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December 10, 2012

The Question

I knew I was going to get it some day, though I didn't figure on it from the perspective of a school assignment. But tonight my son¹ asked me the question.

"What do you think of violent video games? You know, as a game developer."

Eesh. I had always expected to get this question in the form of "Why can't I play Call of Honor: The Deadening 3"? And to that I do have an answer, and it goes something like this:

In the grand scheme of your life, you're going to be innocent only for a little while, and you're going to be not innocent for a lot longer. I'm not in a hurry to give up your innocence for a few hours of fun with a video game, and you shouldn't be either.

This is my answer as a parent, and I discussed that with my girlfriend a couple of years ago when she was getting the same sort of questions from her own son, who is the same age as my son asking the question. It's something I really believe -- I do think that certain things, once experienced, can't be un-experienced, and you're stuck with those choices for a long time². And as a parent, I'd like to hold out on my kids experiencing the content in violent video games for as long as I can, because well, what's the hurry?

As an aside, I think I understand now the earlier and earlier ages at which young people consume content prior generations would have considered only appropriate for adults³. We want to share the things that we enjoyed when we were kids with our own kids, and so we do, we take them to movies that we enjoyed or share with them books that we liked, or what-have-you. But our own memories are a bit faulty; we can't really remember clearly what we enjoyed when we were five or six. So we share what we remember, which probably came along a little bit later, perhaps when we were nine or ten. We expose kids earlier and earlier to things that we remember from our own youth, not really keeping track of the fact that we were a little older than they are now. When those kids grow up, they are sharing things with their kids that two generations prior would have been later still.

But that's not what he asked me. He asked me what I thought of them as a game developer. And there are lots of answers. (I realize that these answers mostly pertain to the violent video games we see in the AAA space, but these are the various things I said and that came to mind.)

  • I think violent video games are often misrepresented by the press, and I wish that they got the same treatment as other violent elements of our culture. This was a pretty standard answer for me as early as ten years ago, when events like Columbine and the day trader in Atlanta were pretty fresh. We all remember how DOOM was trotted out as the reason for the violence by Harris and Klebold, and while I have no proof that Barton was a fan of football, I suspect that he might have been, just statistically speaking.

    I have a hard time believing that the only cause of real world violence is what some have called murder simulators -- and clearly it's not. (I'm not going to cite papers which suggest the correlation of reduced violent crime with the rise of video games, because they don't draw causative relationships.) But clearly we had mass murderers before, and if violent video games disappeared from the face of the Earth tomorrow, we'd have them again in the future.

  • Violence is part of humanity. True, as far as it goes, but certainly not the whole story, and not even remotely the whole story when you consider the balance of the scale in favor of violent video games compared with games that attempt to plumb other aspects of the human equation.

  • I find them problematic because they are easy, and so we pursue better and more realistic violence rather than something truly difficult, like the rest of the palette of human interaction. It's relatively easy to dial up the violence simulation, and so often we do. We understand the underlying mechanism of cathartic release through violence, and it touches lizard parts of our brain.

    In some ways, I think that you can make an argument here that we're doing what science does, to a degree -- we are filling out all the blanks in our understanding before we experience what Thomas Kuhn calls a paradigm shift. We're working out lots of mechanics that refine games in different directions, including their representation of realism. The ways in which we provide a huge amount of variation and art (yes, art) in our presentation of violence will help some day when we're looking to generate other sorts of human responses.

  • One doesn't start watching films with Bergman nor novels with Tolstoy, and I wouldn't expect one to start gaming with the equivalent4. Violent, cathartic video games are an entry for many young people into the world of video games -- without popcorn games like these, we wouldn't have the audiences and install base that could support a Journey nor a Braid.

    That said, the Journeys and Braids are pretty far between -- it's not like there are dozens of great AAA level games on any kind of annual basis that show us something beyond violence. I've often lamented that fact here in the blog, and so I'm not going to revisit the paucity of polished non-violent experience here again.

    Truth be told, I'd love to see more attention paid to areas other than violence at the AAA level. I think it's going to get worse before it gets better. I believe we are a long way from our full expressivity as a medium.

  • I don't think it's been conclusively proven that violent video games do anything more than give a short burst to aggression. I do try to keep up with such things, because this is a troubling area for me, and always has been5. I worry about the effects of the things I produce, and I try to keep current with research. I've not yet seen a definitive link between violent video games and real-world violence at a troubling level.

Those are just a few of the things I mentioned, and indeed it's such a rich subject I can't imagine covering all of my thoughts here, because they're constantly evolving.

Since he asked me a couple of hours ago, I've tried to think about what games I've played that are violent (at an M-rated level) that I'd consider allowing him to play. Here are a few, in no particular order6:

  • Far Cry 2: Although I'd want to be watching him as he played and talking about the real-world issues that this game explores to a degree, I think it's sufficiently steeped in those issues as to have real value.
  • Left 4 Dead: Equally well its sequel, for what it's worth. I'd want to play this one with him cooperatively, because it's perhaps one of the best zombie experiences I've ever had in any medium whatsoever, and I think it's something he can handle (if not get the most out of, having not seen all the source material). And it works not because it exposes the horrors of zombies, but because it exposes the mistakes and humanity of the people you play it with.

That's a pretty short list (and there may well be one or two I'm not thinking of), and that's a real concern for me. (I admit, I'd have put Heavy Rain on there, but I've not played enough of it to be able to stand behind it.)

Here's the follow-up question I'm glad he didn't ask: Given that there's a lot of rich territory out there still to explore and that you think needs exploring, why aren't you off doing that?

I don't have a good answer for that one yet.

¹Aged 14, and in his first year of high school; has played games in the past, though between baseball and other activities, we don't have as much time to do so lately. M-rated games are not permitted to him. He plays quite a bit on an iPad. He once described himself as "almost a professional GameCube player".
²I did take both he and his brother, who's 12 now, to a showing of Jaws on the big screen when they were 9 and 7.
³Though I will never understand the people who will take a four-year-old into a showing of Skyfall or The Dark Knight Rises.
4I'm sidestepping the issue of the violence which is sometimes in these works themselves. Take Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment... some chilling stuff in there, and I wouldn't let my son read it for a couple of years yet, even though it is fantastic and one of my very favorite novels. Kurosawa is one of my absolute favorite directors, and any number of his films have quite literal geysers of blood.
5A few days after Columbine, I wrote a sort of defense or exploration of my profession to my immediate family to let them know where I stood on the issues of violence and video games. I kind of wish I still had that, but it's long, long gone by now.
6Note I'm not including any games I've worked on. I think they have value, but I'm too close to them to make a sound judgment.

Posted by Brett Douville at December 10, 2012 08:30 PM


"Given that there's a lot of rich territory out there still to explore and that you think needs exploring, why aren't you off doing that?"

I have an answer, for me. It's much too comfortable and safe to be employed at a larger studio, rather than going at it alone or with a small group of like-minded... And I don't wield large enough a hammer at work to see the change that ultimately is necessary for our art form to grow and mature.

Posted by: Andreas Öjerfors at December 19, 2012 07:05 PM

Hey Andreas, thanks for stopping by.

That was certainly my answer for a while. Now, part of my answer is that I genuinely enjoy tackling the sorts of large-scale problems that come at the AAA level, and being in a position to provide vision and direction to tackle those problems.

Who knows what the future will bring? I look at Hollywood (not as a production methodology nor as a model for creativity) and see a thriving market-driven environment that finds room for all kinds of product besides violence. I could probably write a whole long article or series of articles on how the two industries matured/are maturing, comparing and contrasting.

For me, I have at least one or two AAA games left in me for sure, but we'll see beyond that.

Posted by: Brett Douville at December 20, 2012 10:49 AM