Violence in Video Games Part 5: Violence Solves Problems

[originally posted on November 12th 2013]

By Lord Yabo

I have heard this all too simplistic statement: “Video game makers create violent video games because that is what sells”.  But why do they sell?  Given the controversy, and at least the potential of offending paying customers, why do game designers and their companies continue to make games with violence?

One reason is violence is a clean discreet resolution to a problem.  And it just happens to also be easy to program.

A short illustration will explain this better:

In the film Princess Bride , a trio of kidnappers capture Princess Buttercup and take her to the cliffs of insanity.  A mysterious man in black follows their ship, climbs the cliffs, and meets the kidnappers head on.  To gain the princess, the man in black must overcome Inigo’s swordmanship, Fezzik’s strength, and finally Vizzini’s wit “where DEATH is on the line.”

Now imagine you work at a studio and your team is making Princess Bride the video game.  From a game design perspective, it is pretty easy to design a sword fight.  We all understand what a sword fight looks like.  We know the win condition.  Without much effort, we could come up with the core elements that make up a good sword fight: speed, dodging, stamina, terrain, different types of swings and parries, etc.

Now imagine your diva boss took the sword fight task and you got stuck with designing the battle of wits.  But you can’t just copy what is in the movie, fans already know how to overcome that.  You have to come up with an entirely new challenge of wits.

Where to begin?  Is it a puzzle like Chess or Tetris?  Is it language based or object based?  Is it like an IQ test, or a deductive reasoning test?  Also, can people from a multitude of cultural background and languages immediately understand it and succeed at it?  Oh, and by the way, if the player doesn't complete it, they can’t progress to the rest of the game, potentially ruining the experience for all players.

How would you like THAT design assignment?!  The only thing I can think of being harder is to design “U.N. the Video Game!”

And now hopefully you see one reason why video games contain challenges overcome with violent acts: it is easy to design and therefore program.  It is easy to play and understand.  When it comes to making a game you want to keep your costs low, and have as many people as possible “get it” without explanation.

In recent years, several role playing games have attempted to capture the character driven story telling found in pen and paper role playing games where combat often plays a secondary role.  So instead of resorting to combat immediately, they provide a diplomatic option.   This usually happens through a series of dialog text choices.  If you choose the “correct” responses to character questions, you may be able to sidestep combat altogether.

While I applaud the effort, the choices are often simplistic.  I have been in negotiations where people’s livelihoods are on the line.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars were at stake.  True negotiation involves rapport, relationship history, body language, inflection of the voice, word choice, and other fuzzy aspects that are difficult to design for the game maker and difficult to understand for the player.  How does the player know how much to raise the left eyebrow to show they are sincere without being mocking?

Violence gives results that are crisp: there is no grey area in a bullet to the head.

All games can be defined as the process of voluntarily overcoming unnecessary obstacles.  The easiest way to overcome an obstacle is to punch it right in the nose.

Forget DPS, What’s your IPS (Intelligence-Per-Second)?

There is another design nuance as to why games contain violent conflict resolution.  As you practice using the controller to swing your club, you will quickly become better at judging the time and distance necessary to bash someone over the head.  This ability to try-try-again is important to hooking and keeping player interest.

So, for example, if you are playing Skyrim and you encounter a skeleton in your path, you click to swing your sword or shoot fiery magic out your fingers at him.  If he defeats you, you die, but you can reload your game and try again.  Perhaps he defeats you again.  But in this process of trying and retrying to defeat the goblin, your dexterity will improve, your timing, your lead time calculations, so that eventually (be it 5 minutes or 5 hours) you will overcome the obstacle.

Now let’s say Skyrim chucked all that nasty combat and instead put in SAT analogy questions.  If you cannot defeat the skeleton the first time, I’m going to bet repeating for 5 minutes or 5 hours, your intelligence is not going to dramatically increase.  This makes the game prohibitively difficult to play for some portion of players.  This opposes two key joys to be found in video gaming: feeling a sense of improvement and overcoming adversity through perseverance.

“As you Wish”

A powerful motivator for any player to play a game (or audience to watch a movie, or reader to read a book) is wish fulfillment.

Before I continue, I have a difficult confession to make:

I do not know how to pilot a 40 foot 60 ton battlemech in real life.

I blame my parents for waiting too long to start me, just like they did with skating.  I think they just didn’t love me enough.

But when I play Mechwarrior Online I feel as if I do know how to pilot a huge lumbering battlemech.  When I play Tiger woods golf I feel like a golf pro.  Battlefield 4, that I am a super soldier.  Tower defense games make me feel like I’m way smarter than I actually am.

Good games provide wish fulfillment.

Many men want to feel powerful.  And video games make men feel powerful.  Maybe their peers, debts, life, or wife don’t make them feel strong or like they have it all together, but video games do.  And this is why you see game designers making violent wish fulfillment games and fans flocking to play them.

Given the choice to play as Bruce Willis from Moonlighting or Bruce Willis from Die Hard, I’m betting most guys choose Die Hard; not because it is violent, but because Die Hard Bruce Willis is tough as nails, can’t be stopped, and represents power.

This also explains why for decades females where “meh” towards popular video games.  Women, generally, have different wish desires than men.  But when a game comes along that meets women’s desire to be organized, helpful, queen bee of her social network, like FarmVille offered, women flock to it.

God created us with desires.  Good desires.  The desire for sex is baked in and God said it was good.

Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”  Having a desire does not mean we should fulfill it.

And this is where the violence in video games question gets thorny again: when players fulfill a desire to feel powerful, is that good or evil?  The answer is most certainly: it depends. :-)

If you are male and your primary way of feeling powerful is through video games, that is a problem.  Don’t escape reality to get something you need in reality.  That’s like trying to find a better life with a heroine needle.  The world desperately needs men who are fully engaged with reality.  Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.  Find your power in Christ, then go kick some ass (figuratively) for him.