In the world of games, violence tends to be our focus. Of course not every title relies on it – there are plenty of non-violent products that are equally fun. But there’s just something about violence, specifically killing, that appeals to developers and players alike. Is it because we’re bloodthirsty and ethically bankrupt, or is there a more reasonable answer? Not surprisingly, I think there are several advantages to featuring killing in a game. While I should mention that I don’t advocate violence in general, here are a few ideas why I think in-game killing is here to stay.
1. Killing is basic
We want our games to play with emotions, right? What better way to toy with our players’ feelings than by harnessing deep-seeded reactions? Everyone feels fear; everyone is hard-wired with the need to survive. Even in the false setting of a game, it’s not difficult to make people respond to mortality. Along with survival we have inherited the abilities to hunt and defend ourselves. Even killing an NPC triggers something guilty in our reptile brain. It all adds up to a set of anxieties and desires based around killing. These emotional hooks transcend cultural and genre boundaries, which makes them a perfect addition to many games.
2. Killing is important to other media
Probably because killing is so basic to the human experience, it pervades other media. We have a rich history of killing in non-fiction (war is a continual focal point for history). Fiction is even more flamboyant with ways to kill. You could say that artists have been exploring the act of killing for thousands of years, which has made it an important part of our culture. We’re so surrounded by it that we can be desensitized to the thought of killing, if not by the act itself. People are used to plot points and stories revolving around violence and death, so games are no big leap.
3. Killing is diverse
Novelty is important to games – players are always looking for something new. Luckily(?) for us, there are a million ways to kill someone. Developers create some pretty epic weapons and hazards, and it’s not hard to make them believable parts of the game’s fiction. In this way we can vary the gameplay by merely changing the ways we murder enemies. We can keep this goal the same and still add infinite flavors of killing. As mentioned above, developers easily poach material from non-interactive media, taking their ideas and injecting them with interactive fun.
4. Killing is rich in audiovisual feedback
It’s easy to make destruction seem fun. Even a simple kill can bombard the player with particles and sounds, fully engaging his senses. This kind of feedback is easy to make a small reward. Because we inherently like to see things go boom or splat, the chain of fight-kill-fight-kill is more enjoyable because of these sensory hooks. This feedback only gets better with new hardware and software, and killing improves with it. There are few in-game actions as extreme as killing, especially at the epic scale that a game can create.
5. Killing is symmetrical
Killing can be valuable to gameplay because it is usually symmetrical. Players are often trying to kill AI or other players, just as these enemies are trying to kill them. This basic symmetry provides a simple behavioral model – players immediately understand their goals and the goals of their opponents. A baseline framework like this is a foundation; tactics, weapons, and teamwork can add complexity. It’s also incredibly valuable because, since they share the same basic goals, players can learn from their opponents’ behavior.
6. Killing neutralizes threat
Another gameplay benefit to killing is its natural progression from threat to resolution. An enemy encounter makes for a good struggle, which usually ramps up as more enemies appear. If enemies are threatening when they’re alive, they’re not when they’re dead. Killing each enemy removes their threat, and thereby lessens the player’s tension relative to his effort. The threat inherently disappears after all enemies are killed, creating a satisfying intensity curve. Pacing relies on this, so well-conceived killing can naturally provide a more polished user experience.
7. Killing is based on movement and direction
Given their input devices, most games are based on movement and direction. Joysticks and mice excel at small changes to a player’s movement and direction. First- and third-person cameras accentuate a player’s movement and direction. It follows that the mastery of in-game killing, which is also based on those criteria, should flourish in games. Skills like precision, reaction time, evasion, surprise, and predicting enemy behavior are all part of killing. Not only are fundamentally fun to improve, but they rely on a game’s strengths of movement and direction. If games evolve away from conventional controllers, it’s very possible that other types of actions besides killing will become more satisfying.
If you have any more ideas, I'd love to hear more reasons why killing fits games so well, or where it falls apart.