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Violent Conflict In Games

Just an unassuming ghost. Of death! Well, they're all of death, I suppose...

Warning: If you enjoy games as pure escapism, this post will seem like the type of navel-gazing that will not appeal.

Give me a game that allows for stealth, and I will typically work really hard at making sure I either sneak through a level completely undetected, or use the non-lethal approach on an enemy. One of my favorite game memories is my non-violent run of the original Fallout, for instance. Not all games provide such, however, so it's one of those instances where I accept that this is a premise games often explore, and engage my head-tilting-while-I-chew-on-my-lip thoughts for the exceptions.

The Kill Screen Twitter account today linked to a seven month old post about a (possibly fake) Pokémon hack that was a bit unusual. According to the post, among the starters is one labeled Ghost, whose curse move would highly indicate the death of the opposition. After all, the 'fainting' of Pokémon has ostensibly made it more suitable for children. The idea of death is too heavy, but violence is acceptable.

The joke has been around for a while that the Pokémon series is nothing more than glorified cock fighting. It certainly does bring up some interesting questions over what we think is suitable for what is still seen as a child's game (though I know far more adults that play it than children--I also know very few children outside of family). The rebuttal will naturally be either: "It's just a game" or "That's just the way it is."

The hack itself supposedly ends with the trainer eventually finding himself pitted against the same Ghost, and losing, therefore succumbing to death as the save game is deleted. Whether or not the hack is real, I find the question of perpetuation of a violent culture worth one of those moments of circuitous thought cycles. The trainer walks through the world beating other trainers' Pokémon into submission, and eventually finds himself at the mercy of his own tool of fighting.

Don't get me wrong, I don't find videogames any more likely to make someone commit violent acts than our culture at large. Watching news coverage this weekend only solidifies how many bookmarks history has of our non-peaceful ways of dealing with each other. Therefore, the question of whether games should involve violence? Undoubtedly: the world is often a violent place. Exploration of the themes is certainly something I find useful, even if I need a break from it very so often. Being able to explore it in a game space allows me to explore my own feelings about it without having to actually hurt someone, though.

In the case of the Pokémon hack, if it were real, it would likely be a somewhat harrowing experience that would have likely made me pause in my tracks. How far is too far for entertainment? How effective would it be in making me contemplate all I had done?

Perhaps this is why games that either make me question such (Shadow of the Colossus) or provide no means for violence (Flower) stick so fondly in my memory. So, for those who haven't rolled their collective eyes at me yet, what other games and/or mods have made you contemplate the world in which you have an impact through physical conflict or are able to avoid it all together?

6 Comments

Charlie said:

I love it when a game gives the option to solve a problem without killing someone (some of the older adventure games gave more points for not killing people).

I remember when I played the first Tomb Raider I thought "Why am I slaughtering all these endangered animals?"

Nexus said:

@ Charlie

Ostensibly because they were all trying to eat you. :P

raindog469 said:

I've always had a preference for more abstract games than more representational, realistic ones. If a game is at all successful at getting me to suspend my disbelief, when I get to the point where I need to kill an animal or especially a human, I usually quit. It's not some political stance; it just stops being fun.

Mario stomping on a goomba? Whatever, it's a cartoon. But shooting an American soldier in Half-Life was enough to sour the game for me, even if the narrative told me he was the bad guy and he was shooting at me first. Congratulations, guys, your game sucked me in, but there are some characters I can't enjoy playing. It makes me wonder about the psychological makeup of American gamers, that killing people is "just a game" but clothed dry humping in GTA was too much.

I really liked the way Katamari Damacy trod the line, never actually showing anyone being killed, but presumably the critters and people who got stuck to your ball went up in a silent blaze when the dude in the codpiece made a star out of them, waving their blocky limbs helplessly. I also love Geometry Wars, a game which is all about shooting, but shooting in that Tempest/Asteroids mode, not even as character-driven as Robotron, from which it took its gameplay. You might as well be watering a lawn with really aggressive weeds, and speaking of which, I loved the "cleaning up" mechanic in Super Mario Sunshine. Nearly all puzzle games are either abstract or non-violent. I'm enjoying what little I played of Stacking on XBLA, and can't wait for Fez later this year, a game which seems to be devoid of fighting. There are lots of little indie games out there, on phones and Flash and Windows executables that I can sometimes get working under Wine, which play with the boundaries of gaming in much the way as the hacks you allude to. Bring on the combat-free games, I say. The puzzly bits are what satisfy me the most anyway.

But I spent much of this weekend playing through Angry Birds for the first time, a game whose premise is about as grim as you can get, even if it's a bloodless cartoon -- birds going on suicide missions because their eggs were stolen, really? -- and I had a great time.

Branovices said:

One cannot question why video games are violent without also wondering why movies, comics, sports and even books are also violent. That said, non-violent games stand out precisely because the preponderance of other games are so violent; they would lose the ability to provoke thought if most other games were also non-violent. Many art pieces help you to look at something in a new way. I don't think violent games are necessarily a bad thing (although often I feel some games go a little too far, reaching into ridiculous gore levels) but some non-violent games, or games with a message against violence, help us to put that violence in a thought-provoking context.

Maverynthia said:

From what I've heard, the hack is real and in alpha/beta testing.

As for the hack, I wonder if it's one of those types that strips the "childsafe" protection from Pokemon and reveals it for what it is, glorified cock fighting. While Monster Rancher actually had monsters get injured and die, it wasn't as popular as the Pokemon series, probably due to all the training aspects.

If it's just a way for pokemon to be violent, I'll pass. If it's trying to say "hey, did you think about this?" Then I might give it an artistic hand wave.

CPFace said:

I picked up Epic Mickey because I've heard so many good things about Warren Spector and his approach to morality in video games, but the settings he usually works in don't appeal to me -- a cartoon Disney world is really more my speed. I was painting all of the enemies -- the mode of non-lethal defeat the game provides -- and I was halfway to the first boss when it occurred to me that, if this were a Mario game, I would just be smashing everything in sight without a second thought. Isn't it funny, I thought, that I'm okay with cartoon carnage until you tell me that my behavior is going to be judged, and then I'm all kid gloves.

It's weird how my appetite for violence varies. Like, I'll play Rampage, the game where you're a sixty-foot monster and you eat people and destroy cities, without a second thought. And the first time I played Choice of the Dragon, I zeroed in on all of the aggressive choices. But when I played Choice of Broadsides and Choice of the Vampire, I was a lot more restrained. Without really thinking about it, my inclination was always to try and treat people with respect and fairness, within the restrictions of the character I was playing.

But yeah, I read about that hack a while ago, and real or not, it's an interesting story. I understand that Pokemon Black & White address the cruelty of the premise in some way. I think that's pretty cool, but I haven't played it.

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CPFace on Violent Conflict In Games: I picked up Epic Mickey because I've heard so many good things about Warren Spector and his approach to morality...

Maverynthia on Violent Conflict In Games: From what I've heard, the hack is real and in alpha/beta testing. As for the hack, I wonder if it's...

Branovices on Violent Conflict In Games: One cannot question why video games are violent without also wondering why movies, comics, sports and even books are also...

raindog469 on Violent Conflict In Games: I've always had a preference for more abstract games than more representational, realistic ones. If a game is at all...

Nexus on Violent Conflict In Games: @ Charlie Ostensibly because they were all trying to eat you. :P...

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