One of the main obstacles I have when I’m trying to get friends and loved ones into video games is the complaint that they are too violent. Most of my favorite games have some component of violence at its core, like the Fallout series. It has great lore and a highly immersive world, but you kill/maim a lot of things as you go about the games. Even Civilization has you killing barbarians and other nation-states in order to progress. From brawlers to first person shooters to turn-based strategy games, so many titles require you to cause harm to others, and that got me asking myself: Why is this the case? Why do games often rely on violence as a central mechanic?

Note: This is not about whether violent video games cause people to be violent (they don’t). That’s an article for another day. Also, I like games that have violence; I’m just investigating why is it so prevalent.

Technical Limitations

From the earliest days of game making to the current generation of titles, video games are limited by the technology at their disposal. If one takes a look at what developers had to work with back in the day, you would see that they operating with the tech equivalent of a stone tablet and chisel. It was nigh-impossible to create something that would have tackled complicated human emotions effectively.

That green dot is the player character from “Adventure”.
Image: Atari

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When your hardware can only make player characters that are a literal block and the “dragon” they fight looks like an 8-bit wingless duck, it’s going to be hard to make games that are emotional powerhouses. There wasn’t enough storage capacity back then to keep multiple story branches while still being able to display anything onscreen. You had to turn to text-based adventures for that. In order to best utilize the available processing power, developers tended to rely on concepts that were simple to both understand and design. A lot of sports, puzzle, and board games were turned into video games, and series like Madden were born in this period. Another simple concept that could be programmed was fighting. Games like Mega Man, Super Mario Bros., and Sonic the Hedgehog to name a few relied on defeating/killing enemies in order to build tension and suspense since developers couldn’t really make complex stories.

You make a coherent story out of this that DOESN’T sound like an acid trip. Go on, I’ll wait.

Narrative Power

As time wore on and technology became better, game designers were given more leeway to make titles that relied more on narrative than a slugfest to sell units. This only really came about in the mid-to-late 90's with RPG’s like the Fallout and Baldur’s Gate series and puzzle platformers like Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. Even then, there was an emphasis on violent struggles to tell the stories.

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The reason for this is that it is such a compelling narrative tool that it’s hard to completely remove it from storytelling. The only series I can think of from this time period that doesn’t have violence embedded in it and wasn’t aimed at children is the Journeyman Project series, a series in which players go back in time to stop history from being rewritten. Most games went with the tried and true method of violent gameplay to get people in front of the screen and play.

The appeal of violence is that it can do many things from heightening suspense to offering catharsis from a final boss battle to just being a simple stress reliever. With such a versatile tool at their disposal, it’s no wonder why developers use it so frequently as a central pillar in their games. If they discard violent gameplay as a feature, they must be sure to have something truly captivating to keep players interested. For some developers, that is too much to ask for, especially if they have a multi-million dollar contract on the line and don’t want to lose it or other future deals.

Gendered Advertising

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When video games were first being marketed, they were being offered as entertainment for everyone. Much like Legos, developers were casting a wide net, seeking to get as many people interested in buying computers or game consoles like the Atari 2600 as possible. As time progressed, however, a combination of factors, such as game designers being predominately male and marketers determining which games were for boys and which were for girls, the game industry skewed to be seen as a stereotypical male field. Many series and titles are often centered on warfare and fighting genres, trying to tap into a socially constructed notion that boys love these scenarios innately. In doing so, other genres and styles were pushed to the wayside since they were not seen as being as profitable. It has been relatively recently that the industry noticed that women and girls also play games of all kinds and now try to market to them accordingly (albeit with varying levels of success... or tact.) Regardless of current attempts to branch out to other demographics, however, this past has given the industry a deeply rooted culture of aggressive and violent games, such as Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat. As a result, violence seems like it is too central, too big a component for the video game industry to turn its back on it.

Inertia

It’s hard to redirect the course of a river, especially if it is the size of the Mississippi or the Nile, and making violence not as prevalent in games is a lot like trying to make those rivers flow straight up. It provides an easy out for video game makers who want to make something that can hook players. It also has been used so frequently for so long that it is hard for many to think outside of this box that designers have placed themselves in. It’s only been recently that developers have had the technology to do effective motion capture of actors that wouldn’t make it seem like they are acting from inside of the Uncanny Valley, and that is prohibitively expensive for most non-AAA studios. Introspective and emotionally driven games are a rarity as they take a lot of resources, time, and talent to create them, and there is not enough of any of those three things to go around at the moment. Hopefully, when more people get better access to better game-making tools, we will see an influx of these kinds of titles. Until then, I’ll probably see you on the virtual battlefield.