Games Are About Violence

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I want to take a moment to put down some thoughts I’ve had about games and violence recently. In particular I want to respond to some interesting definitions of the two by Mike Rugnetta and Chris Crawford and have a look at what kind of discussion we can have when we look at them together.

There is, and has been for many years, a lot of discussion in the media around video games asking questions like “Why are video games so violent?” referring to the numbers of games that center around the simulation or modelling of physical violence as a means victory and progression. This is an important question to be asking of a culture that is steeped in media portraying physical violence but it is a question that fails to recognise the nature of games as a medium. The result is that we are incapable of asking the more nuanced and important questions that stem from that understanding; Questions such as whether or not different kinds of violence are more valuable or problematic than other forms, or what the violence in our games are saying or asking.

This article was originally posted to my own blog at acegiak.net and I have crossposted it here.

Games Are About Violence

It is easy to think of violence as just physical harm or force, or maybe even the threat of it, and this is the way that it is discussed in the media especially that surrounding games. But not only does this definition of violence quickly become murky when it comes down to threats or minor physical acts such as nudging, but it also fails to encompass some of the most prevalent forms of violence in our society, systematic violence, social violence and symbolic violence such as hate speech or erasure.

Instead, I suggest for this discussion we use Mike Rugnetta’s definition of violence: “Violence is the removal of choice or agency.” This definition allows us to recognise the use of physical force to place a victim in a position where their choices are restricted by physical injury, but also allows us to recognise that the exercising of authority over the individual such as random airport checks or parking fines are also forms of violence. What matters most for this definition is the agency of the subject, what they can or can’t do.

This definition, importantly, does not place a value judgement on violence. It does not say that violence is bad, nor does it say it is good, simply that it is and is ever present. Laws are a form of violence which hold our societies together and, for the most part, make lives better.

Given we have a working definition of violence we now  require a definition of games. For this argument we will use Chris Crawford’s definition from Chris Crawford on Game Design 2003. Crawford defines games through a series of dichotomies but his definition can be roughly paraphrased as:

“An interactive activity with goals, with other agents in which agents (including the player) can interfere with each other.”

In example: Running is an activity. Running to a place is an activity with a goal. Running to a place faster than another person (a race) is a goal with an activity and other agents. And a foot race where you can tackle the other person is a game: it has a goal, other players and you can interfere with them. In fact, that’s very nearly rugby. This form of agency is what makes it a game rather than a toy, puzzle or competition and is fundamentally what games as a medium are about. As films are the medium of movement, games are the medium of agency.

The argument thus presented is a semantic one. If violence is the removal of choice and games are activities in which agents can remove options or choices of other agents then games are, by definition, a medium of violence. This of course fails to include things we would commonly call games but Crawford’s definition would label as “puzzles” or “challenges” such as rhythm games or actual puzzle games. What this does address, however, is the fact that in most cases, violence exists within the nature of games in a far deeper sense than whether or not they depict use of ridiculous weapons and bodies spraying blood over the landscape.

Games Force Violence Upon Their Subjects

One of the interesting things that we see as a result of the way games is are structured is the way in which games force violence upon their subjects.  Topics and depictions that would otherwise be non-violent become violent when they become the subject of gameplay.

Interactions between agents in games can be non-violent but these are non-gameplay interactions. Emotes, and chat are examples of this. All gameplay interaction, however, is violent. This is because a goal is stated and all interactions change the game state, placing each actor closer to or further away from the goal. This includes mistakes or misplays in which the agent that takes those actions is violent towards themself.

Furthermore many of these individual interactions are systematized or modelled with finite output states wherein there is a winner and a loser to the individual interaction, the winner having increased options and choices available to them to achieve victory, the loser having those same options and choices reduced. Examples include a fight between two characters in a MOBA, a bidding war in Monopoly or an opposed roll in a TTRPG.

This becomes a fascinating conundrum when games attempt to model non-violent interactions, as by modelling them and placing them in a context with goals, winners, and losers they inherently make the non-violent into the violent. While in the real world a engaging in conversation to ask a friend for a favour is non-violent, when this is modelled in a game such as a TTRPG it immediately becomes a violent act of manipulation. After the dice have been rolled or other rules and systems have been examined, if the action is successful the player is moved towards their goal. The character being talked to has no choice about whether or not they do what has been asked, that has been decided by the game’s rules in which their agency has been modelled and abstracted away. In this way all mechanical models of non-violent interaction within game systems become violent by virtue of being in a game.

Games Are A Space In Which We Explore Violence

Given that we have established that games themselves can act as agents of violence towards their players it is important to recognise that when we engage in rules based activity, games, puzzles and challenges all included, those activities and their rules and systems are violent towards us. What makes this violence in particular acceptable is the fact that we can choose to disengage at any point. We willingly choose to have this violence enacted upon us so that we can explore it and it’s associated systems and stories.

Physical violence is exciting but also horrific, interpersonal social violence is dramatic, systemic violence can feel melancholy, peaceful or kafkaesque. These emotions become more intense or more nuanced when they are then also tied to stories and sensory experiences that are tied into the gaming experience by talented design. These emotions and experiences are valuable to us to explore.

The ability to have these experiences within a safe environment is incredibly valuable and the design of games is a powerful way to communicate and discuss these issues, if we choose to do so. Like BDSM, games are a safe space we enter into voluntarily to explore violence and the experiences associated with it where we know we can leave if we become too uncomfortable or no longer wish to engage.

Choosing Our Violence

Once we recognise the nature of games as the medium of agency and violence and their ability to explore those within a safe environment we start to more clearly recognise the roles of game designers as artists. As such we can also recognise the impact of those game designs on us and on those around us. We can ask questions like “what kinds of violence does this game explore and what does it say or question about them?” and it allows us to choose games that do actively make statements and ask questions about the violence presented within them, whatever its form.

As a field game design is currently dominated by a desire to create experiences that are “fun” in that they are thrilling or enjoyable, often regardless of the actual meanings behind the game’s mechanics and systems.

The reason for the abundance of games about physical violence is the fact that it is the simplest or easiest way to introduce this agency and interactivity into the system, taking it from being a toy, puzzle, or competition and to being a game. If you are in a foot race in which you want to reach the finish line before your opponent, and you are allowed to interfere with each other, the simplest solution, barring further consequences, is to murder them. In fact, many traditional sports and games are simply competitions in which restricted forms of physical violence is allowed. Boxing is a competition to see who can stand up the longest in which you are allowed to interfere with the other player by punching them. But physical violence, as we’ve already discussed is just one of the forms of violence that we encounter in our lives and we are increasingly seeing that represented in the games we see being made, especially by indie developers. It is possible to have a fun or powerful experience while interacting with social, symbolic, or systemic violence.

What we have to recognise as designers and consumers is that if games are about violence then we should examine what is being said by the games we make and play rather than just accepting violence as a byproduct of or requirement for fun. If there are games that use physical violence models as their central mechanic we should ask ourselves why. We should examine what a game is saying through its expression and depiction of violence in different forms and different situations.

To paraphrase Captain Jack Sparrow “The only rules that really matter are these: what a person can do and what a person can’t do.” Games are the medium in which we explore what we can and can’t do, what happens when those options are taken away, and what it feels like to  take those options from others. Violence rules our lives in many forms and no other medium so elegantly delivers a language within which to explore that. Games are about violence and when we recognise that we’re empowered to better make, play and discuss them.