Dimensions of Violence in Video Games

Last class we had a discussion of the increasing amount of violence and especially violence in video games. Violence in this particular medium is often highlighted as a cause for violence. It almost seems a matter of time, that, after a shooting happens, the mainstream media declare proudly that they have found the cause for this violence and that the cause is gaming. However absurd this may seem, it is still obvious that violence in video games has evolved from destroying literal pixels to killing a man in full HD with graphics that make the blood and gore really come out of the screen.
Why then, are video games still played by people who aren’t serial killers and why isn’t killing a video game character considered deeply appalling? To answer this question two different case studies of video game violence are going to be talked about and some sort of a conclusion is going to be drawn afterwards.

Our first case study is already a pretty outdated one, it’s the infamous ‘airport level’ from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Warning: the video of this level is very disturbing.


In this level the player plays a CIA agent who has gone undercover in a Russian terrorist group that is about to attack an airport. To maintain their cover, the player is expected to go along with the terrorists and kill as many people as they can. This means that not only does a terrorist shooting go down before the player’s eyes, but the player is given the opportunity to take part in it and kill the innocent, fleeing civilians. There was a lot of controversy over this level. It got brought to the attention of several British members of Parliament and in Russia the level is not even in the game. So why is this particular level so horrifying while killing civilians in, for instance, Grand Theft Auto is not this controversial?
An answer for this question lies in the context. In the Call of Duty level, the context is explicitly framed as it being an attack on civilians by terrorists. The player is forced to see themselves as a terrorist and that does not happen in Grand Theft Auto. The moral judgement that comes with the terrorist context is gone with Grand Theft Auto and the player sees his actions not as something evil, but as something that is part of the game and part of the fun. The emotional dimension that the Call of Duty level has by giving it a shocking context is very important to the ‘shock-factor’ of violence in video games.

Another argument for the emotional connection in video game violence is a scene in the recent game Infamous: second son. In the game an ally of the player’s character Delsin Rowe, lures Delsin and his brother into a trap, causing the brother to get killed. Delsin later confronts this ally about the death of his brother. The ally explains that he didn’t know Delsin’s brother was going to get killed and that he had no choice because he was blackmailed with his daughter with whom he’s trying to escape at that moment.

The player then gets a moral choice. This is quite a big part in the game, because it changes the story and the missions based on if the player decides to make the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ choice at specific moments in the game. The choice in this situation is: either kill the betraying ally as vengeance for Delsin’s brother, or spare him and let him leave with his daughter.
There is nothing extremely disturbing about the violence itself; there is no torture, no blood and there is only one person who dies, opposed to hundreds in the example mentioned before. That is why there was no controversy over this scene at all. This is an example of how emotions can play a much bigger role in how disturbing video game violence is than blood and gore. This example was chosen because this scene gives a feeling of “what have I done” after the choice is made and the scene plays out, with the betrayer reaching out and his daughter calling to him as he dies. An emotional context can be just as disturbing as gallons of blood splattered over your screen.

What does this mean for violence in video games? It means that we should look closer at why a player can do terrible things in one game and not feel anything about it and do terrible games in another game and considers it deeply disturbing. Acknowledging that the ‘shock-factor’ in video game violence isn’t just the blood and gore is a step towards that understanding. It’s possible that a new perspective on this might lead to new ways to let players know what is ethically right and wrong in video games.

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