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Desensitization. Something of a dirty word in gaming circles, most often associated with hysterical cries to protect the wee babes, and the sort of grating knee-jerk fear mongering perhaps best summarized under the distasteful catch-all of “Thompsonism.” Yet even if research, experience and basic common sense all dispel the notion that violent games somehow make us callous to real violence, it seems equally obvious that most gamers have become effectively desensitized to virtual violence. Sure there may be the occasional raised eyebrow and minor kerfuffle over a particularly egregious display, but by and large violence is, and has been, such a standard element of games that it’s now second nature to shoot, stab, punch, fireball, run over and manapault our way through wave after wave of disposable enemies.

The depiction of violence in games is a microcosm of a larger struggle, as developers must strike a balance between violence as a mechanic and violence as a dramatic device.

It’s Duck Hunt redux, paper targets covered with the appropriate palette and thrust into the meat-grinder of player aggression. A time-tested formula for success, but as games grow more sophisticated and seek to crawl out of the arcade sewer and into the sunny day of respectability and *shudder* art, new problems arise. The increasing fidelity of game worlds and their ability to rival more traditional mediums as methods of compelling story-telling means that the role of violence has grown more complex. The early extreme abstraction of a Space Invaders or a Pac-Man meant the emphasis lay squarely on gameplay, with narrative trappings like story and graphics added as a loose justification for the action, about as weighty as the “story” of a chess game. Now narratives are often elaborate and integral parts of the game experience, something which can produce discord between story and the more traditional game elements.

The depiction of violence in games is a microcosm of this larger struggle, as developers must strike a balance between violence as a mechanic (“You sunk my Battleship!”) and violence as a dramatic device (“You sunk my Battleship, and now the screams of the dying haunt your dreams as an eternal reminder of the terrible price of war.”) To try and get a handle on the issue, I spoke to James Silva of Ska Studios (Dishwasher: Dead Samurai) and Jamie Cheng and Jeff Agala of Klei Entertainment (Shank) on what they thought made violence such an appealing game mechanic. For Silva, the answer lay in destructive catharsis:

It’s kind of like wanting to smash a watermelon in real life. It’s satisfying for some deep, primal reason. [In Vampire Smile] I was proud of how I set it up … there’s a lot of different variants in gore types. There’s blood arc (that’s when you hit someone with a sword), drop, glob, crystal, jet, mist, spurt, and squirt *laugh.* I kept playing with different effects when making the particle system to capture this visceral feel so when you slash at something stuff goes everywhere.

Cheng and Agala express a similar sentiment, but to them the satisfaction stems less from the violence itself, and more from a validation of player skill. As they explain:

Agala: I think everyone enjoys succeeding, be it getting coins or shooting a duck. It feels as good to get a screen full of coins in Mario as it does to perform a melee kill in Halo. It’s in the context of the game. Many early games were rip offs of movies, and movies were violent. The hero was pretty much invincible and the “goons” went down with one shot. Games allow you to control those over-the-top moments that you’ve seen in action movies, making you feel larger than life.

Cheng: Games are really good at systems, and systems are easily understood when they are direct. In terms of directness, there are few things more direct than violence. Another way to look at it is that games are mostly based around physical space — so there are a bunch of common actions that leads to. Things like moving, running, jumping, knocking things over, and punching someone in the face.

Reasonable conclusions, but it seems to me the increasing sophistication of game technology has begun to muddle the issue. It’s a conflict evident in the frequent debates over the morality of game violence, debates that rarely take issue with violence itself, but rather its quantity, brutality and fidelity. When abstraction gives way to mere distillation of certain aspects of reality (specifically the “horrible, horrible murder” aspects), then the defense of “it’s only a game” carries less weight. Yes, it’s satisfying collecting coins in Mario, and when graphics were more suggestion than visualization the difference between that and killing an enemy was trivial at best. Fast forward a decade though, and it’s a bit harder to compare bouncing off a Koopa to ripping a man in half or punching him in the groin so hard that his pelvis explodes. It’s not an issue of morality but rather one of palatability, something all three developers agree with. Says Silva:

In 10th grade I passed out reading Farewell to Arms, the scene where a man has blood dripping down on him from a cot above him. That’s me with realistic violence. When it’s stylized, it speaks to that primal instinct without hitting the point where it goes over the line … It’s like going through a china shop with a sledgehammer. If instead the game was about detailed surgery and pain, I’d probably throw up and pass out.

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For Silva, fun remains the primary goal. “There’s developers out there who want to hit that trigger that makes gamers think ‘Oh my God, this is making me physically ill.’ I think the mass market is still going to be games like Call of Duty or Gears of War that are all about entertainment. I’m still going to be in that camp.”

Outside of games where graphic violence is a central mechanic or a key visual component there seems little desire (or demand) for a realistic depiction of violence.

Agala shared a similar view:

It’s a matter of timing, it’s the difference between a few frames before something goes from exciting to disturbing. The actual acts the characters are performing on screen are pretty violent but [in Shank] they are cartoon characters which lowers the perception of gore. We spent a lot of time making Shank‘s combat feel nice and responsive so every attack works with the overall rhythm of the combat. We’re very conscious of how long something violent is on screen: If it is too long it becomes distasteful, if it’s too short the player doesn’t get it. We always look to provide a satisfying kill without overplaying it. The harder the move is to pull off, the more violent it is, with boss kills being the most violent.

It seems simple enough. Games are supposed to be fun, so if putting your hand in the puddle of goo that used to be your best friend’s face isn’t fun, don’t put in the game. For most players, the bare minimum of suggested violence to initiate the aforementioned suspension of disbelief is sufficient. How else can you explain the piff-paff blood spurts of a Call of Duty, a series that takes every opportunity to look just as gosh-darn spiffy as possible yet depicts combat as a cross between a G.I. Joe cartoon and paintball?

Outside of games where graphic violence is a central mechanic (Splatterhouse, Bulletstorm) or a key visual component (Mortal Kombat, Gears of War) there seems little desire (or demand) for a realistic depiction of violence. Even those games are less about “real” violence and more about hyper-stylized bits of gore designed as Pavlovian indicators of player triumph. To the best of my knowledge, the first two Soldier of Fortune games were the only titles to really attempt a semi-grounded approach to violence, and it was less out of a desire for narrative weight and more as a tech novelty, the internal hemorrhaging equivalent of colored lighting and curved walls. Of course none of these games really needed realistic violence, any more than a Die Hard or a Commando would. As long as games aim for the narrative immersion of an action film, the implausibility and repletion of violence, and the subsequent desensitization of the player to its moral aspects, aren’t a problem. Scale back the violence when needed, pump it up for titillation.

Where this technique comes up short is when games try and have the “Pow! Pow!” mentality and then simultaneously treat violence as more than escapist fantasy. For me the most egregious offender is Modern Warfare 2, arguably the broiest of bro shooters, whose “No Russian” level was distasteful not so much for its premise, but its limp execution. What could have been a powerful (albeit out of place) moment of seriousness quickly becomes farce as civilians topple willy-nilly, repeating the same animations and awkward responses again and again. To me it felt staged and artificial, though Silva disagreed, saying. “People thought it was a corny sequence; I thought it was really haunting. It worked for what it was. You have to ask where you draw the line … They could have taken it further, but [they stopped] in the name of good taste.” Agala agreed. “I think games like Shadow of the Colossus and MW2 have shown us that you can take a core mechanic and with the addition of a simple story suggestion make the player feel totally different about performing the same act. I don’t think realism needs to be there, the player just needs to have a connection with the characters. I remember playing Lemmings as a kid and feeling really bad for the exploding lemming.”

Clearly individual tastes will vary, but I can’t help but feel that games have hit a ceiling of sorts in terms of giving weight and consequence to violence. It’s not impossible for games to create meaningful in-game moments. Agala raises a great point with Shadow of the Colossus, and I’d throw Half-Life 2 and The Darkness in the mix as well. The bulk of dramatic narratives, however, seem to continually rely either on pre-rendered cinematics, or clunky scripted events that more often than not simply abandon the previously established mechanics for an unearned tug at the heart-strings. It’s more frustrating than depressing when your previously invulnerable A.I. companion is, for story purposes, suddenly felled by a single random bullet. Games as pulp entertainment are as good as they’ve ever been, but I have to wonder if modern technology and game design can offer us a title that addresses violence with the gravitas of a Saving Private Ryan while still retaining the fundamental player involvement that makes the medium unique.

Maxwell Patterson is a freelance writer.

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