Violence in Video Games: Part 2 Enjoying Violence

[originally posted on October 15th 2013]

By Lord Yabo


Why do Humans Enjoy Violence?

We should all be repulsed by violence.  But most of us aren't.  Why is this?

When the bible says we fell, we fell hard.  Our sin saturated bodies actually experience small peaks of euphoria in seeing violent acts.

I wish I was an expert in human psychology.  I am not.  But what follows is a summary of what the experts have found (or at least theorize).

One explanation (Goldstein, Why we Watch ) is the conversion of negative affect to euphoria following a satisfying resolution to a threat.  When you see the violence coming, like in a movie when the gun is raised, or the knife being drawn, it builds a negative anticipation something terrible is about to happen.  When it actually happens, all that tension is released upon seeing the resolution.  That release is momentarily euphoric.  In short, a mini-high.

But this doesn’t explain why gore or lack of gore matters.  Do we not feel the same “sensation” if the camera is turned away and we just know what happens?  Oddly, no.

For me, the classic example of this is in Braveheart when William Wallace’s wife is placed up against the pole and her throat is slit.  The movie shows her bleeding out from the cut.  It is a horrible scene (story wise, gore wise) and the negative release is greater than if we just knew she was dead.

Two further explanations by Dolf Zillmann's from his research into Excitation-Transfer theory demonstrate how gore accentuates the release.

The first is the defying of the norm (also called “forbidden fruit” phenomenon).  We commonly call this shock value.  When you see something violent, and likely gory, it fires the “are we allowed to see this?” shock part of the brain, which leads to heightened emotional arousal.  You've probably experienced this any time you have willfully done something wrong.  That little rush, that little excitement, is from increased heart rate and blood pressure.

The second is that humans are sensation seekers.  The more ordinary, dull, or depressing, your life is. The less peaks of euphoria you experience in real life, the more likely you are to seek any sensation in your entertainment.  We see this from girls who cut themselves.  They do it not because they like it, but because they want to feel something, anything, other than what they are currently feeling.

So, in our falleness, we at a biological level find violence and gore enjoyable, no matter how our mind and hearts feel about it.

And just on another note, anyone who has watched an HBO series (Rome, Soprano’s, Game of Thrones, Deadwood, etc) knows you can pretty much set your watch by the timing of when violence or sex appears in the program.  The writers/directors know about these heightened states of arousal, when they chemically fall off, so when to push the arousal button again.

Why Do Humans Enjoy Violent Video Games?

The mini-highs experienced in watching violence are heightened by playing and interacting with the content.

Jane McGonigal writes in Reality is Broken that video games provide emotional rushes of accomplishment whenever we achieve something hard.  These highs are coined “fiero” (an Italian word, since there is no good word in English).  Video games are the fastest, most consistent delivery mechanisms of fiero.

Anyone who has tried to hit a target with the sniper rifle in EA’s Battlefield game knows exactly what I’m talking about.  Lining up that shot, with people shooting at you, buildings crumbling, helicopters crashing, tanks rumbling, and people jumping around like insane rabbits, is very very difficult.  When you finally click the button and see your target drop, there is a profound feeling of fiero (“I DID SOMETHING HARD! WOOHOO!”) punctuated by negative tension release (anticipation of violence) heightened by shock value (I’m not allowed to snipe people in real life).

This is a powerful mind/body cocktail.  Given this evidence is it any wonder that:

A) Players, not knowing exactly why, like video games with more violence than less

B) Game makers keep pushing the gore factor in order to achieve the “forbidden fruit” phenomenon.