The Evolution of Violence in Video Games

A lot of you have been asking for this one; hope you enjoy 🙂

Violence is, arguably, the most primitive building block of entertainment. Before YouTube, television, or even the gramophone, there were the ones who wielded the gladius, those who fought in the arena to cater to the euphoric crowds, whose adrenal glands were stimulated in parity by a life saving parry and a brutal decapitation both. The idea that violence is entertaining has lived on far beyond those early days of Anno Domini of course; great aptitude for boxing a person’s face will earn you the same gold medal in the Olympics as the one for swimming at superhuman speeds. Pain. People love it, and they always have. But when do you start to hate it? What set of rules define what is appealing and what is abhorrent?

This we will answer later. First, consider this idea: violence in video games has never ever changed. That might sound rather ridiculous considering the title, but bear with me. The ability to punch, kick or shoot an enemy is no different today than it was 10 years ago. Conceptually, this:

punch 1

Is just the same as this:

punch 2

When we talk about the evolution of violence in videogames, we talk about the clarity in which it is wrought, not the violent acts themselves. Both pictures above exhibit a player punching an enemy, and as such none is more violent than the other. What has changed is the detail of the viscera exposed, and subsequently the abject realism. If we look at natural selection, we can assume that more explicit violence is better because of its gradual incrementation. A lot of visible trends in gaming I do find, however, to be insidious and retrograde, but in my subjective eyes, blood and gore don’t come under the same banner as, say, microtransactions or always-online DRM. So if the ability to see a person’s eyes bulge and squeak and pop is better, why? Why do people strive for this? Players acknowledge the effects of a falcon-punch to the face, why exhibit it in so much detail, why not be implicit? We must remember that during the development of any recent Mortal Kombat game, someone had to spend hours rendering the combustion of every artery severed, the creak and crack of every bone for each individual character. Creating this kind of violence requires a deeply disturbing amount of effort. Developing the game in such an explicitly violent way isn’t just some small parapraxis, it’s a lengthy, carefully crafted projection of the mind’s capacity for ancient carnal joy. Being as explicit as possible is a costly choice, and I suppose you could say that developers strive for it to achieve that same crowd-throwing spectacle that the gladiators exhibited, and the closer you replicate the entertainment, being the violence, the closer you replicate the euphoric reaction of the crowd, now the player. But, surely then, more explicit violence is more fun? People become entirely entranced with games like Mortal Kombat for its beautifully gory gameplay, but then…are horrified by Hatred.

horror 1

As with all evolutionary timelines, there is always a new, more evolved contender, and with violence in videogames, I believe Hatred to be the most recent mark. I’ve written about Hatred here (yeah, it’s pretty bad but that was when I was just a little young blogger lamb), and I find the media’s reaction to it fascinating. Hatred actually shows less gore than that of Mortal Kombat but somehow this violence is viewed as perverse, worthy of censure and censorship, and deliberately provocative and divisive. I find this reaction interesting considering the peoples’ relative leniency for games like Mortal Kombat and Sniper Elite. The explicit violence should only trigger the aforementioned compulsive joy on seeing guts and blood, surely? This poses another, far more important question: What makes Hatred different? I believe in 2 ideas:

1: What’s The Point?

For the gladiators, it was a matter of life and death in the arena. Either you kill or be killed, that was the idea that caused the rush of the whole experience. The crowds empathised with the contestants, they could feel a fraction of their herculean efforts to repel death, and in doing so, they never felt so alive. The excessively violent fatalities you commit in MK go to emphasise the relief in that you have escaped such a horrible fate, as if the game is saying ‘this is what could’ve been happening to you’. Either that or fatalities feel good because the opponent has been so formidable that you feel an inexplicable urge to prove who’s the boss, after an otherwise equally matched game. There are a number of reasons why MK’s competitive aspect make the fatalities tolerable if not enjoyable. With Hatred, you’re just killing innocent civilians. It doesn’t quite bring about the same good feeling if you’re preying on the innocent, especially not in such grotesque detail. It just feels good to crack someone’s skull in MK because, I don’t know, they deserve it more, right?

2: It’s Closer to Home

Hatred is reminiscent of real life spree killings, that taint the world today more than ever. The fact that Hatred’s acts could be so easily replicated in real life unsettles many people. Videogames are usually a way of fulfilling adventures that can’t be performed in the real world, and so it baffles me that someone would want to live this sick fantasy out through any means. This is why we don’t have rape or drug dealing simulators, for these are the fantasies no one sane would favourably fathom. Mortal Kombat is set in a fantasy world, where your actions are in no way translatable to the real world, right?

Once you begin to think about the discernible differences between the acceptable and unacceptable, the line becomes fuzzier and ever-shifting. The dogmatic idea that Hatred is an evil game is a favourable idea, but when you wonder why, you must compare it to games that, when more closely observed, only seem to make your violent acts slightly more justified through thin rhetoric. We hate to see an innocent person get their brains bashed out, but we’d also be okay for the exact same act to be shown in less pixels in a game like Hotline Miami. When thinking about all this violence, there forms a haze which obscures our moral compass, and we have a vacillation on it, an ambivalence regarding how much we enjoy it, and the suppressed notion that we shouldn’t at all. I leave you with one last question: If Hatred is the most recent game that broke our pre-conceptual boundaries of explicitness, what will be the next?

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2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Violence in Video Games

  1. I believe you are touching upon something rather important here. When we look at games that provoke censorship then we notice many of these games are the ones that depict realistic situations.
    What critics of violent video games fear is the possibility that the fantasy and events of the games might bleed into real life – young people re-enacting the violent behaviour.
    Whether these people are right, and this is something we should be wary about would be interesting to research further.

    It was a nice little piece 🙂 – but also one you could definitely expand upon.

    Liked by 1 person

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