The debate about the link between video games and real-world violence has been popping up in the news again. A recently published study states that long-term gameplay does increase aggression, while an earlier video by GameSpot series The What If Machine outlined why the issue is too complex to address conclusively. While I can’t add anything to the scientific discussion, the sidenote that I feel is missing is why adults — you know, the people who these games are made for — enjoy violent gameplay in the first place. Perhaps it doesn’t matter in terms of researching aggression, but when people start fretting about violence in games, I get the impression that they imagine adult gamers as stunted miscreants, hopelessly addicted to our mind-sucking murder simulators. That much, at least, I feel qualified to talk about.
So, hi. My name’s Becky. I’m in my late twenties, I work hard to make a living, and I’m in a long-term relationship. My social life is mellow but healthy, and for the most part, I’d say I’m a functional human being. I am also a squishy, bleeding-heart marshmallow. I drop everything to safely relocate bugs that stray into my home, even the ones that bite or sting. I get lightheaded at the sight of blood, be it real or corn syrup. I avoid factory farmed meat, and usually eat vegetarian. I took boxing classes for a few weeks, but chickened out after sparring (I was fine with getting hit; hitting the other person unsettled me). I cry at Pixar movies. I avoid interpersonal conflict, sometimes to my own detriment.
And yet, I engage in a steady practice of pixelated beat-em-up and hack-and-slash. I’ve been gaming since childhood, with violent games becoming part of my diet somewhere during my late teens. In an average week, I spend between fifteen and thirty hours gaming, depending on what else I have going on. I dabble in many different genres, but lean toward RPGs and action games, with a handful of shooters mixed in. I favor melee classes, and loathe playing healers. I like heavy guns, two-handed swords, chunky armor, and any ability named “Berserk” or “Enrage.” I have a fierce love for rocket launchers.
Violence — which I’m defining in this context as detailed combat with simulated injuries — is not a consideration for me when picking up a new game. It does not lure me in, nor does it push me away. This is a matter of personal preference, as some people favor the gory stuff, while others avoid it entirely. On a base level, I play games for two primary reasons: to experience a story, or to undertake a challenge. Many games offer a blend of the two, though most highlight one over the other (it’s actually impossible for our brains to process both at once).
I’ll start with the challenge element by focusing on two games I enjoy very much: Portal and Dishonored. On the surface, these games could not be more dissimilar. Portal is a charming series of non-violent physics puzzles, whereas Dishonored is a grim, gruesome symphony of death. But if we distill these games down to the core, they ask the same question: Can you get from point A to point B? Both games set you down at one end of a map, fill it with obstacles, and make you to find the cleverest path to the other side. Granted, your tools for achieving this are quite different — Portal asks you to play with spatial orientation and gravity, while Dishonored offers a sampler box of dark magic and assassin’s tools. In essence, however, they require comparable mental tasks. How can I cross that gap? How can I get over that wall? How do I avoid those who would harm me? Though the presence of violence does set a different tone, the feeling of success I experience after completing a map in either of these games is basically the same. I don’t leave feeling violent or aggressive — I leave feeling smart.
The same is somewhat true for shooters, which are less about puzzles and more about reflexes. Take a game like Left 4 Dead, which runs you through a straightforward map in which you must fight your way through hordes of zombies. To the passerby, it might seem that the point is merely to kill as many undead creepers as possible. But the game’s not really about killing. It’s about understanding a system. Every gun, every weapon, every enemy I encounter — they all have rules. I can’t clear a map in Left 4 Dead simply by being fast or accurate, though these traits help. I have to know how everything works. I have to know how a Hunter behaves differently than a Witch. I have to know how the effect of a shotgun differs from a pistol. I have to know the pros and cons of setting something on fire. In some ways, it wouldn’t matter if the game was about killing zombies or saving puppies. What the game demands of the player is the ability to respond creatively to a problem within a defined set of parameters. That’s what I’m there to partake in. The zombies just add atmosphere.
Of course, if you’ve read anything else I’ve written here, you’ll know that I consider atmosphere to be incredibly important. This is where storytelling comes in. In this respect, games use violence in the same manner that other media does: to shock and thrill, or to elicit an emotional response. The shock value element is self-explanatory. Witnessing violence prompts a release of adrenaline, and our primate brains lap it up. As a recreational activity, there’s no harm in that, no more so than there is for people who enjoy watching action movies or reading thrillers. Yes, I feel pretty amped up after taking part in a violent game — especially if playing competitively — but it’s not a feeling that’s any different than, say, playing a sport or running a race (and it’s worth noting that feeling goes away fairly quickly after I stop playing). Two studies earlier this year suggested that the feelings of increased aggression that other video game studies have focused on may actually be a reaction to competition, not violence. This aligns perfectly with my own experiences. I’ve felt more aggressive in PvP matches in World of Warcraft — a game with cartoonish characters who attack in multicolored magical flashes — than I have when playing cooperatively in a blood-soaked game like Left 4 Dead or Borderlands. In terms of how I behave while I’m playing, the style of gameplay matters far more than the visual content.
When used as a narrative tool, violence can sometimes be exactly what a story needs. The emotional impact of watching the protagonist’s best friend die or seeing the villain murder innocent people carries every bit as much weight in a game as it would in a book or a movie. The most gory game I played this year was The Walking Dead, which made liberal use of hacked limbs and disembowelment. Since your primary task in the game is to keep an innocent child safe, setting the story in a viscerally dangerous world intensifies the player’s commitment to succeeding. Other games, particularly RPGs, use violence to make the player feel more like a hero. We all respond to archetypes of monsters and champions, and allowing players to battle frightening foes instinctively makes us feel powerful. I love that feeling. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about games. But while that experience is invigorating, I know that slaying monsters and killing bad guys is, ultimately, a metaphor for bravery. I’ve killed thousands upon thousands of things in games over the years, but it has in no way desensitized me to the real thing. Real-world violence bothers me deeply. Violence on screen is just a story. And while I laud the ways in which stories can reflect upon and directly influence our society, there’s an enormous difference between parsing moral messages and mimicking physical violence. The vast majority of adults know how to make that distinction. The rare few who don’t have bigger problems than video games.
So, yes, violent games can be disturbing, and no, they’re not appropriate for children. I get angry when I hear about youngsters playing M-rated games, just as I get angry when I see parents bringing small kids into R-rated movies. I agree that participating in simulated violence before you develop the cognitive ability to separate fantasy from reality is a bad idea. But violent, competitive games aren’t designed for kids. They’re designed for people like me. I see violent games for what they are — complex puzzles and rich narratives with an adrenaline-laced cherry on top. Enjoying such games does not make me a violent person, nor does it mean that I am maladjusted or antisocial. If anything, I think it says that I like using my brain in lots of different ways. I’m completely okay with that.