There is no such thing as a violent video game (I)

TL,DR version: Lol games aren’t real, killing isn’t even the goal, it’s competing to win at something. Gore is just edgy window-dressing.

Although there are some issues that truly divide a nation, most public debates that go on forever have the same problem: They are not well defined, the meaning of words shift according to the current needs of the speaker, and there are invisible premises inside the problem/question. It is like that trap: “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” There is no way to answer that. Modern politics and social debates follow similar patterns, although not in such a crass or evident fashion. Among other reasons, this is why debates seem circular and eternal since the conclusion is already inserted in how the problem is defined.

An example of public debate done wrong would be violence and video games or “What does video game violence does to our children?” Now, that was phrased in a somewhat hysterical way, so let’s tone it down a bit. “Are violent video games a problem/danger?” That’s better and seems like a reasonable question, but it isn’t. It’s a more subtle version of the “I’m assuming you beat your wife” question. Why? Because it implies an answer to something that has not been answered. That question is “Can a video game be violent?” or “Is violence something that can be expressed and provoked through a game?” The reflex answer of many people -even gamers- would be yes, but I will argue that the answer is (almost) no, unless you extend the definition of violence until it means anything.

This is important since most gamers and developers, when accused of creating or enjoying violent products, usually have to admit it’s violent BUT for some reason or other that does not matter. The same happens with accusations of sexism: “Yes, there are nudes there BUT…” and you have already lost.

It doesn’t seem to dawn on them that the question is loaded and that the product they enjoy may not even be violent… at all. The same problem happens when a movie, video game, comic or whatever is accused of sexism, misogynism or objectifying women. The common answer is some bubbling justification of why it’s not “problematic” to do that (it was realistic in the era depicted, or something, for example). Instead of calling the accusation for what it is, sophistry, the accused has to kneel and do some soul searching, and then conjure some half-assed justification that will never justify anything since he had already accepted he did something wrong.

Now, talking about video games in general and what they cause is absurd. Video games go from graphic adventures and chess simulators, to non-stop manic slaughter-fests. The quality, content, and what they will do to you (if anything) will depend on how they are designed, and your own nature.

Second problem. An abstract game, by definition, can’t be violent. A game is a set of rules. Its representation may use gore, but this is irrelevant to the basic gameplay mechanics and the reason people play it. You could change bullets to snowballs and blood to rainbows and the basic video game would still be about shooting at things, hand-eye coordinations, and reflexes. In fact, both things have been done. This is a counter-strike mod where you throw snowballs that, hilariously, still cause mortal wounds.

And here is Serious Sam 3 in “Hippie mode”

Those vegetables are the gibs from the exploding enemy. Flowers represent blood.
Those vegetables are the gibs from the exploding enemy. Flowers represent blood. You can still see how real blood looks on the ground; it’s that dark-red stain.

Are you triggered because you murdered… something, and now carrots are flying everywhere? No, of course not, because you are not an imbecile. This change doesn’t affect the game at all, and it shows that violence in actual gameplay is usually just an aesthetic issue, not a moral one. If someone made a chess game where pieces exploded in a rain of gore, would that make the game violent? No, since who is being violent against whom? There is a reason language has thousands of words so there is no need to develop a phobia to synonyms or specific terms. The adjective you are searching is not ‘violent’ but gory, gratuitously and nauseatingly gory, perhaps, but gory nonetheless. Now that I think about it, there are various examples of gory chess games. The most recent one is this:

Technically, I think that's called
Technically, I think that move is called a “Dutch Gambit”.
Source: Warhammer 40.000 -Regicide-

An image, an artistic representation, can be horrifying, disgusting, annoying, idiotic, shocking, nauseating, insulting, but… violent? Violence is something one does or suffers; it is primarily felt, not seen, and it’s about power, force, and inevitability. It’s not about randomness, chance, fun, probabilities, strategy, tactics, or just messing around with some tools or toys (and that’s what games are about). It’s not even about sensory experience (vision, sound, etc.), it’s about fear, terror, pain, and panic. But these emotional states or reactions need to be based on real probabilities and power; that is, the threat of violence has to be real. Someone calling you a dipshit while playing Call of Duty and threatening to kill your dog is not violence. Is a threat, but not a very good one since he can’t do anything to deliver his promises.

Violence implies something done between conscious beings and a mismatch between the doer and the sufferer (or two person in violent behavior wanting to destroy each other). It’s about fight, survival or sadism, not about entertainment (no, sadism is not entertainment since sadism needs the victim to be a sentient being submitted to the torturer’s will). Violence requires real reasons to hurt, destroy, stalk, hurt, wound, murder, rape, torture, and hate the other person; and the will to actually behave violently towards that person. How can you transmit all of that in a medium whose main goal is to remove reality from your immediate experience? How can you hate a bunch of pixels or enjoy hurting them? How can you violate their rights? I feel like an idiot for having to say these things.

Violence etymology is quite clear about that, by the way. Its distant forefather can be found in the root vir-, from which many words about ‘force’ evolved (including virility!). In Spanish, for example, ‘rape’ is ‘violación’, and some pretentious people (miss)use the word ‘violentar’, the verbal form of ‘violencia’ (violence). Now, can a sequence of images and formal playing rules ‘violentar’ you? Can a painting be violent?

Dante and Virgil in Hell, by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1850)
Dante and Virgil in Hell, by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1850)

Yes, it represents a violent scene, but do you feel violence? I hope not, otherwise your brain may be a totally useless piece of garbage. Aesthetic shock, disgust, fear, surprise or fascination are normal and standard reactions to art, although good art goes beyond that and makes you think about universal themes. This painting may certainly make you think about violence, human nature and many other subjects, but it is not nor will ever be, by itself, violent. Video games hardly, if ever, come close to such evocative power, so it’s even more amusing that someone can believe video games transmit violent values or can be violent to you.

Now, is a video game raping your eyeballs or something? Are you raping the pixels? There can be no violence without victim, so… who is the victim in a video game or a painting? Who is the victim in the previous chess-induced rain of gibs? Is the game chaining you to the chair and forcing you to suffer its violence? Do you smile with cruel satisfaction because you believe you have murdered… what exactly?

Yo, bitch, that group of pixels got raped! Image source:
Yo, bitch, that group of pixels got fucked!
Image source:

From all the different media formats, video games are probably the less violent since whatever possible violence they may have is reactive to your actions, it’s not essential to the game mechanics, it’s not even the reason the game exists, and you can leave whenever you want. This also applies to games, in general, not only in video format. When kids play make believe games and say “I killed you” if they win, the killing is not the goal of the game, it’s overcoming the obstacle (the other kids) by following an improvised set of rules, and then winning. Any moralistic teacher or parent shaming the kids into playing non-violent make believe games would be missing the point of what they are doing, spoiling their fun, and harming them. They are not “killing”, and shaming them to believe they are killing is a kind of abuse.

If you forced them not to kill they would keep doing the same, but just without that word to represent victory. On the other hand, you could force them to play a soccer match and say that every goal represents a murdered Syrian refugee. It’s absurd, but it does not change the reason kids play: to compete, play, have fun, show their abilities and win. This has always been why humans have played, and it’s the same when a virtual world is used as the playground.

Age of Empires. It's a genocide simulator since you have to destroy all enemy units including filthy peasants. Source:
Age of Empires. It’s a genocide simulator since you have to destroy all enemy units including those filthy peasants. Hitler would be proud.

As a kid, I never thought while playing Age of Empires or Settlers that I was burning a whole town of humans, probably because my brain was sane and knew I was playing a virtual and interactive version of a formalized make believe game. You could substitute those figurines with pebbles and the basic game would be the same. How the units are designed and which textures they use is not relevant to gameplay mechanics. This modular nature of video games is why we have mods, and it’s own of the reasons video games such a devoted fan base.

Some of the more popular games ever designed are, in fact, absurd and utterly silly.

Pirate zombies? I'm sure that's problematic, somewhere.
Pirate zombies? I’m sure that’s problematic, somewhere. Source: Plants vs Zombies 2

Any person trying to see a narrative there is a complete idiot. You could add to that game all the blood you’d want and nothing at all would change. The game would still be silly and non-violent.

Source: Oh my Gore!
Source: Oh my Gore!

I didn’t play Carmageddon because I enjoyed running over cows (well, not just because of that), but because the game was good, AS A GAME. The cow business was an interesting black-humor addition, but it could have been about running over holograms or vegans and the effect would be more or less the same if not greater. In fact, I didn’t play later reincarnations of the game because, as games, I didn’t like them. No amount of blood, gore, and pyrotechnics will force me to play something that is boring.

People who don’t play video games (and many who do) have problems understanding this because they see them as spectators would, through the lens of movies and books and assume the exterior content is what keeps the person playing, as if they were experiencing (as actors) a story. Gamers with artistic pretensions also fall for this for reasons that are too long to explain here. So, they think, if you shoot someone, you are actually thinking about shooting and that’s what interests you; but no, that’s now how it works. Or, if that’s how your brain works, you should seek urgent help.

Gore (fake gore, by the way) is an aesthetical preference with some subversive qualities, and it always helps to rile up the moralist, so it’s good publicity, but it’s difficult to see how it can harm you unless you have very poor mental balance and some borderline or full blown schizophrenia. Except in a few games where blood has an effect in game mechanics (like Thief), it’s just something you could change to flowers, pixie dust or cocaine. And if a video game triggers you for that, you are probably the kind of person that would be triggered just by being alive. Violence is not about guts and exploding meatbags, it’s about suffering, pain, learned helplessness, oppression, cruelty, hate, bigotry, hostility, etc (real, not Tumblr violence). If you read carefully you will see most of those words are psychological mental states that need a sentient victim, two requirements opposed to gaming. In other words, those are things that humans do to each other or what you can suffer 24/7 if you watch your normal and suicide-inducing political debate. Games, even gory ones, are a way to flee from this reality and it’s almost grotesque when they get blamed for what happens in the real world.

In contrast, movies “force” you to see what they show, in the exact way they wanted to show it. A comic forces you to read the story as it was written, with all the gory details and impossibility to skip it if you want to know the plot. A grotesque public sculpture in the middle of the city may force you to watch it. All of those things railroad you and even those aren’t really violent (movies may be the closest thing) A video game? What does a game force you to do? You play when you want. You shoot when you want, and you stop when you want. You don’t like blood? Many games let you remove that, although you could try being less of a sissy. You don’t like the cutscenes or cinematics since they trigger you? Skip them, they are probably pretentious crap anyway. You don’t even like shooting because you have the reflexes of a potato? Play turn-based games, or adventure games, or economic simulation games. It’s not like there aren’t enough different genres to choose from.

A million peasants were brutalized to design this Feudal Economic System of Oppresion simulator
A million peasants were brutalized to design this Feudal Economic System of Oppression simulator. Source: Stronghold. *In fact, you can use those cows as munition for your catapults.

I suspect the video games and violence debate is a product of our cloistered society since very few people experience real violence so they only understand it through theory (i.e. bullshit) and symbols (i.e.bollocks). They have only seen it through movies or other secondary visual interpretations which they mistake for reality, so they have very odd ideas about what real violence is. Then there are some nonsensical academic theories about meaning, message, media, and violence, which usually are nothing more than grasping at straws. They mostly consist on reiterating the obvious or whatever everyone is seeing but in a condemning tone or wording. Look at this feminist analysis about sexualization and women as trophy in video games:

She’s merely repeating what the players knows (that’s why they preordered, for the titties -and because they are dumb-) and what the viewer is seeing. She doesn’t explain why that’s wrong, it’s merely assumed. She does that all the time, by the way. It’s amazing that someone has become so famous just by repeating what the player already knows and labeling as immoral. The trick consists on building a previous theory, unproven but seductive, and then give a lot of examples with a straight face. The viewer will assume that the nefarious consequences (making you more violent or sexist) of such violent or misogynist products are self-evident even if you have not proven them. This is a game you can’t lose since entertainment is based around fake worlds where our moral conventions don’t apply BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT REAL, so there will be always more gratuitous innuendo, fan service, profanity and aggression than in your daily life. By analyzing the “narrative” of such games, assuming without proof that everything that happens there has real effects on your real life, you will never lose since there will be always something that may be offensive to someone if it happened ON THE REAL WORLD. And that something can be transformed into an “instantiation” inside that fictional world of some giant cultural behemoth that is oppressing you.

The sad thing is that when real violence happens, like some real beheading in the Middle East, most hysterical commentators double down their efforts criticizing bullshit violence and sexism in made up worlds instead of the real thing.That real thing is, by the way, language-based, not image-based. Language, not images, is the tool of the demagogue and the ideologue. This, naturally, only demeans victims of real violence, and makes their suffering equal to the suffering of privileged people with too much time on their hands.

The most prominent misconception for this generation of walking brains-in-a-jar is that violence, violent behavior, and violent ideologies can be easily transmitted through a visual representation in a controlled and safe game environment, as if violence were some kind of sensorial experience you can inject into their brains. The funny part is this: that time your co-worker pushed you or your mother screamed at you? You probably experienced more violence, anxiety, and pain then than in all the video games or movies you have ever seen. You could crush someone’s self-esteem and mind with a few carefully chosen words, but with a video game? If your child is traumatized by a video game, you should look at what is wrong with him, not at what’s wrong with the game.

There is much evil here. Source: Heroes of Might & Magic 3
There is so much evil here I could weep and write a two-page Tumblr rant.
Source: Heroes of Might & Magic 3

When you play video games, does your gut suffer, do you feel an oppressive sensation in your chest, do you have an anxiety attack? These are normal reactions to violence unless you have been trained to withstand them (or you are a bit on the psycho side). Have you ever seen a real fight, with people screaming and almost killing each other? Did you feel a combination of fear, anxiety, a sense of ‘this isn’t happening’, etc.? That’s because you saw and felt real violence you had never truly experienced, so you reacted in shock. You know what was my 4-year-old reaction the first time I saw a Doom zombie explode?


The reason you don’t cower in fear, have anxiety attacks, or wallow in western ennui when playing Doom isn’t because you are desensitized, it’s because you are not a total imbecile. Your brain is intelligent enough to realize visual, fake and almost comical representation of pseudo-violence is not a reason to develop psychosomatic symptoms and flee since there is no real danger involved, and neither blowing up enemies is the goal of the game (it’s winning and exercising whatever abilities the game requires). I’m not saying you have to enjoy visual gore since that’s an aesthetic preference, and you may be repulsed, bored or disgusted by it. However, there is a difference between saying that something is repugnant or aesthetically degenerate and saying it’s violent. I’m not saying they are two points on a continuous line; I’m saying they are two different things altogether.

Social commentators and moralists assume violence is visual because they have never felt violence and live secluded lives during the least violent (for now, anyway) era of mankind. Although it helps, visual realism in violence representations only works if it’s accompanied by other kinds of realism. There is no point in perfectly recreating human anatomy if then you “kill” an enemy and he falls like a piñata, instantly dead, when you hit it. The beach scene in Saving Private Ryan isn’t disturbing because they invested a lot of money in guts, but because it shows the pain, suffering and arbitrary and chaotic nature of combat. The effect would have been equally profound if they had run out of money for fake blood. In fact,  I’m pretty sure it would have been disturbing even in Serious Sam “hippie mode”. Also, literature has been transmitting gut-churning scenes and emotions for millennia without a single image, only through words.

No video game has ever bothered with this kind of realism since it detracts from gameplay experience and, in fact, it’s impossible to simulate. Nobody would play it, anyway. Games are about fun, and constant reinforcement and feedback for your actions. What’s the point in being shot and lying for two hours in the sand before you die? In fact, how can anyone believe killing virtual avatars make you violent without admitting you should be suicidal by now (you probably have died a few times while playing). Were you traumatized when a virtual enemy killed you? It’s almost as if these people didn’t understand the definiton of PLAY. I’m going to give you two etymologies:

From latin: iocare (jouer in French, jugar in Spanish, and giocare in Italian), from iocor -> To joke, to jest, in the sense of a verbal joke or pun.

From old English, plegan, plegian “move rapidly, occupy or busy oneself, exercise; frolic; make sport of, mock; perform music,” from West Germanic *plegan “occupy oneself about”*

As you can see, if you combine both you have: An occupation, or activity, that you practice, to have fun, frolic or waste time.

Enemies in games don’t exist to be killed, they are obstacles to overcome using your reflexes, in-game knowledge, intelligence, creativity, etc. The game mechanics and genre will define what this obstacle is, but the idea that the ‘killing’ is a necessary and a toxic part of the game experience is silly and borderline psychotic since it assumes an incapacity to differentiate between the creation of virtual worlds with virtual rules, and real life. It assumes your brain is unable to fantasize.

When kids play make believe games about Indians and cowboys, only a very sick person would believe they are simulating violence and murder for its own sake. And deep down that’s what video games are, an extension of our instinctive role-playing and adventuring desires. It’s also an extension of our intelligence, and ability to manipulate tools and form abstract mental constructs.

Now we even have games about cleaning the mess the hero did once he did his job killing all the rampaging aliens and saving (some) of the scientists.

Unless you play as the poor sod who then has to clean up the mess. Then, yes, Game of the Year. Source: Viscera Clean Up Detail.
Source: Viscera Clean Up Detail.

If you playfully brawl with your brother, are you being violent? If you see two tiger cubs “fighting”, are they being violent? If you see two martial artists sparring, are they being violent? Of course not. They are merely following the movements of violence without neither the intentions nor the consequences of such actions. Then, why in video games, which are even less real since they have neither the real movements nor the realistic consequences of anything inside a made up fantasy world, are considered violent? There is no target for violence, no sentient being that suffer the violence, no worldview that justifies violence  outside that fantasy world (it could be added, but it probably won’t work), the “violent” virtual action isn’t even the goal of the game (it’s winning, the enemy is just an obstacle), gory elements are just dressing since don’t affect gameplay, actions have no real consequences even inside the fake world, then… how is it even possible for the words video game to appear next to “violent”. Simple: There is no such thing as a violent video game.

One thought on “There is no such thing as a violent video game (I)

  1. The Supreme Court has also rejected the idea. In striking down a California law that banned the sale of some violent video games to children in 2011, the court savaged the evidence California mustered in support of its law.


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