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App Awe: Violence in Video Games

What can we learn about ourselves and society by examining violence in video games?

Pacman photo by Mário Tomé via Flickr.com

App Awe is a WID essay series exploring the transformative potential at the intersection of gaming, science, education and society.

By Sean Seyler, a graduate student in WID’s Games+Learning+Society research group. Follow him on Twitter @SeylerSean.

Sean Seyler

Sean Seyler

Everyone plays video games. I could go grab some statistics, and of course I do not mean literally everyone, but suffice it to say that people do this thing we call “gaming.”

This is just in regards to video gaming of course; beings have been gaming since the very beginning for who knows what reason. Thus far in App Awe, we have highlighted some fascinating aspects of video games, such as interaction, storytelling, failure, creativity, exploration and more, but we have yet to just come out and say what the hay a video game actually is.

So then, what is a video game?

Well, I am not going to answer that for you, but as a video game researcher and player, I can tell you they sure are violent. As noted by Leigh Alexander, a lot of video games involve “staring down the barrel of a gun.” Violence is not just in so-called “violent” video games, mind you.

For example, in Caro Williams’ discussion of Little Big Planet, a quick look at the images reveals guns and exploding cows, even though the game remains a storytelling and educational tool.

In Dwarf Fortress, creatures eat smaller creatures who eat smaller creatures, the violence of the food chain, all simulated within its myriad of barely-decipherable symbols.

How about chess? That game is 100 percent about regicide. The Sims simulates life, including what would happen after locking someone in a room without food or water for days on end (it ain’t pretty). In Super Mario Bros., the player stomps Goombas out of existence, denying them a long life of shambling left forever, simply for the points.

Even Mario’s friends aren’t safe.

Mario gif

It is no coincidence that so many video games have violent mechanics at their core. Video games are visceral; so is violence. You can throw a bit of red on the screen (green for alien blood) and there you go, you have symbolized an action. Violence is often instant and works well with popular gameplay genres such as first-person shooters. These video games lend themselves to violent acts as the player tries to make blurry-eyed reactions against oncoming danger.

Violence plays into our common understanding of drama, where events like the swing of a fist or the slice of a sabre are tense, emotion-filled and impactful to a narrative.


Fig. 2 Why leap over the Goomba when you can murder them for points? Image Credit: Urban Dictionary

To be perfectly honest, I find video game violence truly satisfying. The clear goal and the immediate feedback of a bash or bop, whether it is arbitrary or rationalized by a narrative, entertains me nearly every time I play a game.

Yet considering violence as a factor of bodily harm alone is reductive. Structural violence, as initially developed by Johan Galtung, is the violence that occurs when social, institutional or cultural systems or norms deny a person his or her full potential as a functioning, flourishing human being.

This expanded definition opens up violence to the psychological realm, where lies, threats and propaganda are a type of violence against the mind and society. Structural violence can be both negative and positive, where positive violence is the promise of a better life if you buy this really expensive television yet if you buy it you will plunge into debt.

The misleading insinuation of increased happiness may not directly or physically harm another person, but it nonetheless aggravates certain folks dependent upon their access to goods and services. The intention to harm is not a factor in structural violence, as looking at people’s intentions often fails to capture the ideas and ways of being that lead to physical and mental harm.

“Among other things, video games are deeply violent, but with clever care and attention, they can help us understand why we are ‘staring down the barrel of a gun.’ ”

— Sean Seyler

Violence can also be manifest or latent. Manifest violence is the sort that you can see, such as a punch or kick. Latent violence is the threat before the kick. In structural scenarios, latent violence is more nuanced. For example, think about an unemployed person who gets healthcare from the state government. This person looks for work, but can only find minimum wage jobs, which would take him or her out of qualification for state healthcare yet would not be enough to afford healthcare for him or herself. There is no threat here, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, but potential loss of healthcare is in this definition a structural violence.

In this way, structural violence does not feature many of the things that make personal, physical violence so common in video games. While structural violence can include a subject-object-action relationship common to physical violence (e.g., I shoot the bad alien to death), there are few easily referenced cultural signifiers that show different types of structural violence. While in other media there are many different genre forms that elaborate on structural violence (e.g., the documentary film), the video game is a relatively young medium that has not formulated ample examples on how to engage with issues of structural violence. Compounding this is that the complexity of structural violence lends itself to genres of gameplay that are perhaps not as popular or marketable as those of first-person shooters and sports simulations.

Typology of Violence

Fig. 4 A typology of violence
Image Source: Sage Publications

Yet as the medium matures and new tools open video game creation up to more diverse designers, we are now seeing video games that explore systems of violence that stray from that of the summer blockbuster (a term derived from bombs that destroy entire city blocks).

The video game Papers, Please by Lucas Pope is billed as “A Dystopian Document Thriller,” through which the player takes on the role of an immigration officer in a fictionalized Warsaw Pact country of Arstotzka. The gameplay hallmark is the permission or denial of entrance to Arstotzka, yet this binary choice is deceptively complex due to moral dilemmas embedded in each “yes” or “no.”

Papers, Please

Figure 5 Papers, Please illustrates structural violence by blending simple choices with complex moral implications.
Image Credit: Official Website

You see, the rules by which immigrants are permitted to enter Arstotzka are determined by the government, a government which absconds and tortures immigrants in the name of national security. The player, as an agent of this questionable government, therefore determines the fate of each immigrant with each approval or denial. While reviewing each case for admittance, the player discovers that some prospective immigrants have various agendas, such as the doctor who wishes to smuggle in illegal medicine for the sick or revolutionaries who would overthrow the Arstotzka government.

Thus, the player is asked to be complicit in a system of structural violence: Denying entrance to the smuggler is justified by the rules set forth by the government, but doing so prevents helpful medicine from reaching the sick. Cooperating with the revolutionaries by granting them entrance to Arstotzka could end the injustices of the totalitarian government, but aiding the revolution puts players at risk of being subjected to the very atrocities they may wish to prevent.

In Papers, Please, the nature of structural violence is all too clear. The choice to approve or deny is stressful and certainly registers some psychological anguish in the player. Intention is irrelevant in a system where one must harm the sick in order to save oneself from a violent regime. Through the simple “yes” or “no,” the player perpetuates a violent system without ever firing a shot.


Figure 6 Lim is the playable experience of liminality, a state of disorientation caused by being neither fully inside nor outside cultural norms.
Image Credit: Cameron Kunzelman

In another video game, Lim by Merritt Kopas, the player is given a simple yet no less stressful problem: blending in. As a movable square, the player attempts to travel through a series of rooms. This mundane activity is complicated by groups of differently colored squares that harass the player by pushing his or her square around.

The choice here is to either endure the harassment or press the only action button in order to take on the color of the harassing blocks, who will then quit pushing the block around. The choice to blend in may seem obvious, but as the player holds down the action button, their view of the playing field shrinks, preventing them from knowing where to go next.

The player here is a victim of violence, at both the personal and structural level. If players do not take on the same color as the other blocks, they are unwillfully subjected to “physical” abuse. If players choose to blend in, they prevent the physical violence, but then “psychological” pressure of blending inhibits their ability to simply move from room to room. Color as the arbiter of what is acceptable is a basic part of video game literacy — in video games, the difference between the good guy and the bad guy is often just a difference of color — but would be questioned in other contexts.

I mean, of course color should not affect your rights, right? In Lim, color is the arbitrary basis for violence and the example of the implicit structures in our everyday interactions that propel structural violence. Importantly, Lim shows how these norms transition from structural to personal, subject-object-action violence.

As we see, both Papers, Please and Lim are very different video games than those that would normally spring to mind. Instead of the escapism of wild power fantasies for vengeance, cutesy cartoon bashings for capital, or scientifically rationalized health epidemics just because, these two video games use choice and action to understand and cope with the structural violence we encounter every day of our lives.

Because violence is so evocative, there can be no doubt that video games will continue to employ it, but violent representations should not be limited to bops and stomps and shots. Violence has been around a long, long time, yet we still often do not understand why we see so much of it in our world. Among other things, video games are deeply violent, but with clever care and attention, they can help us understand why we are “staring down the barrel of a gun.”


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