Violence in Games

I don’t usually do a whole lot of talking about things that border on the political, but every once in a while I feel that there’s something that needs to be discussed in an open place by people who have a stake in it from all perspectives.

I’m an (admittedly amateur) game designer, and I work on tabletop roleplaying games. So far, this industry has not (typically) been targeted by moral panics, at least not as far as violent content goes.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not a problem, however. I remember working on my first big game and doing playtesting and thinking to myself “Is this what I’m encouraging my players to do?” when certain things happened. It was a bit of a chilling, eye-opening experience. Some things don’t pass easily.

At the same time, I don’t buy into the notion that games make people violent. I think that it’s a cop-out to say that. Violence exists as a fundamental part of being. It isn’t something “inspired” by some external source, because it’s a core part of the human psyche. You don’t need to train someone to lie, or to steal, or to use force to get what they want. They might not be good at it (case in point, children often make awful liars), but they are going to attempt it if they don’t have good reasons and incentives not to.

Yet at the same time, it’s not that uncommon that when I play a game, I see people do things that are pretty abhorrent. I mean, I play games too, and often games that are not particularly renowned for their pacifism. I recognized every game on the list of video games that were submitted to the White House briefing on video game violence the other day, and I probably played or would have played (barring time and money getting in the way) at least four fifths of them.

Does that take a toll on people?

I think it’s hard to say. Having a sandbox, an infinite space in which to act out violence, is certainly something that could be harmful. At the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever really been pushed to malice by a video game (and certainly not a roleplaying game, though I’ve done some spiteful things when playing it’s never escalated to what would be considered “violence” by common definitions).

There are certainly people for whom these things are unhealthy. Part of the reason I’ve been trying to write every day here is to control my lifestyle and regain my free time after struggling with the influences of excessive video gaming and similar wastes of time. But that’s a topic for another day.

Does the violence we see result in violence going out? Many people are quick to condemn Hollywood for shilling violence and condemning it simultaneously, but at the same time violence is part of who we are. It makes up the archetypal stories, everything from Cain to Able, to Moses and the taskmaster, to Christ vanquishing Satan in the apocalypse in the old Biblical tales includes plenty of violence, but nobody had a reasonable fear that it would have a negative influence on people.

Indeed, the exploration of violence in this way can be healthy—I’ve noticed many times where seeing violence in games has been used to produce an effect of contemplation and atonement: Spec Ops, Deus Ex, even something like Fable where the lesson is less direct.

When we think about violence, we need to have a serious contemplation about what violence in our media does to us. I create games that are often focused on war and combat. Sometimes they even have characters or elements that revel in it. I play games like this too; my longest running campaigns as a GM have been littered with high body counts, and I rarely roleplay pacifists.

But one thing that I avoid, and consider it my sacred duty to avoid, is to intentionally portray violence as good. I take this seriously; I never express a violent thought not because I am afraid of what it might reveal about me but because I recognize the impact of violence. It is often necessary, but it’s not a tool that should be taken lightly. The power of life, and of death, is fundamental to our understanding of the human condition. There are people who view these things as a pathway to mastering the universe. By banning depictions of violence—or by glorifying it, they deny reality.

This is something I will never do. Violence is a part of us. It is internal. We can never truly excise it from our being. We can, however, confront it, and recognize it for what it is. So I will not tell clean stories, of noble people who never submit to their weakness and flaws, where nobody ever kills and nobody ever wants to. At the same time, I will never glorify the wickedness that haunts our beings.

This conversation is too often used as an excuse. By saying that the devil makes us do it, we remove our obligation to truly consider what our nature is. By denying that depictions of violence can lead to violence, we ignore truth. Reality is in-between.

Guilt is not the answer.

Silence is not the answer.

Laws are not the answer.

To stop telling human stories is not the answer.

To build communities is the answer.

To encourage good will is the answer.

To improve our flawed condition is the answer.

It is a fault to set to criticizing the world when one has not understood oneself and confronted the inherent flaws. This is not the demons that haunt a good person—because that is an excuse—but rather the flawed nature that needs fixing, needs improvement.

Seeing violence doesn’t corrupt us. It gives us a choice. We have a moment in which we can consider the most important question:

Will we rise above what we are by nature?

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