Violence in the videogame industry receives more than its fair share of attention. Some people blame the increasing amount of violence and the increasing realism of that violence in videogames are the cause of aggressive and destructive behavior. The studies supporting those claims are far from conclusive. However, that is not the debate being focused on here. Instead, the dialogue I wish to have is one of the purpose and meaning of videogame violence.
The current discussion over violence in videogames seems to come mostly from Bioshock: Infinite. I’ve played through Irrational Games’ newest masterpiece, and I do agree wholeheartedly that it takes violence to a level that would make most people at least a bit uncomfortable. The first kill you get in the game involves shoving a motorized, rotating razor blade into a man’s face and turning the mechanism on. To a lot of people, this is uncomfortable, gasp-inducing and inappropriate. However, I would argue that sometimes, violence in videogames is entirely appropriate.
Much like many other forms of art, videogames have the potential to offend their audiences. They also have the potential to tell stories, convey messages and enlighten their viewers. Violence in videogames is like violence in any other form of visual media in that it exposes viewers to something they would never have seen in everyday life, and does so in a way that does not leave it up to your own imagination. There is a visual manifestation of violence in front of you and you must deal with it. Many filmmakers have used this particular aspect of the medium to deliver hefty social and political messages.
Violence in films, when implemented well, has the potential to open people’s eyes to certain issues. “Crash,” ( 2004) directed by Paul Haggis and “The Hurt Locker,” (2008) direct by Kathryn Bigelow, winners of the Oscar for Best Picture, are two films that use violence and images of violence to expose the viewer to a message or theme that needs images of violence to be properly represented. “Crash” focuses on the volatile issues derived from race. It shows the actions that can come out of hate and ignorance. The scenes of violent confrontation and honest portrayal of bigotry in the film are absolutely necessary to tell the film’s story and convey its message that race is still an issue in America, and that it manifests itself in many ways. The message would not have been as powerful were it not for the visual capabilities film.
“The Hurt Locker” shows what it’s like to be part of the US military troops on the ground during the US occupation of Iraq. While not necessarily a protest-based film, “The Hurt Locker” portrays some stark realities that most people are never exposed to.
The violent scenes in Bigelow’s Best Picture winner include deadly firefights and the incredibly tense diffusing of explosives. The picture’s purpose, which I believe was, at least in part, to portray some of the conditions the US military forces dealt with every day, requires vivid images that depict grim realities.
Videogames also have potential to convey powerful messages. This ability may even be more powerful due to the interactive nature of videogames. Bioshock: Infinite tells a story that is extremely impactful. The overall concept of the game, including the setting, enemies and science-fiction aspects, are not realistic. There are no giant mechanical birds or extra-dimensional “tears” in real life. The game's art style, while semi-realistic, does not achieve the same level of realism as the Battlefield 3, another modern warfare-style shooter. However, the themes surrounding the floating city of Columbia are all too real.
In Columbia, much like through the vast majority of history, the rich white man is king. Any racial minorities, with the exception of one character, are forced to do hard labor and are subjected to racist slurs, beatings and killings. The rest of the city’s people glorify the past and revere their religious and political leader. It is not too far a stretch that Bioshock: Infinite was meant to warn its players of the dangers of revisionist history and blinding oneself to the horrible truths of the world. The people of Columbia view the historical Boxer Rebellion and Battle of Wounded Knee to be stories of their ancestors, led by the charismatic, heroic Father Comstock, fighting against their savage enemies.
Similarly, many historical texts used in schools today portray Christopher Columbus as a hero who discovered the new world. They omit the fact that Columbus slaughtered thousands of natives of the Caribbean islands.
Many books, such as Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” pull back the curtain of glorification from US History, revealing the gritty, not-so-morally right truth.
Bioshock: Infinite does this in a way books simply can’t. Infinite can deliver its message to wider audience, in a new generation. Infinite is a fantastic game. It uses violence as a means of communicating a message. The violent images are necessary for the delivery of the overall ugly, but important trend the game is trying to warn us about.
Another game that uses violence in a meaningful way is Spec Ops: The Line by Yager Development. At a cursory glance, Spec Ops is a modern shooter by most, if not all accounts. The weapons, setting and characters appear to stick to genre conventions. However, once your play time in the game hits about an hour, it starts to make subtle, yet important deviations. The lines between enemy and friend blur, and your mission changes. Later, the subtlety is dropped and the game is entirely unique in presentation and storytelling. The game becomes a deconstruction of the modern warfare shooter genre.
The game forces the player to commit heinous war crimes. There will be no spoilers, but let’s just say one of those crimes includes using white phosphorous… a lot of white phosphorous. Unlike most games in its genre though, Spec Ops doesn’t just let the player off the hook for what they’ve done.
After the above mentioned scene, the player must walk through the wreckage and see the direct results of their actions. The people at Yager keep up this theme throughout the game, at some points, breaking the fourth wall. In one scene towards the game’s conclusion, a character talking to the player character says something like “ You've done all of this to feel like something you’re not: a hero.” This is directed not at the soldier you've been controlling the whole time, but at you, the player.
I took the message of Spec Ops not as a criticism of the videogame industry, but as a statement about the player. First-person shooters are one of, if not the single, most popular genre on the market. The annual Call of Duty release always tops sales charts. Players have become accustomed to being behind the gun. Spec Ops asks players to think about what that means, which would be almost impossible if the game didn't show the player what that meant.
The videogame industry is saturated with violence. A lot of it is meaningless and draws all sorts of criticism from parents, the media and lawmakers. Games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto always sell well, but their violent gameplay never raises tougher questions or deeper themes. But, much like other forms of art, if used correctly, portraying violence can be a powerful tool for getting a message across. The discussion of violence in videogames, at least among developers and gamers should not be “Is there too much violence?” but “What does the violence mean?”
I write this blog in response to my good friend AhTheCastle's post about the perception of gamers in society. Before I begin, I will say I do agree wholeheartedly that the stereotype of gamers as socially awkward, pale teenage males (or some nerdy equivalent), does still exist. However, I believe that perception of video game players is no longer the majority opinion and that society's opinion of gaming as a hobby is that it is now mainstream.
The statistics prove that gaming is no longer the refuge of the socially outcast. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old and has been playing video games for 12 years. Also, 47 percent of game players and females over the age of 18 are one of the industries fastest growing audiences. This hardly fits in with the stereotypical pubescent young male. However, these figures mean nothing if people do not consciously absorb their meaning.
Ironically, the moment where I personally saw these statistics manifest, was during my four year World of Warcraft career. The only people I'd ever talked WoW with, were my fellow players I knew in real life. After joining a raiding guild and getting to know other players beyond the occasional group quest, I found that Azeroth was home to all kinds of players: a husband-wife duo with a newborn son, a college grad going for his MBA and even a dude from Greece, moving to Scotland with his longtime girlfriend. These were normal people, not die-hard fanboys with whom I was conquering the depths of Ulduar.
Despite some stubborn ways of thinking, society has actually adjusted to the idea of the "new" gamer quite well. For instance, about two years ago, public library systems across the United States began to stock video games, and they just fly off the shelves, games of all genres, for all age groups.
However, I think the most prominent evidence that society's perception of video gaming culture is changing, is the historical similarities that can be drawn to similar cultural phenomenon. Comic books first appeared in America in 1933. Throughout the early-middle decades of the 20th century, comics were vilified by mainstream culture as wastes of time, enjoyed only by forlorn young men. Almost 80 years later, there are multimillion dollar movies based on comic books are grossing more than $1 billion world wide.
Video games, like comic books, have evolved from a very small niche market a few decades ago, to one of staggering proportions. Just like it is now socially acceptable to love Spider Man or Batman (not just nerds are psyched for The Dark Knight Rises), society is rapidly growing more tolerant towards the love of leveling up and saving the universe.
In the past two decades, and even now, there are critics of video games claiming that there is no redeeming value in playing games. However, playing video games, especially cooperatively, can foster teamwork, problem-solving skills and other forms of productive, conscious thought. This is important because, like the demography of game players, this can be, to an extent, quantified. According to the ESA, sixty-six percent of parents think that playing video games provides mental stimulation and education for their children and fifty-nine percent say video games help their children connect with friends.
In other words: Parents accept, if not encourage, playing video games. If parents are okay with it, children will more than likely accept the behavior. That's where the real change lies. It is socially acceptable among the youth that video games are just a part of entertainment culture.
While the problem may persist that some more closed-minded people would write off gamers as lonely social outcasts, more and more people of varying ages and sexes are picking up a controller or their mobile device and playing games. AhTheCastle argues the more casual gamers using their tablets or smartphones do not wish to be defined as "gamers." Maybe it's not a case of the twenty-something woman playing Angry Birds on her commute does not identify herself as a gamer. Instead, it could just be that the spectrum of gaming that society has deemed "normal" has been widening.
In her book, "Reality is Broken," game designer Jane McGonigal argues the word "gamer" carries a negative connotation. To "game the system" is carries a negative connotation. "Games" are typically seen as unproductive, childish wastes of time. These negative connotations are partly responsible for the negative perception some people have of "gamers."
However, as society has seen, the gaming generation (I would put that at anyone from the ages of 8 to 30, basically anyone who's grown up with video games) is full of normal people. Gaming is no longer seen as an obsession for the outcasts. It is a hobby beloved by 67% of American households, according to the Electronics Software Ratings Board.
While society may never put professional video game players on the same level as professional football or baseball players, it is now socially acceptable to own and play a game console for an average of eight hours a week.
While gaming isn't celebrated like some other hobbies and past times, it is no longer turned aside by the majority. Gaming, as a hobby, is growing ever more popular, and people have noticed. But more importantly, they accept it.
The finest accomplishment of the role-playing game, whether played with a controller or a keyboard (or even pen and paper), is its ability to pull the player into the game world. Playing an RPG is like taking a vacation to a foreign land, rich with its own culture, people and history. While gameplay is a significant part of any game in general, RPGs can make up for weak gameplay by having a powerful story, believable characters and a world you want to spend time in. My most recent RPG outings are Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Mass Effect 3. I am currently playing through Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.
SW:TOR is hard to discuss here because an MMO is, by its nature, a different beast than its single-player brethren. Though I no longer play SW:TOR, it made a lasting impression on me. I played World of Warcraft for three and a half years (I retired my paladin almost as soon as I hit level cap in Cataclysm, real life distractions and all that nonsense). The particular element that SW:TOR exceeded in compared to WoW, is the immersion. SW:TOR's individual class story made you feel like you were changing the world around you. Seeing the effect caused by your actions is one of the most gratifying experiences in RPGs. WoW always seemed to lack that visual confirmation that your actions as a character in the game world meant anything.
An example of this in a single-player RPG is Kingdoms of Amalur. One quest has the player reuniting a war-widow and her missing-in-action husband.. Upon convincing the husband to return to his wife, he exclaims something along the lines of "I'll go to her right away!" and then proceeds to sit at the bar and nurse his mug of ale, as he was doing before learning his wife was home waiting for him. Moments like this make the player's actions feel insignificant.
In addition to the lack of cause and effect, dialogue can be one of the worst ways to break immersion. RPGs without branching dialogue systems are not confronted with the same set of problems others are. For instance, Skyrim and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning are both solid games. However, they both have one distinct flaw that hinders immersion in either one.
Both games feature a branching dialogue system. The non-player character talks and the player is presented with a list of possible responses, then the NPC gives a scripted answer to your chosen line of conversation. While the branching dialogue in itself is an immersive factor, it lacks depth when only one of the parties is actually speaking. The silence as the player reads through the possible responses pulls you from the game in an abrupt way, never letting you fully settle into the game world.
This is where the Mass Effect games get it right. The branching dialogue system in Mass Effect works the same as the ones in Skyrim and Amalur. There's just one difference. The player character, Commander Shepard, is fully voiced. Hearing your side of the dialogue keeps you in the game and makes both your in-game persona and the NPC more authentic. Not only reading, but hearing the emotion in your character's voice helps you feel what they feel and, in the end, provide a better role-playing experience. When playing through Mass Effect 2 and 3, I grew emotionally attached to not only Shepard's companions, but to Shepard himself. The use of voice has immeasurable value in making the game world believable and fun.
The tiny details that go into immersion in a game, from graphics and sounds, to a clutter-free interface, all play a role in allowing the player to appreciate the world of the game. With the current generation of consoles as technologically powerful as they are, it feels awkward to have to read half the dialogue in a modern RPG. While the moments may be rare, RPG's are at their best when you cross the line between player and player character.
Seeing as this is my first blog post ever, I figure I'll write about what's in my head right now. The song "Come, Join Us (Together We Ride)" from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. It's been stuck in my head for hours, and I haven't played the game since this morning. Not only is it a catchy tune, it also does it's job in the game very well.
The role of music in games should be to manifest the events on screen and enhance the emotions felt by the player. "Together We Ride" plays whenever you recruit a new soldier to your small, yet powerful army. The song gets the player excited to work with the new unit under their command, as well as to go out and lay waste to your enemies on the field of battle. Overall, it's a good song, and if it plays in your head a few times, that's just a bonus.
A better example of the power of music in gaming would be one of the huge blockbuster titles. My favorite subjects in this case would be any of the Uncharted games or the Mass Effect trilogy. "Nate's Theme" (and its various iterations through the series) is a prime example of the ability of music to enhance a game's sense of character.
Nathan Drake is a cross between Indiana Jones and John McClain (to an extent).
He's a tough, yet smart guy with a knack for getting himself mixed up in some of the most legendary treasure hunts known to man, not unlike the whip-snapping Indy. This persona is brought to life in auditory form through "Nate's Theme." The tribal drums give the player a sense of exotic adventure and the horns lend a noble, heroic sound to the theme song of Uncharted's protagonist. The song is used in multiple ways throughout each game, but it never fails to capture Drake's or Uncharted's distinct brand of adventure.
In Mass Effect 2, your mission is one that Commander Shepard is not expected to come back from. Two of its best tracks, "Suicide Mission" and "The End Run" perfectly provide the player with the sense of urgency accompanying Commander Shepard's mission: travel to a place no one's returned from and destroy a group of aliens that, until recently, were thought to exist only in myth.The pure intensity of "Suicide Mission" and "The End Run," with their booming drums, blaring horns and fierce violin, gets the player's adrenaline pumping to save humanity.
On the other hand, Mass Effect 3's best song does just the opposite. Despite the controversy generated by the ending of the game, the music that plays in the trilogy's final moments is nothing short of amazing. "An End Once and For All," is a lilting piano piece accompanying a montage of Commander Shepard's allies and friends, whom most players, including myself, had become emotionally invested in. Knowing the game, and thus the characters, was being resolved, creates a bittersweet moment unattainable in most games. The dynamic use of the piano enhances these emotions further.
That is the purpose of music in games. Make the player feel something. Music is meant to bring out emotions. When combined with the unique interactivity of the video game medium, the possibilities are limitless.
I find myself often looking these tracks up on youtube or downloading them for my iPod, even weeks after I've put down the controller. Music has a significant role in games. Whether it's the old 8-bit tunes that get stuck in your head (I'm talking about you "Kid Icarus"), or the orchestral masterpieces of this console generation (and even the last one, a la "Shadow of the Colossus"), video game music has evolved and become such an important part of gaming, that I couldn't imagine Fire Emblem without "Together We Ride."