When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say about who we are and the world we live in.

I wrote a column this week titled “The Wasted Potential of Videogame Violence” for Relevant Magazine. Videogames are unique in that the provide us with the opportunity to adopt a sense of agency over the world, our character, and the progression of the narrative. That said, I feel there is a pretty large hole in the realm of how videogames tend to handle violence. Sadly Christians haven’t had much constructive to say about the subject.

The videogame industry has done an excellent job of keeping “Mature” games out of the hands of minors. However, the average gamer today is 37 years old–so when Christians default to talking about the effects of videogame violence on children they are neglecting an important discussion on violence in videogames as an art form.

We live in a world that is plagued by violence and whether they are tangible or not, there are always consequences for violent behavior–even if its justified. What I would like to see from the games industry is violence as it truly is. Violence with strings attached even if those strings are psychological.

Our very own Rich Clark recently wrote:

Consider those games that seek to present us with a true hero. Half Life 2‘s silent protagonist, Gordon Freeman, represents a noble cause to be sure. But what kind of a hero runs around smashing open crates that belong to others while people are trying to explain something of great importance to him?

When it’s most evident that we are a part of a story that’s bigger than us, we turn sociopathic, destroying everything we can get our hands on and haphazardly shooting things across the room with a gravity gun.

We can get away with this. So we do.

Rich is picking up on something here that is prevalent in many AAA games today–many of them let us get away with non-stop violence and destruction and walk away unscathed.

In my many discussions with people about my article I have had people bring up examples of games that do what I am wishing for–confront you with the consequences of your violent actions. When I originally wrote the piece for Relevant I included the best example I have experienced of a game that does this but unfortunately I ended up having to cut that portion.

There are certainly moments in games when violence is handled honestly but I think these moments are rare. Additionally many of the games suggested as examples of nuanced takes on violence actually only reduce violence to some arbitrary morality or karma scale. As if the game itself is serving as some sort of god-figure pronouncing judgment on your actions (think Fallout 3 or Fable). Life doesn’t provide us with such black and white feedback and whose to say the standard by which the game is judging us is right?

I didn’t write this column to rail against the videogame industry–I simply want to be one small voice in its midst asking for more. I will keep playing the Half-Lifes and the Battlefields of the world but I’d just like to see more games become a little more self aware.




  1. I do sorta feel bad for game makers in this respect… they have put a lot of work into designing a rich, complicated world and they want you a) explore it, and b) circumvent normal sources of resource refreshment such as sleeping, having a job, and not engaging hundreds of of enemies over the course of three hours. It would be a bit annoying if every video game had to be written in such a way that there was some explanation to get you around this problem.

  2. I am a bit confused by your comment Ben–care to clarify?

    I certainly feel for Game Designers–its hard to make the kind of game I am asking for–especially when its sure bet to make $ with a game in which you merely blow stuff up. And I am not even saying don’t make those kinds of games. I guess I am just saying I would like to see more games take some risks in exploring meaningfully, the consequences of violence.

  3. I wasn’t really making any argument against what you said… just musing on the problem game designers face. Video games are a difficult medium to control because we want it to be open ended, but we want it to tell a story. We want serious experiences and we want to goof around with our friends (some of my best video game memories include my brothers spending 5 complicated minutes to get to a particular ledge in Halo so they could do a silly dance and then jump down). We want lots of things. It’s just an interesting challenge for the designers… and it’s no wonder that in trying to sell games, they tend to target the, “wants” they perceive in the largest number of people.

    As I say, though, not challenging your point at all, I agree with you.

  4. I didn’t think you were–I was just honestly confused by your previous comment.

    Thanks for clarifying–and yes our “wants” are many–I guess I just see too many of the same formulas being used again and again and a lot of untapped potential in this field.

  5. Silly dance, you say? We were kings of the halo world on that ledge, Ben.

    Drew, I actually really agree with the need for a deeper gaming experience. I think a lot of video games slap an overly simple morality system onto their game and think it offers consequences for in game actions.
    My experience with these is that you can generally undo any or all of your evil/good actions in a matter of minutes, and generally the morality system is a device to give you a varying set of powers/abilities/looks in game.

    This may veer off topic a little bit, but I think what holds video games back at the moment is that it is generally an economically bad idea to try and be revolutionary. Most forms of art tend to get notoriety and recognition for being original and dynamic in nature. Historically, the most successful video games are not original ideas but those that perfect a genre. Not to say that unoriginal storytelling is rewarded, just that most of the time and energy in the gaming industry goes to perfecting the mechanics of the gameplay rather than artistic value.

  6. “This may veer off topic a little bit, but I think what holds video games back at the moment is that it is generally an economically bad idea to try and be revolutionary. Most forms of art tend to get notoriety and recognition for being original and dynamic in nature. Historically, the most successful video games are not original ideas but those that perfect a genre”

    YES–I agree–especially with the economy the way it is, game companies are less likely to take a risk on something too different sometimes.

    That said, I think we are seeing and will continue to see some absolutely fascinating things coming from smaller studios and independent developers.

    Braid, Bastion, Minecraft, and Amnesia were all small projects but each meaningful games in unique ways.

    I am also really looking forward to Spy Party, Scrolls, The Witness, Nidhogg, and Button, each of which are smaller projects that seem to be doing some really fascinating things.

  7. It would be great to see this done well, but I recognize that this is a tall order. The game/s that I like best in this regard is Mass Effect. The morality is pretty simplistic, but I like the idea that in the same action/conversation, you can get both “good” points and “bad” points. This seems to be a way forward from the overly simplified models.

    I think that, for now, it may require too much from a programmer to do what I would like to see. That is, I think to implement what I am envisioning would require the effects of our actions to matter over the long haul. Here again is where I see Mass Effect being the beginning of something awesome. That is, choices made in Game 1 are going to be of consequence in Game 3.

    I love that, and I think that game makers could really exploit this in the future. Currently, if you see that a morality choice is quickly “inconvenient” for you, you can return to the save game and fix that. However, with Mass Effect you cannot do that without potentially playing through three games. The decisions you make in game one may have difficult consequences in game one, but you might be really, really glad you made that decision by game three. I would love to see that sort of trajectory playing out on the issue of morality in other games.

    So yes, I wrote this entire comment because I am a flag-waving fanboy for Mass Effect.

  8. @Brad, sometimes when you comment on our site, I don’t feel it necessary to respond to you because we almost always talk it out in person.

    I realize that that doesn’t really help anyone who might read your comment.

    Anyway, I am conflicted about what you say about Mass Effect 1-2. On the one hand I was frustrated by how people in the game perceived my actions and felt that the developers were trying to force some standard of morality upon me that I didn’t quite agree with. *SPOILER ALERT* I felt I was completely justified in letting the counsel die and rescuing others.

    After our talk, however, I realize that that is sorta the point–even when you do the right thing, that isn’t going to mean that everyone is going to embrace you and pat you on the back for your well reasoned moral decision making. So touche–good example!

    I’ll excuse your ME flag waving because those games are pretty great!

  9. Drew,

    What I think would be equally interesting to explore is why, and I am guilty of this as well, we often perceive the point of view of the characters as being the point of view of the developers. This is a classic mistake to make in the reading of literature. It would be awesome if developers could exploit that little mistake to upend our expectation over a period of sequels.

  10. I see where you are coming from but I still dont get understand why you think this is a problem. I mean what about RPGs like Pokemon where you can walk unannouced into random peoples homes and sometimes take their stuff. And the people in the house dont question why some random kid have walked in and is taking their stuff. Most of the time when you talk to them they just hi and treat like a guest. I think that is more arkward.

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