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Kill Polygon, Kill: Violence, Psychology, and Video Games
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Kill Polygon, Kill: Violence, Psychology, and Video Games

October 22, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[It's true, many video games have violent elements in them. But what does that mean? We talk to Silent Hill producers, abstract indie game creators and the Grand Theft Childhood book co-writer to look at the pluses and minuses of violence as a tool for expression in games.] 

At the end of fourth grade, my friend Daniel told me he was moving away. We had spent the whole year mooning over girls, watching videos, and listening to warped Run DMC tapes. He came over to my house his last night in town.

We went swimming and played with Star Wars dolls and then, as the sun was going down, his dad's car pulled up. He was one of my first genuinely intimate friends; there were no secrets between us, no need to pass ourselves off as cool. Daniel looked at the Star Wars toys on the floor and grabbed one for himself -- a parting gift, he told me.

I followed him into the hallway, pushed him to the floor, and then pummeled the top of his head with my fists. He dropped the doll after a few seconds. I stopped, picked up the doll and returned it with the others in my collection.

A few minutes later, Daniel was gone and I never saw him again.

"In real life, there's already this perceived 'dark side,'" Tomm Hulett told me. He's a producer at Konami, on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. "In a horror game (or movie, or book) it's about playing off that dark side and revealing something that the player already fears deep down, and forcing them to deal with it."

Violence is oxygen to the modern video game. The top 10 selling games at any given time are filled out with an imaginative spectrum of violent experiences, from Mario Kart Wii to Call of Duty: World at War and Madden NFL 10. Not all games need violence, but violent confrontation has been central to games throughout history.

Did we create this media violence, or did it create us? What effect is it having on us in the long term? And how much of our assumptions can actually be supported with research instead of hypotheses?

A Spoonful of Blood Makes the Medicine Go Down

The adrenal gland is the G-spot of the video game player. As humans evolved, the adrenal glands played a central role in self-preservation, releasing hormones that jolt a person into a state of caution, or heighten a person's ability to fight and manage pain. As humans have evolved into office-dwellers, Facebookers, and Amazon reviewers, the use of the adrenal gland has shifted to more abstract purposes.

"[God of War] is specifically tuned to make you feel like a macho, empowered badass," said Hulett. "Much like Batman, Jack Bauer, or Bill Rizer, nothing fazes Kratos. He is never scared. You buy action games to feel like that."

God of War III

God of War is one of the best-reviewed games of all time, with a Metacritic of 94 and perfect scores from 1UP, Game Informer, GameSpy, G4, Games Radar, and the Official US PlayStation Magazine. The basic mechanic involves swinging a chain with a giant blade on the end. For the sake of variety, you can rip the heads of Gorgons with your bare hands, run your blade through the chest cavities of hapless soldiers, and, through some plot trickery, be tricked into disemboweling your own wife and child.

As an action game, progression is tied to clearing areas of enemies and moving forward. The fantastic enemy designs encourage players to see them more as targets or obstacles than as living creatures deserving of empathy. The spurts of blood and flying limbs tell the player they're doing something right: this is where they're supposed to be, and this is what they're supposed to be doing.

"The way that the player interacts in Gears of War is by shooting the world," said the series' lead designer, Cliff Bleszkinski. "That's essentially his virtual hand. What he does is essentially reaches out and touches the environment. He's touching his enemies to essentially defeat them by unloading bullets into them."

The gore triggers a subconscious release of adrenaline, a guilty frisson that helps to keep the otherwise mundane work of obstacle-clearing feel exciting. Clearing chess pieces is intellectually satisfying, but adding blood spurts and cries of agony every time a piece is lost would add another layer of fun.

This isn't high art; it's interactive phantasmagoria and suspense. It's the lowest common denominator of game design. Aesthetics can be manipulated to mask a repetitive gameplay mechanic, while offering the player essential feedback on the efficacy of their execution. This may or may not be a noble approach, but it definitely works.

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