What’s so bad about violence in games?

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From Mortal Kombat X to Hatred, violent games are back in the headlines. Is it time to own up to how much we love them?

We love violent games. There’s no point in trying to deny it. They’ve formed the backbone of our favourite gaming experiences over the last couple of decades. From the moment blood and gore could be depicted in pixelated form, we’ve lapped them up (if you’ll forgive the rather gruesome image). They may be attacked and maligned and often used as the scapegoats of all our ills, but we have no shame in admitting our adoration.

If simply proclaiming this affection isn’t enough for you and you would appreciate some proof of love then look no further than the 14 games that have had the privilege of being marked ten out of ten by games™ in our 13 years. We would suggest that more than half of them are renowned, perhaps even infamous, for their graphic content. It may not have been the single reason why we loved them, but it certainly didn’t appear to hurt our assessment.

“Human beings live for fantasy,” asserts Running With Scissors CEO, Vince Desi. “Imagining oneself as a hero, a lover, a killer, all go hand in hand with fame, fortune and fantasy. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we acted out all our fantasies? Thank God humans can fantasise as a way of exercising their desires and satisfying their emotions.” And as one of the people behind the Postal series, he would know better than most. There’s an important escapism to be found in playing games. We often hear people saying that they find Call Of Duty or GTA relaxing as they can comfortably expel frustration or anger in a healthy way.

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But they’re not always viewed that way. The most recent controversy surrounding a violent game came from Hatred by Destructive Creations. As a dark, violent and seemingly rather cynical game where you play as a mass murderer, it didn’t take long before it drew negative attention from the mainstream press. Perhaps what was most unique about the controversy, though, was that it seemed to split the gaming community in a way few games prior had done. Many seemed discomfited with the setting and gameplay of Hatred’s first trailer and it had even staunch defenders of gaming asking, ‘Have we gone too far?’.

“The violence itself isn’t any more exaggerated than in many games you play, it’s just the way of telling what we want to tell,” Destructive Creations CEO Jarosław Zieliński insists to us. “It is a game about a mass-murderer, so violence is inevitable.” And despite that, Zieliński was surprised by the reaction. “I knew that it would make some noise and would bring some attention, but I never dreamed that it would reach such a big scale,” he reveals. “Our game was covered in gaming press and major media such as Forbes, The Guardian, The Sun, etc. That’s unbelievable to realise, because so far we are a small and unknown development team from nowhere.”

What followed was a melodrama of attack and defence as the game was chastised by gamers, then defended, pulled from Steam Greenlight and then reinstated with an apology from Gabe Newell, “We are grateful to our supporters, fans and anyone who made it available on Steam in so short a time,” Zieliński adds. “That means that adult gamers do need such gaming, they want to play Hatred, they want to support independent developers, because they feel that our game is more honest and fun than many titles they have played recently. And an honourable mention: Gabe equals GOD!”

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That suggestion of being more honest is an interesting one and something that chimed with the thinking of Rebellion, makers of the Sniper Elite and Zombie Army Trilogy games who have pioneered the x-ray bullet cam. In some ways the interactivity of games means greater consequence can be portrayed with violence. “I think there is another debate to be had about how [violence] stands in the game and how it is portrayed and whether it is gratuitous,” begins Rebellion CEO and creative director Jason Kingsley.

“Do you educate the player: ‘This is exactly what a bullet does to the human body, and it’s pretty horrible’? It’s the complete opposite approach to the ‘dinner-time TV shows’ where people are using automatic rifles and people fall down, there’s no blood and no bits, nothing happens to them.”

Consequence and context can be important then and most games have some level of justification for their violent content. It may be overblown to the point of gratuity, but it originated from a deliberate intent of some kind. It’s often when that context is removed for some reason (with violence depicted in a trailer, a short demo for promotional purposes or deliberately isolated in support of a particular agenda) that games get in the most trouble. “If you’re not able to provide the full context to people who are critical reviewers of it, it can leave you exposed to ‘I played this game and I saw something that was out of context and was jarred and it’s left me feeling a little bit uncomfortable’,” Devolver Digital’s Graeme Struthers admits to us. It was something he and Dennaton Games experienced first hand recently with Hotline Miami 2 and an implied rape scene in the game.

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“Yeah, that’s probably the best example we’ve had ourselves. From the game-makers’ point of view, they wanted people to experience the entire game and make their own decisions about how they felt rather that this small segment of the game. And looking back I think it was a misstep that we should have thought about because it was there without context and that led to some people feeling uncomfortable. I can understand that as well. It wasn’t something where we thought ‘How can you possibly feel like that?’. As soon as that got said, we realised that there was actually no context to this particular part of the game. Hopefully now that the game is out, that context is there and people can see it the full picture.” The scene itself is framed like the rest of the game as if it’s all being portrayed by actors, so just before the awful assault appears to be happening a director calls cut and the scene ends. In the broader context of the horrible scenes the game references as part of a commentary on violence in media, it may not be so jarring, but on its own, many had difficulty with it.

Desi agrees that context is very important. “In Postal, we want the gamer to experience an over-the-top totally ridiculous sensation of fantasy. How many aliens, people, soldiers, or zombies is the right amount to kill in a game? More important than the numbers is the context. Does a sex scene in a movie require full nudity? No, it’s a matter of perspective. The game developer like the filmmaker or author is trying to convey an effect. Extreme emotions are expressed differently than subtle passive reflections.”

And that’s really the most important point. Violence in and of itself isn’t a reason to play or enjoy a game. But when it’s done right, it adds substantial flavour. Were those ten out of ten games only great because of the blood and gore? Of course not. But their presence was a signifier of a more mature, open-minded approach to content, much as Devolver takes when publishing a game. “It’s hard for me to step back and look at the range of games we’re involved in and look at it from the point of view of what style we have, but we don’t shy away from it either,” Struthers explains. “If the game creator, in the case of Dennis [Wedin] and Jonatan [Söderström, makers of Hotline Miami], if that’s the game they make, we have no editorial view on that. We just love the game they’re making. I never really understood the Daily Mail-esque debate about games. It’s always struck me as very low-hanging fruit to go after that issue and make out games are bad. I just don’t agree with that.”

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And that’s been the position of most gamers when it comes to conversations of violence; we go on the defensive. In fact, some of the developers we reached out to for this discussion bowed out because they didn’t want to be drawn into that low-hanging argument. There’s a tendency for everyone to end up with mud on them “There is an ongoing debate and overall it is something for the industry to consider,” Kingsley admits to is. “It’s also down to your audience: are you making an 18-plus rated game? Then I guess it’s down to creativity and what sort of story you want to tell, like you would in a movie or a book. If you wanted to make it for a younger audience? Those under 18? Then you have a different set of parameters that you have to bring into play. We are very comfortable in the 18-plus horror genre, very firmly in that area, It comes down to what we as game creators feel is okay. Some will disagree. Some will think our game is too gory, but they have the right to think that.”

Which begs the question, is there anything games shouldn’t be allowed to depict? “‘Allowed’ implies permission and that in itself speaks to freedom of expression,” Desi tells us. “Game technology should break technical boundaries but not concern itself with content. Creativity is rooted in the human spirit and it’s not something that can be ‘programmed’ for the sake of commercial gain. That said, humans are greedy, so we should always expect and not be surprised by business decisions that take the cheap shot at success.”

For Destructive Creations, it’s a question of fear. “Most devs are afraid to cross certain lines, because they are afraid of gamers’ and publishers’ reactions, they are afraid of market rejection,” Zieliński tells us. “They don’t do such games, because instead of listening to themselves, they tend to ‘bend’ to meet the needs of the market and publishers. This is a so-called ‘safe way’ to reach gamers and sell games – for some devs it’s good, but it wasn’t good for us any more. We needed to make a decision, and it seems that it works fine for us at the moment. Some may say that our marketing success is luck, but I rather consider it as a reward for courage and believe me, it was necessary to have balls when it came to showing our game to the world.”

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Game-makers must set their own terms and level of comfort. For Running With Scissors it’s really very simple. “At Running With Scissors we’ve always had one element we will not use: children” says Desi. “We make mature games for the hell of it, but we choose not to exploit children as subject matter. It’s a moral choice we’ve made and stand by.”

Interestingly, Hatred also drew a similar line, having been inspired by Postal. “We didn’t even think about killable children, to be honest,” reveals Zieliński. “And you know, there is no torturing here, killing people in our game is just a cold-blooded elimination of your targets, quite a military style. Not because we’re afraid to touch these subjects, rather because my vision was like that. The Antagonist is hateful, but not sadistic.”

As much as many may have disagreed with some of the rating controversy around Manhunt for example, it seems logical that interactivity does make its depictions of murder very different from the passive experience of a movie. But crucially, it can only be said to make the experience different. Not better, not worse, not more or less manipulative. Only different.

In Hatred’s case, it seemed that some of the criticism was pre-emptive of criticism that would surely come, as if the game cast a negative light on the industry as a whole. It comes as no surprise that the maker of Postal was contacted by many outlets looking for a reaction. “Being Running With Scissors, we were immediately contacted by the media and gamers when Hatred was announced,” Desi confirms. “We fully support their right to make their game, Hopefully the marketplace will determine its success and it will not be crippled by political correctness. The power of social media coupled with digital distribution is a beautiful thing, and a great advance for democracy.”

What's so bad about violence in games?

And the digital, indie realm is definitely where we’re seeing some of the most impressive commentary and contextual experimentation with violence. From Hatred and Hotline Miami’s more overt gore and gunplay to the subtler pixelated duels of Nidhogg or the cartoonish destruction of Besiege, there’s a lot of boundary-pushing and clever interplay of story and gameplay going on. The debate rages on and developers keep feeding the flames in creative ways thanks to the rise of indie development.

“I think the outcome is that the industry is becoming more of a creative medium with the indie space,” is Kingsley’s assessment. “Indies can make a game about whatever statement they want to make. If you want to talk about nihilism or ultra violence in society? It’s your money, you can do whatever you like if you’re an individual author, it’s obviously your right to do that!”

Ultimately, though, it has to come back to making a game that’s fun. As we stated at the start we love these games not just for their content, but for the package of gameplay, themes, story, art and everything else. That’s what attracted Devolver to Hotline Miami in the first place too, not the graphical content or how marketable that could prove. “We got the demo through from Cactus [game creator Jonatan Söderström] and sat down and started playing it because it was incredibly addictive,” Struthers reveals to us. “I absolutely couldn’t stop, I’m not very good at it, so I played it a lot. So, it’s after the event, almost, in that particular case when you look at the game differently because at the time you’re having so much fun and I think the consistent thing for us in looking for any game we get involved in that there’s a key hook to the gameplay that just keeps you wanting to come back to do it.”

And for all that Hatred has found itself at the centre of some furor over its content, making something engaging, fun and different is all Destructive Creations is interested in too. When we asked what we can expect from the final release Zieliński told us simply; “A lot of fun from destruction of almost any element of each level, tactical combat and an unusual, dark atmosphere of gameplay. But most of all – an evil grin on player’s faces!”

We continue our celebration of all things gory and violent in our Videogame Nasties special collection. Download it now!

What's so bad about violence in games?