Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.
In the wake of a terrible event like a mass shooting or terrorist attack, it’s inevitable that the question of video game violence is raised. Whether it’s a reporter showing how Microsoft Flight Simulator could be used to pilot a virtual jet into the World Trade Center, or a psychiatrist worrying about games and the inability of some people to distinguish between reality and fantasy, games get a lot of grief.
At times like these our medium is often portrayed as little more than drug-addiction meets murder-simulator, and we game makers apologise endlessly. We invoke the notion of catharsis, or the physical benefits of games. Hand-eye coordination, we say. Or reasoning skills. We might also point to a variety of studies that show there is little correlation between what we do as gamers and how we behave in the real world. We might find ourselves saying that actually most games are cute and cuddly, and not violent at all.
But we are not really being true to ourselves by adopting these apologist positions. In a sense all games are inherently violent. It’s kind of essential to understanding how and why they work (or don’t). And not only is this okay, it’s a good thing.
There is a difference between functional violence and the appearance of violence. Functional violence is a part of the frame of a game, in the pushing of levers and destroying of tokens, the stealing of resources and so on. Because fun is so wrapped up in mastery over dynamic systems, the player is inevitably cast into the position of agent-of-change, and that always involves some kind of real or abstract action.
Functionally speaking, chess is violent. You actively deploy units to seek out and destroy an opponent, and the only way to win is to be more skillful at wiping out the weak units in his line to get access to his King. In the average chess game the winner has usually obliterated 90 percent of the opponent’s forces in so doing, and lost 75 percent of their own.
Poker is also functionally violent. Through betting and card rules, the game is a systematised way of stealing from and bankrupting other players. Tetris is functionally violent. You slot bricks into place in order to destroy them. FarmVille is functionally violent, involving as it does the clearing, planting, resurfacing and therefore destroying of land. Mario is violent, with all that jumping on the heads of enemies. Pac-Man is violent, as you run away from, and then chase unto death, ghosts. Sim City is violent. Portal is violent. Even Journey, with its activation of ribbons and platforms, is violent.
Functional violence is just another way of saying that the player causes change in the game environment, and that usually involves destruction, theft, alteration, beating, hitting, shooting or some other activity that – at some level – is violent. Whether we mean realistically represented destruction, or the more abstract kind (playing Scrabble letters in such a way as to close off opportunities for other players), in games we both create and destroy, build and clear, make and obliterate. All games are fundamentally about death.
For non-players (or reporters who want a cheap headline) game violence is not about function. It’s about what they see, like viewers watching the game like a television show over the shoulder of the player. It disturbs many a well-meaning parent or doctor or politician, and they assume that – because the game is drenched in blood, and the player is so into the experience – it must have some effect. This is why several countries have bans or age ratings on things like the appearance of blood in games.
Yet anyone who actually plays games will tell you that these concerns are overblown. They will (usually rightly) say that the concerned person likely doesn’t play games, and that their worrying is little more than the fear of the corrupting influence of the novel in the 19th century, the comic book in the early 20th or the “video nasty” of the 1980s.
They will readily admit that they engage in immaturity like ass-hatting, taunting each other or giggling with glee at a particularly well-executed headshot in Quake 3, but this is no different from most sports. In fact it’s better: No video game has ever caused a riot, unlike some sports, and in terms of overall violence the video game’s rise happened during a time when violent crime rates throughout the western world had largely fallen, with no clear explanation as to why. Has Call of Duty saved lives? Who knows, but it’s interesting how the two correlate.
Yet the fear and ignorance over game violence remains because of the belief that immersion deeply affects impressionable young minds. Immersion has two aspects. The first is projection. Controlling a game is like driving a car in that both rely on the brain’s ability to extend its perceptions beyond the physical existence of the body. When you get behind the wheel you project into the car, perceiving and acting in terms of the world of roads. Projection opens the mind to the sensation of numina (that the game world is larger than that which is directly observable) and that in turn is how games become thaumatic (emotional, believable experiences).
The second component of immersion is transference – what comes back out of the game and into the real world. A simple example of transference can be observed when playing a racing game. Players unconsciously tilt and swing their joypads while steering, although this has no effect in-game, because a part of their mind is so “there” that it reflects backward. The same effect is observable in players playing horror games. They might squint or physically move to the left or right of the screen, in a sense trying to edge their way along a spooky corridor or similar.
Transference is often more than just physical mimicry. In a more advanced sense it’s the physiological effects of playing games (raised heartbeats and so on), and also emotions and ideas. After I played the hell out of the original Doom, I went through a phase of seeing some of its characters in my dreams. Similarly, many players who get deeply into certain games sometimes find themselves wondering what reality would look like overlaid with the game.
The fear is that transference is a symptom of something subtler. If I do something in a game, the worry goes, is that not fundamentally worse than watching it? If I kill a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto and then take her money with no consequences, doesn’t that interaction transfer into my perceptions of the real world? Don’t I start to objectify, to become inhuman or sadistic? Don’t we need to control what players do to avoid such associations? No.
What the Brain Sees
For the purposes of game design I often find it useful to consider the player as a being with four mini-brains, (each able to think, perceive, feel and remember) and a moderator that governs which of them is in charge at any one time.
The first is the lizard brain, the instinctive brain that holds all your basic urges and phobias, and its job is to keep you alive and to procreate. It activates fight-or-flight when it perceives trouble, gets jealous when it sees a challenge to a mate or leadership authority, is protective when offspring are threatened and is terrified of being stared at (because that usually implies being hunted – this is why people are afraid of public speaking).
The second brain is the machine. The machine comes into play in two distinct areas: reflexes and skills. When you see an object flying at your face, you instantly react: you duck, dodge or raise a hand to block. This happens unconsciously, and sometimes even against what you intended to do. The machine can also be trained through practise to react more skillfully and precisely (wax on, wax off) to specific tasks, eventually reaching a state of control. When players feel a sense of flow it is often because their machine is so trained that they do not have to consciously think about game controls any more.
The third is the art brain. Also called the Master or the Erasmian brain by Dr Iain McGilchrist. This is the side of you that perceives the world in wide lens and sees everything as a set of webs of meaning, interplay, social interaction and narrative. It is the part of you that believes and communicates through feelings rather than information. In games it is the art brain that senses numina, interprets experiences as resonant (or not) and so engages with the fantasy of the game more than its frame.
The fourth (and often the most important for good game design) is the play brain. McGilchrist calls this the Machiavellian, or the Emissary. It perceives the world in narrow focus and its understanding is literal and reductive. The play brain looks for patterns and abstract solutions, disregards information that it cannot evaluate functionally, groups objects into clumps of understanding and is fascinated by rendering the complex into the master-able. Mechanics, logistics, procedural thinking and so on are what the play brain does, but also language. For better or worse we tend to express ourselves on its terms (which is why it can be particularly hard to convey that art brain experience).
Finally the fifth component is a kind of switchboard. Located in the corpus callosum, this area of the brain seems to inhibit the others. At any one time a piece of information might enter the brain that applies to all of the above, and the switchboard prevents all of them reacting at once. This leads to the sensation of having conflicted or complex feelings, and it is largely a matter of personality as to which dominates. Some people live more in their art brain than their play brain, and vice versa. Some are more inclined to give into their root fears and desires (lizard) than others. And over the course of a lifetime, this ordering can change.
In the context of a game, the play brain is often in the driving seat, in conjunction with the machine. The other brains are not dumb, but it’s the play brain’s feelings of boredom or joy that will tend to win out. Even with a great story or a scary theme, if a game is not much fun to play then players will often drift away from it. And this is why violence is actually not that big a deal in games.
The play brain does not care about blood and guts and gore. It cares about overcoming problems and winning. To the observer, the act of sneaking up on an enemy in Assassin’s Creed and slitting their throat is horrific, but to the play brain it is no different to avoiding ghosts in Pac-Man to get the power pellet. Each is just a test of skill and strategy, and the visceral pay-off tends to fade. Games are not like movies in this respect: Violence is not contextual, and its significance is just signalling a change in the game environment.
The first time you defeat a minotaur in God of War through the special move of pressing X repeatedly to drive a sword into its throat, it’s pretty bloody and spectacular. The tenth time you do it, it just signifies a win. As you see the same violent effects again and again, their power quickly diminishes.
Play Is Not Life
As players we may get immersed in a game world, even wrapped up in its fiction, but we never lose our sense of self. Play is a mock activity, an illusion, and we are able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. We are also able to perceive that the object-nature of the game reduces the impact of individual occurrences within it, leading to a fascination with the mechanism more than the fiction. We play largely to master the mechanism, and then discard it.
These days we know more about the psychology of play and games, about how they are good for you — expand your learning and skills. Meanwhile endless studies fail to find any link between gaming and supposed negative effects. Moreover, games are an important form of culture. Millions of people around the world find friends through games, share cultural experiences within games, generate their own culture around games and express themselves through games. They feel more positive about their lives because of games, and also grow smarter and better as people through playing games.
Even in their most apparently violent forms, or at their most cute’n'cuddly, players always cause change, destroy and create. Through games they do so in a way that is safer than driving a car, shooting a real rifle or any one of a myriad of real-life activities. So all games might be violent, but games are not life. Not only should we accept this, we should realise that it is overwhelmingly a positive aspect of modern existence and get over this hangup that just because we’re doing terrible things in virtual worlds it somehow makes us terrible people.