Hi there! I'm Matt - nice to meet you - and I'm a lead designer in the social and mobile games space. I've been in the industry for over six years, and in that time, I've seen a lot of interesting things and worked with a lot of awesome people on some really cool products. Does this qualify me to write a compelling blog? Eh, maybe not, but then again... what does?
I can't blame you for glossing over this and moving on; the nature of violent entertainment - particularly in our favorite industry - is such a ridiculously well-trodden topic, discussed ad nauseam by everyone from brainless pundits and forum trolls to lettered professors and industry veterans, that two things are almost guaranteed:
1) You have an opinion on this already.
2) It's not going to be changed by a random blog post.
So forget that boring discussion! The more interesting topic - and the focus of this blog post - isn't if violence is used; it's how.
Speaking as a designer and writer of games, I can safely say that violence is easy. It's an incredible shortcut, providing obvious problems and even more obvious solutions to the player. Part of the reason Mike Haggar is such a beloved mayor is because he solves his dilemmas with piledrivers. Simple. Straightforward. Burly.
Violence is not only easy, it's also fun. Shooting a cackling villain in the face is far more entertaining than talking him down, arresting him, and presenting evidence at his trial. At the same time, it's also a hell of a lot easier to build a game that charges the player with slaughtering their foes instead of working around them.
...but there's a problem with that. Besides providing an entertainment and development shortcut, violence is also an emotional shortcut. Its prevalence in games - and the player's expectation that it will be their go-to solution - corrodes our relationship with the game's characters and story. Forget about complicated feelings like love, regret, and hope. Violence's overuse has even made it hard for us to create the very emotion we most often associate with it: Hate.
When was the last time you truly hated a villain?
Did you hate Vaas? Or Comstock? What about Harbinger or SHODAN? These are monsters - reprehensible digital scum - and yet we look at them with fascination and, ultimately, detachment, in part because we expect they will eventually die at our hands, and the more obstacles they throw in our path, the longer our gaming experience will be. It's hard to hate something for prolonging our entertainment, and the more machinations and vile plots they devise, the more fun we have.
It's only when villains surprise us by breaking this formula that we truly remember them. Look at Andrew Ryan or GLaDOS - some of our most memorable foes are the ones who subvert the narrative implied by violence. Remember, I don't want you to focus on difficult bosses here. It's not about how much trouble they've caused us; it's about what they made us feel. Hate is an easy emotion to surface, but all too often, we confuse it with frustration.
So it's hard to make the player feel something, and violence can often work at cross purposes to this goal. Great. Whine on, game developer. Problem is, this is just touching the tip of the iceberg. Violence is but one side of the 'mature content' coin, with sex, of course, forming the other half. The trouble we have making you feel hate (despite our extensive experience with violence) is nothing compared to our inability to make you feel love.
I'll bet you eventually thought of a villain you hated (mine was Mother Brain, for killing that baby metroid). Now, have you ever, ever felt love for a character? I'm not talking about fondness, or an appreciation for memetic badassery - I'm talking about ooey, gooey, energizing love. I was fond of Elizabeth Comstock, and felt sad and protective concerning her. I was also fond of Alyx Vance, Guybrush Threepwood, and a host of other well-realized characters. But I never loved any of them.
This isn't a pipe dream. I firmly believe we can make you fall in love. It's hard, but we can make you feel hate, fear, curiosity, regret, and a host of other emotions. I think games are far more effective than other forms of entertainment (like film and television) at doing this, too, since they rely so heavily on personal agency and choice. The problem is that we're handicapped by an incomplete toolbox. We're allowed to use violence too freely, and we can barely use sex at all.
To the Moon is a game about love, loss, and memory. I came away from it feeling a bittersweet sense of melancholy and hope, and was both surprised and pleased to experience that. It's a very clever production, but it has a problem - it's more of an interactive novel than anything else. If you encounter sex anywhere with much frequency, it'll be in these sorts of 'games', and that's a shame. I'm not saying we need XXX experiences left and right, but we do need mature ones if we're going to get anywhere. We need a complete toolbox.
Wanton violence isn't mature. Neither is wanton sex. There needs to be a sense of moderation and balance in our stories and opportunities, in the events we present to players and the things we allow them to do. Right now, I expect to be able to shoot, slash, and slaughter my way through most - if not all - of my problems in games. Alternate solutions are incredibly rare, and the games that have effectively provided them in the past (such as Deus Ex and Planescape: Torment) have been enshrined in countless halls of fame for their effort.
Violence is easy. Sex could be equally gratuitous and easy. It's emotion that's hard; adding real weight to the player's decisions and making them come away from your game with something in their heart. I'd argue that we don't need to control our use of violence in games - we need to refine it. We need to wield violence and sex like scalpels, not shotguns. I don't care that Booker chainsawed a guy's face with a skyhook, but I do care if that's the only sort of mature content I can experience.
Let me kill, sure, but don't let that be the end of it. Make me feel something, anything. Create a game that aims for things like love and hate, not the shortcuts we associate with them. Create a game that will make people stand up and realize just how amazing this industry is, and just how much potential our beloved toys really have.