The Uncanny Valley of Violence

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.

41 thoughts on “The Uncanny Valley of Violence

  1. I don’t think violence in games always has an effect on players – but I do think a lot of it has to do with age. As well as games becoming more realistic, kids are playing them younger. Growing up with this mindset is possibly what could also cause a blur in the lines between gaming and reality. However, I’m not one of those people that will blame every incident of violence in society on the fact the person liked to play video games.
    Really enjoyed this post, a great read!

  2. Self-regulation?
    Ahahahahahaha! Pardon the laughing, but I can’t stop laughing.
    You can see how well self-regulation works, when you check out big mega-corporations’ ethics committees. Or at E3, where you get standing ovations each time you show those hardcore (numbed) gamers headshots and blood splatters in slow-mo.

    If you enter the army, you have to be desensitized to violence, to the active infliction of pain, because contrary to popular belief killing doesn’t come that easy and many killers suffer from it afterwards.

    Modern video games are better than any violence-stimulator the military could ever dream to develop.

  3. I have to admit that I like pretty violent games, while I in real life couldn’t hurt a fly. Sometimes I even cannot look what I am playing at the moment there (really, this is so embarassing but also so true) so I die most of the time and have to do it all over again. Or I play with friends and they do it for me. But, I am not a regular player.

    And I couldn’t agree more to goisy’s opinion.

  4. I honestly think pushing violence sometimes makes it less violent. Case in point: Mortal Kombat. The violence in the recent MK is graphically pretty realistic… yet the limb-tearing and bone-breaking is so over the top that I think it makes it seem less violent… like it’s comical. If they were to use the same graphics, but toned down the violence… I think I would’ve found that more disturbing.

    It’s like the bath fight in Eastern Promises… it’s not as high-octane violent with buckets of blood, but it’s far more brutal and disturbing to watch.

    That said, if the violent games can make the gaming industry more profitable that they’re willing to try publishing games like SimCity and Katamari, so be it!

    • Though a certain family member has pointed out how the OTT bone-breaking in the “X-ray moves” is unrealistic (and let’s be fair, I’ll add, so is the too-frequent dismemberment and other fatalities), it’s gotten to the point where the graphics and character designs look realistic enough for it to seem quasi-real. Previous games at least had some sort of cartoon-equeness, moreso in the earlier 3D games.

      • Well, in the MK example, the early MK games were pushing digitized graphics at a time when most games were drawn, so they *were* ultra-realistic for their time.

        The difference can be seen in MK1 and MK2, I think. MK1 was still an experiment, and the fatalities were simpler and thus… more “realistic” and disturbing. MK2 took it over the top, and while it’s graphics were better and higher res, it felt less violent.

        Of course, I can’t imagine even the new MK being realistic… because let’s face – any combatant with boobs as big as Mileena’s and Kitana’s will get their own boobs ripped off by gravity after the very first jump kick.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is, the outlandish character designs still keep things at a safe distance. If they’d designed regular looking characters like a guy in a hoodie and jeans and a girl in a blouse and trousers… that’d be a lot more problematic.

  5. i am not a huge gamer but i do own a n xbox and enjoy call of duty type games…..i dont think they are overly violent…..ive also been in a war……….the line between real and not real cannot be blured in these games….you cannot feel the real fear ,smell the real blood ,suffer the concusion of explosions, go deaf every time you pull the trigger etc……..but i also knew some people who were into them D&D roleplaying games when i was younger and some of these people became seriosly delusional as far as i am concerned and there were some sicko type of practices and mental attitudes involved in these games…..i think the mental scenarios and associations (philosophies if you wish) involved are more dangerous than the actual violence……….

    • interestingly ive noticed certain games latly that basically put you in a 3rd world war against russian and chinese soldiers..(frnntlines)… well as numerous muslim opponents (call of duty,battlfield3 etc).. .this could be functioning as a long term mental conditioning for such a future event and 10 years from now the 8 year old now playing such games will be of age for the military and has in effect been pre propergandarized for a decade to accept this without question…………

      • That’s an interesting thought. And considering compared to the past when a lot of games seem to have been much more sci-fi/fantasy based (well, yes, there’s still lots of fantasy-based games)- i.e. far removed from reality rather than close to the possibility of it in the near future…

      • check out a game called frontlines…..its based on war for oil and right from the intro there is an uncanny reality to certain events that are happening in the mid east and caucusus right now….the game is set in 2024 and you end up invading modern day moscow….

      • in the past i have played many military simulation boardgames made by the now bankrupted avalon hill games company…recreations of d day, stalingrad ,barbarossa etc…..i believe that these games teach the basic strategies and tactics of warfare……squad leader was an instruction medium for fighting platoon level battles as far as im concerned….it teaches you how to clear buildings,set up ambushes,where to site machine guns for maximum effect,how to use smoke grenades and many other nity gritty concepts etc etc…i could and would use them for teaching theoretical methods of conducting such…..some computer games do the same thing…………

  6. I think that most would have no problem or ill effects from violent games. However, if somebody already has a separately caused problem with distinguishing reality and fantasy these violent games may feed into or exacerbate this tendency. This is probably a small portion of the population, and you’d probably have to rely on parents and individuals themselves to limit their exposure to this stuff.

    It would be pretty difficult to actually do that effectively. What would we do? Require a psychological evaluation for games of a certain rating? Would we then do then same for pornography, violent film, infomercials? Chances are the disturbed individuals would be disturbed regardless, and if not sparked by video games, it would only be something else.

    Charles Manson was a musician, quoted the bible, and either believed or exploited hippie ideals. Travis Bickle (I know he’s fictional) didn’t shoot any virtual zombies, or rip out any virtual spines.

  7. “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.”

    I’d like to see a FPS video game of nothing but white people shooting at and killing black game characters, and see how long it takes before people recognize that yes, this stuff does actually have some psychological effect and value. And see how fast the people who defend this garbage will suddenly stop doing so.

    I mean, you can probably sell more than a few clandestine copies of Virtual Lynch Mob 2.0, right? And I’m sure it would indicate nothing about our society and nothing whatsoever about the attitudes of the people who played it. Right?

    How about Fag Bash 2.0? I’m sure that it would be the height of censorship to think poorly of a person who bought and played that video game and insisted that it had no bearing whatsoever on their attitudes toward gays and lesbians.

    • Really? That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

      I find video games relaxing and I use them as an escape from the doldrums of everyday life. Racial violence is neither soothing nor relaxing. Games are works of art filled with music and color. Lynchings are somber affairs that offer nothing but pain and suffering.

      You sir, are a dingbat. Have a good day.

  8. I don’t see how violence through any forms of media can effect an individual, let alone make them crazed killers. Yes, I play COD, and many other bloody games, I watch slasher films regularly, however I’m a pacifist. If anything, violent games give the gamer a platform to expel their, shall we say, violent energy. There were serial killers long before serial gamers, at the most, violent games have slightly increased the violent personality of the players.

    • “If anything, violent games give the gamer a platform to expel their, shall we say, violent energy.”

      This is why members of the KKK are so egalitarian. It lets them get their, shall we say, racist energy out.

      • Trying to compare anger to a radical hatred of others doesn’t work. Some people use video games as a stress reliever, even as a way to escape the dismal reality they live in.

      • Comparing the KKK to video games is like comparing…the KKK to video games!

        How many video games have racial anything in them? What video games are YOU playing?

        I read somewhere that Mario is a Jew-hater!

        Give me a break…

  9. Is it honestly about a twenty-year-old failing to understand that reality is not a simulation? Or is it just that seeing carnage over and over again, even if simulated, will still deaden a person’s reaction to such things in real life? It’s already known that animal abuse often precedes abusive behavior toward other humans–because once you feed those violent tendencies in small ways, they get stronger, and you become willing to do more with them.

    Violent videogames enable the player to act out pre-existing tendencies. Perhaps the reason such tendencies aren’t noticed in an individual beforehand is because they had no outlet for them–not because the game put them there. The player can feed those tendencies in a video game without breaking any laws, and with a subject that looks and sounds a lot more human than an animal.

    • “Violent videogames enable the player to act out pre-existing tendencies.”

      Agreed. The Dalai Lama isn’t a model of peace and sanity because he “expels his violent energies” playing first-person shooters.

  10. There actually is a ton of scientific evidence out there that violent video games create aggression and violence in boys. So anyone who says violent video games alleviate the problem is sadly mistaken. This is the very reason I won’t allow video games in our house. There are obviously other factors in determining whether someone goes out and becomes a serial killer, but consider the fact that the military has basically made drone flying like playing a video game and recruited gamers. It creates a distance and desensitizes people to violence. Great post and great topic for discussion.

    • Agreed, I had to do a report about the studies in English, and how that correlates with English is beyond me. Violent tendencies increased after a 30min period of playing a violent game.

      • i partially agree with sprinklin thoughts…….i recall reading something about WW11 a while back which went along these lines….if you wke up tomorrow morning and there are dead bodies on the pavement you be outraged and shocked………the following day there are more bodies you will be shocked……by the third day you will be numbed……after two weeks you will hardly notice…..after a month you will consider it normal and wont even blink an eyelid….total desensitzed to death and violence………

  11. Good post.

    1) The game industry is all about making money – so they will never really self-regulate. They might make noise as if they do – but they will gladly sell what people will buy – as long there’s a profit in it.
    2) The gamers want more violence & more realisitic graphics. There is a known (as in ‘has been studied’) physical/emotional correlation to what they see, the reaction their bodies & minds have, and becuase it’s all not real, the subsequent need for more. Very similar to a drug addiction – especially cocaine.
    3) I cannot believe that anyone who sees x number of killings remains totally unaffected. Studies have shown that people are affected just by reading (in newspapers) about violent crimes in locales that are many miles removed – they react as if the violence is local.

  12. I think the progression of violent games is reflective of our society. War and crime and sex are splattered on our screens and we become more and more insensitive to these things. Gaming takes us into a fantasy land where we can be someone else. A violent shooter for example who decapitates his enemy’s head with a chainsaw while hes dying on the ground. The movies, the news channels and video gaming move together and I think its unfair to pinpoint gaming. When we as humans take this out of our society gaming will follow suit.

    Another point is our selfishness. Before it used to be about protecting the young but now the thought is more about our own pleasures. I am guilty of this when I am playing a shoot em up and my 7 yr old son comes in and wants to play as well I let him. Its wrong and I’m selfish and I have realised that keeping the kids away is an individuals responsibility. But that includes movies and other things around us as well. As a socity and as individuals, when our actions are collectively to protect children, then the capitalistic nature of society should kick in and we would end up with a better gaming society as well.

  13. Depicted violence has no influence on you? It’s like claiming that negative election ads have no influence, Or like saying hair shampoo ads have no influence. Those who pay for these things know that it works.
    The mind needs supervision, when left on its own, among other things, it gets addicted. But supervision can only come from your own awareness not from outside.

  14. It’s a good post to open up good discussions. I could go both ways on whether or not violence in video games or television or movies causes violence in real life. I think the more interesting point being argued here is if there should be more government regulation. I could go both ways on that as well. I have fanatical friends on both sides of the issue who argue that point hotly and constantly. What I like about this post, aside from it being well-written is that the discussion that followed was reasonable and rational. I think if more discussions could be held in this matter more solutions could be found for many more issues. Well done.

  15. In all honesty, as a thirteen year old, I’ve played violent games since I was…

    Well, I don’t know how far back, possibly five years old at least. From what I’ve seen in my life, it’s how well people adjust to the game, and how the game itself plays. Medal of Honor, was not that bad in a sense, considering the game was only Rated Teen+. I played my first Rated M+ game when I was around eight or nine which was Call of Duty Four.

    The only the scene that really, really, messed me up was the Nuclear Bomb scene when you were Paul Jackson moving around in a destroyed city. Other than that, most of the games I’ve played are ones that I’ve adjusted to thanks to movies.

    I’ve never played any games that have gone along the lines of Mortal Kombat, Saints Row: The Third, and the Grand Theft Auto series. I’ve never played any of these (What I describe as “Mother of God No!”) styled games.

    And that, is what thirteen year old Pacada has to say on that matter.

  16. I don’t necessarily find myself in the camp to ban video games but the violent content of some of them definitely has an influence, How much of one is still open for debate. I think it’s more important to promote the idea of just putting the video games and the tv away for bit each day and try living in the real world. Read a book, read a blog, or write one. Go grocery shopping you’ll see that there are no zombies in the produce isle (their hiding at the deli counter…) or alien invaders setting up a base in the health & beauty isle (They’re ones you’ll find hiding in produce the swiss chard reminds them of their pet zug zugs back home…) But seriously, subjecting young developing minds to graphic violence just cannot have any positive effects, so why do it? Thanks for the great post wizard!

  17. This is a topic that drives me bonkers daily. I have an 8, almost 9, year old son. Many of his peers are allowed to watch Boondock Saints, The Crazies, etc. and play violent video games such as Left for Dead, FEAR, Assassins Creed, Modern Warfare, etc.

    I’m left, as a mother, with an 8 year old bent on rebellion convinced I’m “stupid” because I don’t do what the other “cool” mothers do. And he’s been home-schooled. Despite what some think, there are moms & dads in the homeschooling community who think nothing of buying a M or T game for the under 9 set–who also allow unrestricted access to bb guns, air guns, and decorate their children’s rooms with swords. W. T. F. Some of these are also women who consider themselves “religious” and “peaceful”. Again…W. T. F.

    I’ll keep the ban on violent games in the house, but I’ll confess, it’s just not working very well. My oldest son doesn’t seem to have been impacted (complete pacifist, hates guns and video games except for puzzles/nonviolent games–mostly likes to read and learn about science/math/play piano). I’m left scratching my head, where did I go wrong? How do I turn this around?

    It makes me incredibly angry that no one seems to care about ratings or avoiding immersing their children in a digital bloodbath.

    If we’re going to have war games…how about a game of aid workers trying to bring supplies and care to the injured? How about games where there’s war, but we the kids try to find a way to do something peaceful without guns?

    In the meantime, I’m the stupid, uncool mom who doesn’t know anything but how to wreck a good time. >_<

    • i dont believe you have gone wrong…….i have two young almost teenager daughters and keeping electronic media away from them is a loosing battle…..its not the violent games that concern me as the girls are not interested in these…but the pop stars and there highly sexually orientated clothing and attitudes they are interested in……i realize that i cannot lock then in the basment and keep this away from them totally…..i feel some form of compromise is the answer…..banning kids is the worst thing to do…causes rebelion….controlling it in an informal type of way is more rational as then they are not doing it behind your back where you have absolutly no control…….even if they do play the violent games you can at least regulate the level of violence that yopu will tolerate and can talk to them about it and make sure they have normal perspectives to this violence… will have no idea what is going on in there heads if you ban and they rebel………..

      • I know what you mean about the pop stars, my girl just isn’t there yet. The violence really is disturbing. I don’t like being a “banning” parent, but it just feels wildly inappropriate to have an 8 year old playing Modern Warfare–even if the time is limited. And I’m really pretty open and permissive in a lot of other areas. If he was significantly older, I still wouldn’t like it, but I wouldn’t be adamant about banning it. My oldest two are so like daylight and dark on this issue. I guess some just have more trouble than others with it.

      • i dont think the modern warfare type games are terribly dangerous despite the violence…they are afterall based on a particular reality…warfare is real like it or not…….these are non personal games….the military objectives are clear cut and no role playing is involved….you dont develop a personal,intense obbsesive dislike or hatred for the opponent as he is merely a nameless drone …i feel the dangerous games are the ones where role playing is involved as the characters develop personal characteristics and i feel that this may be where the illusion between game and reality may exist……….the character you are playing carries some of you personal identity and ive seen with D&D games that some people become obbsessed with this and live this character (to a more or lesser degree) in real world…….particularly in the presence of other players….the same with your opponent…when he too has characteristic attributes that you can relate to in real emotional responces to what is actually a virtual person….this to me is dangerous……i guess what im saying is, is that the graphic violence is not the problem…its the emotional connections that can become real (illusion) psycological processes………..hope this makes sense..

  18. Fellow bloggers, readers and commenters, thank you for your interest! I’m humbled by the feedback you have given me; this really motivates me to writing even better posts in the future. Cheers!

  19. The excellent LIMBO provoked a (sort of) interesting response in me, and I’ve seen the same with other players of it. The first time your child-like avatar comes to a grim end is genuinely distressing, maybe more so due to how little precise detail his silhouette boasts; the worrying thing is, when repeatedly seeing him tumble into a pit of spikes or being otherwise skewered by some tricky challenge, how quickly this visceral shock turns to frustration with that incompetent little bugger. None of us has gone out an beaten up runaways on the street as a result (no convictions anyway), but I have to acknowledge a certain deadening of my response to the violence.

    And of the kid crushed under the huge brick.

  20. Here’s another freshly pressed blog, which talks about video game ratings:

    Living in a country with freedoms comes also the tricky balance of responsibility and freedom of choice. The rating system is a great way to assist with that balance, similarly to movies. Yes, it has its flaws, but at least there is a set regulation to the system. What needs to happen is an increase in education on what the ratings mean, and then for parents to make choices as to what games to bring into their homes.

    I think the level of violence can be far too much. If I play a game, I turn off the blood-effects. I’m not playing for violence. I’m playing for solving puzzles, strategies, and stories. Fantasy violence is more tolerable than visceral, realistic violence.
    For myself, in gaming and other media, I avoid M or R level violence and sexuality, because it tends to leave an imprint in my mind. I do not act on it, but I do not want to replay it over and over again.

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