Friday, May 31, 2013

Revisitation: Violent Video Games

(There are a number of posts I've made on this site that I don't like, no longer agree with, or just outright hate. Deciding what to do about those has been a difficult process. My skin starts to crawl when I think that people might still be finding and reading thse posts, but at the same time simply deleting them feels somewhat. . .disingenuous. After all, what about those who've already read them? As such, I've decided to instead revisit the topics of those posts and clarify, edit, or add to what was already there.)

     About a year ago, I wrote a piece on why I felt one very specific, but incredibly common argument against violence in video games was invalid. I don't intend to spend more time on that exact subject, because I feel it somewhat missed the deeper point. That's why this time I want to write not on the ramifications and consequences of having violence in video games, but the inclusion of violence itself.

     That's a very broad topic, because there are many, many variations of "violence." What's important is not to eradicate all traces of this component, but rather to include only the "right" kind. I recognize that the phrase "right violence" has a bit of a controversial ring to it, so allow me to explain.

Not too far off. (As an aside, I'm finally playing Shadow of the Colossus and the aggression of this boss was terrifying.)

     As I feel using an example will clarify greatly, allow me to bring up a personal favorite from recent history: Hotline Miami. For the uninitiated, Hotline Miami is a game where you play as an animal mask wearing serial killer who murders a drug-dealing sect of Russian mafia in spectacularly violent fashion. While one could argue the retro pixelated graphics of the game dull the severity of the brutal, skull-crushing executions the player inflicts on enemies, it would be a rather hollow argument. Terrible, terrible violence occurs in this game, to the point of it being sickening. So what of it?

     As I mentioned in my review, this brutality is kind of the point. It goes both ways in the game; you die just as violently and just as quickly (namely, in one hit) as your mafia nemeses. What this accomplishes is an atmosphere of utter fragility. What could have felt like a bland, procedural room clearing game becomes an incredibly tense, fear-filled action game where if you aren't careful, you could be killed in incredibly frightful ways.

     That's what I mean when I say "right violence" - violence that enhances what it's a part of. In Hotline Miami, it added a sense of fear (which in turn led to some very intriguing questions about the main character's motivations and the story as a whole), among other things, which made the game a vastly better product. I suppose another way to say it is that violence shouldn't be gratuitous, but rather should have some kind of meaning within the context of the game. (Also note that gratuity is different from being over the top - one suggests excess, while the other simply implies things happen on an extraordinary scale.)

     So what does this mean? Well, certainly not that violence should be purged from games. Games are a storytelling medium, and stories, by their nature, revolve around some conflict (a vast majority of the time, anyway). While conflict does not necessarily have to come from violence, limiting it only to other sources is a massive restriction on what the medium is capable of, and that's not a solution. It also doesn't mean that all games should try to be violent, or that violence isn't a problem. I strongly believe in games' ability to affect players in very real, tangible ways. While I still maintain that the violence in video games is far from being the causation it is accused of being, to deny that acts of aggression could have any kind of a negative effect would be a gross contradiction of that belief. Many who argue to restrict games make the same mistake in reverse; I have no intention of replicating their approach. Instead, games just need more of this "right violence," this violence that means something. How can they get that? There's really only one way that I see, and that's good game design.

     I imagine that may come as a disappointment for some, being the impractical "solution" that it is. But when I think about it, it doesn't feel so impossible. More and more game designers - and rather well respected ones in the industry, at that - are expressing everything from an interest in making different kinds of games to vows that they will never work on violent titles again. Those who aren't are at least forced to think about the role of violence in their games, which I truly believe will result in more intelligent, thoughtful design surrounding it. In that light, it seems entirely plausible that we will get more of this "right violence." And while it will never completely permeate the industry as a whole, if the games that do contain gratuitous, hyper-violent content become the outliers instead of the standard (though I would certainly argue that they're not the standard even now), then the problem will still be effectively solved, won't it? An obscure snuff film has negligible impact on the art of film making as a whole; why shouldn't the same be true for video games?

     Video games are a medium I care about deeply, and right now they're going through a period of maturation. That makes me truly overjoyed. They're one of youngest mediums in existence, and seeing it "grow up" - even if that growth is a long, gradual process - is very exciting. At the very least, it makes it worth revisiting the topic.

I don't think this will ever be more relevant.

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