Violence in video games has been a regular public discussion topic since the 1980’s. The conversation usually heats up for example during the aftermaths of real life tragedies, when the public is looking for a scapegoat, and then quiets down when all the cards from protect our children to the 1st amendment has been played.
No matter how much we talk the talk however, it seems only some are willing to walk the walk. A parent buying an R-rated game to a preteen is not a rare sight, developers are making more and more brutal games, and the players demand all the more realism and/or mayhem from their games. And at the same time we are moving steadily towards photorealism. What happens when we reach the point where virtual characters are nearly indistinguishable from their real life counterparts, what will it mean to virtual violence?
Although there’s no evidence that gamers have any difficulties whatsoever in distinguishing game and reality, I have to ponder the risks of becoming numb to high definition virtual violence. Is there a limit to how much graphical violence can a person consume with out it messing with our psyche? And with near photorealism in games, I’m afraid that there is no escaping the other side of the coin, more photorealistic violence. Then, if we add immersion to the mix we have a real dilemma, how to maintain suspension of disbelief if a game’s feel of authenticity doesn’t live up to its graphical setting? I don’t know any gamer who favors the German or Australian versions of games where zombies bleed green blood or the Allies stopped a robot invasion in WWII. We are suckers for violence and will most likely not support any actions to tone down violence in games. But should we? Or should somebody?
What if the gaming industry would start regulating itself, could it be that in addition of size/creativity/quality we’ll see a new developer attribute in the future – decency? Then we would have the virtuous devs and the uncompromising, gritty devs. I’m sure that the Call of Duty generation wouldn’t exhilarate on the possibility to see less violence in their games, and would throw their (or their parents’) money at the latter.
The governments could also step in by tightening age restrictions, introducing special taxes for violent entertainment, or by outright banning some aspects of virtual violence. The problem is that these would be extremely hard to put into effect. Age restrictions are easy to go around (and it’s not only the minors we should be worried about), and any kind of content censorship would probably face the 1st amendment card.
Why is there a need for violence in video games anyway? The short answer is challenge and immersion. Violent struggles are the simplest way of challenging players in game genres other than puzzle and sports. Violence or the threat of it is also an immersive element especially in action games. The recent rise of indie games however has shown us a variety of different approaches to gaming, and some of them are really uplifting. So maybe there is hope for gaming as an art form rather than endless gore fest for the adrenaline junkies.
My theory is that because of the inevitable improvement of graphics and physics engines, yes, we will see more brutal virtual violence, but on the other hand I think we’ll also see a strong counter reaction in the form of pacifistic games.
For every adrenaline packed Call of Duty, we will have one hope-ridden To The Moon.
For every gritty Dead Space, we will have one thought-provoking Dear Esther.
For every bloody-hell-it’s-hilariously-violent Dead Island, we will have one beautiful Flower.
And that folks is awesome.