On The Reaction to Violence in Video Games
I began writing this as a response to a colleague who suggested that our current fascination with violent video games is due to their realistic representations, then it evolved a bit. I don’t expect that I’ll ever make any more arguments regarding game violence, so here you go – some thoughts on why we are now bringing video games to the forefront of the violence debate.
I should note that I am not in any way making a commentary on the effects of video games on people or on video games themselves. This is a commentary on how we as a society have reacted to certain events by invoking video games as a scapegoat.
I do find your claim that “modern video games are only more violent because we perceive them to be more violent through photorealistic graphics” to be interesting and a fairly accurate representation of the current perception of video games. If there were a comprehensive and widely accepted “aesthetic of violence in games” (there have been some unsuccessful efforts to do just this by anti-game advocates and activists like Craig Anderson and Jack Thompson), I’m certain that games where actions like *cut your opponent in half with a cleaver and watch gratuitously as their guts spill out* would be, objectively, considered more violent than games where you don’t (Modern Warfare for example). Your idea of visuals has a lot of merit to it. I would, however, encourage you to consider the context in which the photo-realism is presented as well.
There have been plenty of photo-realistic games with violence that have been largely ignored, despite the fact that, psychologically speaking, they are far more disturbing than any FPS game currently in the market. Phantasmagoria is a good example of this. Furthermore, there are titles with somewhat photorealistic visuals and loads of violence that don’t make major headlines regarding the games and violence conversation. Ninja Gaiden (it’s on the WiiU!) is a good example of this. And yet, there are titles that are not photorealistic that come to the forefront of these discussions – Postal 2 and Manhunt being prime examples. And so, it might be wise to ask “why?”
Certainly, we do have the discussion of whether games have become too violent in an interesting point in time, but this is not the first time this conversation took the limelight. So, why Manhunt, Postal, and Modern Warfare but not Ninja Gaiden, Phantasmagoria, or Time Killers? Why Def Jam but not Street Fighter?
Even though it’s only a possibility – and one that I haven’t bothered to look into too thoroughly – Birdsell’s comments on how we need to take into consideration the context of the image might work well here. He writes that “we do not expect words to have solid meanings of their own – instead, we look to companion sentences and paragraphs to ascertain contextual meaning”, and that “context plays a similar role in the analysis of visuals (5). The same might be true of games when applied to the games and violence debate. However, context here takes a different form.
The criteria by which we analyze the violence-ness of a game isn’t the photorealism of visuals alone, but also includes the context of our lives. It might be that as a society we have come to the unspoken agreement that “I don’t ever plan on being a Ninja because it’s not real, and I’m not an alien with a chainsaw arm, so that’s not real violence”. However, “there are real soldiers, and I could be one of them. Therefore, that is real violence”. If we look at the conversation of video game violence in this light (if it attempts to replicate reality, whether visuals are realistic or not, then it is considered “violent”) it would explain why a photorealistic game where a lost girl in a magical mansion being electrocuted by a man possessed by a rabid demon is ok, but a game with blocky low-res visuals where the player takes control of an escaped convict and is on a mission to kill people (Manhunt) is too disturbing – because people know that, in the end, you might get into a fight at a bar, but you’ll never be able to throw a Hadoken.
Or it might just be that old is always better.