Nathan Grayson wrote an excellent piece on video game violence for Rock Paper Shotgun. It begins with the following:
"Everyone? We need to talk.
I didn't feel right playing Far Cry 3 the day after the awful, disgusting, utterly tragic shootings in Newton, Connecticut I didn't at all.
I think that says something. I know that says something..."
I've been feeling the same way, lately. Even before the recent shootings, I've been growing increasingly ambivalent towards violence as a primary interactive element in games. I'm in the middle of playing Skyrim at the moment, and while the violence in the fantasy RPG wouldn't have bothered me much in the past, for some reason it's bothering me a lot now. Generally, the game tries to make you feel like a hero or a badass for adventuring and killing lots of things. The sweeping score, the epic quests, and the praise that non-player characters give all communicate to you, as a player, that you are heroic and mighty. In the past, when overly violent games have communicated this message to me, I've accepted it without question. Killing a couple of dozen bandits or giant rats used to make me feel good, I felt like a hero, I felt accomplished. I was living through the power fantasy that the game developers constructed for me and it gave me pleasure.
For whatever reason I find it hard to feel heroic as I play through Skyrim. My character is no hero - he's a psychopathic mercenary who just does whatever his clients or superiors tell him to do without remorse. He solves all of his problems with his sword or his bow. If accomplishing his goal means killing a couple dozen people, then he'd rather do that than abandon his quest. I've tried to play Skyrim as a pacifist, but the game's mechanics punish such behavior - it is practically impossible to complete a quest without shedding blood. In effect, the game tells me that violence is the only way to succeed in its world, and so I play violently.
Now, there isn't anything inherently wrong with telling a story that features violent anti-hero, as long as he is represented for what he really is. The problem with Skyrim is that it tells me that my violent psychopathic mercenary isn't a violent psychopath but instead an admirable hero, an ubermensch, an ideal which compares favorably to all other people of the game world. The game rewards players who kill a couple dozen people just to retrieve a sword that supposedly belongs to a complete stranger that they met in a shady inn, and punishes players who think "Wait a second. There's no way that killing all of these bandits just for a lousy sword is worth it. Isn't that the sort of thing that they would do?" or players who think "Wait a second. I know absolutely nothing about the stranger who told me to kill these bandits, let alone whether or not he was telling the truth. Maybe it is a little brash and thoughtless to take precious lives on the words of one man?"
Violence has an appropriate place in our stories, but we have to be conscious of how we use it. In his article, Grayson writes that gamers, in order to defend their medium from claims that video games cause violent behavior, have adopted the stance that all violence in games is just fine. Honest to god, gamers need to face uncomfortable truths about their medium and examine them critically Violence in games may not cause a significant increase in violent behavior, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't matter. Violence should never be taken lightly. We need to examine it for what it really is, and we need to be aware of the messages that violent games are sending us.
That being said, I'm still going to find myself playing violent games. I love exploring Skyrim's world, and I have invested far too much into the game to leave the story unfinished. I've enjoyed getting to know the characters in Mass Effect, and I enjoy playing Torchlight II with a friend from time to time just for the social interaction. However, the violence in all three games has lost all appeal to me, and it's a shame that in order to explore a beautiful game world, to interact with well-developed characters, or to play a game with a friend that I have to commit glorified and oversimplified acts of virtual violence.
We need to talk.