Society, Violence, and Games

2 Jan

Violence is always a touchy subject, and it’s one that everyone has a sturdy private opinion on.  It’s natural or it’s not, it’s always wrong or it’s sometimes warranted, it’s appropriate content for entertainment or it’s not.  But something I think most would agree with is that Western society seems to be able to keep an emotional distance from violence on television and in videogames.  What’s hard to agree on is the cause, and by proxy the state of emotional detachment that people experience.

It’s first important to admit that most of what we think we know about human nature is heavily influenced by our cultural climate.  Steven Pinker, a prominent cognitive scientist and psychologist, says it best in the opening to the first chapter of his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature:


Everyone has a theory of human nature.  Everyone has to anticipate the behaviour of others, and that means we all need theories about what makes people tick.  A tacit theory of human nature—that behaviour is caused by thoughts and feelings—is embedded in the very way we think about people.  We fill out this theory by introspecting our own minds and assuming that our fellows are like ourselves, and by watching people’s behaviour and filing away our generalizations.  We absorb still other ideas from our intellectual climate: from the expertise of authorities and the conventional wisdom of the day.

Unfortunately for those that would rather push the issue aside and assert their own private opinions in an attempt to end the discussion, the stigma surrounding violence in videogames is not a local problem of the medium.  Take the following from The Blank Slate, where Pinker quotes the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704):

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas.  How comes it to be furnished?  Whence comes it by the vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety?  Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?  To this, I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE.

This is the concept of the blank slate — the term taken from the medieval Latin “tabula rasa” (no, not the MMO), meaning “scraped tablet”.  It seems radical, and it is — to think that humans are born with nothing, to be molded like silly putty by their parents and their life experiences.  Yet it is still the predominant (read: accepted) theory.

It is no surprise then that we would believe this equation:

Young Human + Violent Media = Violent Young Human

The reality is something more complicated and unsettling, and cannot be contained in such an equation.  Steven Pinker’s retort to the concept of the blank slate is that humans are born with some things and learn others.  Humans are not born with everything they need, and they cannot be taught everything they need.  For instance it is questionable whether or not there are direct correlations between good parenting and ‘good’ children (Pinker argues a study should be done with adopted children).  Talking to your child may not improve his love for language, being especially caring my not ‘rub off’ and produce a child who grows up to be a caring parent, etc.  Instead, Pinker suggests it is more probable that human evolution accounts for some part of our base nature.

It’s easier to look at it like this:  A child will initially not want to hurt others, untouched by culture.  This does not mean that a hostile environment — say an alcoholic father — will not alter that behaviour, rather it is suggesting that humans are not born with nothing.  Our ancestors figured out rather quickly that it’s better to “not shove and not be shoved” than to “shove and be shoved”.  Concepts like this are genetic traits, passed on from parent to child.

Even the human urge to care for their children is a genetic advantage.  This is not to say that being a caring mother is automatic and that any caring parent is simply following instinct, it is acknowledging that it is in the best interest of our species to protect our young — and so our genes have engineered our bodies to reward us for protecting and caring for our children.  It feels physically and emotionally wonderful, and to admit that it is because of our biology, our innate and evolved human nature, should not lessen the sincerity of the act.

So why then, do we insist that videogames should not depict suffering, that in doing so we risk polluting our youth with violence?

While I was attending VFS we got a tour of Propaganda — a studio formed by ex-EA developers and owned by Disney.  In their first game, Turok, humans didn’t bleed while animals did.  Ever the provocateur, I asked why.  Is it because of Disney?  I could understand that.  The answer was a little surprising, and I’m paraphasing: They want to make games, not suffering simulators.  Of course, Disney factored into the equation, but nobody at the studio even wanted to add blood, gore, and by association, humanity.  The people you kill are not people, they’re masked robo-people that spark when you stab them.

But does suffering actually make you more compassionate?  I had a great teacher at VFS who challenged my views on the subject.  He related his experience with, if I remember correctly, Wolfenstein 3D.  The best way to kill enemies in the game was a headshot, but headshots required great aim — you weren’t guaranteed to hit.  Apparently enemies in Wolfenstein 3D would enter a wounded state if shot in the gut, so he found the best strategy was to aim for the chest — an easy shot — and then execute them when they fell.  Clearly the option to wound didn’t provoke mercy, it provoked calculated cruelty.

I believe the problem lies in the format or established pattern that shooters have been formed into.  It’s most obvious to see the pattern when compared to how another medium handles the same subject matter.  So let’s take Call of Duty 4, a work of art in its own right, and the movie Black Hawk Down.

If Black Hawk Down were a mission in Call of Duty 4, it would stand out like a sore thumb.  BHD is based on a novel by Marc Bowden, and is as close to reality as is possible.  Bowden talked personally to a staggering number of the soldiers who fought that day, cross referenced their accounts with official reports and the stories and journals of other soldiers.  He studied the fifteen hour long, full colour, high resolution combat footage taken from observation helicopters and drones.  Just about all of the dialogue is taken from the recorded radio net and from cross referenced accounts.  He read just about every other published account of the battle and set about recreating the event with the sincerity of a personal memoir and the factual accuracy of a historical account.  The resulting movie, directed by Ridley Scott and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, stays mostly true to the novel when condensing the event into a feature length film.

In Black Hawk Down people bleed and scream and suffer.  A bullet enters a leg and cracks the femur; a man falls and wails horribly — the man behind him runs out into the street, dragging him back and calling for a medic.  Friends band together, protect the wounded, and try not to inflict casualties on civilians in the crowded streets.  In the entire battle 18 (of the initial 99) Americans died; 500 Somalians died with over 1000 injured.  Women and children, thronging about the scene (and sometimes armed or assisting the militia), were killed and injured in high numbers.  The objective is to stay alive and get out of there.  The objective is not to kill everyone, and it never had been.

Now take Call of Duty 4.  Let’s say the mission where, as an American soldier, the player is inserted by helicopter and moves building to building searching for the terrorist leader.  The city is full of local militia.  There are no civilians.  Grenades precede you as you enter buildings — and why not, you know who is on the other side: Armed bad guys.  It’s not a family eating dinner or hiding on the floor.  When you kill the bad guys they drop.  Shoot a man in the leg and he stumbles and keeps shooting.  Of course you’re going to make sure he’s dead; this guy won’t give up.  Besides, the unwritten objective here is really to kill everyone in front of you without a tan fatigue and an American flag on their shoulders.  It’s an awfully binary depiction of life and death.

The way modern shooters are designed implore the player to massacre the nameless target dummies.  What I am suggesting is not that these target dummies be turned into real people, but rather that a design pattern needs to emerge that revolves around real people.  There is still room for running down a corridor and shooting people, but that cannot be what comprises the bulk of the gameplay.

Surprisingly the games that lean towards this humanistic approach are predominately commissioned by the U.S. military.  It’s easy to dismiss games like America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior as ‘evil’ recruiting tools, and there is no doubt some truth to be had there, but they encourage moral responsibility and teamwork just as much as they encourage predictive thinking, spatial reasoning, and reflexes.  This isn’t to say that these games are superior to Call of Duty 4, but they’re slanted towards a more humanistic approach to game design.

For instance, as a developer at Pandemonium (which developed FSW) noted, gamers want to come around a corner with guns blazing — the military wants you to come around a corner, see a superior group of enemies, and find another way around.  For this reason it’s improbable that games will ever adopt these sort of design principles to a large extent — reality is not as fun — but as videogames evolve into experiences moreso than just games (from soccer on a screen to a mechanically playable version of Beowulf), developers will do good to forgo the taboo of depicting realistic humans in dire situations.  People are not defined by their surroundings and experiences, and killing animated crash test dummies isn’t going to convince anyone of gaming’s potential as an art form.

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One Response to “Society, Violence, and Games”

  1. MMO Games No download February 16, 2010 at 7:31 am #

    I want to play an olympics MMO Browser game SO bad right now, like a world wide competition where you play for your countries. Anything like that?

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