally breaking down and becoming less capable as a result of it (player attack speed decreases over the course of the game to represent this). This game was not meant to be "fun" in the way that other shooters are. Lots of people appreciated the game. You didn't, and that's fine, but if you expected this game to play like Quake, then you're just looking in the wrong place. You are probably not the intended audience for this game. I have a better understanding of conventional game design than you think, it's simply that The Void Hero Blues wasn't meant to be a conventional game. That isn't to say that all design decisions are excused (I think the game is incredibly flawed), but you really have to approach the game from a different angle.

    Thank you for your thoughts.