Tuesday, January 20, 2009

in favor of gore and violence

I have mixed feelings about graphic violence in war games.

On the one hand, if you intend for a war game to be educational and didactic, then your depiction of war should be as realistically graphic as possible. There's a limit to how much reality most game consumers will take, of course. The full horrors of our world are not shown even in schools or on TV because relatively few people are willing to face absolutely everything. But the more education that can be sneaked in, the better.

On the other hand, it's easy and wrong to relish the gore too much. Some enjoyment is benign, I think. Young boys cross-culturally play war games (not speaking of video games), and enjoyment of violence goes hand-in-hand with that instinct. A thrill from battle is natural, including gory signs of victory. But that, like any instinctual desire, has a proper place and manner. The appetite for violence can and should be directed, moderated, and bloodlust (gore) with it.

Enjoyment of gore is founded in a taste for victory, I believe. When you see the head of your sniper's victim explode like a watermelon, it can be more satisfying feedback than simply seeing the victim fall down. When your battleaxe hits home and you hear a pained cry mixed with the sound of flesh tearing and bone shattering, that's a taste of competitive success.

I have great respect for films in which bullet wounds are intentionally invisible or merely red stains (like John Wayne films, or The Hunt for Red October). Gore can be good feedback or good education, even integral to storytelling, but subtlety can also be good. The absence of gore can better focus the audience's attention on other elements. Game designers should always ask which way better suits their particular game.

Anyway! As usual, I'm getting off track.

That article made me think of the irony that the game restrictions intended to honor social concerns are very often in the way of serving those values.

For example, children cannot be killed in games. Children in games like Neverwinter Nights, Fable 2, and Fallout 3 are invulnerable (yes, it's sad that I know this). Bioshock allows the player to kill the child-like "Little Sisters", but the screen fades out when this happens. Truth-conscious war games have yet to represent the reality that combatants are commonly children (often teenagers, sometimes younger) or even include them as bystanders. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is getting a sequel, but what are the chances it will have kids with assault rifles, militants residing with their families, or terrorists stationing supplies and soldiers in schools and churches?

Yet what would push home the nature of urban combat to gamers better than having to face women and children with guns?

Rather than forbid gore and uncomfortable scenarios, those interested in socially productive gaming should encourage developers to include such things and provide intuitive commentary.

Intuitive commentary means unspoken commentary; gameworld consequences and reactions beyond dialogue. Soldiers visibly shaken by the deaths of their comrades. Non-player combatants being crippled, rather than slain. The dead abandoned, their corpses stripped by poor locals and nibbled on by crows and dogs. Wailing mothers and grandmothers. Lost, crying children.

Intuitive commentary means reward and punishment. Save an ally and he might watch your back a little more closely. Spare what enemies you can and you might receive valuable information, face softer resistance from noncombatants, or even make a friend. Kill too many noncombatants and your allies will turn against you (the game ends... restart). Kill some kid who's aiming a gun at you and expect the family to seek revenge. Place a landmine, and don't expect to be able to control who dies by it.

As I said earlier, I acknowledge that there is a limit to what consumers of entertainment are willing to endure. Films like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Black Hawk Down have demonstrated that the average consumer will endure a great deal if the presentation of that uncomfortable content is artful and meaningful. Games, being interactive, can probably not push quite as far, but are still capable of much more than the industry has generally been willing to explore as of yet.

I'm not saying all war games should be seriously toned and educational. I'm just saying that if you're making a serious game, gore and other nasty elements can be used toward noble ends. They don't have to be about feeding immoderate impulses. The industry is currently bound by certain social restrictions, but designers will have more and more room to explore mature content if they can demonstrate to society how it might be done tastefully and productively.

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking about this lately as well. I just wrote a blog post on a similar subject.

    For me personally, making a serious war game would be way too much responsibility for me to even think about tackling. But I think it could be interesting to make a simple game, maybe in Flash, that really focuses on this tension, and these difficult decisions on the part of the developer, that satirizes the way the are often handled.


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