“Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. Lets do it. Lets shoot some Zerg.”
That’s how the song goes, right?
Well, that’s the version I know.
Anyways, this week I get to talk about violence in our great medium. Actually, scratch that I want to talk about ultraviolence. So, what is ultraviolence? Watch any 20 seconds of God of War or Devil may Cry and you will get a solid idea. While all games are violent (yes. All games. We will get to that later) I want to focus a bit on the real nasty stuff. We arent’ just talking about Megaman blasting Mavericks or Pacman eating or getting eaten by ghosts. We are talking about Bayonetta killing Jubileus, chopping The Brilliant One up into tiny pieces and hurling each of those god bits into the sun before bringing all of the heavenly choir crashing down to earth in a meteoric orgy of light and destruction to a J-pop rendition of Sinatra’s ‘Fly me to the moon’ (by the way, am I the only one who thinks Bayonetta needs to be introduced to pre-reboot Dante? As Carson used to say, “They would end the world”).
Clearly, this subject is a lot more straight forward than the last few weeks. I had somehow gotten myself into a 5 week stretch of super serious topics and wanted to talk about something we can all have fun with. Plus, trying not to sound exceedingly biased in my arguments was giving me a headache that could bring mighty Ganon to his knees. So this week I finally get around to the role of violence in video games (since that’s certainly a way to avoid raising the ire of some very loud elements of humanity).
You know how it goes. First we start with some definitions, then we get into the nitty. So. What is violence? Violence in theater is defined as the disruption of narrative momentum. Okay, what does that mean? It means anything that slows down or prevents the progression of the story can be defined as violence.
See where I’m heading here? In the narrative of Mario, pits and gombas are violent forces. By the same token, so are puzzles (not just monsters and bosses) in LoZ. You could even use that definition to describe Chess or Monopoly! In the case of chess, narrative would be your capture of the king and the violent act would be the opponent doing the same to you, and monopoly is just a simulation for class warfare (everyone bullies last place until they go bankrupt, then the bullying moves up to the next poorest player).
Simply put: games are, by definition, violent. This doesn’t just apply to video games. All games, Football, tag, hide and seek, Jenga. All of these are violent games. Just because you aren’t shooting someone or hijacking people’s cars doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing something that disrupts the momentum of another’s intended narrative.
Now, let’s cast our gaze back a little. How about a 5 million years. Critters are just starting to develop non-reptilian brains. You have giant cats, wolves, various simian races. What are the birds doing with their young? They are playing a game. Momma bird is pushing baby bird out of the nest and baby bird has to get back up for his dinner. Why are they doing this? Simple, baby bird needs to learn to fly and what better motivation is there to learn than the threat of hitting the ground or the threat of not being fed? That is the origin of games. Games were invented by animals to train each other for real world experience.
Fast forward 5 million years, give or take a thousand or so. Homo Sapiens in the region of current day India start drawing squares on boards and using wood pieces to represent units in an upcoming battle. There are 2 color coded sides. The point is to stretch the mental muscles required to command military forces. One piece is specially marked to indicate itself as the objective. If you can complete the puzzle in a way that results in you capturing the objective then you are ready for command. This ritual, this exercise eventually became the number 1 most popular game of all time, chess. True, we are no longer using it to test the tactical aptitude of our cadets and the game has evolved new rules to meet the mental rigors of society but the core of the simulation has not changed a bit and neither has the result of participation. Thousands of years later we are still playing chess with our kids to teach them vital skills, skills such as forethought, patience and the stillness of mind.
So why do we do that? Why do we constantly bathe ourselves in this simulated violence? Simple, its fun, its challenging, and it plays on the one need that defines all primates, the need to grow. Us, like our monkey ancestors, want more. We want greater, nothing, not even the world, is enough to slake our thirst. We have utterly conquered the surface of our planet and how do we respond to this level of supremecy? We go underground, we go under water, we go to the space between worlds where not even air dares to explore. This is why we play. We need to prove our superiority. This is why nearly 30 years later we have folks practicing 20 hours a day to beat the Super Mario speed running record. This is why we play the same 4 or 5 Halo maps on continuous loop. This is why we hit Azeroth on launch day every expansion and record our first raid kills to post on the internet. We want to be superior. We want to be the first. This is why video games are violent.
Now, I’ve heard all of this rhetoric concerning how video games promote violence. Sorry guys, this is true. Absolutely, beyond a doubt. We are undeniably more prone to the theatrical definition of violence than we were a hundred years ago. We are more competitive, we are more aggressive and we are more extreme in or drives to succeed. This is why ultraviolence exists in games and movies.
“Dude, you are doing it again, throwing us under the bus, are you even a gamer?” just relax, let me finish. Its only page 3, cool down. In case you haven’t noticed, the crime rates of the first world do not in the least bit indicative of this curve towards violence I just proclaimed. Why is this? Its because of the critical mass of violence in our media. Every day we simulate horrific acts of violence. We participate in acts of torture and malice that would make Vlad the Impaler cringe. We kill and pillage for hours, only pausing to watch other people kill and pillage, and all of this brutality, all of this horror, goes towards making our world a safer place.
Yes, I know that makes no sense, but just think about it. What happens at the end of every game. You win, or you lose. When you win you feel great. You cheer, you laugh, you order the next round of beer for your mates. What happens when you lose? Personally? I get pissed, I am better than that, I know I’m better than that cheap jerk with the newb cannon (dear mom, the newb cannon, or the noob tube, or the BFG, depending on what community you are part of, is a weapon that has a very low skill to power ratio. This means that it doesn’t really require much finesse to use effectively. Typically the noob tube is characterized by the ability to just shoot it in a given direction and cause massive damage to whatever gets tagged, however, as a downside, the noob cannon typically has a critical flaw that makes it easily defeatable by someone who actually knows what they’re doing. Think 3 of a kind in poker, it will beat most hands but someone who’s card counting will see it coming a mile away). So I try again, I reiterate. Ultimately I become better at Gears of War by practicing my longshot until I can reliably shut down the shotgun sprinter.
So there you have it. We as a species are slowly becoming more aggressive, yes, but we are also learning to vent the negative aspects of our aggression in safe spaces. 500 years ago, if you had a bad day you had 3 choices, either take it out on the guards and have them ruin your day, take it out on your spouse and kids (which is never a good idea) or repress it and develop a brain tumor at 30. Such is simply no longer true. We have virtual worlds out there, places where we can exorcise our darker impulses while sharpening the need to expand that we all share. Virtual reality is effectively endless, so the more psychopathic aspects of our aggression, like imperialism or domination, can be vented on nonsentient, nonliving automata rather than our fellow man while our more positive aspects, like the need to expand our horizons and absorb vast amounts of information, can be honed to molecular sharpness. Eventually tragedies like slavery and war will fade from our racial consciousness as we become more adept at turning our malice towards VIs and curbing our violence to strictly positive ends.
So, ultraviolence. What’s that? Ultraviolence is a term coined by American conservatives that I actually like a great deal. The term describes scenarios in games and movies in which physical violence is used to it’s greatest extreme to solve any given conflict. You know that your friend’s adopted brother discovered a power source and wants to open a hole to another universe populated by cyborg-insect things? Don’t bother calling the UN or Interpol, build a big honking red and orange armor suit, wait for him to make his move. Grab your friends (the Aryan guy with a hammer, the green one with anger issues, the jingoistic sociopath who uses a glorified trash bin lid, the gun nut and the guy who refuses to use a weapon that was invented less than 2000 years ago) and take out half of New York City in a titanic battle to decide the fate of the Earth.
On the other hand, are you a villain with cancer? Are you disgusted by the way humans take their lives for granted? Don’t bother with writing an inspirational book or teaching a few seminars on positive thinking. Grab 6 or so folks, throw them in the most disgusting, depraved dungeon you can think of and tell them the only way they get to keep their lives is to inject themselves with HIV or cut off more of their own flesh than the other guy there. Hell, do it every year, make it the family ritual.
So, what does this have to do with exorcising our personal demons? Well, remember my talk about Bayonetta going out of her way to make sure every molecule of Jubileus had been destroyed? It fits smoothly into my diorama of humanity’s future. Remember what I said about us learning to vent the negative elements of our violent natures into safe spaces populated by VIs rather than onto our fellow sentients? Starting to come into focus, right? Personally, when my boss (not Jesse, my other boss, who will remain unnamed) is being a Ferengi I come home, pop in Devil may Cry and enjoy the ruthless slaughter of Mundus’ enless horde of demons (most of whom are almost completely defenseless in comparison to myself) and I don’t stop until the urge to sock the penny pincher I work for subsides.
That right there is why the crime rate of the first world is dropping. We no longer have to just watch fake gunfights and cheer for the triumphant heroes, we can be the triumphant heroes. You see, fun thing about the human brain. It’s not capable of distinguishing between real and virtual input. If your brain sees a gun pointed at another guy’s face as an arm pulls the trigger, no matter how inhuman the victim looks. It could be perfectly photoreal or it could be as pixilated as Adventure!. Your subconscious can not tell the difference between either of those examples and the genuine article. How does that help? Well, the same neurons in your brain fire when you sock that punk at the bar as when you sock Vergil in DmC. Your subconscious simply cant tell the difference between seeing through a screen and seeing real stimulus. Color me optimistic but I see a day where tragedies like columbine cease to occur in the physical world all together.
So. how do we do this? How do we start venting all of the world’s hate away? Step one, create a safe space populated by non-sentients in which we can participate in all of the violent and gory stuff we need to. We have that in games like Rachet and Clank and the Jak trilogy. You can even get some of that in World of Warcraft. Owning scrubs in Alterac Valley (okay, mom, AV is a battleground. Battlegrounds are special places in WoW where players are put on teams according to their faction, Alliance or Horde and allowed to slug it out over objectives like Capture the Flag, King of the Hill and Deathmatch) doesn’t quite hit my spot when it comes to exorcising frustration (in fact, it’s a pretty good frustration generator for me because I’m really bad at MMORPGs, my wife loves healing those things though, oh, and essay seed, MMO genres). I like games like Devil may Cry to get rid of my frustration.
So, we have cracked the DaVinci code of anger management, we should throw a party, right? Once again, no. One thing we need to learn is that the work is never done. Saving humanity isn’t the type of thing that can be wrapped up in a 40 hour campaign, saving the world is a lot more like an MMORPG, you get to the pinnacle, then spot a higher point just on the horizon, so you climb that one, just to see another great peak just beyond that, etc. ad infinitum. So, how do we improve on a masterpiece like God of War (Oh, and I mean GoW 1, not the train wreck of sequels that came after)? We need metrics. We need more sensitive input devices. Every gamer out there can spot the symptoms of over saturation a mile off, clenched teeth, strained jaw, white knuckles, excessive cussing. We should start using these to work on the mental health of our players. The Xbox One already has built in Kinect support and the PS4 has a touch sensitive controler, why not program in some facial recognition? If the Kinect spots that clenched jaw in anything longer than 5-10 minute bursts or hears expletives being dropped in multiplayer more than 5-15 times a minute it should save state and shut down. Make your PS4 save state and shut down when your player’s skin conductivity reaches a certain point. Hell, you dont even need to go that far, the 3DS recommends you put it down if you’ve been playing in excess of 2 hours at a stretch (or something like that). Release a soft patch that causes aforementioned save state shut down combo if your player dies so many times in the period of an hour or (in the case of my monetization options stated in previous essays) shut down the shop if your player buys more than 4 life packs in an hour.
I can already hear a call from the Barrens: “that sounds a bit evil, what if companies start using these methods as an excuse to spy on us?”. Sorry, guys, it’s happening already whether you like it or not. The Kinect isn’t there to build your immersion and it never was. It was invented because Microsoft was raging over the sales of the Wii and wanted a way to push Xbox sales with motion controls while Nintendo was wrecking face with a device that was both less expensive and easier to use. That’s why Microsoft tried pushing the Xbox One with so much anti trust software, they want to be able to see exactly what you’re doing when you’re doing it. They want to know if you’re playing Madden, what channels you watch on TV, what weapons you use most in CoD. These are all powerful metrics that they can use to shape your buying habits in the future, so why not push them to do something constructive with the awesome (if creepy) technology they are dropping on us? As it stands the Kinect and Move are questionable at best and evil at worst, but as I said, no technology is inherently evil. These technologies can easily be used to gauge when you’re getting too angry.
Okay, I started to stray a bit there. Back on point. So, we have determined that all games are violent in one way or another, but I was talking about a specific type. Why Ultraviolence? Why is it that with the awesome power we have at our fingertips we choose to blast VI into progressively smaller chunks? The answer we’ve given as a community for years is that its fun, but that’s an effect, not a cause. We as an industry always give some permutation on “well computers are better at mathematics, simulating 3D environments and performing background calculations, this leads perfectly into violence simulations,” but some of the oldest video games in history are text only adventures and hidden object games, closer to D&D mods than urban combat simulators. People were putting games on computers a good 10 years before Wolfenstein came out. Clearly we can strike both of those reasons from the list. So why violence? If we weren’t founded in violence then why are a good 80% of our games today violent? My typical conspiracy theorist mindset wants to yell ‘Corporate interest’ and say that it’s because the megacorps want us violent and slavering so that we charge off to war (propaganda games, really need to get around to that) and that would be as good and justifiable a cause as any. Yet if that’s the case then how come every game developing nation on the planet jumped on the violence bandwagon at the same time? When Wolfenstein came out most megacorps didn’t have reliable internet and even the ones getting into games rarely could rely on anything other than the intranet that only covered their buildings. Yet Final Fantasy, Ultima, Doom and Mario all came out roughly at the same time.
Here’s my theory. Humans are violent by nature, regardless of what we pretend to be in our fantasy and sci-fi stories. We aren’t the Mathosians, we aren’t the Al Bhed, we aren’t the Elves, we aren’t the Orokin. We are the Orcs, and some very smart people figured this out. Look at the orc-based species in our fantasy settings. In Lord of the Rings orcs are a barbaric, barely mindful slave race belonging to Sauron. The Krogan from Mass Effect only exist now because the Asari took them from their home world, which had been ravaged by nuclear war. The only orc-like race I can think of that kept competitive with the rest of the galaxy are the Klingon, and they only pulled it off by developing alternative rules, equipment and methods designed specifically to vent their violence without killing each other by the thousands.
At this point we run headlong into another problem. The folks over at The Escapist and Fox News keep spouting on about how video games are terrorist training camps. How do we fix that? How do we get them to see that we aren’t trying (or succeeding) at training terrorists? How do we convince our parents that video games are a pursuit worthy of study? Well first part of the solution is kind of on us. Ladies, gentlemen, we need to clean up our act. So long as the Barrens are our loudest subculture we will be forever marginalized as a bunch of preteens and basement dwelling 40-year-olds. We need to push companies to crack down hard on cyberbullies (cyberbullying VS trolling, there goes another seed). Developers, if you are working on a multiplayer game then impose a 1 strike policy on cyberbullies. We need to show the world that we don’t like those guys any more than they do. I know our medium has always been known to accept the outcast and the pariah, but we can’t afford to extend that welcome the openly vitriolic.
Secondly, we need to get off the defensive. Video games promote aggression, such is true, but we need to show the world that aggression is not objectively bad. We need to take the fight to the powers that seek to marginalize us. We need to do more than show up on CNN after every tragedy and say “it wasn’t us” before scurrying back to the slums. We need to write, we need to speak aloud where we can be heard. We are not murderers, we are not gun salesfolk, we are not thieves. Seriously, guys, run for office or something. We are already starting to see athletes and actors picking up the joypad. The sooner we see congressfolk on both sides of the aisle tweeting about League of Legends the sooner we will see video games (even the most violent ones) accepted as an acceptable hobby.
Thirdly, we need to come out with some more realistic portrayals of violence. No, we don’t want all of our games (or even most of them) to be about the horrors of war (that would be kind of silly, imagine if all books were about the difficulties of getting published) but we do need just a few entries every 2 or 3 years aimed at portraying violence in a less positive light. Remember, movies didn’t become mainstream until films started coming out that were purely about the merits and deficiencies of film. Ancient Rome made it illegal for actors to provide testimony in court because they were “trained liars” and the stigma held strong into the 13th century CE. Any history buffs remember the tough rap that circus caravans and traveling actor troupes used to get? Even today in our D&D campaigns, do you know one character with more than 17 in charisma and 12 ranks in Bluff that doesn’t use them to nefarious ends? If we aim to look critically at our most used tropes then it won’t be long until our detractors run out of ammunition. Until then every time we try to defend ourselves we will get the “negro lover” treatment from our media and courts every time we try to say video games aren’t evil. As I said, film didn’t get a fair shake in the court of public opinion until directors started examining (not accepting) the faults in their own work.
So now we have the full picture, or at least this Author’s full picture. I know, kind of light on game descriptions but I hope this at elast got you to think about what we are doing with the medium. Violence isn’t bad. No, physical abuse is never a laughing matter, but violence is one of the best narrative tools we have in our repertoire. I hope I managed not to piss too many people off with this thing. Oh! Before I forget. I want to do a Something Wicked Games Q&A sometime so if you can think up some questions for me to answer I would love to get on it sooner than later. Until then, seize victory, Lok’tar Ogar and Qa’plah!