Specific Violence

How does one refer to this discussion? It's the one we have all the time, in the blogs and in the design pits-- the one about maturity, about meaning, gravity, the medium mattering. About how all we do is let players shoot each other in the face and how we could be so much more. The one about our potential and how we fall short and what we can do about it. The one about how we're a bunch of little boys who want to grow up but don't know how. That one.

It strikes me that we discuss these things in vague and airy terms, but we don't know what we're looking for. Maybe we know what we're not looking for-- "I want a game where you don't have to kill things all the time"-- or what accolades we desire-- "for games to be considered art"-- but we don't have the concrete, mid-scale examples of what trips us up, or exactly what we need to achieve. We're missing a measuring stick.

Hold that thought.

It bothers me that people demonize violence in video games as a concept. I understand that it's because violence is so wildly overused, and often so luridly fetishized, that the instinct of those of us immersed in the medium is to swing 180 degrees to the other side of the spectrum: no killing! no guns! no blood! But violence-- and I'm not trying to be apologist here-- is an integral element of drama through the ages. The question is in its application. Violence can and should be powerful; I argue that video games rob violence of its power by making it lightweight, pedestrian, throwaway, meaningless-- by making it de rigeur, the violence no longer matters: it is made mundane.

Again, put that one on the back burner.

The comics author Alison Bechdel focuses on feminist and queer issues in her work, and is perhaps most widely known outside of alt-comics fandom for establishing "The Bechdel Test" for film. The criteria are:

  1. The film has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man.
I assume that this test followed a number of protracted discussions among friends regarding film presenting a largely male perspective, and failing to treat female characters as legitimate individuals; that mainstream film tended to dehumanize women in them, and that only certain movies were tolerable, but what exactly was the dividing line? And so the Bechdel test was born.

All together now:

Violence in film, literature or on stage can either be meaningful or meaningless. When it is meaningful, it resonates with the audience; when it is meaningless, it is largely (and rightly) derided. Consider the death of Shakespeare's Hamlet following a duel, or of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, or of Evelyn Mulwray at the end of Chinatown, versus, say, the nameless mooks mown down in Rambo II or Commando or Hard Boiled. The killing by the protagonist of those without identity devalues human life in the work, and thereby robs the violence of meaning (it being perpetrated upon human forms with no value.)

And so a metric for games comes to mind: violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual.

The metric becomes a constraint on content: don't remove the violence-- remove the faceless masses of "enemies." If every character the player interacts with is a unique and specific individual, then any act of violence committed by the player is invested with some amount of meaning: individuals have families, homes, jobs, friends, and most importantly, relationships with other characters in the game. The player's act spiders out from the individual to those that surround them, even if that social web is for the most part only implied. There are no more broad swaths of generic violence, then; there are only discrete acts of specific violence, each of which has the potential to matter.

The metric becomes a constraint on scale: if the player is able to commit violent acts, and they may only visit violence upon individuals, then every character the player meets must be unique, and therefore the approach to making the game-- the scale of environments, the construction of the cast, what the player does-- must be considered differently from the ground up. The end product cannot be the same.

At that point, maybe violence in games starts to mean differently.


Notes and examples:

* This obviously shares some overlap with Warren Spector's theoretical "one city block" game. If a game took place entirely within one city block, then clearly every person in the game would be an individual with a face and name, and any violent act performed would instantly reverberate through the entire block (or have to be very carefully concealed.) Maybe this is an idea whose time has finally come.

* One extant example that takes a somewhat more abstract form would be Shadow of the Colossus. While they aren't human, there are only sixteen enemies in the entire game (no filler fodder to wade through between Colossi) and each has its own unique appearance, environment, and behaviors. When you kill one, you have killed the only one of its kind, and the act carries with it a sense of sorrow and regret. The killing is a transaction between the player and another individual; and so, the violence has meaning.

* SPOILER: Consider BioShock. At the climax of the story, Andrew Ryan is killed by the player. This follows the deaths of hundreds of Splicers, deranged freaks that attack the player on sight and are eradicated en masse ("it's the same guy!") And yet, despite the numbing effect that this shredding of fodder should have on the player, Andrew Ryan's death still means. And it means not because of the fact of the parentage twist, but because Andrew Ryan has been built up over the course of the game as an
individual, with an intellect and a history and a set of ideals. Such is the power of violence against the individual, that its ability to mean survives despite any devaluation of human life that precedes or follows it.

* Similarly, embracing fodder in film generally relegates the work to genre status, but not always: think kung fu films. Masses of foes fall to the heroes, and the works are considered niche and lightweight. Then along comes a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that wraps a compelling human melodrama around kung fu fighting at the height of its grace and theatricality, and it moves us as any great piece of human expression might. But it is the exception, not the rule. Alternately there is a whole genre of film-- the slasher film, like Friday the 13th or Saw-- that is composed of nothing but individual, named characters being killed, and these films are almost always dismissed as trash. The problem of course being that these individuals are introduced for no other purpose than to be killed in spectacular ways (and maybe to get naked.) Point being, removing fodder is no magic bullet.

* There are games now that are both character-based and have no generic fodder characters: games like The Sims, Animal Crossing, or most point-and-click adventure titles. Notably, they almost never feature any potential violent interaction at all (or if so, introduce more generic targets to the game for this express purpose: think of the bike duels in Full Throttle.) The mixing of the two seems to be largely taboo, possibly because it's really hard to support.

* A character doesn't have to be lavished with tons of backstory, a fully-fleshed-out family tree, or even a name to be a unique and specific individual: we might not know the name of the cop who's tortured and killed in Resevoir Dogs, or the men killed by Travis Bickle at the end of Taxi Driver, or the female Viet Cong killed at the end of Full Metal Jacket, but they are nonetheless individualized, and their deaths are meaningful in context. The specifics known about individuals are scalable, whereas fodder is only fodder.


Mr Ak said...

I don't disagree, but if you remove gratuitous fodder killing, what becomes the principle method of interaction in the game? With the exception of Mirror's Edge, I can't think of a game where the player's other interactions would be enough to sustain a game on their own. KOTOR, maybe.

And if you don't remove them, aren't you stuck with what games do now - the splitting of deaths into meaningful and meaningless with narrative beats. And that rarely works. Although you could make a case that GTA IV did it fairly well.

But yeah, very interesting post.

wonderwhy-er said...

Interesting theme to discuss. I guess in games that aim for narratives this point of view is important. Here we speak about those games that entertain players trough stories, characters etc.

There are other types of games though, like sport... They allow to explore and learn things that have almost nothing to do with such things. Strangely I would say that games like Unreal Tournament are not about killing in that meaningful sense. They are about playing the game and wining, exploring game space, learning skills necessary for it. Killing is there as wining/loosing/scoring mechanic and people re spawn later anyways. So yeah killing and violence is robed of its power and meaning there because its not really about act of killing... Sounds strange speaking that games where main mechanic is killing are not really about killing huh... It is more about surviving and wining akin to sport games.

I guess for each game we should thing what kind of things we want to bring in as meaningful and what we would like to rob of meaning and value... If in games like Unreal or Counter Strike that was so much meaning connected to killing then those would not have been played for those reasons they are played.

Alexis Kennedy said...

I really like this. I think your solution is a solid heuristic, though you could trim it further. You say 'an individual with a name and a face', and then have to add all those caveats about specific examples '...unless the victim is an individual' works fine for me. I'm not sure 'legitimate' is a fair word either. But I'm quibbling.

And I thoroughly applaud your call for crunchy, measurable tests that we can use for discussion and design. We've been beating our chests and wailing about the puerility of our games for as long as I can remember. Let's get specific.

Alexis Kennedy said...

A larger point. Mamet said (I paraphrase) that the purpose of violence in drama is to illustrate consequence and reponsibility: therefore, drama where violence occurs without consequence is empty gratification. He draws a parallel with feel-good films which allow us to feel saintly by empathising with a dying innocent, and then reassure us in the last act with a magical cure or a heavenly light: no tragedy, just glurge.

Games are remarkably effective engines of consequence-free gratification. I think that's the more general problem, though violence is the most specific and serious instance.

Steve gaynor said...

Alexis: fair point about name & face. I updated the blog post. Though I'm keeping the notes, just because they're additional thoughts surrounding the main point that hopefully will answer some obvious objections, or alternately lead to further discussion. Thanks for the Mamet reference, I'll have to find the exact quote.

Mr. Ak: yeah, that's the question, right? It starts somewhere concrete: fodder is the crutch; to remove the fodder is the challenge. What's the answer? I don't know, but here's an approach to start looking for some.

Mr Ak said...

Actually, I can think of one game which arguably solves the fodder problem without straying too far from the traditional shooter paradigm, and that's Metro 2033.

It's a very subjective assessment, obviously, but the early levels of that game seem to be almost a negative version of Half-Life 2; rather than insisting on the importance of the player as a hero, everything there points towards your vulnerability and relative unimportance.

The mugging by the hooker (or more importantly, the inability to recover anything from it), the stroll past the domestic fights and flirtations, the constant death of your companions, even the fact that your only apparent relative is a step-father... it makes the player feel human and equal and alone.

And if the player is human, then the traditional metonymic details/tropes in the enemy (conversations, laughter, snoring, etc) seem to be much more effective in humanising them. For me, at least. Every shot I took in that game felt a tiny bit significant. A wounded soldier gargling their last breath was disconcerting, unlike, say Modern Warfare, where shooting wounded enemies quickly became a de rigueur chore.

And I suppose the unheralded moral choices helped there as well (maybe...). Rather than feeling that the game is judging you, you feel like you're simply acting upon the world. Of course, that's partly because you know the game will deliver on its promises.

I suppose what I'm arguing here is that simple metonymic detail can potentially act to humanise an opposing force, but will arguably work more effectively when the game has a framework which emphasises the player's equality and their agency, without blatantly highlighting it.

Which is not to say that that's the only/best solution, or that people shouldn't try to move outside the current conceptual framework.

Nels Anderson said...

Now, I love me some Red Dead Redemption but it was a little disappointing that, like nearly all games, Marsten is still an unrelenting murder engine. Over all three seasons of Deadwood how many people did Swearengen directly or indirectly kill? Maybe a dozen? You can triple that bodycount in less than a twelve minutes in RDR.

If we manage to improve upon making violence meaningful, rather than requiring justification for a quadruple-digit corpse tally, all kinds of genres and settings open up. That's as exciting as advancing the maturity/media acceptance marker.

Coincidentally, Michael Thomsen wrote a similar piece a little over a week ago. It's really worth reading despite it being on IGN; I think it dovetails with this quite nicely.

JP said...

A smart man we both know recently said "violence is the fossil fuels of interactivity". So this is kind of an argument for greater fuel efficiency.

I agree 1000% with what you're asking for, but if you think it through all the way it still implies the de-emphasis on combat-based interactivity I always go on about. Or much shorter games, which would be great for other reasons.

If ultimately there are far fewer things to kill in a game, there will need to be more of X in the game to make up for it. The central challenge as I see it is to discover and prove out that other stuff, and set our definition of success high enough that we don't even really miss the violence because X is intrinsically compelling and expressive and deep. Otherwise we're just creating an icky sugar substitute, to pour into the gas tank of my own silly metaphor.

I've had a blog post on "the combat rut" in the works for months, but was waiting until I had a game I could post with it, to put my money where my mouth is. Maybe I should just scrape together what I can and post it.

Paul Bauman said...

That's great... I guess. But then I think about zombie games, such as Left 4 Dead, which seem to function quite well and carry their "meaning" outside of the violence per se and more on the side of cooperative play.

I know a series like that must be anathema to anyone considering the "art" question, but to me it encapsulates the strange mixture that videogames can present, or rather the schisms they manifest between deeply satisfying mechanics and the veneer of pop-culture insignificance. I'm ok with that veneer (or patina, if some consider it that) in some cases.

Games like L4D make the "meaningful violence" imperative become somewhat more restrained in scope for me. There's a place for the use of violence as a tool, and that violence doesn't always have to carry the heft of an Andrew Ryan moment.

Alexis Kennedy said...

Cheers Steve! Some good lines at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/jul/02/davidmamet . There's a bunch of other relevant stuff in Bambi vs Godzilla, his Hollywood essays book.

Nicolai said...

I was reading an article about the King's Quest Series with the recent release of the Silver Lining and how those games successfully provided a meaningful backdrop with varying levels of chracterisation and very rarely required killing, instead relying on the player to get past situations which normally result in violence by other means.

I think this influenced me a little growing up as it seemed logical and games often don't provide a way around something without violence. Some games do and some partially do. Vampire: the Masquerade is famous for many of the objectives having multiple ways of achieving them, some of which do not require violence. There are key moments in the game where Violence must happen, but most of the story can be achieved with stealth, or computer hacking and I think we need more of these games teaching us there is more to a complex problem than just violence.

I'd also like to see the Bechmel test applied to games because while I'm more galitarian than feminist, there are very few meaningful female roles in games and I'd like to see more of those problems brought out into the stories games tell, like some of the other things people have said here I think it's an idea whose time has come and perhaps it can be used to pull on other issues which should have as much weight as violence.

The issues about censorship in Australia also bother me a little when games like L4D2 come through with a patch to make bodies disappear, reducing the consequences of violence and creating what almost seems to be victimless crimes. In the screenshots I've seen of original versions there's something disturbing about that pile of meat which was alive until you severed its head and with censorship we have a polite fading of Zombie into nothingness and it's on to the next one. Violence should have an impact, even where it's the point of the game like God of War.

Brendan Keogh said...

A really interesting post. The problem of nameless, history-less enemies is one that always bothers me. How am I meant to care about Nathan Drake when he slaughters so many people?

In one of your reply comments you call fodder enemies a "crutch" and I think this is exactly what the problem is. Arguments against individualising every single enemy will normally be based on technical limitations (too many faces, too many voices, etc.) instead of considering how to get rid of the fodder entirely.

We know it can be done because it has been done. Shadow of the Colossus as you pointed out, Metro 2033 to an extent as Mr AK points out. I almost want to add Far Cry 2 to that list as, for me at least, the enemies always felt human; and I certainly spent a lot more time in Far Cry 2 not shooting than I spent shooting.

And I guess that is the key. If we are not killing things all the time, what are we left with? Moving, usually. So how do we make the quieter, more introspective act of simply moving around the game world interesting? All three of the above games achieve this to some extent, I think.

I think the eventual solution lays in that area. More convincing worlds mean more intruiging movement around them and, consequently, more convincing worlds will also produce more convincing citizens.

GeekyTikki said...

Hi, I'm new to your blog and just spent the last 20 minutes or so reading some of your posts. I found out about your blog in GameInformer issue 205 but I only bothered to check it now. I REALLY like what you have to blog about and I thank you for your insights. I'll continue to follow your blog. I also have a blog that is about various geeky stuff and it has a lot of video game stuff on it that'd be great if you could check it out but I understand if you can't. Anyway, awesome blog.

William Miles said...

I thought the reason the medium didn't have this kind of violence was down to censorship. I read a blog by a writer of the goons in Splinter Cell. He couldn't do anything like what you want because the censors think that having players kill people who are seen to be in pain, fully realized, shouldn't be allowed. They thought that would really be too much for an interactive medium. Possibly didn't want games that could be misused, as an outlet for actual sadism, but I don't credit them with that much intelligence.

This may have had more effect then I at first presumed.

What we've ended up with is a load of games that make violence trivial. Games that take all meaningfulness out of player actions whenever those actions involve violence.

And we shouldn't guilt trip our selves about having games whose main feature is violence.

It's the most outrageous thing in modern society that we all have urges for, and hence one of the most obvious things to portray in safe simulations of video games.

Your right about violence, it should be meaningful. If these companies had been allowed to let the violence in these games feel like something with consequences you would have got more works like Deus Ex, which for all it's pulpness, does inspire people to try new things. And once shooting people in the head, one of the most horrible things you can do in this world, is rendered as that horrible, with all the consequences etc, in game, then games start looking like a viable creative medium. Games where you just explore a strange world that's a montage in tribute to Heart Of Darkness, won't sound like such strange propositions and maybe the development community will spread it's wings and be able to mature comfortably.

The censors have failed in whatever aims they had in mind. What we have now is games that desensitize people to violence. If anything, I would suppose this was a more dangerous route when it comes to like, influencing young minds and all the rest of it.

Trofim Lysenko said...

The problem I have with that metric is that you've essentially relegated every video game (and really every fictional) portrayal of things like war, riots, or other "mass" events to the "cheap and meaningless violence" category, which I don't think is appropriate.

Look at, say, Full Metal Jacket or Saving Private Ryan. The problem with the sorts of characters that would fit in your metric (such as the female VC sniper in FMJ, or the german soldier the translator saves in Saving Private Ryan), is that frankly they damage the immersion and believability of the story. They're very "hollywood" moments, very much a product of "better storytelling the script-writer's way", and aren't particularly true to life.

That's not to say that whoever's in charge of Modern Warfare 3 shouldn't care about -humanizing- the battlefield and the enemies you face in the game. But to focus on individuals and characters is not necessarily the appropriate way to go about doing that.

What I would suggest instead is focus on the -behavior- of enemies. In extended sequences where the player's stationary (which happens a lot in a game like MW), make sure he/she sees the enemy soldiers trying to treat and exfil their wounded, or checking the dead for life signs. When dressing parts of a level "occupied" by enemies, dress them to emphasize that the people there are/were humans (although since you worked on a Bioshock title I suppose that suggestion can be filed under "teaching one's granny to suck eggs").

These are just a few ideas, but I think the direction I'm going with this is fairly clear.

John Tate said...

Wars involve many nameless and faceless enemies on both sides that lack meaning. To take this out of games is to distract people on the real consequences of war which is people being namelessly and facelessly killed.

I think whenever this happens a reality check should be provided. For example multiple story lines. One could be shooting many nameless and faceless enemies, and there could be an option to dodge the draft and the war bringing in an enemy with a name and face: The Government.

This is just a small example.

Steve gaynor said...

Brer & John: You're misreading the post. Tons of nameless people die in war movies. Are they slaughtered by the protagonist like it's no big deal? Not in a movie of substance. That's the point.

Tybor said...

there is a Game on the market which is PVP, based on a cops vs robbers game model, with fantastic settings and amazing player generated content which uses as a game device the concept of NON-LETHAL weapon use.... in fact there is greater Kudos ingame for getting ARRESTS rather than KILLS..... and that game is APB.... sadly undersold and underpublicised and as a result now on the verge of bieng shut down, this was/is in my opinion (with 30 years of gaming experience) the best PC game i have played.... people either LOVE the game with a PASSION verging on fanaticism, or HATE the game with a passion verging on MADNESS!!!! either way, for it to evoke such emotions has to be something.... ARRESTING CRIMINALS USING NON-LETHAL WEAPONS.... now that's something...

Intrepidis said...

A good game with powerful violence is Heavy Rain. I think there is only 1 scene where you are holding a gun, and whether you pull the trigger or not is an excellent and cleverly drawn out moment... I made the wrong decision at the crucial moment when I played. I still think about it now. (I was trying to save my partner, but it turns out I didn't need to!)