The drunken forum experiment I: Can violence be more ‘meaningful’?

The last couple of weeks have been very heady for me in terms of violence, specifically the 'proper' kind. I morbidly consumed some very explicit violence and then sought to understand it through extensive reading and research. I saw a man killed for entertainment on video and wanted to understand why, and more-so what, would lead someone to do such a thing. After that I became intoxicated and thought about violence and its depiction within video games, here is the outcome and reaction from the community.

Video game violence should be more violent. Or not at all, really. No?

The below writing contains minor spoilers about a film and a few swearers.

The film Cannibal Holocaust isn’t a particularly good one, even when assessed within the scope of the horror/shocker genre. In a very reductive sense, it is a series of shocking and brutal images stitched together with an unnecessarily fussy narrative and lots - lots - of walking around. The film tells the story of an expedition of scientists going into the jungle in search of another expedition of, one is led to presume lost, scientists. When they get there they witness all sorts of person-eating-person happenings, person-being-impaled-on-spikes happenings and lots of killing-animals-for-real-‘cos-it’s-gross happenings. I watched Cannibal Holocaust as a youngster and was fucking shocked by it. Truly shocked. But it wasn’t the bare-titted women eating fake arms or the laughable special effects on the whole. No, it was the sight of the real life turtle being stripped out of its real life shell and killed on film that disturbed me then and continues to do so to this day.

Violence, real, actual violence is horrible.

‘Violence for entertainment’ in whatever guise it takes, usually manages to sidestep genuinely revolting its audience by being clearly fabricated. Most of Cannibal Holocaust falls into this category. Like any good gore film its dismembered body parts and organs are suitably bloody, yet always display a reassuring rubbery feel. They look real yet are clearly not. When a little monkey has its head chopped in half and proceeds to flail around as its life escapes it is where this aesthetic falls apart. We are no longer enjoying the shock of simulated violence; instead we are beset with images of actual real life cruelty. It is not enjoyable or pleasing and, Christ, it isn’t entertaining.
Video games could learn a lot from this.

Violence has, and I feel always will, be a part of video games. More specifically, though, it is death and not violence, which is the focus. Death is a binary and as such is perfect for a goal-led medium such as games: enemy alive=bad, enemy dead=good. I’m not going to discuss the myriad shortcomings of this approach in testing and recognising a player’s ‘skill’, as this is clearly an engrained aspect of the medium, for better or for worse.
What I will say though, is that if video games insist on being violent as a means of ‘scoring’ the player, they should at least make that violence meaningful and abhorrent.

Violence, real, actual violence is horrible.

Video game violence is just like the people stuck on stakes in Cannibal Holocaust; evidently fictitious and hollowly pandering. It means nothing but to make the mundanety around it more palatable. We may as well be firing at floating cubes when assaulting an enemy in a shooter, or pressing buttons against a timer in a fighting game. The violent imagery of video games is largely aesthetic, a simple way of making the repetitive tasks associated with them more interesting.
Yet this doesn’t excuse the use of violence as a ‘palate cleanser’, it is simply lazy design and a medium as interactive as games shouldn’t have to fall back on it.

I’ve been playing Lord of the Rings: War in the North recently, which is an action role-playing game. It wouldn’t exist without the player killing things, quite simply because the game is almost entirely about killings things as a means of metering the player’s skills and progress. The game is completely useless without violence.
A game like The Last of Us though, could get by without its copious examples of bloodshed. It already displays a great reverence for sneaking around enemies which are normally much more powerful than you. At least in its first third. As the game progresses it become more and more focused on violence and confrontation, ultimately leading to a series of situations that almost force even the most pacifistic player into conflict. This makes me sad.

The Last of Us is great when you feel overpowered and fearful. When you are unable, or at least feel as if you are, to apprehend an enemy. The game world is littered with examples of violence that the player can only cringe at and be fearful of. Violence suddenly means something for once. As the game begins to adhere to a more conventional progression, though, the player character becomes better equipped and more powerful, leading to a moment where the threat is no longer insurmountable and simply a challenge. This is the point that violence becomes once again trivialised.

This is not a discussion about how shit the Last of Us really is; I thought highly of it, generally. It is merely to highlight that for parts of that game violence is given its proper reverence. It is important and dangerous. Death is final and brutally real for both player and enemy. And then The Last of Us becomes a video game again and it all goes to toss. The initial danger and brutality of combat is undermined by upgrades to defences and weaponry that expedite the process and remove the intimacy of the whole affair. An altercation that used to consist of numerous thundering blows is reduced to a single insta-kill, devoid of all violent tension. A hallway that could once have been traversed through sneaking is now a forced gunfight. An adversary that was once feared is now a fodder enemy.

Violence in video games needs to be the turtle being cut from its shell and not the real-lady-on-a-fake-stake, however immoral that may be. It needs to be meaningful and fucking disgusting. It needs to make the perpetrator - you - feel sick. It needs to make you question your own morality. It needs to be infrequent and visceral, in the most disturbing way. All other violence is trivial and, questionably, more disgusting.
Games like The Last of Us fall back on the modern conventions of mainstream game design. If they where more convicted in their own experiences, rather than shoehorning them into current paradigms we, and their creators, would find ourselves much more fulfilled.

Violence, real, actual violence is horrible.

But surely it is better than endless homogenised violence?


The forum responses follow.


Posted by Clonedzero - August 10, 2013 at 7:29 PM

I love violence in video games.
I could write alot about why. But fuck it.


Posted by zoozilla - August 10, 2013 at 8:14 PM

I like a lot of what you wrote, though I would disagree that there needs to be more "real violence"; I tend to think that would only lead to desensitization towards the real, brutal, gut-wrenching stuff, which would be incredibly problematic.
And I think that actually a big issue is that games are beginning to blur the lines between "action-movie" violence and more frightening violence in troubling ways. In Cannibal Holocaust (which I've heard a lot about and never, ever want to see) there's a clear line between reality and fantasy, between (as you say) fake cruelty and actual cruelty. The line is (obviously) between the footage of real animals really being tortured and the fake makeup and effects used to simulate human torture. But where is that line with games? It's all virtual - there are only varying levels of graphical fidelity/realism, and many games lean hard into very realistic depictions of violence. And I think there's been a trend toward even more brutal and even more realistic imagery.
Take the Call of Duty franchise - in COD 2, when you shot at an enemy there would be a spurt of blood and the enemy would fall over. It was clearly not anywhere close to what you'd see if a real person was shot at. In the most recent installments, though, you have people being burned alive and fairly intense torture scenes even though the gameplay hasn't changed - the game treats the more realistic violence in the same way it treated not-very realistic violence. In terms of graphic representations of violence, COD probably rivals The Last of Us, but only one of them treats its violence in a way that (for the most part) doesn't trivialize what it's showing us. As next-gen consoles arrive, it seems like a forgone conclusion that depictions of killing and violence will only become more realistic and gruesome, and I think it's good to think about the contexts in which these representations of violence are presented. As the gap between realistic virtual violence and actual, real-world violence lessens, I think we run the danger of desensitizing ourselves to the real thing - which is pretty scary.
I don't want to sound like one of those politicians calling for banning of violent games, but I do think as graphical fidelity increases we should be more critical of the way violence is presented.


Posted by MMMman  (me) - August 12, 2013 at 4:44 AM

@zoozilla: I agree with you on how the portrayal of violence has become increasingly more gruesome as technology has improved, yet gameplay-wise things have altered little. I think this is the biggest problem with the representation of violence in games on the whole. It appears more and more like 'real world' violence, yet the player isn't any more invested in their actions than they were ten, twenty years ago. This divide between the increasingly realistic nature of violence portrayal and the unrealistic ease of perpetrating said violence makes many games woefully unbalanced.
I'm not advocating games on the whole descending into the depths of violent depravity for the sake of entertainment, quite the opposite. I think violence could be used sparingly, yet very explicitly, in games as a means of highlighting how meaningful and terrible it is when it occurs in reality. I think the Last of Us aimed for this in its first few hours though by virtue of it being a video game was forced to abandon it in favour of increasing its challenge and offering 'gamey' hooks like character progression and upgrades.
Violence certainly has its place in games, though I think its volumes could - and should - be pared back dramatically so it meaningfully impacts the player's experience rather than simply being a way to test their skills and offer increasing challenges.


Regarding violence in games contra real life violence, I've always been in the camp that insists people don't mix the two so easily. There's a huge difference between watching two sets of polygons fight it out and two real human beings do the same. It's not just that polygons currently lack the fidelity to look real, there are more nuances beyond that that affect how we perceive the event unfolding before our eyes.
There are subtle noises and body language that never really enter video games. I don't advice anyone to venture to the dark corners of the internet, but not even the most horrific movies and games come even miles close to seeing real cruel inhumane violence. When you see something truly horrific, you can experience something close to vertigo. And I don't think most people making the comparisons between real world violence and video game violence has ever seen or experienced the same level of real violence as the games portray in their cartoonish way. For good and bad, I suppose.
I can agree with your overall point, I wish some games handled violence not as a gameplay mechanic to engage with to progress through a story but as part of an overall experience where violence when occurring feels heavy and impactful. I'll give you a recent example; The Walking Dead. Sometimes during your experience with that game there will be scenes of violence that cut through the noise of it being rather cartoony and stylized graphically. Because the transitions happens in split seconds and the game-world itself is horrified making you feel equally justified at feeling the same. One specific scene from 400 Days is when you're hiding behind the tractor as Bonnie and you kill Dee by accident. It's quick, gruesome and you get to see her slowly die. Overall I felt The Walking Dead has handled violence the right way.
That being said, I do think there's room for either or. Just like we have Rambo mowing down a ton of dudes with a stationary machine gun, we have the fire extinguisher scene from Irreversible. Two completely different displays of violence with completely different intentions.


Posted by Brodehouse - August 12, 2013 at 6:48 AM

I made a blog about the ways video games get violence right and the way they get it wrong a few years ago. The main thing for me was weight. Men being perforated with bullets and then falling to the ground should sound heavy, you're dropping a 200+ pound man. When they fall, it should sound like you just dropped 200+ pounds from a five to six foot height.


Posted by ShalashaskaUK666 - August 12, 2013 at 9:24 AM

Okay, so I've just written 12,000 words on the 'Games as Art' and violence in videogames debates for my MA dissertation, so I'm up to my eyes in research papers and theorists' opinions! Overall I think the vast majority of these debates comes from videogames not being recognised as a worthwhile artform, or a piece of entertainment with a real sense of worth.
I have no interest in games making violence more affecting. I've played a handful that did, and while the games had value, I wouldn't make a hobby of playing that particular genre too often. And if we did, how could we really claim that video games aren't bad for kids? It's one thing to desensitize people to video game violence, it's another to desensitize them to violence that is as realistic as we can make it.

That's the thing, some games are bad for kids, just the same as some movies, books and pieces of physical art are also bad for immature, unprepared minds. 
I think whilst our beloved medium is rooted in these 'destroy-to-progress' mechanics that form the basis of so many titles, developers tend to lay it on thick when evolving that basic idea into new titles with better graphics. I forget which event it was when they showed off God of War: Ascension, but I audibly sighed when they showed the 'brain rip' animation. I get fantasy violence, its great fun, but its like how far down that road are we gonna go, with graphics that are THAT good, y'know? There should be some stopping point in terms of 'how can we execute this emotion/idea, okay we've done it'.
Personally I loved The Last of Us, and I thought Joel's progression throughout the narrative was handled amazingly well, as at no point was the depiction of violence onscreen overly gratuitous, it fit that world with those characters.
I think using Cannibal Holocaust is a strange example, because that film serves only to push the buttons of disgust over and over, rather like Hostel, or the Saw sequels. It's not trying to convey violence with any real depth or purpose, the makers of that film wanted to make something that would challenge the conventions and expectations of the medium of the time, and they did so by being horrifically violent at the cost of any integrity.
Overall we live in a VERY desensitised society, with horrific images present on the nightly news, and brutality a mouseclick away. Violence in games is up for debate because we're at the right point in time. Games are evolving into something accepted by mainstream culture, but as society doesn't interact and speak the 'language' of games as fluently as it should just yet, there's always gonna be hesitance, but its no different to the 'video nasties' of the 80's, or scares around the comics in the 50's.
ALL that being said, I think as gamers get older and the medium evolves, there should be suitable reason behind everything we do, and not have dismemberment, blood splatters etc. just for the sake of it.


Posted by MMMman - August 13, 2013 at 3:38 AM

@pezen: I really liked 400 Days, though more so as a set of experiments a la the Pixar shorts than as a stand alone product. The violence was toned back even further than the - already rather restrained - series, so when it came, like in your example, it was shocking and changed the entire pace of that segment. At the minute I'm fascinated by the idea of implementing violence in more interesting ways and how it could be used to engender a deeper link between player and environment. There were a couple of times in 400 Days where a second or so of violence was like the characters and story hitting a brick wall, and I was left shaking and really nervous on a couple of occasions. I think that is great implementation.


Posted by MMMman - August 13, 2013 at 5:26 AM

I think using Cannibal Holocaust is a strange example, because that film serves only to push the buttons of disgust over and over, rather like Hostel, or the Saw sequels. It's not trying to convey violence with any real depth or purpose, the makers of that film wanted to make something that would challenge the conventions and expectations of the medium of the time, and they did so by being horrifically violent at the cost of any integrity.

Agreed, it isn't the classiest example but I think it's use of two distinctive and diametrically opposite types of violence makes it pertinent to my argument. The staged violence is incredibly intricate and technical and is there to shock and appal the audience, mainly concerning itself with graphic penetration, dismemberment and sexual assault. These shots are lingering, leering and evidently designed to unsettle the audience. The animal cruelty, however, feels to me to be much more like 'filler violence'; a way to continue depicting shocking images without the cost of make-up and prosthetics. Tellingly, only the turtle decapitation gets anywhere close to the lengthy, leering format of the staged violence, the rest of the animal cruelty comprises of a few seconds and is then forgotten. I view this as the film makers making it clear that the animals were only included to keep the gore-show running and not to be of any real concern.
I find it fascinating, then, that it is the animals that have proved to be the most shocking aspect for audiences over the last four decades and, barring the impalements, the most universally memorable parts of the film. If my interpretation of the film is anywhere near accurate - and it quite easily could not be - then all the money and time and planning then went into the extended scenes of staged violence are wholly usurped by small animals being chopped in half. This is a testament to the power of short bursts of visceral, realistic violence over extended periods of the simulated and sanitised kind. As @brodehouse said, violence should be weighty, and in the case of the animals - yes, they are actually being killed on camera - they simply carry much more weight than the simulated examples of violence do, something audiences are very receptive to.
Again, I'm not advocating that every single video game that implements violence should begin to adopt a hyper-realistic, sadistic way of conducting themselves. That would be horrific considering the massive body-counts featured in some titles and likely drive everyone away from the medium entirely. No, I simply think that the right type of game, with the right setting and an desire to change the accepted pace of a violent game could benefit from significantly less but more sustained violence, a bit like, @believer258 , that last fight in the original Condemned. The final boss fight in that game isn't particularly long, but it does feel like a hard, brutal slog right to the death. Just like the Last of Us, though, there is so much homogeneous combat that precedes it it's impact is lessened by virtue of it being another-fight-in-a-long-line-of-other-fights. If it were the first combat the player had been a part of for a couple of hours - then maybe - its power and emotional impact would be amplified by an order of magnitude.
Oh, as well; the killing of animals for 'entertainment purposes' is unforgivable and I'm in no way praising it. I do, though, find its use in the film vastly interesting, especially when looking at the rapid escalation of violence in cinema after the 50's.


Posted by audioBusting - August 13, 2013 at 6:22 AM

@mmmman said:

I find it fascinating, then, that it is the animals that have proved to be the most shocking aspect for audiences over the last four decades and, barring the impalements, the most universally memorable parts of the film.
Oh, as well; the killing of animals for 'entertainment purposes' is unforgivable and I'm in no way praising it.
Like you sort of illustrated yourself, that kinda has more to do with the fact that they did something so unethical at all. I think many of the people who think that the animal cruelty is the worst part of the movie haven't even seen it (me included). Whether violence is really used effectively within the video game (or movie) or not depends -- and, after hearing your description of Cannibal Holocaust, it sounds like even real violence can be used in a meaningless way.
I think the fact that people reacts to real violence is indisputable. I don't know if more violence is always a better answer, though.


Posted by MMMman - August 13, 2013 at 9:08 AM

@audiobusting: You do have a point there, yes it is shocking because it is real and the rest is staged, but I think there's more to be learned from it than that. The staged violence is so much more prevalent within the film and is shot in a very attention seeking way with lots of lingering shots that scream 'look at what we made, isn't it gross!' The animals are little flashes (except the turtle) in between those bits that - and you're right - weren't intended to serve much of a purpose at all. That they do shows how audiences respond to violence; the most elaborate, drawn-out and disgusting acts perpetrated on the actors is nothing when compared to a sharp jolt of actual violent violence. Yes, it is gross, amoral and cheap, but it is is also effective at drawing a more meaningful response - not necessarily a good one, mind - from the audience.
Extrapolate that out onto violent games where you can spend hour upon hour shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning and otherwise maiming over-and-over-and-over. The violence there is, in my view, exactly the same as the lingering shots of guys on spikes, in that you experience the initial shock and then the repetition dulls any further response. I'm postulating that instead of this, on occasion, it might be possible for a game to implement only a couple of instances of prolonged, explicit and exhausting violence within its entire running time to elicit a more meaningful emotional reaction from the player. Not more violence, simply violence concentrated acutely into one or two encounters that would be far more affecting for the player - the perpetrator of such violence - than an entire game filled with 1,500 identical, meaningless deaths.


Edited by audioBusting - August 13, 2013 at 6:38 PM

@mmmman: What I meant is that it is not necessarily the final depiction of animal-killing that elicited the response. If the animal deaths on film were simulated instead of real (let's assume that it looks just as convincing), would it elicit the same reaction? i.e. was it the presentation or the unethical conduct that made the scene meaningful to most of its viewers?
I agree that sparse combat can be used to emphasise violence, but there are other ways too. Violence is present in almost every moment of Hotline Miami, but it manages to present it in a palpable way by putting the players into a violent state of mind, and then giving the time for introspection at the end of each level. As an extremely violent game, it somehow managed to avoid overusing and trivializing violence.


Edited by MMMman - August 15, 2013 at 1:00 PM

@audiobusting: I certainly think the unethical conduct plays a significant part in making a animal scenes affecting, though I do think that the way they are stylistically more matter of fact also makes them much more immediate and affecting. Their throwaway nature makes the violence much more disturbing when compared to the jostling "look at me" depictions of the human suffering 'set pieces'. Whether they would be quite as disturbing if they were simulated I can't really say with complete conviction though.

I'm still yet to play Hotline Miami, though you certainly paint it in a very interesting light. I bought it and stuck the soundtrack straight on my iPod, though still haven't sat down with it yet. I've only seen a bit of footage of it but the thought of playing it makes me feel a bit anxious, so it is obviously pretty successful at setting its tone from the outset.


Thank you for progressing to this point.