Violence In Video Games: Part 3 What Types to be Concerned About

[originally posted on October 22nd 2013]

By Lord Yabo

Ratings of Violence

Similar to movies, there is an “independent” association that rates video games based on content called the ESRB.  I use the term independent loosely, as they are funded by the video game makers.  And the ratings are done on an honor system.  The maker is responsible to answer all the questions based on their understanding of the requirements, and provide example gameplay footage.  The raters DO NOT play the games (they would likely argue it is too much work).

The ESRB has several content descriptors for violence:

  1. Blood -- Depictions of blood
  2. Blood and Gore -- Depictions of blood or the mutilation of body parts
  3. Cartoon Violence -- May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted,
  4. Fantasy Violence -- Violent actions of a fantasy nature, involving human or non-human characters in situations easily distinguishable from real life,
  5. Intense Violence -- May involve extreme and/or realistic blood, gore, weapons and depictions of human injury and death,
  6. Sexual Violence -- Depictions of rape or other violent sexual acts,
  7. Violence -- Scenes involving aggressive conflict. May contain bloodless dismemberment,
  8. Violent References -- References to violent acts

As I write this, I am saddened of how broken the world is.  Satan tricked us so we need eight separate classifications for violence.  In the perfect garden and world God created, and the new heaven and earth to come, we won’t even need one.  All games will be E for Everyone.

I have observed concerned Christians get shut down in discussion when the pro-gaming person accuses our holy book of having just as much violence in it as their game.  All I can say is: Yep.  But it doesn’t matter, because checkboxes of content is not what is important nor where the conversation should lie.

But if I may digress for a moment, how does the Bible fair on the ERSB rating scale?

  1. Blood – yep
  2. Blood & Gore – The tent peg through the head was pretty nasty, so yep
  3. Cartoon Violence – Peter cut the ear off a guard, and Jesus insta-healed it, so yep
  4. Fantasy Violence – the war in heaven of the angels, and the battle of the dragon in revelation, so yep
  5. Intense Violence – the sword through the kings gut where the fat closed over it, so yep
  6. Sexual Violence – there are plenty of rapes recorded in the bible.  A unique one was the sons of Jacob tricking a town’s adults into being circumcised and while their penises were still bloody and painful, the brothers attacked and killed everyone.  So yep.
  7. Violence – plenty of wars, hangings, decapitations, etc.  Yep
  8. Violent References – both direct and indirect, they are in there.  So yep

I do not think the the ESRB classifications are particularly useful.  So let’s use two broad categories for violence:


Visual Violence

This is any depiction of a violent act on the screen.  It could be fully animated at 60 frames per second or drawn in single frames like a comic book.  It could be mild and cartoonish, or intense and brutal, but that is only a difference in degree, not in kind.  What is important here is to identify that a dwarf swinging an axe at an orc shows the orc being hit by the axe.

Many if not most games depict visual violence.  Whether it is F.E.A.R’s nail gun piercing through someone’s body, or Mario shooting a red hot fireball at a koopa, both are visual violence.  It is the most common approach to overcoming an obstacle in the way of the player achieving their goal.

Most people concerned about violence in video games are concerned about visual violence.  I’m not saying they shouldn’t be, but this is really just an issue of degree.  Perhaps mario’s fireball is too violent for you but is not for me.  Debate over degree I find a meaningless especially between Christians and non-christians who have entirely different standards of degree.


Thematic Violence

I use the term theme to mean the story, spirit, or context of the game.  I think the thematic difference between a police officer trying to shoot a bank robber attacking hostages and a terrorist trying to shoot people in an airport is self-evident.  Both are shooting to kill, but the context (spirit) is vastly different.

Now I am going to describe one of the most thematically violent video games I have ever played: Angry Birds.

The game begins with a group of pigs that steal and kill the unborn children of the birds.  Killing is terrible, but this game’s opening scene features infanticide.  The enraged vengeful birds vow to kill not only the pigs who performed this terrible act, but every pig they see.  This is genocide, Hitler style.  This is a tale of revenge like the vicious Tarantino movie Kill Bill.  Now they don’t want to just kill the pigs, that, apparently, is too simple.  Instead, they attempt to crush them to death unsuspectingly in their homes using these elaborate Rube Goldberg machines.  This is similar to the plotline of the horror movie Saw where the psychopath gets his kicks by killing people in complex “interesting” ways.

Doesn’t sound like a simple game for kids anymore, does it?

Now I break down Thematic Violence into two easy to remember subtypes: Happy and Sad.

Happy Violence

Happy Violence describes the theme or spirit of a game that celebrates the acts of violence.  It is the enjoyment, pleasure, ecstasy, or reveling in the acts of violence.  It is the attitude where something violent happens on screen and a voiceover/character/your mind says “Hell ya!”

Examples of happy violence movies are Hostel, the latest Rambo, Kill Bill (actually most Tarantino films), most zombie or B horror movies, and grindhouse movies like Machete or Planet Terror.

The first game I saw happy violence was not Doom (1993), or Mortal Kombat, it was an Activision first person shooter called Soldier of Fortune (2000).  Tame by today’s visual violence standards, this game featured separable limbs and “gore zones” on the character bodies.  It based its advertising of the game on the gore zones.  This was a turning point for the industry.

Two recent examples of happy violence are Lollipop Chainsaw (2012) where a scantily clad cheerleader uses a chainsaw to fight off hordes of zombies in a highschool (with plenty of foul language and sex to boot).

And Bulletstorm (2011), a first person shooter where the player tries to “bounce” bodies in the air with repeated shots, hits, and special moves, to keep the violence going.  Just killing someone apparently just isn’t enough anymore.

I put the recently released Grand Theft Auto V in the camp of Happy Violence.

Sad Violence

Sad Violence is the depiction of violence with a theme that the violence is miserable, last resort, or otherwise repugnant.  The spirit of the game is that unfortunately this is the way the world is.

One other rule of thumb I use to judge if a game is sad violence or not is the “kill or be killed” idea.  Most games are about defending yourself, or defending others, or defending the greater good.  That unfortunately means killing the dragon, terrorist, or invading aliens.  There is a sense of justice to the violence.  A last resort, like the police example I gave earlier.

Examples of sad violence movies are Passion of the Christ and Saving Private Ryan.  I name these because many Christians in my circles have seen these films and so will immediately know what I’m talking about.  The gore on the beaches of D-Day in Saving Private Ryan feel drastically different from Rambo though the gore is the same or worse.  The bloodletting and pain depicted in Passion of the Christ is drastically different than Kill Bill’s sword scenes.  I could name a few zombie movies, or action movies like the original Die Hard as well.

This may be surprising to skeptics, but most video games are in the Sad Violence category.  From Mario shooting fireballs, to Skyrim’s hero defeating a dragon, to an anti-terrorist soldier in the latest Call of Duty.

Why the Types Matter

So when it comes to a discussion of violence in media (movies, books, games) I think it is imperative to first determine what type of violence we are discussing.

I have never heard a Christian who was against violence in video games and being against Passion of the Christ (they may exist).  The reason for this apparent contradiction is the person is actually just against happy violence.

When the argument of us having a violent holy book, the answer is: yes, but it is only sad violence.  While the depictions of violence may be accurate in their detail, there is a spirit of grieving over how fallen humans are and this is how they are behaving.

I find thematic violence far more concerning as a citizen, player, church elder, father, and game designer than visual violence.  I would never make a happy violence game, and any time I have played one it has repulsed me (eventually).  It concerns me when I see people enjoying happy violence, but we’ll explore this more later.

I hope I have shown the ERSB content ratings provide very little help for us.  They say a lot about visual violence, and next to nothing about thematic violence.

In some parts of scripture, the Visual Violence (as visual as words can be) is quite high.  But it is also extremely rare.  I think this is helpful to remember as we evaluate games.

I also believe each of us is going to have a differing Visual Violence threshold.  Mario may be too violent for you and not for me.  We should challenge and support one another’s “line in the sand”, rather than get caught up in endless debate.  I think our energy spent discussing should center on thematic violence.