There has been a lot of hub bub about violence in video games here recently. This type of introductory sentence is completely redundant, because most people reading this have probably read the numerous entries and stories in which aging senators make themselves look like even bigger artifacts of the Mayan Community.
But we aren't here to talk about senators that kindly pointed out how demonic heavy metal was in the eighties. We want to get into the deep nitty gritty and ask ourselves how much violence is too much violence?
The answer to that is roundabout and asks more questions than it answers. For instance, how is the violence being used? Who is the primary target? Why are you attacking those people/monsters/aliens/fuzzy animals?
For instance, think about Tokyo Jungle, the PSN exclusive where you play a variety of different animals, big and small, who have to fight for survival in a post-human world. The game almost always requires you to kill something, either for food or so you don't become food. The depictions of animal violence are realistic, but the purpose is survival and we accept this as a natural pathway of life. All life requires the sacrifice of another.
So when people talk about violence in video games, they aren't talking about your Omnislash against Ruby Weapon, they're referring to the way in which you kill other human like beings within video games. These depictions have been taunted as a sort of pornography, a debauchery of twisting tendrils of human flesh painting the sidewalks. Killing realistic human beings is seen as the ultimate crime, a breeding ground for future school shooters of America.
In fact, what could possibly be the purpose of introducing the aspect of violence, or even further, ultra violence into a game?
Violence in and of itself is a by product of story and gameplay. There are many games in which players aren't required to do something violent, but if we want to have stories about war, no matter what the gameplay elements, there is going to be depictions of violence. We have had great sprawling epics on the matter of violence, the meaning of war, games like Spec Ops: The Line which in and of itself, criticizes the very nature of violent content in our games.
We also have complete shock value games, gems like Manhunt, that put you in the role of a killer in a snuff film. No one is going to argue that this games violent executions aren't some of the most gruesome in gaming. But what is the point of the violence? Is it mere shock value? How many people see violence for violence's sake?
Take the recent superhero hit, Kick-Ass. I have watched the movie twice and read the graphic novel and I can very simply tell you that, if there were no ultra violence in Kick-Ass, the entire point would be lost. Violence is used as a way to show how characters have gotten in over their heads on multiple occasions, even in the film version. Kick-Ass first begins by attempting to stop a mugging in an alleyway. The end result is that he is stabbed, struggles to find help in the street as he bleeds out, and is hit by a car. These depictions of violence are brutal and uncomfortable, but in the real world, people get mugged and stabbed daily.
Kick-Ass eventually comes back from his first accident, after several months in the hospital and several metal and steel implants to assist his body in functioning again. This is as close as Kick-Ass gets to a super power, his implants from his first experience with actual violence. Kick-Ass must experience this violence because he is actually a real person. Kick-Ass does not exist in comic books, comic books exist in Kick-Ass's world. His struggles are meant to be a mirror to the struggles real people would go through trying to be a super hero in the real world
This in and of itself is meant as a mirror to the problems of violence in the real world. Kick-Ass wants to do nothing but be himself in the world. Every major implication of his actions however are extremely violent. He gets stabbed. Big Daddy gets shot/burned alive. Hit Girl gets a meat cleaver to the face/a jetpack. In Kick-Ass 2 the violent implications are even bigger. Yet Kick-Ass carries on attempting to be a super hero. In Kick-Ass, the graphic novel version, we are given what is actually a terribly anti-climactic battle at the mobster headquarters. The murder and slaughter of Frank D'amico at the hands of Kick-Ass and Hit Girl is not the major action fight seen in the movie. Instead, its pointless violence stacked on top of pointless violence, and their actions ultimately are what they would be in the real world, petty revenge. It doesn't bring Big Daddy back, and Hit Girl resigns to attempt to escape the cycle of violence. Due to their actions in Kick-Ass, the events of Kick-Ass 2 happens, and has even more violent implications for all involved, including dragging Hit Girl back into her game.
Kick-Ass' use of gratuitous violence is a very realistic portrayal of the actual violent consequences in real life. Regardless of whether Kick-Ass was a superhero or not, there would be violence in his world, because ultimately, he is fighting against violence with violence. This is portrayed best in the film version when he finally gets back out and fights off the guys beating up the man in the parking lot.
But, what works in movies, does not necessarily work in video games. How much violence is too much violence? Ultra Violence in video games has not been used in the same way violence in Kick-Ass is used. More often than not, we use Ultra Violence for fun. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Timesplitters, and Bulletstorm, are ultimately classified as Arcade Games. They are zany cartoony fun that feature their violent aesthetic as a thrill fest, rather than a critique of the violence itself.
I mentioned Spec Ops: The Line earlier in the list. It is a war fps, just like the genre that is usually under fire in the media, that paints a negative light on us gamers for enjoying the gameplay of the genre. It goes above and beyond, becoming a metanarrative critique on gamers for making arcade fun out of real horrific war. This in and of itself, should trump any arguments about violence. Just like in other medias, we are capable of criticizing our own and nipping different aspects of the medium that we don't like in the bud so that it won't regrow.
And have you played the games I mentioned as Ultra Violent? Grand Theft Auto, Timesplitters, and Bulletstorm are a handful of the most violent games in the medium. Every single one of them treat violence as a game, much like any Hunting Simulator in an arcade. In fact, I may remind people, that the arcades themselves have been massive harborers of violent video games since the dawn of time. How many arcade beat'em ups have you played? How many shooters? I for one remember one light gun game in which players were members of an anti-terrorism force whose goal was to kill terrorists in various locales. The refreshing factor? Every single one of these terrorists was white. This was before the age of middle eastern war, or what is coming up in movies to be yet another reason to star Korean actors in Tough Manly American movies.
In fact, can I discuss another trend in American Media perhaps more violently disturbing than violent video games. The biggest blockbusters made are often ones of the action genre, these films show more scenes of violence against ones fellow man, and even worse caricatures of these enemies than video games. By far, the enemies that you kill in a video game are faceless nameless enemies whom you harbor absolutely no ill will except that they are in your way. The hookers in Grand Theft Auto have a bit of flavor text, but they aren't people. They aren't feeding their family of children back home, they aren't working other jobs during the day, they are a gameplay mechanic an NPC (No Personality Character).
When Gerard Butler or Thor kills a crazed asian invader, you are presenting a caricature. By making the main character white and the evil character asian you are inherently saying good whites kill evil asians, with no actual context or presentation. This is the nature of most movies. We aren't playing video games to be cool, we go to see movies to see things that are cool. I'm not saying we need to cut back on the violence in movies either, we need violence to effectively tell stories. And as seen with both Kick-Ass and Spec Ops, sometimes the very examples of a critique on violence is the ones that are the most violent.
What the pundits against violence argue is that we shouldn't treat violence like a game. Treating violence like a game is not the problem, what is the problem is when John Wayne white action heroes use only violence to fight back against a presumably darker colored evil and comes galivanting like a bad ass one-liner hero. Its holding up an ideal that should be simulated, not pretending to be the ideal simulation that is the issue.
So in all reality, there is no such thing as too much violence in games. There's no such thing as too much violence period. What is important is the context through which violence is filtered. I can't say it better than Jim Sterling did, in his episode on violence. If the Dwyer live suicide still makes you cringe and freak out, then clearly, no amount of exposure to violent media is going to make you into a killer.