The debate over violent video games has re-emerged over the past few months, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. This is due largely to prominent conservatives arguing that the moral corruption of the games is a danger to society. These arguments are generally countered on the grounds that video games constitute protected speech, that studies indicating that games increase aggression are inconclusive at best, or that blaming games is a distraction from more relevant issues like gun control. Yet I've noticed that many using these defenses in the public sphere seem mildly embarrassed at having to defend games. Why? Because very few opinion leaders in the American media are in any way experts on video games, while gamers in turn are not always the most eloquent on the subject.
So what is it about violent video games that makes them so appealing? How is it that someone like me—an engaged left-wing, non-violent, anti-war citizen—can be a fan of all kinds of video games, including the violent ones? A game like Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 can sell over six million copies in its first day, for example, while the Entertainment Software Association estimates that 72 percent of American households play video games.
The framing of the question is part of the problem. Describing the games as “violent video games” implies that the violence is an intrinsic element of what the games are, which automatically makes it seem like violence is, in and of itself, the appeal of the game. That's generally not the case—violence tends to be instrumental in video games. It's a tool, used to achieve different goals.
In order to understand why video games with depictions of violence have such appeal, it's important to understand why video games are fun in general. Video games tend to succeed when they engage the mind via challenges along the multiple dimensions of time and space. To do so, they generally model real-world challenges which deal with time and space as well.
What are those real-world time-and-space challenges? There's driving, especially racing, which is one of the most consistently popular genres of games across the history of gaming, from Pole Position on to Need For Speed. Then there are other vehicles, like planes, which comprise the longest-running series in video game history, Microsoft Flight Simulator, or submarines (Silent Hunter) and even spaceships (Wing Commander), though these have gone somewhat out of style in recent years.
Want a less dangerous hobby? How about music, or dance? Both of these are extremely popular in video gaming, falling under the aegis of the “rhythm game.” These games are fascinating because their spatial challenges are physical. Instead of traversing an in-game space, you interact with a rhythm game by moving through a real-world space. You can jump up and down on a pad (Dance Dance Revolution), or play fake plastic instruments while singing into a microphone (Rock Band).
From dancing it's a short journey to another popular form of athleticism that relies on multidimensional awareness: sports. Athletes engage with multidimensional challenges directly, while fans can see and respect skill at maneuvering through those challenges. Sports video games involve those same maneuvers, from Pong to Wii Tennis. The line between sports and violence occasionally blurs. A martial arts tournament involves the direct challenge of participants' skill, and provides the basis for the fighting game, pioneered by Street Fighter II. But if you add blood and “fatalities?” It's Mortal Kombat.
It's within this context that popular violent games like Call Of Duty, Gears Of War, or Assassin's Creed make sense. They're not about killing or violence to the people playing them. They're about navigating complicated spaces while under the twin pressures of time and opponents trying to defeat you. Multiplayer games like Call Of Duty are team-based competitions, often built around concepts like “Capture The Flag.” A game like Left 4 Dead 2 is like an improvised, collaborative dance session where if you can't trust your partners to work with you, everything falls apart in a hurry—you just happen to be hacking up zombies.
What's more, most action games operate on significantly more levels than other games, and indeed, more than most situations a person is likely to encounter in life. For example, in a session of Gears Of War, a player will commonly encounter a situation like this: the player and an ally are facing four enemies of differing abilities. The player's mind will be constantly engaging with issues like “Are the enemies moving? Is it safe for me to move forward? Is my partner moving? Are we likely to be flanked? If I charge am I more likely to defeat my enemy than it is me? What weapon is most appropriate? Should I reload when it's safe now, or press my momentary advantage? Is my partner safe? Who is attacking me?”
With these mental processes constantly running, it's no wonder that an oft-cited study has shown that action gamers can track moving objects notably better than the general population.
Beyond the immediate multidimensional pressures, violent action games also tend to add the facet of medium and sometimes long-term planning. In a dance game, the only consideration beyond what's happening right now is how tired you might get, or in a sports game, maybe there could be some player fatigue. But most violent games tend to involve managing resources—ammunition, generally. Shoot too much now, and you won't be able to later. Use all your health syringes, in Far Cry, and you'll be incredibly fragile. There are entire genres of games that are built around resource management, like strategy games (Civilization, SimCity) or role-playing games (Dragon Age, Skyrim). Only in action games, which often have violent settings, engage the mind at so many levels.
Speaking for myself, I've been a gamer for the majority of my life, playing games of all levels of violence, gore, or immediacy. The few times when it hasn't been my primary hobby are the times in my life when I was fully activated by school or work. Working a monumentally dull temp job in the midst of a Chicago winter led me directly to World Of Warcraft and the rampant “slaughter” of hundreds, thousands of fantasy creatures. I didn't play violent video games to numb myself, I played them to prevent myself from being taken over by numbness. What brought me out of World Of Warcraft dominating my spare time? Ditching the temp job and diving head-first into the spontaneous, national movement to prevent the closing of Antioch College. Given the lack of fulfillment in most work, and the low wages making especially for young people, is it any wonder that a method of entertainment that activates their mental abilities is so popular?
The idea that violent video games just happen to be the most engaging for reasons unrelated to violence demands another question, though: if the violence is not directly part of their appeal, then why is it so common?
The answer isn't necessarily related to video games, but rather, to stories. Violence is used in storytelling across virtually every kind of media, and for similar reasons. Violence or its threat, raises the stakes of a narrative, and is likewise the inevitable consequence of certain stories. Most games exist within narrative genres where violence is going to happen. Violence is also used for its shock value across media, adding transgressive power to tragedy, heroism, villainy, or even comedy.
Instead of scapegoating or disdaining games, we should work to understand them. This will slowly happen over time, as people for whom playing video games was common enter positions of power. It'll also happen as we encourage more interested, curious discussion of games in the public sphere, instead of treating them as alien or abnormal. Video games are an increasingly prevalent part of our culture, and worth understanding.