Violence at E3 and Responsibility in Video Games

Now that E3 is over and done for another year and the dust from another frantic week of press conferences and video game previews, there is one reaction among the cacophony of responses to the conference that has percolated to the surface: has the violence in video games gone too far?

Only a few years ago, to even question the level of violence in video games was to immediately be labeled a games-hater, associated with folks like Jack Thompson and California State Senator Leland Yee. Now the conversation about video games and violence is beginning to be initiated from within the gaming community; Rock, Paper, Shotgun, PC Gamer, 1UP and others have written on the question of violence in many of the AAA titles demoed at this year’s E3.

What many of the authors of these articles noticed was that the spectacle of violence was greeted so enthusiastically at the press conferences where it was on display. Uproarious applause resounded through the LA Convention center at the conclusion of Far Cry 3′s demo that Nathan Grayson of Rock, Paper, Shotgun called a “mess of blood, bare breasts, and ruthlessly slaughtered wildlife.” 1UP’s Jeremy Parish wonders whether or not the violence at E3 demonstrates an inability on the part of developers to introduce more “nuanced approaches to game design.” While these observations are an important part of the larger conversation, I think the reactions to violence at E3 raise a more fundamental and important question: do developers have an ethical obligation or responsibility for the content of their games?

We all agree that video games should not be held responsible for every violent act that makes headlines in the news. Indeed, in our fervor to correct the mistaken view that video games are somehow poisoning the minds of their players and creating murderous zombies, we may have been too willing to overlook the possibility that there is a moral component to video games. Obviously, many games use a morality system to rank your decision-making through the game’s plot, but what about the gameplay itself? When our characters kill countless numbers of “enemies,” be they human or alien, what kind of message do we send about heroism? About courage? About conflict?

Video games may not make people violent, but they still function as rhetorical devices for those who play them. Perhaps it might be beneficial to consider the kind of ethic we want our video games to have, the kind of message we want them to communicate. Of course, a video game fantasy is separate from reality, but shouldn’t our fantasy improve upon reality in some way? Is it true that in our heart of hearts, all we really want is the freedom to kill without being killed?

What if our video games could envision a world better than the one we inhabit? What kind of games might we create in order to offer up improved possibilities for the future? Perhaps by asking these kinds of questions, developers could begin to approach their creative products in a different way, allowing them to depart from the traditional direction that video game play has so often taken.

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  1. An excellent article with a message that I have been considering for some time now. There seems to be a trend towards dark, brooding heroes in ‘make the best of a bad situation’ scenarios. Whatever happened to bright colors in games, or heroes who want to make their world progress from good to great?

    • Yeah I think the kinds of heroes can be a part of the issue, but I don’t think we need to make games light and fluffy, either. Perhaps I’m being idealistic, but I would hope that video games could address mature issues and themes in way that encouraged good thinking about those issues, instead of working out our trigger fingers.

  2. You raise a good point. Games don’t have to be totally dark and violent to captivate us.
    I remember the first times when I played World of Warcraft and how I marveled at the overwhelming size of the world they created. It was beautiful and fascinating to explore. Video games can be a unique medium as they can invite people to explore the most creative worlds. As long as developers create a convincing, cohesive world, they can invite us to participate in realities we would have never imagined on our own. We can engage with this realities in ways totally different from movies, and even literature.
    I would like to see developers continue to create intriguing, though-provoking game environments.

    • Absolutely! Game environments are key. And I think game designers have gotten better than ever at creating rich and imaginative game worlds that often mimic reality to surprisingly accurate degree. At the same time, it is unfortunate when such digital landscapes are populated primarily by people with guns who want to kill you. I’m just glad that this conversation is beginning to be had without the immediate backlash that it would have received a few years ago.


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