Evolving how we talk about violence in games

Violence in games has been a topic of discussion for decades now, especially among people that don’t actually play them. We have seen politicians attempt to impose restrictions, the rise of rating systems, and Lord knows how many outraged parent protests. In my younger days I took this topic very seriously and considered myself something of an advocate. This makes it frustrating for me whenever I see posts like the one below.

On the surface, this looks like a satisfying gamer victory. Some woman named Penny urges that developers should be making peaceful games that emphasize kindness, good behavior, and empathy. Then an elite gaming hero swoops in and overwhelms her with a tidal wave of examples of games that already do that. Argument = destroyed! And to finish it off, he let’s her know that he has plenty more where that came from. He can keep going for a long time!

Personally, I’d rather he didn’t keep going. Our gamer friend’s argument here is flimsy at best and reading it gave me second-hand embarrassment. Rather than prove that games are mature and peaceful, it makes gamers seem juvenile and proves very little in return.

First and foremost, the defensive style of the argument comes off as incredibly hostile. I do get it: gamers are too used to being attacked. Too often have we dealt with bad faith arguments and biased media representation. That sucks, but things are getting better and we shouldn’t use these past experiences as an excuse to be standoffish. It’s not healthy for gaming if we stifle discussion about our medium, both inside and outside of our communities, because we’re still hung up over the Jack Thompson era.

Regardless of what beliefs inspired Penny to issue this challenge, gamers look like the unhinged party in this exchange.

Simply throwing out a bunch of examples is not a winning strategy either. The average person doesn’t know what an Undertale or a Bioware RPG is. Basically, giving them a list like this is just a slightly-upgraded version of “lol Google it”. But when people start Googling based on keywords you have handed them, they might end up finding information that contradicts your point or doesn’t make any sense to them.

A list like this also makes it easy to topple the argument by putting stress on the individual pieces. And when you can effortlessly cut entire chunks out of a list like this, even the few good points will look far worse by association.

Fallout is so obviously the wrong answer to Penny’s question that I am baffled it was this person’s fourth choice. A grim first-person shooter where you can press a button to get a slow-motion close-up of a person’s head exploding into gore confetti. Yeah that’s totally a game about politeness and empathy. After all, you can choose NOT TO detonate a nuclear bomb in a town full of innocent people.

If I were a malicious anti-gamer boomer and saw this discussion, I’d simply dismiss Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley as being games for kids, and then laugh at this gamer for trying to present his shooters and alien sex simulators as hallmarks of morality. It’d be so laughably easy to disprove this point that anyone looking to try it could do so in a minute. This post was so eager to dunk on a woman just for asking an uninformed question that, in its rush, it has given detractors the perfect opportunity to make gamers look like violence-obsessed idiots.

Outside of the scope of this tweet, the argument here is that RPGs fit Penny’s criteria because they reward players for being good. An argument that is both factually wrong and also ignores the spirit of Penny’s request. RPGs like Bethesda and Bioware’s output don’t particularly reward good actions more than bad actions. You can execute entire towns in Fable and still beat the game. You can punch journalists, cheat on your loved ones, and kill innocents, but still end up as the hero of the universe by the end of the Mass Effect saga. You might get some rewards for being nice like extra experience points, allies, or extra goodies, but an evil character could just kill a bunch of people for the same result.

We used to complain that morality systems in games were silly, yet here we are arguing that games which used them were actually entirely on point.

So what would I have done differently?

In most cases, I wouldn’t even bother to engage such arguments at all. The amount of people who earnestly believe that games are a bad influence has been steadily declining for years now, owing a lot to a new generation of parents who themselves grew up playing video games. Anybody who is still as vehemently against them today as they were 15 years ago isn’t going to be receptive to discussion anyway.

For the Pennies in our world, however, I’d strive for quality over quantity. Listing a bunch of game titles isn’t argument when you’re talking with people who, at best, might recognize a name or two. Take it one at a time and explain your reasoning. In doing so, you seize the initiative; critics now have to put actual effort into responding to the content of your argument instead of getting to act as inquisition. Even if you’re still on the defensive, at least now you have a fort to work from.

Also, be sure to stay on topic and think about what is actually being discussed. A Penny is going to have a very different understanding of games, so it’s vital that we reshape that perspective. Undertale or Stardew Valley might meet her criteria, but may still seem like wrong answers if Penny is talking about the kind of games she sees on store shelves. So we either have to make her understand just how mainstream these seemingly-obscure games actually are or we have to discuss the kind of games that Penny has in mind.

Finally, leave as little up to Google as possible. Even a game like Undertale may be misrepresented if Penny starts Googling and picks up that the game has a genocide route. For years games have been misrepresented by the media by focusing on details like this and downplaying the context around them. Now that we have the mic, we shouldn’t be eager to leave people’s first impressions of a game up to chance.

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