Another article I decided to write off-the-cuff on a topic I’d been idly thinking about for a long time – why exactly is it that video games are so much more focused on the idea of killing other people than other types of modern entertainment.
“Why does everything have to be about shooting?”
This was something I was asked a lot by my mother when she watched me play video games. It’s a valid question – even back in my early youth all the major games coming out seemed to be about violence and shooting.
While it can truthfully be said that we as a culture have a fascination with the idea of war, and killing in general, it still seems as if the video game industry is saturated with games which make this their primary goal as a form of entertainment. When this is looked at in contrast to the mediums of film, television, theatre and practically any other form of modern entertainment, it can be seen that this tendancy towards violence in video games is disproportionate, no matter what you compare it with.
So why is this? While television and films certainly have their share of the violent programs, they are by no means in the majority (I am, however, speaking about British television. I have no real knowledge of American television, but I would assume it would be only slightly more in favour of violence). Let’s take the example of my (probably biased) shelf of video games and DVDs. Out of the 28 games I own on the Xbox 360, 23 mainly involve direct violence, 20 involve shooting guns, 14 are rated for 15 years or over and 9 are rated for ages 18+. Compare that with the 24 DVDs I have on hand, 9 of which involve direct violence, and only 4 of those having violence as a major theme throughout. I have 12 rated for over 15 years old, and 4 for over 18. I think these numbers, while obviously not being particularly solid or objective, give something of an insight into what I mean. In the film industry, a film is dismissed if it doesn’t have a story backing up the violence. This is something I feel the video game industry has not caught up with yet.
One way of looking into why exactly video games are so much more violent than the average alternative medium is to trace back the lineage. By doing this, we inevitably get to the game that started it all – Doom. While there had been games before Doom that revolved around shooting (indeed spacewar, the game credited as being the first widely available and influential computer game, was a two player game where they fought against each other using rockets) it was not until Doom came along that an entire genre was created for such games – the First-Person Shooter. It’s not often that we take time to look at what an odd label that is for a genre of entertainment. It says nothing of what to expect from the story, environments, charactors, conventions you can expect to find within the game. Instead, it catagorises itself by the fact that you shoot thing in it, and people accept this. This is due to the impact Doom had upon release.
The immense popularity of Doom set a number of precidents in the world of video games along with the technical milestones it’s known for. With it’s pioneering graphics, it was the first time people had really been able to see what they were shooting in any meaningful way. As well as this, it was also a signal to developers that a game could be immensly successful with little to no story at all. This revelation led to the 1990s (not directly, I assume the 1990s would have happened anyway) and the string of so called ‘Doom clones’ that were created. From pretty much that point onward – where developers saw that they could get their profits without bothering about storytelling or thinking of new concepts for games – the games industry became more centered around producing games based on this dream model where all that needed to be done was to place a gun between the player an an enemy.
If we keep to this line of thinking, and were fairly cynical, it could be claimed that the majority of the games industry today is just the evolution of technology crossed with that original model game. Of course, there have been a huge amount of innovations in terms of gameplay throughout the years, but if we look at even some of the most recent games – especially those created to sell the system on which they are based – we can see that a lot of the features they boast about are just padding around a better-looking version of Doom. Even outside the First-Person Shooter genre (which is, I believe, the biggest selling genre of video games), the vast majority of games still revolve around the idea of violence.
So, presuming that this is the reason for a violence-dominated industry, there would seem to be a logical solution to such a saturated market. Logically, if a game can revolutionise an industry once, it should be possible to do so again. Unfortunately, it would seem that it is not as easy as all that. As we can see from the GTA phenomina, it is possible to get to the stage where there are clones surfacing, but it looks doubtful that it will reach the same dizzying heights as the FPS genre. It may be the case that in an already well-formed industry, the larger companies are simply unwilling to change what seems to be a winning formula.
There’s also the matter of persuading people to buy a game without violence. As most games are now centered around inflicting pain, it would be difficult to advertise a game to the masses which doesn’t have some kind of angry man in giant armor involved. One of the reasons Doom was so popular was the controversy surrounding the game due to it’s violence. As a result, if you were to seriously try to bring about a similar revolution in the games industry, it would need to be just as news-worthy as Doom, or GTA, was.
However, the idea that Doom is the sole reason our industry is now focused on the murdering of increasingly numerous pixels is a little narrow-sighted. It might also be beneficial to look at the time the industry really took hold. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned a number of different mediums for entertainment – Film, Television, Theatre, and many more. What is important to note is that all of these predate the rise of popular videogames by a long time. It might seem silly to consider that we are simply more hungry for violence nowadays that we were when Television or Cinema was made into a profitable industry, but it’s something that needs ruling out rather than ignoring.
It could be that by the time video games really emerged as a medium, the tides were turning in film and television anyway. If that were the case, video games may have just caught that wave and surged ahead of the rest, as a result turning out more extreme than Film and Television ever would have if left to their own devices. There’s a;sp the matter of precidents – something which holds true in the outside world as well as in U.S. law. That is, when something controversial has happened, it becomes easier to do it again, and therefore opens up the possibility for the next controversial decision. Since Doom, we now have detaching limbs, decapitations, realistic reactions to hitting someone with a pipe, and suffocating someone with a plastic bag. As a result, if we saw anything now that had the same level of violence as Doom, we would consider it extremely tame – where it received a rating of ages 18+ when it was released, I doubt it would be rated at all today.
There is, however, an entire section of gaming that seems impervious to the violence-infested waters of the minstream, and this is the Wii and Nintendo at large. While the Wii has had a few games which are primarily violence-based, it’s focus on a casual gaming scene has led to far more games being more ‘party’ games or what passes for adventure games these days. Even of those games which are violence based, the majority are fashioned in a cartoon fashion which is instanly less realistic, offensive and graphic that what every other platform seems to be currently striving for.
Based on this, one might extrapolate further to claim that it is not the industry that is fueling the violence within its games, but is simply playing up to supply and demand. If we assume that those first gamers who gave video gaming a solid base were the same kinds of people who downloaded Doom when it was released, it can also be assumed that the videogame industry has grown directly from those roots. After all, it was only recently that gaming really broke into the mainstream, with games like The Sims and Guitar Hero (neither of which are violent, you’ll notice), and by that time the conventions of the industry were well established. So instead of the instant popularity of television and cinema, videogames experienced an incubation period where it was fed by people who enjoyed the violence in Doom, and wanted to see more of it. It wasn’t until these less violent mainstream games arrived that the industry started pulling in people outside this inner circle (which is one of the major reasons for the longevity of the video gamer stereotype).
Whatever the reason, I think that the abundency of violence in games has stunted the possibilities for games from the big name developers. It’s also in my view somewhat responsible for the lack of variation within games with violence – a complacency has descended amongst the larger developers, and it will take a large upheaval to make them try hard again. Perhaps, with the current economic climate, they may be forced into trying something new. I certainly hope so.