Dishonored Dev Joe Houston On Violence In Games

By RPS on January 14th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

Just before Christmas, Nathan wrote a piece asking for a conversation about the role gaming violence plays in our lives. And as so many have when discussing the topic, he featured an image from Dishonored at the top – a man getting stabbed through the neck. For Joe Houston, the former Arkane developer who created that stabbing scene, this was the prompt he needed to give his own perspective on the subject.

Whenever I’m clicking my way through game industry opinion articles, I tend to get hung up on pieces about video game violence. This is mostly because the image plastered across the top of the post is a screen grab from Dishonored. You know, the one where a member of the city watch gets his jugular opened in a first-person blast of arterial spray. But it’s not the shock of that image that stops me. No, I pause because I’m the guy that wrote the code to make the player do that in the first place.

As a member of the core Dishonored team from the beginning, and after slitting virtual throats 2 to 3 times a minute for 3 and a half years, I’m probably the single person most desensitized to the violence in that particular game. And yet that doesn’t mean I can’t find Dishonored’s violence uncomfortable; it just means I need a little additional context beyond the plain old cold steel and choke hold.

For example, after the game’s release I felt just a bit queasy the first time I saw a player go through the party at the Boyle Estate. For those that haven’t played it already, it’s a map filled with nuance and mystery, in which Corvo (the main character) must infiltrate a masquerade ball and discover the identity of his assassination target. This is done by talking to guests, sneaking into forbidden areas, pilfering private journals, and engaging other tactics of subtlety.

Or it’s done by walking in the front door and shooting the first guard you see in the face. This is the approach I first saw a player try without receiving additional prompting. The ensuing battle was chaos, but it was the aftermath that really made it a story worth telling. Following the onslaught, each room of the manor was filled with cowering, begging civilians, their bodyguards all cut down moments before. This is the part of this particular strategy where the player began methodically cutting people down.

Servants and aristocrats, men and women alike. The red splashes of color and truncated screams settled into a steady rhythm, like the grimmest game ever of Dance Dance Revolution. At one point the text “objective completed” flashed across the screen (when the player’s target fell by happenstance), which didn’t even prompt a pause or hesitation in the killing. This player had his own objectives now, spoken by a mad voice in his head: “kill them all, leave no survivors, and then go upstairs and pocket the faberge eggs”.

I laugh when I tell this story because of the sheer absurdity of it. When this was happening and my friend Anthony Huso, level designer for the Boyle Manor, leaned over and whispered “oh man it’s a horror show,” we both chuckled. But there was then (and is now) some discomfort there for me. It’s clearly more than the just the sum of so many beheadings and throat cuttings, especially because the act of cutting someone down in the game is utterly benign to me, solely representing how the animation and code intersect thanks to my old job.

I think the key to my uneasiness is the context of choice here. In this mission more than in any other the player is not only given alternatives to bloodshed, but alternatives that seem like better options to me in every way: sparing lives in this level is more fun, it creates more gameplay, it presents more to see and do, etc. And yet the player is choosing, above all other options, to kill everybody anyway. In this light that string of workmanlike, grim-faced civilian murders is as intentional as is possible in the game, and to me a disquieting conclusion.

As a lifelong gamer and a game developer of the past 8 years, this is an emotional reaction that I really can’t get from a linear game. Acts of game violence are just one form of visual expression to me at this point. If thrust into a game where the choices aren’t mine to make, violence (even horrifying violence) ends up making a statement about what that game’s creators are trying to express more than it makes a statement about me the player being forced into a role.

I especially noticed this a few years ago when I was put into the role of a terrorist shooting civilians in CoD Modern Warfare 2. While I won’t debate that the subject matter was difficult and that it raised some moral questions, playing the game didn’t affect the way I felt about myself or about other people that played that level. The only real choice in the game was whether to continue playing or not (or to skip the section from the menu when prompted). Although something in it certainly challenged or offended people, it did so without their ownership. Even when you played it, it was a violent diorama concocted by someone else.

Now I’m not saying that games must be non-linear to have value. Journey is a good example of a modern game that gives, at best, the illusion of choice. As such, it ends up conveying a directed, precise brushstroke of emotion. And it does so brilliantly. It’s a work of art in that way, the transference of a meticulously crafted experience exactly as it was conceived. However, I do suggest that it’s tough when exploring darker themes, things that a normal person is less likely to admit to. It is harder to create an emotional attachment to wrongdoing if the game lacks the freedom of choice necessary to get the player’s complete buy-in.

So does that mean that linear violent games are better for society than those like Dishonored, those that touch only superficially on violent acts versus those that allow the player to make extreme choices? I argue that linear games that have a lack of personal ownership in game violence actually do so at the disadvantage of society.

I don’t believe that game violence causes real world violence, but I do believe that it does little to prevent it. And games with meaningful (and potentially distasteful) choice just might do better because they stand a chance of making the player think about what they’re doing on screen. And there are others that think so too: Dishonored is one of the few violent video games that has not been censored by the German government. One could argue this is largely because the game can be played without killing anyone. This doesn’t change all the things you might do in the game, but simply by knowing that it allows non-violence you find that every violent act you choose in cast in a sobering light.

Now I’m not saying that Dishonored is a perfect model for all other games. I have referred to the Boyle Estate map because of my personal experience, and because I found that it in particular exemplified a strong emotional reaction to player choice. But Dishonored, and other games like it, are not without moral responsibility. I’ve read criticisms of Dishonored that say it’s a game that “wants to be played a certain way”, often implying that the violent path is the fun one and that the stealthy path is the correct one. I can’t respond to this as that wasn’t my job on the project. However, just the suggestion that such a dichotomy might exist points out the sticky situation developers have to deal with. It implies there is a judgement in the game that may or may not be teaching players strange lessons about violent action. A moral code in a game, oftentimes encoded unintentionally by its designers, is unavoidable. And when a game becomes more effective at evoking emotion (due to player choice), it also gains a higher level of social responsibility. It is a double edged sword, and one that must be wielded with care.

In light of the recent gun violence in the U.S. and the resultant anti-game talk that has stemmed from it, it’s important as gamers not to simply retreat to the easy reaction, that games aren’t a part of the problem. While I think that might be true (after personal examination), I think it’s a pity to stop there. Too often we think about what we might lose as players and developers if forced to engage in that conversation, becoming blinded by the fear of censorship. As a result we miss out on more creative and effective ways to be a part of the solution. As players we can stand to expand our emotional palette by seeking out games that challenge us. And developers have a responsibility to answer that demand with games that engage the player with meaningful choices, additional freedom, and ultimately greater personal responsibility.

Joe was a member of the core Dishonored team and is the founder of Roxlou Games. He is now working on Unwritten, a strategy game about choice for the PC. He also occasionally blogs on an incomprehensible range of topics on his blog.

__________________

« | »

, , , .

146 Comments »

  1. groovychainsaw says:

    Thanks Joe, interesting to hear the designers/developer’s take on this.

    I wonder if you could actively discourage those civilian deaths just by programming more reality into your civilians. For example, all ‘game’ civilians tend to cower in corners of the room, even when you are clearly walking up to them with a knife. So for one, make them run. For two, make some of them team up, start to fight back and ambush you. As you’ve decided to become a serial killer, allow the civilians to take the role of the plucky horror movie hero/ine and do everything they can to kill or stop you. You could have them hide behind doors as you enter the room, then stab you, causing you to die instantly, for example.

    This sort of (arguably) more realistic behaviour could make it ‘less fun’ to go on a murderous rampage whilst making the game world feel more real at the same time? And if people want a murdering civilians simulator, well, I’m sure there will still be other games out there. But designers should be looking to encourage (not enforce) certain styles of play through in-game reactions like this. Too many systems (particularly AI) seem to be borne out of ‘this is how other games do cowering civilians, that’s how we’d better do it so the player isn’t confused’. No. Confuse the player sometimes by making the world react better to their actions. Make the world less ‘gamey’. Make people think about their actions and consequences more.

    • Zanchito says:

      I could argue that more realistic reactions would encourage some people to follow the more violent path.

      • Snidesworth says:

        Out of self defense/preservation (since civilians could become a threat), or because it would enable a richer experience for the potential mass murderer?

        • marshabilly5 says:

          like Bradley explained I’m blown away that people can make $5398 in one month on the computer. have you seen this web page..Job Creation

      • groovychainsaw says:

        I agree, the increased challenge from doing it might lead to people seeking it out to ‘fight’ the civilians who are fighting back.

        I’m guess my main point is about making actions have more ‘real’ consequences. The immediate NPC reaction is one way. You could also make it have long-term consequences in the game, such as certain paths/options in the game being closed off to you (because people are working with a mass-murdering psychopath). Even just people referring to you as ‘The Butcher of x’ and fleeing in terror, thereby making later missions harder as you’re attracting attention would make people consider their actions more. I wouldn’t want to prevent people doing this, but make the world more reactive when you do.

        • Sheng-ji says:

          I’m not sure more realism is going to help, I think that death needs to be given more emotional impact. Corvo is not a psychopath and would feel emotional about his actions. I wonder how the player who set about to “tidy up the level” would have reacted if the heart had read out the full speech for each person you kill just after you killed them. While it may not discourage you from committing mass murder, it may make the player feel something more when they kill a guard and are told he only took the job to support his brothers wife when his brother was lost at sea etc

          Anyway, thanks to Joe for writing the article, it is a very interesting read!

          • Snidesworth says:

            I think Corvo is largely who the player makes him. My Corvo was a patient and methodical man out to remove a man who shouldn’t be there from power. My friend’s Corvo was a murderous psychopath consumed by a desire for revenge who cut a bloody swathe through Dunwall.

            As for the Heart, I think that having it speak to you without prompting would be to its detriment. It would go from a tool that allowed you glimpse at the secrets of Dunwall and its people to a force of morality slapping you on the wrist every time you do something a bit murderous. The Outsider already serves as a commentator on your actions throughout the game, though he’s entirely amoral and only crops up when retrieving a handful of optional runes.

          • Sheng-ji says:

            Oh, yeah – I wasn’t saying the game should have done that – I’m saying it would be interesting to see how players changed their playstyle!

            I can see Corvo being played anyway, but not as a psychopath, and by psychopath I mean one who lacks fear and empathy – simply because Corvo shows a normal amount of both in cutscenes. To play through as a psychopath means you would have to ignore the story and make up your own reasons for why Corvo does what he does. Thats not to preclude a playstyle which murders a bloody swath through the game, driven by anger, hatred or revenge on an unfair world, or whatever else but I think he would have had emotions about it.

            I think most players play games as psychopaths for the simple reason that most games don’t trigger emotional responses in most people to the pixels displayed on screen – when I run someone over in GTA, my subconscious – no matter how deeply I am roleplaying – knows full well I haven’t deprived a mother of a child or a spouse of their partner. They spawned randomly as a reaction to me loading that segment of the level. If I drive half a mile away and back, they are gone, replaced by a new set of randoms. My subconscious cannot be affected by this, no matter ho much I want it to be.

            Things like the heart did get to me though, it was a really powerful device!

          • Mad Hamish says:

            I think more realism in the acting would help a lot, both in voice and animation. You have to get the player to empathise with the victim. Making them more human like in their reactions would go a long way in doing so. I’ve noticed in DayZ that both myself and other player seem to be less likely to kill if the victim is actually talking to you. Sometimes the you just need reminding that others are human too.

            I haven’t played Dishonoured but NPC interactions of this kind have never really moved beyond what Rise of the Triad did which had the sprites fall to their knees and a disinterested voice actor say “no, please don’t” in a manner which suggested he really did want you to end it all.

          • Sheng-ji says:

            @Mad Hamish – I most certainly agree that a lack of realism in a game trying to be realistic can be jarring and ruin any emotional impact.

            I don’t agree that making games more and more realistic necessarily improves the emotional impact as efficiently as using strong narrative or injecting character into the game. I’m thinking of Thomas was alone here, as unrealistic as they get but the character those shapes have is nothing short of astounding.

          • Mad Hamish says:

            Yeah your right, realism is the wrong word. You can feel empathy for a cartoon character. More life like or emotive characterisation is probably what I was trying to say.

          • Vlupius says:

            I completely agree with the point that Sheng-Ji raises about how “life-like” the NPC’s are. I noticed for myself that as soon as a game convinces me the NPC’s have a life of their own, I hesitate to kill them. As soon as they are meaningless objects to deliver lines of text (or when they react completely unrealistic, like in Fallout 3), I lose all interest in keeping them alive and become a emotionless mass-murderer. But when there is the illusion of a world outside the game (like in Dishonored, or Deus Ex) I almost always primarily use the way of stealth or diplomacy.

        • weriabsbera says:

          This is a new popular iPhone accessories! Looking for a unique design accessories or cooling gadget for your iPhone5? Check out the cheapest wholesale price iPhone5 accessories! http://a.mainfrm.ru/77

      • f1x says:

        Dishonored was supposed to be like that actually (regarding world reaction and difficulty), you should have more rats and more weepers later on if you killed just too much people,
        but the difficulty didn’t scale that much tho…

    • yonsito says:

      I found that the graphic killing scenes gave me plenty motivation to take the nonlethal route.
      The murdering player mentioned in the piece is either a more violent person than me, or he is better at differentiating between real and fictional violence.

      • f1x says:

        Yeap, similar thing happened to me,

        Had also other feelings mixed, I felt like just killing everybody was the easy way to solve the problem plus couldn’t stand seeing so much blood for some reason, the dying sounds and everything was a bit horrible,
        rather put the guy to sleep and hear him snooze peacefully

        But then in any Call of Duty campaign I could kill 3000 guys and have zero regrets,
        of course that is tied tho with the arcade nature of Call of Duty, but still

      • Bluerps says:

        Yeah, it was similar for me. I did not want to kill anyone in that game. I even failed the side-quest for Granny Rags on purpose, in which you have to put the plague into the bootleg elixir still. I just felt very uncomfortable doing that.

      • Vesuvius says:

        I played through the game without killing anyone, directly or indirectly, except for Granny Rags (who I didn’t kill, but I DID make her mortal and then set Slackjaw free- and I managed to ghost that section too!).

        That said, I feel some regret having played that way. I really chafed at conflict of wanting to see objectives through to completion, and of trying to be “non-violent”. Completing the Granny Rags quest to taint the cure would have had a horrible effect, so I avoided that, but otherwise I finished all my side missions and never killed a soul. But I really should have.

        Where I failed was by refusing to kill certain targets. I was too caught up in the faux-moral choice of not dirtying my hands, along with the desire to get the achievement for that method. Upon reflection however, some of the fates you subject your marks to are horrific and sadistic- and it would be far more moral to have ended their lives peacefully and swiftly than to keep them around just to cause them harm.

        I guess my point is that it’s very weird how gamification and the morals of the creator can distort things for us as we play through a story.

      • AJLange says:

        It didn’t seem to me like the ‘kill them all’ player was more violent. I read it as him being more lazy. He didn’t want to bother with all the thinky bits required with trying to solve a mystery; killing everyone like in all those other games was much easier.

        • f1x says:

          While you are right that in Dishonored killing everybody sometimes is easier than the other way around,
          I understood from the article that this guy was metodically killing every civilian and searching every room for more victims and he randomly completed the mission objective at some point but just keep on killing until nobody else could be found to be killed, which is a bit creepy to be honest

        • DanMan says:

          That’s my biggest problem with this kind of game. The non-lethal way is always more difficult. The same with Hitman. Yes, it’s messy if you go for “kill’em all”, but if you have enough ammo, it’s usually either easier, quicker or even both.

          Can we have a game where it’s the opposite please?

      • maninahat says:

        The very first time I played it, I wanted to avoid killing anyone. Unfortunately, as I had the PS3 version, and I’ve barely touched one before, I was too clumsy and kept stumbling into fights. After an hour of blundering into fights by accident (and not reloading saves) I ended up going on the war path and getting the worst ending possible.

        Would love to do a non-lethal replay, but the alternatives to murdering the targets are often fates worse than death (prisoner of a date rapist stalker, mutilated and trapped down a mine, forced into a life of destitution and isolation etc.). Plus there is little to discourage you from stealing everything. In other words, it’s impossible to play as a nice guy, even though I feel like I should (being a bodyguard, not a murderous criminal).

    • Michael Fogg says:

      I also dislike the ‘cowering civilian’ trope that is prevalent in many types of games, from Fallout to Skyrim to Deus Ex. They should usually run away at speed equal to player speed and disappear when reaching the exit grid of the map, counting as escape.

    • Morlock says:

      I don’t know if the behaviour you described would be realistic, but I strongly feel that there are better ways to make the bloodbath feel consequential. Killing is a terrible thing, and even worse if the victims are civilians, and the more a game shows that suffering and grief that is caused by such a “simple” action such as sticking a blade into someone, the more they player should be discouraged to kill more.

      I am reminded of something I read about GTA V, not regarding killing, but prostitutes. When Nico picks up a prostitute from the street (player choice), the act itself i absolutely unerotic, and Nico’s lines are full of self-doubt and low self-esteem. I found this really impressive, and in some ways, quite mature.

    • kalirion says:

      Pretty sure that “covering in the corner” is far more realistic for civilians than attempting to band together and fight back. All the mass shootings have shown that to us. 911 Flight 93 was the only exception that comes to mind, and in that case the people knew they were dead unless they tried something.

    • nearly says:

      you do realize that your “realism” approach is grounded thoroughly in the realm of (fictional) horror films? I find that really alarming, as I always do when people stress a “realism” that’s just based on fictional portrayals of very real things. if that were a realistic response to violence, autogenic massacres wouldn’t end with the police gunning down the killer or the killer committing suicide.

      that said, there’s a scene in spec ops (SPOILERS) where a crowd of civilians lynches one of your squadmates. you have the option to shoot and scare them off, but you also have the option to shoot into the crowd: the games doesn’t explicitly tell you what to do, just puts a gun in your hand and lets you shoot. a lot of people criticize the game for only having an illusion of choice, which it does, but that’s just the critique the game is making on the industry and its representation of violence. you SHOULD feel bad about the violence and it DOES say something that you’re choosing it.

      I also remember reading an article some time ago from someone that had written dialog for a video game adaptation of The Punisher on the original xbox. he said that he made characters beg for their lives and the higher ups stressed that this was 100% not okay and would have landed the game an Adults Only rating that would have been a death blow. I think standards have changed since then, though, and a lot of things that weren’t okay now are, maybe only because of games like Manhunt 2 paving the way.

      • zbeeblebrox says:

        I agree, and I think part of the difficulty with trying to use realism to prevent players from doing this sort of thing can also be found in the autogenic massacre: namely that in nearly all cases of random mass killings, the murderer either shoots himself or is killed by the police. This is never a danger for the player – their mental stability isn’t in question and their Player Character is typically a nigh unstoppable demigod who can easily evade authorities. Solving the problem with realism isn’t going to change anything for players who simply don’t feel remorse firing virtual polygons that happen to look like bullets into virtual polygons that happen to look like humans.

        At the end of the day, that’s really the ugly truth of it which developers just don’t want to hear: that many gamers simply don’t care about the story or “immersion” or their baloney “emotional engagement” and consider “moral choice” to just be a cute way to dress up a reward-based decision mechanic and nothing more.

  2. omNOMinator says:

    Round of applause. Good show ol’ chap.

    • yogibbear says:

      I agree wholeheartedly. Unlike other topics of late on RPS, this one has actually made suggestions as to how to fix the problem and discussed in moderate depth why they argue it would work. Making it a much more interesting piece, rather than just plopped there like a piece of poo to stink up the place and make your face go “Urgggh!”, we’ve actually got someone making up ideas about what gamers, developers, critics, publishers need to do to improve something (that might not be broken, but would be all the better for the improvements).

      Excellent! I want more like this!!!

  3. node says:

    I would like to just comment on one side point from the article – anyone who said Dishonored wanted to be played a certain way (violently) was an idiot.

    I absolutely adored that I could play the game, start to finish, without being seen once by an enemy and without spilling a drop of blood. That constant knife-edge tension was far more exhilarating than a constant carnival of carnage. Given the choice of playing pacifist (as you also could in Mirror’s Edge) I will always take that route. It takes a bold game to offer it, even better when it alters the ultimate outcome.

    • Teovald says:

      I found that Dishonored did many interesting things that lead me to adopt a non lethal + ghost gameplay.
      When I first escaped my cell, I tried the moves available to me, especially knocking out a guard versus slitting his throat. The second option lead to a VERY generous amount of blood and the thought that this was just a poor bloke doing his job, why would I want to kill him if I can spare him ?
      So I used quick load to reverse that first kill and started a non lethal play-through. The after mission tab encouraged me to go that way, since it acknowledges that not killing people is the difficult choice here.
      Then came the first assassination, sparring my target was the most interesting choice here, and the silent character for once was a brilliant choice : with these ambiguous actions, not letting the player know what the main character is thinking make him question his own actions a lot. Especially since for some of your targets (especially lady Boyle), you ask yourself if just killing her would not be preferable as an act of mercy.

      Finally, Emily acts as the final encouragement to lead this non lethal gameplay : there is a kid watching up to the player and you have to show her how to make things right without getting blood on your hands. For the 20-something that does not think about kids yet that I am, this is the closest that I have come to understand what it is to be a dad.

    • qrter says:

      The game’s upgrades, both magically and technically, are much more supportive of the violent route.

      Which doesn’t mean you as a player should not take the non-lethal route, but it’s also not a ridiculous thought that the game might be nudging you towards lethality purely by its design.

      (I took the non-lethal approach myself, btw, but I did very early in the game run out of upgrades to ‘work towards’.)

    • ffordesoon says:

      While I agree with you in principle, this…

      “I absolutely adored that I could play the game, start to finish, without being seen once by an enemy and without spilling a drop of blood. That constant knife-edge tension was far more exhilarating than a constant carnival of carnage. Given the choice of playing pacifist (as you also could in Mirror’s Edge) I will always take that route. It takes a bold game to offer it, even better when it alters the ultimate outcome.”

      …does not support your point (that the game wasn’t designed to be played in a certain way). It doesn’t detract from it, either, because there’s nothing in your post to indicate that playing as a wanton murderer was just as enjoyable.

      …He said, being unnecessarily pedantic for no real reason. :)

    • SavageTech says:

      Dishonored is intended to be played violently, and you’re the idiot if you can’t see why that argument is at least worth considering.

      Honestly you don’t have to dig very deep for the reasoning on this; just look at the equipment offered by the game. Sword? Completely lethal. Crossbow? 2 kinds of lethal ammo, 1 non-lethal. Gun? Lethal. Grenades + mines? All lethal, despite the fact that non-lethal grenades are prevalent in even the most violence-oriented FPS games (COD has stun grenades, gas grenades, and god knows what else).

      The magical abilities aren’t much better. Some are useful to both styles of play (Blink, Dark Vision, Bend Time, Agility), one is suited to stealth play but also useful in violent play (Possession), one is suited to violent play but can be used non-violently if you’re careful (Windblast), one that’s great for violent play and highly questionable otherwise (Vitality), and three which exclusively facilitate murder (Devouring Swarm, Blood Thirsty, Shadow Kill). Notice how there aren’t three abilities which are only good for non-violent players.

      I played the entire game without killing a soul until reaching the Flooded District. When I got there I had become so bored (I explore everything, so we’re talking 20+ hours in) that I started killing people for a change of pace. Taking out guards with only chokeholds and sleep darts gets fucking tedious after a while, as does maxing out all your useful skills fairly early in the game. Simply providing a few non-violent options is not enough when the game is primarily designed to facilitate violent options. If the game intended to make non-violence a truly valid option then it wouldn’t force the player to always carry a lethal weapon in their right hand.

      • Somerled says:

        Too true. But it reminds of the Metal Gear Solid take on stealth/action. Lots of urge to ghost through the game, but constantly being pushed to try a more violent approach. So many tools for noisy, bloody death, so little reason.

  4. Mario Figueiredo says:

    I’m currently living in Angola, where I should stay for a couple more years before I go back to my country.

    As you may guess, violent games — video games for the most part — aren’t exactly accessible to the vast majority of a very poor urban population. And yet, Luanda crime rates shoulder any American violence outburst. Brutality-wise it often tops them in fact. Just recently a 14 year old girl was raped by two individuals and thrown off an elevator shaft. Not long before that, a old lady selling goods on the side of the road (a practice called “zungar”) was robbed and beaten to death behind a house so she couldn’t raise the alarm on the near crowded street. A common crime today is to make drivers stop, hijack their cars and take the driver with them to be killed at the destination.

    Certainly there’s many beautiful things about this country, this town and the Angolan people. Do not be tempted by judge them over what I’m saying above. But in any case the point here is that violence outbursts in any American city are not really relevant. And most certainly a whole lot more urban violence can exist in a “game-free” society.

    Leaving me to ponder an alternative to the game induced violence theory. That of a Culture and Education Induced Violence Theory. And I think I’m more right.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Well, violence can have many causes. And a weak or corrupt state can facilitate violence. So it’s possible for videogames to increase violence (not saying that they do, mind!) even if places with limited access to videogames have high rates of violence.

      But yeah, sounds pretty horrific. Hope you don’t become the victim of any violent crime yourself…

    • Guvornator says:

      The fact that they fought a liberation war, then a civil war probably didn’t help…If your country has been fighting internal conflicts since it’s inception to the present day* I think violence is going to be ingrained in it’s society. Is that the cultural aspect you speak of?

      *Fact fans: It was Angolan rebels that carried out the attack on the Togolese National Football Team.

      • Mario Figueiredo says:

        Pretty much, yes. A society culture, also derived from its history, but also that culture derived from a societies set of values. If we look at Culture as a society in a specific time and place, we can understand American outbursts of violence as easily as we can understand Angolan crime rates.

        And Social Policies. The ever increasing social divide in American society, or the almost complete lack of any social policies in Angola almost certainly lead to violence breed from hate and a sense of unfairness.

  5. jhng says:

    Ironically, I can’t help feeling that the brutal but comprehensive approach is probably a more realistic representation of how a modern military would deal with a similar scenario. I’m pretty sure that when the US army decides that they need to hit an Al Qaeda leader they don’t risk someone’s life by sending them to the party in disguise — no, they send rockets and drones instead.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Remember that this is a small cell of people rather than a large modern military, so the modern analogy would indeed be a Taliban fighter or sympathiser disguised as an Afghan policeman walking in and shooting their targets at point-blank range. But sure, assassinating someone up-close is more risky than sniping them from a distance, I’m sure, especially if you want your assassin to get out.

    • xao says:

      Much like the drone attack on Usama Bin Ladin

      • zbeeblebrox says:

        Well they sure as hell didn’t wait for the Bin Ladens to throw a friggn costume party

  6. SocraticIrony says:

    Excellent read, but the bit about the game implying a “correct” path or making its own moral judgements of your actions rings very true.
    *SPOILER ALERT*
    On the last level of Dishonoured Samuel made the remark that I’d “gone out of my way to be brutal” before sailing off, when as a matter of fact I’d gone out of my way to try and be Casper the friendly assassin, and only killed when I had little choice (read: ran out of sleeping darts and a guard with a sword was attempting to run me through). To my mind I had acted in what I would consider to be acceptable for someone under threat of lethal attack, only killing when to avoid doing so would end my own life. It struck me as harsh then that the game would apply its own moral guide via Samuel.
    In consideration though carrying a sword in your right hand for an entire game isn’t a friendly action either.

    • elevown says:

      IF you got the high chaos route ending, that means you were geting it on most levels- meaning you were killing more than 20% of the people in each level. So you didnt go out of your way to be non violent realy. I did alot of levels not killing ANYONE, and on some just 1 or 2. And often finished with sleeping darts left.

      What did you do just dart the first 10 guards per lvl then kill the rest? All you have to do is sneak behind them and knock them out. Darts were for when I messed up or the odd hard spots. Aslo your assasination targets- many of them can be spared death in various ways.

      • SocraticIrony says:

        I generally tried to knock everyone out, and once or twice got into an unfortunate melee when it went a bit wrong. I also did non-violent removals of the targets. I must of clocked way more than I thought to get over 20% though.
        My point is though that I had genuinely tried to avoid killing, and those times I screwed up and had to defend myself didn’t feel sufficient to me warrant such an ending. To my mind I had gone out of my way (even if I wasn’t very good at it) to avoid killing, and then the game metaphorically tapped me on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.
        I think as such the game imposed a moral standpoint based on an arbitrary 20% rather than considering on a case by case basis what was self defence and what was unprovoked murdering. Detecting that would take some herculean code work but I’d definitely like to play that game.

        • Vesuvius says:

          Yeah but what you’re suggesting is very morally questionable anyways. All you have to do to be “justified” in that system is what, let the enemy see you first and make the first move? At that point you would be “okay” if you killed each and every person, so long as you bait them first?

          The point being- your character is supernaturally powered, you can teleport, you can possess, you can travel and hide every which way. The choice to not do so- and to invite combat- is itself a moral one given how easily it could be avoided and how combat is stacked in your favor.

          What you’ve put forth gets closer to the problem with the US “stand your ground” laws, wherein a murderer is absolved so long as they felt threatened first. The counter-argument is that they, and we, should first and foremost have an obligation to avoid a fatal outcome. To retreat, to not welcome confrontation, and only when there is truly no option left to then have a violent outcome. In the game, how quickly would we be taking the George Zimmerman stance of following, provoking, killing, and then acting blameless?

          • The Random One says:

            Agreed. You don’t get a free get out of consequences pass just because you didn’t mean to kill anyone.

          • zbeeblebrox says:

            Granted, I think video games are a unique universe where “I accidentally killed everyone” – due to inexperience rather than malice – is a legitimate defense.

      • Xocrates says:

        And for that matter it’s entirely possible to murder swaths of people in a couple levels and still get low chaos.

        I got High chaos on the first level and murdered nearly everyone in the flooded district, and I still ended with low chaos.

        If you go out of the way to be “Casper the friendly ghost” and still end up with high chaos, one needs to have screwed up something fierce.

    • Asurmen says:

      Not sure if you know this, but if you knock someone out and don’t move their body to a safe place, if rats then kill them it counts towards your chaos score. After I went a little crazy at The Golden Cat my Chaos remained high despite very few deaths after that. I only found out very very late in the game about the rat thing, realised it was too late to get my Chaos low again and decided to just go on another killing spree as it was far easier than sneaking around.

  7. RogerMellie says:

    In some aspects, the ME games did a good job on this point. After doing a paragon run through I tried to do a renegade run through of ME1. I felt absolutely awful killing the Asari on Feros, with my crewmates looking on in disgust while the game gave me multiple chances to bail on the execution. I looked over my shoulder while playing just to make sure nobody saw what I was doing. I couldn’t carry on much longer.

    • Malleus says:

      Why? Shepard couldn’t know whether Shiala would stab him/her in the back or not, after all, minutes ago she tried to kill you. It’s the same with the Rachni choice – do you condemn someone because of what they did, or do you spare them because of what they say to you now? Both choices make sense IMO.

      • RogerMellie says:

        I agree – they are both valid options but the reaction of my squadmates to the decision was what made it appear to have weight and consequences. Combine that with the fact they gave me so many chances to back down and let her off, plus the poor lass’s dignity in the situation all meant it was a tough decision.

        I don’t think I’m cut out to be Jack Bauer.

      • mouton says:

        She was not a threat to Shepard at that point, though.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Mass Effect has a very optimistic view of politics, though. The analogy would be a UN commando parachuting into Gaza one lunchtime, and by teatime Israel and Hamas are the best of friends. I mean, I like ME’s positivity and faith in humanity’s better side, but it’s not a very realistic (in either the physical or international relations sense of the word) portrayal of ethics in a complex political environment.

      • mouton says:

        It is a well-conveyed optimism, though. And I am a person who rejects most optimistic visions as either shallow or naive.

      • Gap Gen says:

        I think it helps that it’s a fantasy/sci-fi setting, and the points it’s trying to make are not geopolitical in nature (at least, as far as I can see). It’s not really discussing conflict so much as personal choices. I think that a similar game where the cynicism of tribal politics shines through would be more powerful, but as it is ME’s decisions are fine.

    • caddyB says:

      I spared her in game every single time. I would’ve killed her every single time if it was for real. When that much is at stake, you just don’t take chances with potential threats. I would also try to save as much of the colonists as possible if the grenade mod worked though I wouldn’t worry too much about saving every last one of them. Especially while they were shooting at me.

      I like ME because it’s very optimistic like you’ve said. And I like Witcher because it’s not.

      • FriendlyFire says:

        The big difference between The Witcher and Mass Effect is that Witcher’s choices are all morally ambiguous. Mass Effect’s choices are so obvious they’re telegraphed by big bold red and blue highlights and a big “morality meter”. ME’s morality is gamified, TW’s is organic.

        What that means is that ME’s morality feels extremely artificial and is only used to restrict the player’s possibilities (like how you can’t take certain actions without a high paragon/renegade score, meaning more realistic portrayals of morality get utterly shafted). TW’s morality is an integral part of the story and dramatically affects it without being obvious or without restricting the player in any way.

        If there’s one thing I hope, it’s that BioWare scraps their horrendous moral choice system for any future game they make. I have doubts they will, though.

        • gwathdring says:

          I love a lot of the finer details of their morality systems though. It’s their big picture design that bothers me. I guess that goes for their potting and world-building too, really …

          For example, I loved most of their choices in terms of what made characters dislike me or favor me and to what extent. It told me sometimes surprising things about those characters. But most of the time there was no dialog associated with that information. I just KNEW it as part of some psychic poker games I was encouraged to manipulate as much as possible via gifts and such. It only went one way–if they disliked me, they wouldn’t talk to me about anything. They just sulked silently and wouldn’t even yell and shout and argue with me at camp. If they liked me, I learned about the really rather awesome character design behind some of them and bore witness to some rather good voice acting and decent line-writing. And on top of that got big, fat combat bonuses for inspiring them with my ability to buy pleasing merchandise and say the right thing to everyone all the time.

          Ultimately I was left with these awesome characters who somehow seemed to be suspending all of their goals and passions and beliefs and habits simply because Bioware doesn’t understand how to set up an interesting, bidirectional reward system.

          Beating a dead horse further, Alpha Protocol did. Making “bad” decisions still helped you mechanically. Shooting someone you maybe shouldn’t have gives you a bonus to shooting people with a renegade-sounding perk name like “Shoot first, ask questions later.” Sparing them gives you … I don’t know I should probably replay it or look up real examples … a bonus to SOMETHING. Any choice that was mechanized with a reward attached to it helped you either way and the result was a feeling that the game really honestly didn’t give a crap which route you took–it wanted to make all of them fun and interesting to play. The story vastly outshone it’s pulpy origins as a result. It genuinely surprised me in places, brought my decisions back consistently but without arbitrary “Ooh look, we’re paying attention to what you do! We designed a system!” moments, and made me feel like I owned the good and the bad of my story.

          Bioware often makes me feel like I own the good and don’t own the bad. And not in the “Oh … shit happens and I couldn’t have foreseen that” sort of way, but in a way that makes me feel like I was supposed to do something differently to get the proper results.

        • gwathdring says:

          P.S. I will add that the one time I didn’t feel like I could get out of something shitty by just reloading and fixing a single bidirectional choice, it actually affected me. I hadn’t been trying to start a romance with any of the characters, but my Grey Warden’s personality was such that playing my character straight brought me closer and closer to Leliana. Though I felt like I’d told Morrigan she intrigued me and I was starting to like her company but this really wasn’t the time or place for anything else should it even be possible in the first place … somehow the game figured Morrigan and I were in a relationship. Fast forward to the end-game and me dealing with potentially becoming the king of Ferelden because I have a big mouth and Alistair is a whining bastard … and Leliana mentions how she is happy for me. The game seemed to be confused as to whether it was the relationship with Morrigan (that I didn’t realize I was in until the game told me in this conversation) or my looming but not at all sure-fire betrothal to the Queen … but whatever it was Leliana figured she wasn’t part of it.

          At this point I realized that my Warden screwed up. Not meta-game screwed up, but in a more potently fictional way. He’d been close to Leliana and they’d joked about seeing the world together after this whole mess was over but they really might have made quite a pair. He had figured this whole business had to end in their deaths or a world of greater freedom to explore relationships and countryside alike only to find himself locked into leading a kingdom and locked out of something that could have been really special. It felt sad. And the seeming bug that had me ALSO locked into a relationship with Morrigan made it impossible to fix by simply not offering to be King (I’m ashamed, but I did try) … and going back many hours of gameplay into possibly deleted saves to try and fix the accidental and slightly nonsensical realtionship with Morrigan was out of the question.

          Suddenly it mattered because it felt unfix-able. It mattered, too, because it felt inevitable and all of the choices seemed like the right ones at the right time. They just didn’t, ultimately, allow for a perfect ending. Alpha Protocol did things like this on purpose, with choices feeling inevitable and decision/plot lockouts feeling non-arbitrary … except there was less emotional involvement because it wasn’t really that kind of story. It was a high-octane spy flick, so every path led to righteous ask-kicking, bravado, and a sense of cryptic half-justice. Bioware capturing that sort of organic decision making and applying it to their fantasy epics and colorful casts could create some truly special and intimate character drams. Too bad they’re more interested in checkboxes, spread sheets, and space jesus.

    • JakeDust says:

      I didn’t feel this way, but mostly because the renegade choices always felt a bit “I’m a petty and angsty dog-kicker”, a bit like the dark side ones in KotOR, I guess I just can’t click the Bioware idea of evil, but playing as a dark side Jedi in KotOR II was amazing. (well, I guess my favorite morality in games is gray.)

  8. BenLeng says:

    Wow, “Unwritten” looks brilliant! Good luck with the funding, I would really like to play that.

    • unimural says:

      Unwritten does look most exciting indeed! It reminds me a fair bit of A King of Dragon Pass, but that certainly is not a bad thing to be reminded of.

      A shame the kickstarter is not further along, but I hope they can get the game made regardless.

  9. Eddy9000 says:

    For me the big thing holding back debate is that both The games-cause-violence and games-don’t-cause-violence arguments are both arguing from direct cause models, that playing a violent game can or cannot make someone commit violent acts. Direct cause models have only weak evidence and are based off a very behavioural or ‘strong media’ perspective that has fallen from popularity in media studies since Barthes and the like started to explore the role of the viewer and the culture they live within in interpreting the content of media. Nowadays the more popular understanding academically is that the media (including games) both reflect and produce social attitudes as part of culture. The interesting thing to consider might be why so many AAA games involve killing and violence, and what social attitudes are reflected and promoted through this rather than the hackneyed and discredited path of saying that the violence in games make people violent. The truth is that society has made games violent and the players of these are part of that society; blaming the media itself (or even defending it) provides a convenient scapegoat to ignore the role that we have as an audience and that society has in the attitudes reflected by the media.

    • jatan says:

      Eddy9000- nice one (i have no idea re what you quote- but it makes media studies actually sound helpful for once:)

      but what you say makes sense and it would be nice if these conversations moved on encompassing this

    • Gap Gen says:

      I think also cultural forms are reinforced by their own community. People often complain about comics being ghettoised (well, I dunno if that’s true any more given the huge amount of money people make from superhero films) but in the French-speaking world comics are a huge thing, with a vast array of different subjects and styles. I guess this is part-accident; things like Tintin and Asterix give French-language comics a historical heritage different from Superman or Spiderman. Then again, newspaper comics and webcomics in the English-speaking world are pretty diverse, so it’s not like the entire genre is made of spandex.

      So maybe we’ll see games widen out as casual/phone/tablet games mature and the userbase broadens. Games before 2000 looked very like the English-language comic industry; mostly dominated by conflict resolution through violence. But perhaps in the future as the demographic of people who play games widens, the ubiquity of violence will wane, even though we’ll still have violent games. I think people get defensive about games because they feel like change will destroy what they love, but I don’t see Bejeweled’s existence preventing CODBLOPS from existing; rather, it makes the medium more diverse and healthy. And if non-violent games exist, that’s a decent way to hold a mirror up to the more gratuitously violent games.

    • ffordesoon says:

      I believe that’s what Nathan was getting at with his original piece.

  10. Bhazor says:

    Thank god. I can’t tell you how unbelievably happy I to am to read an article about videogame violence that didn’t defensively scream “CENSORSHIP!!!” at people bringing up the idea games are unnecessarily tediously violent.

    • f1x says:

      Thats because he is not talking about how much violence should be allowed but rather about choices and responsability

  11. Jason Moyer says:

    One thing that I found interesting, and he didn’t mention this for some reason, is that the pacifist outcomes in Dishonored are arguably worse than taking the violent route.

    • elevown says:

      How is that remotely true? You get a darker ending playing the mass murderer.

      • Snidesworth says:

        I think he means for the targets. It can be argued that most of them deserved it (though with Lady Boyle it’s never quite established what makes her such a terrible person, aside from bankrolling the Lord Regent), but their resulting fates involve much more suffering than a quick shanking.

      • Justin Keverne says:

        Shipping off Lady Boyle with her stalker to a life of imprisonment and sexual assault. Allowing Campbell to catch the plague and die a slow agonizing death. Condemning the Pendletons to having their tongues removed and forced to work in the mines for the rest of their lives… A swift death is decided preferable to any of those choices.

        You will still get the “good” ending if you choose to kill your assigned targets, provided you aren’t indiscriminate in your use of violence elsewhere.

        • f1x says:

          Yeap the Lady Boyle one was a hard one decission,
          specially as someone said because you don’t get any information about why Lady Boyle might deserve dying other than economical support

          so in the end I chosed killing, and If I remember correctly I killed the guy that wanted to kidnap her aswell, (he is waiting down at the basement)
          I thought.. just in case he decides to try the same with other ladies, but I felt a bit guilty after tho

        • Stellar Duck says:

          “Shipping off Lady Boyle with her stalker to a life of imprisonment and sexual assault. Allowing Campbell to catch the plague and die a slow agonizing death”

          I think this is hard for me to agree with. Granted that I’ve not experienced it nor do I want to I find it better than to die. She at least, presumably has some shot at escape from that demented scenario while death is quite final.

          But I may well be arguing from a wrong perspective. I don’t know. I just know that when I played I shipped her off, reasoning that at least she wasn’t dead.

      • Jason Moyer says:

        The “darkness” of the ending is based on the chaos rating, and you can kill every target while still keeping your chaos rating low. I wasn’t talking about the overall narrative, though.

        What I’m talking about are the choices between violently dispatching a target and the non-violent alternative, and how in most cases the non-violent alternative is horrible. I think you could argue that killing Lady Boyle is a far kinder thing to do than what happens if you don’t kill her. What happens to Campbell if you don’t kill him is terrible (and you end up killing him, anyway). The choices in Dishonored aren’t between “I’m a Jedi Knight who doesn’t harm a soul!” and “I’m a Sith Lord who kills everyone!” but rather between “I’m doing terrible things to people” and “I’m killing people”.

  12. FhnuZoag says:

    I think that really, The Walking Dead caught on to a good trick for discouraging player sociopathy – make it simple, make it quick, and then *question the player about it afterwards*.

    (Light and vague spoilers)

    I think there’s a lot of players who were fine with [insert murder here], but instantly regretted it when the camera panned to see another character watching, and then be forced to explain to that character exactly why they made that decision. You don’t even need gameplay consequences, it’s more a matter of reframing the issue in the player’s mind.

    • Gap Gen says:

      Yes, I remember being impressed that the Deus Ex characters responded to how lethal you were in the missions.

    • gritz says:

      That’s a good observation. Making violence a choice is one thing, confronting the player with that choice (and not necessarily condemning) immediately afterwards- before too much time and rationalization can elapse, was really effective in terms of making that violence something meaningful to the player and shaping all of his or her future choices.

  13. biggergun says:

    Thank you for the most interesting article. While I don’t believe that in-game violence has anything to do with real-world violence (some 50 years ago the public and the media were absolutely sure that violent comic books will turn the children into brutal murderers – it is just a common superstition that probably receives more attention from developers and gamers than it ever should) I agree that giving the player more personal responsibility is the direction all games should go. An opportunity to use choice in the narrative is, after all, what makes our medium so different from all the others – it is strange we use it so rarely.

    EDIT: I also think that the most interesting aspect here is whether the player should be rewarded for choosing one (morally right) option over the other. One of the most memorable moments of all my gaming history was Pathologic, specifically the episodes when you help people and get absolutely nothing for it. Like, there is an option to let a bunch of innocent people out of prison where they will surely die of plague. You have to give a huge bribe to make it happen. And you receive absolutely no reward when you do it. No experience points, no unique weapon, no thank you, not even a karma boost. Nil. Moreover, it sets you back a great deal, including a very real possibility of starvation and rather grim death. An absence of a gameplay reward (or any consequences besides your own clean conscience) suddenly makes the choice seem so much more real. Will you save a bunch of civilians you don’t know and will never get to see in person just because it is a right thing to do for you as a human being, not as a player? Will you do it if it could lead to losing the game?

  14. Justin Keverne says:

    I’m reminded of playing Thief: The Dark Project where violence was an option but the more challenging you chose to make the game the more it explicitly frowned upon and eventually outright restricted such behaviour.

    The messaging of violence in Thief was that murder is never the default option rather it’s something only resorted to by the less skilled, it’s the easy path.

    Dishonored did some odd things in that regard, unlike Thief the majority of the tools available had primarily lethal uses, yet at the same time the post-mission statistics treated non-lethal as a viable and potentially superior choice. There were tick boxes to signifying “Didn’t Kill Anyone” and “Ghost (Never Detected)”. Kills were recorded numerically but there was no “Everybody Killed” tick box the absence of which served to make the non-lethal approach appear more noteworthy.

    That post-mission statistics screen looks neater when every number is zero, both tick boxes are checked and all collectibles have been recovered, those are the only absolutes. Killing 50 people doesn’t seem noteworthy on that screen as there’s no way to know if there were 100 people or 51 in the mission to begin with.

    • qrter says:

      That’s a very good point – Thief made it unprofessional to kill people, cutting most of the morality out. A much more elegant solution.

      Dishonored is sending out mixed signals – most of the toys (both technical and magical) work best for murdering people, but if you do, the game will virtually “tsk tsk” you.

    • Snidesworth says:

      The lethal path in Dishonored was absolutely the easier one as well. Assassinating someone is far, far quicker than choking them out and, if you purchase the first rank of Shadow Kill, leaves no evidence behind. The wording used in the Low Chaos ending suggests that the developer (or at least the Outsider) sees it as the more measured, constrained approach to the game.

      That said, several of the lethal options can be seen as tools of failure (if you consider being stealthy succeeding). They’re loud and obvious, meaning that you’ll only use them after you’ve been revealed or by using them you reveal your presence. The path of the assassin might be easier than the path of the ghost, but the same can’t be said for the brawler. They often have to deal with a throng of guards, a couple of tallboys and some bastard with an anti-magic music box.

  15. Mario Figueiredo says:

    In a similar fashion, Deus Ex: Human Revolution follows a similar path, in which playing a stealthy game ends up being more rewarding in terms of gameplay experience.

    That said, I don’t think I’m ready to accept the article premise that if violence in a game is optional, that should relieve the game from a violent tag. I feel this is bending backwards to the proponents of the idea that games breed violent behavior. It’s also a dangerous path, because it can end up providing an argument against any game which doesn’t offer said choice. Do we really want games to always offer a choice between a violent and non-violent path? And what consequences this would have on future game design decisions and production costs?

    I don’t want to accept that a game offering gratuitous violence is a violence inducing game. I don’t see this anywhere in our societies. Does any one of us see it? Any anecdotal evidence (which does exist, mind you) is very likely to be at the same level of an individual having been affected by a movie, a song, or a book, to commit a crime or series of crimes. The source of his violence is always attributed to their psychological state, not to the medium.

    What troubles me is this notion that the video game industry is somehow more permeable to violence induced behavior. This same shifting of the responsibility was seen in the past on another misunderstood medium.The TV was for a long time blamed for causing violence, during a time when it was less understood and a sort of novelty. The TV had in fact a much greater penetration than games still have in our societies. And yet we now understand all that to be nonsense. Are we living in a time where video games, being misunderstood and some sort of bursting novelty, are easily targeted as a source of violent behavior?

    That’s my deep belief. Violence unfortunately is very rarely discussed on the level it deserves being discussed. Psychologists, all manner of mental therapists, sociologists, historians, philosophers, could all world together and make a joint contribution to better understand the causes of violence. It’s a scientific matter, no less!

    The World Health Organization is very clear in that we just don’t know yet what causes violence or even how it is triggered. It’s thus nonsense to give it a trigger in video games by a “specialists” that didn’t go through proper peer review, and especially when we clearly, openly, without any doubt, don’t see that effect as a recurring event on our societies.

    • f1x says:

      Actually If I understood correctly he is rather saying that he believes linear violent games are less affecting than the ones that give you a choice like Dishonored,

      And then that he believes that Dishonored was not banned in Germany because it is possible to play it without killing, but was not sure about if that was it actually

      Also to quote the article: “I don’t believe that game violence causes real world violence, but I do believe that it does little to prevent it.”

      • Mario Figueiredo says:

        Indeed. I misread the article. You forced me to do a more careful reading. Thanks.

        • f1x says:

          I’ve read it a couple times before scrolling

          got confused with the linear-violence thing aswell, blame my english for that ;)

  16. asshibbitty says:

    This is very cool stuff, guys. Thanks.

    Edit. The article is lucid yet people in the comments are still reverting to the same “games (don’t) cause violence” or “it’s just a game” points. It’s going to take a lot more to fix that but this is a great start.

    The guy is talking about how games can affect people in ways other than making the clock run faster. Games are potentially the most powerful form of expression, since they leave fewer areas of the brain idle, but the potential is wasted mostly, because devs and critics and consumers are so scared of admitting that games are not an inherently stunted medium, and asking for more than what is being made.

  17. Maximum Fish says:

    This is one of the more interesting articles I’ve read on the subject. I’ve always thought it pretty weird that playing through something like Space Marine or other shooter I’ll be wading through corpse piles grinning with nothing close to a moral question anywhere near my conscious mind, and then with something like Deus Ex or Dishonored I’ll play the non-lethal route, incapacitating enemies and then hand-wringing about leaving them in dumpsters because it’s probably pretty gross in there.

    The fact that I do have a choice I think plays a big role, because I’m “role-playing” in the literal sense rather than just attacking a digital challenge, but I think a big reason for both games i mentioned is that it’s way harder to be a unfazed killing machine when the guys you’re sneaking up on with your sword out are talking about what they’re going to have for lunch, or how they can’t wait to get home. In most shooters they’re just screaming profanities at you or promising to shoot you in the skull or whatever.

  18. D3xter says:

    I wished that just once one of these articles just contained a single picture in it and three words: “Deal with it.” instead of overanalyzing.

    Because that is all there really is to say about this. The game is rated M or PEGI 18, so there shouldn’t be any consideration of children playing it and “learning anything” from it in the first place since it’s not meant for them. If it happens anyway and you don’t want it to, fix that system instead.

    Further, I’m a rather peace-loving person as is. Vegetarian by conviction since I believe if there is a choice between killing something and eating its carcass or to eat something else instead I’d rather go with the second. I don’t even like killing insects, using the cup and piece of paper trick to just throw them outside, often even just in front of the door if it’s too cold out. I’m also unsurprisingly not much of a gun nut.

    But that won’t mean that I’m not going to play and enjoy “violent” video games or watch “violent” movies. Because shooting things on a virtual screen has nothing whatsoever to do with killing anyone or anything in real life. And whoever can’t make that disctinction between what is “real” and what is “virtual” has something wrong with him.
    There can even be remorse for forgetting a mosquito below a cup and it dieing as a result of that, but having any kind of similar feelings for a construction of a few polygons on the screen is frankly retarded and not much else.

    Just as playing a round of Counter Strike or even Chivalry with or against your friends isn’t about “going out on a killing rampage” against/with them, but just a match where you try to beat the opposing team and complete given gameplay objectives.

    I also object to the “has not been censored by the German government” part of this article. Since as far as I know the “German government” hasn’t censored any games whatsoever. They do just have a rather overeager (and legally binding) legal protection of youth with the USK rating and having a too violent video game might mean that the game could end up only being sold below the counter and not advertised. In which case developers themselves often decide to self-censor their products to circumvent that outcome, but there’s no mandatory censorship whatsoever.

    The difference to the US is also that a lot of these ratings systems like PEGI, USK, OFLC, CERO (for the UK/EU, Germany, Australia, Japan respectively) are legally binding and can get shops in trouble that sell anything rated higher to minors while the ESRB in the US is a “suggestion” sometimes leading to commercials like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKkPFDEiC6Q
    But there is (and there should be) a fear of (even only self-imposed/developer/publisher-based) censorship since that isn’t exactly as much “pure invention” as it is common practice when a publisher is fishing for a certain rating like “12″ or similar.

    • Sheng-ji says:

      Deal with it.

      OK joking aside, I do have a question to ask – you talk about not having any feelings for pixels on a screen, but do you not accept that it is not retarded in any way shape or form to feel emotions due to fiction? I get scared when I watch a horror movie (a good one) and the main actor is being staked by the monster, I get sad or angry when a character in a book dies – A song of Ice and Fire, I’m looking at you. I get similar emotions about video games and I think that’s perfectly normal.

      Is there any point to fiction in any form if you feel nothing while experiencing it?

      • D3xter says:

        Obviously you’re going to have emotions regarding some plot points or characterization in games or movies. Often those can even be eclipsed by the frustration or satisfaction you feel when finally overcoming that one boss and/or challenge, so it’s hard to tell which is stronger.

        But at the end of the day what you see on the screen isn’t real and you should be aware of that while you’re throwing canned food at some NPCs head when it’s trying to make it’s big speech.

        There’s not much difference between Space Invaders, some sort of strategy game where you send thousands of “units” to their deaths in the name of the holy crusade or an FPS other than in their representation and level of abstraction, but you’re doing the same thing.
        I guess what I’m trying to say is that a game is just a game and sometimes both its designer and people making money talking about games can sometimes get a bit lost in “overanalyzing/thinking” it: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/narrative-mechanics or the effects it has on potential players.

        • Sheng-ji says:

          i think we are in complete agreement (apart from whether it’s worth having the debate) – though I would raise your “retarded” a “disassociative delusional psychotic”

    • Gap Gen says:

      Even if violence in games is fine, a bit of introspection is quite healthy, especially when we’re talking about simulating mass murder. And like Sheng-ji says, you don’t have to take part in the discussion if you don’t want to, but the discussion has a right to exist all the same.

    • f1x says:

      Joe Houston is mostly talking about responsabilty, as a designer, and thats why he deserves a lot of respect, even if violence and videogames might not be related a developer still has a responsability as a creator and as a communicator

      on the other hand, to clarify: the “German Government” has banned some games (manhunt 1 and 2 for example) by banning I mean illegal not just rated 18,
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_banned_video_games#Germany

      but yes as you said most of the times if the game is gonna be trouble is the developer who decides not to distribute it in Germany,

      • D3xter says:

        There shouldn’t be any responsibility for him to have though, since he’s doing absolutely nothing wrong by adding “violence” to mature entertainment as long as it doesn’t break any laws.
        He’s not at fault for “making” anyone violent or causing any of these tragic incidents in any way whatsoever and shouldn’t be held accountable / feel responsible for them.
        The only reponsibility he should feel compelled by is making the best game he possibly can along the initial vision. Listening to groups of people cry because of this or that is only going to dillute that work.

        And yes, Germany does especially have problems with games and occasionally other media containing any form of Swastikas. But it’s still not “illegal” as you put it as people over the age of 18 can still buy and play them. There can be quite severe sanctions from not allowing them to be directly sold/displayed, tested in gaming magazines or advertised. Publishers/developers usually decide to censor their own products to prevent that, to often… somewhat comical effects.
        For instance the German Version of Soldier of Fortune 2 played in an “alternative universe” where robots lived instead of humans: http://www.schnittberichte.com/schnittbericht.php?ID=3538
        And Return to Castle Wolfenstein wasn’t about Nazis, but some militant group called “The Wolves” with all pictures and symbols as well as names replaced: http://www.schnittberichte.com/schnittbericht.php?ID=4120

        • f1x says:

          Nobody says he should be forced to create any sort of specific game,
          its not about an external force telling him to be responsable for the game he is making but rather himself being self-critic with what he does or the way he is constructing the game
          thats why I respect him I like that creators and communicators care about what they are communicating and that they have an inner dialogue and self-criticism about that,
          videogames are a media of expression aswell and they express ideas and statements, one cannot ignore that,
          But as said, its not about putting limits or anything, its rather about people who is making games and is thinking how they could maybe do things different or how to speak about some issues, and how those are decisions that the game developers are taking not because of the pressure of the goverment or the media but because they feel like that

          About Germany, I was talking from what I’ve read in the press and through google search, wikipedia states that banned games are illegal to buy but of course I don’t live in Germany so my knowledge is definitely not first hand, if you live there you know better ;)

          • D3xter says:

            “its not about an external force telling him to be responsable for the game he is making”

            But it is, because without all the media controversy and moral crusades after the last school massacre he wouldn’t have written this article or felt compelled to write it.
            And without all these hysterical people: http://i.imgur.com/Id2Wp.jpg and the media to feed them: http://www.ibtimes.com/mass-effect-facebook-page-under-attack-fox-news-cnn-blame-connecticut-school-shooting-violent-vide-0 (of which RPS unfortunately was a part of this time around) there wouldn’t be any need for a “discussion”, since there isn’t much to discuss.

            Mature games are meant for adults and if you don’t like the content depicted in them just don’t buy them.

          • f1x says:

            I agree with you, don’t think otherwise,

            I’m just saying that this guy is talking about responsability on his own terms, as a conclusion and decision after his own life experience, and its a legitimate decision, thats what I’m trying to say
            its something very respectable and a sign of becoming mature and wise
            He walked that road and got this experiences that are shaping the way he is going to develop his future projects, you have to respect that because its awesome

            What I mean is that this time he was not speaking about mass media, censhorship and goverments, etc
            of course this mass media and the powers want to ban anything that is different or new and willing to rather blame videogames than assume what might be the real problems of modern society often caused directly by this very same powers

          • ffordesoon says:

            Yes, it was the media controversy that inspired Nathan to write his original piece.

            Not, you know, the dead children.

            Of course.

        • gwathdring says:

          “The only reponsibility he should feel compelled by is making the best game he possibly can along the initial vision. Listening to groups of people cry because of this or that is only going to dillute that work.”

          I get annoyed when certain kinds of changes occur: movies removing scenes that just happen to be kind of similar to tragic occurrences that happened during the shooting of the film or maybe even between the end of shooting and release. That’s frustrating and patronizing and greedy at the expense of good film making, good entertainment, and honest craftsmanship.

          But there’s another way to go about it. When we ask questions like “What does a player experience when I tell them to do this? How much control do I have over that?” doesn’t dilute a work. We know that suggestion has power, we know that conditioning has power. It doesn’t matter if games make people do violent things (they almost certainly don’t); games can have a lot of power over their players for a short period of time and a designer has an obligation to think about what they do with that power. What experience they create, what emotions they create, what ideas they evoke. If nothing else, I need to understand what makes violence unsettling and what makes it cool so I can use the right tool for the right job. Making a scene that, plot-wise, is supposed to scare the character straight won’t work unless the scene seems at least a bit odd or unsettling to the player. There’s a conversation going on when you play a game, and looking at how violent media affects a player is part of understanding how to manipulate the conversation.

          Beyond that, one game won’t make someone a murder. Two games won’t. A hundred won’t. But if a hundred games tell you to think about people a certain way and a hundred movies tell you to think about people a certain way and then you have to pick out role models from the world some of whom look at people the way your entertainment media does and some of whom don’t … media taken in aggregate, can affect us the same way any of our other experiences can affect us. Our media environment can shape elements of our thought process and emotional experience. If games all treat violence a particular way over and over again … then that’s going to have an affect on gamer culture. Maybe not the most superficially sensible effect (the violent games make people kill each other fallacy), but especially young gamers aren’t just going to suck in hundreds of hours of media without it changing their person at all.

          We have an obligation to ask what our products do to customers. And our products do something to them. Data enters their brain and gets processed. It’s our responsibility as an industry to tease out what, how, why, when … and to learn how to manipulate it to make better games and better gaming communities.

    • Jimmy says:

      Brilliant post and replies. How often do we see 12 year olds and others younger than 18 differentiating between COD versions and the arsenals therein. They shouldn’t be playing such games anymore than they should be provided with porn and other mature-audience media, yet COD and FC3 have no doubt appeared in the Christmas stocking of many minors all over the world. Bad regulation and advertising and stupid parents or guardians.

      As for adults and violence, I agree that nearly all games, even those like Dishonoured are variations on a theme not far removed from Space Invaders. Dishonoured is basically yet another assassin game with gamey choices to be made, while FC3 is, of course, space invaders almost in its essence, except with simulated gore. As that violence becomes more photorealistic, then it becomes more problematic, as the further removed from SI it is, both in appearance and interaction, the closer the games get to murder simulators. At that point, you can choose to slap further restrictions on games like Manhunt, while celebrating the gestures towards choice and the exceptional artwork of games like Dishounoured.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Or instead of having ‘deal with it’ written beneath a picture we could have an in depth and thoughtful article written by a games designer about the potential implications of violence in games, the responsibilities he feels when including violence in games and the relationship that game content has with wider culture, followed by a mature conversation about violence in videogames in the comments section.

      I know I write this under each and every one of your comments D3xter, but I still remain at a loss about why you don’t think people should discuss games content and how it relates to culture. I totally agree that a direct connection with violence in games and violence in games players is unsupported by evidence as I’ve said in my post above, and I’m not fond of top down censorship, preferring content to be influenced more democratically by discussions such as these, but what is the harm in discussion? The media reflects social attitudes and cultural forms and feeds back into these, this is a well established idea, why then should we not accord videogames with the same level of analysis that books, films, news-stories and all other media output enjoys?

      I think your worry from the sound of it is that the merest contemplation of violence in games will add to their demonisation and censorship; I put it to you though that closing down discussion at a grassroots level such as this website would make censorship more likely as the rich, varied ideas and critical thinking that grow from these will be silenced and the voices of those who believe in direct causality and censorship will have few alternatives or dissenters. Analysing the content of games doesn’t always have to be with an eye to censoring it, it can lead to thoughtful and provoking discussion about the culture that games reflect and how it is reflected, which may or may not cause players and producers to contemplate their activity, which can only be a good thing, right?

      Lets have a civil debate about this, and I welcome your thoughts on the post I made previously if you wish to reply to it.

      - 3ddy

    • ffordesoon says:

      @D3xter:

      Nobody’s saying censorship. Or if anyone is, they’re an asshole and should be scorned.

      What I don’t understand is how you and thousands like you can automatically interpret a call for reasoned discussion of violence in the medium we love as “ALL GAMES MUST BE CENSORED FOREVER NANNY STATE ARGLEBARGLE FOOFORAH.”

      If anything, that attitude suggests that you secretly think all those people who cast stones at our hobby could be right. I don’t. I think they’re absolutely one hundred percent wrong.

      But did I feel uncomfortable slaughtering dudes in Far Cry 3 on the day of the massacre? Yes, I did. I know they’re just shapes on a screen, but I’m still repeatedly eradicating shapes that are meant to look a whole lot like people, and people dying quite graphically. What’s more, I’m doing this at least partially to unwind from the stress of hearing about people being killed. What’s wrong with at least taking a step back and admitting that the juxtaposition of the two activities made me feel somewhat uncomfortable?

      When I say that, am I saying that everyone has to feel that way? Of course not! If you’re a happy, healthy, well-adjusted person who can play violent games regularly without once asking if the wanton slaughter of fake people is a bit of an odd escape from news about the wanton slaughter of real people, more power to you. But it made me uncomfortable on that day, and I know I’m not the only one. Why can’t I talk about that openly? No, I’m not necessarily going to propose any solutions, but at the least, I’ll be able to understand my own feelings on the matter a bit more clearly.

      Why can’t I do that? More specifically, why can’t I discuss that with other people who may have different perspectives on the issue? I’m not going to change my opinion, and I’m not seeking to change anyone else’s. I just want to broach the subject.

      And you say I can’t, because you think there’s nothing to discuss. Or rather, you say there’s nothing to discuss, but you keep bothering the people who feel otherwise with strawman posts that largely amount to longer versions of “LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING.” I understand the impulse to circle the wagons when dealing with maniacs like Wayne LaPierre, but why can’t the occupants of the wagons being circled discuss this amongst themselves? Because the Enemy might see and screech about us “knowing the dangers of these virtual palaces of sin?” Why should we care? They’ll say stupid shit about us regardless, at least until the next MOST SCARIEST THING EVER EVER comes along. Why should that prevent all of us without exception from discussing the issue?

      If you truly don’t think violent media has any impact on anyone, why wave your arms around trying to block any discussion of the issue? Surely we, a group of hardcore gamers, will end up agreeing with you regardless, if you’re so right? There’s no need to be so strident. Not here.

      • D3xter says:

        Cause it’s an utterly pointless and stupid discussion to have that will not lead to anything else but self-imposed or state-ordered censorship ever. Believe me there were enough “discussions” to be had about “Killerspiele” in Germany for over a decade and they nearly passed a bill to legally ban all violent video games and make it illegal to buy (or make) them: http://techcrunch.com/2009/06/17/all-violent-video-games-poised-for-ban-in-germany/ (which was in relation to another school shooting by the way and another group of people came up with the idea to burn video games that time too)

        CryTek even thought about relocating to Hungary or something, since that was kind of what they were making their money with.

        Yes, I firmly believe that they have no further impact on a normal healthy person, or not any worse than any other medium like “violent” movies or music, and the thing to actually uphold is not letting children/young adults consume what they aren’t meant to yet and how to accomplish that.
        Take deaths from activities like smoking, alcohol consumption or similar including proper diets (by eating food that is bad for you or in the wrong quantities) that we actually know about and could prevent but leave up to the people themselves to decide, since those things are banned for children below a certain age. Everyone else is an adult with some responsibilities and should be allowed to choose himself if he wants to participate in any of these activities or do other things like swimming with sharks or jumping down a bridge with a rope around their ankles (without being babied). Those causes of death are not even in the same magnitude of any “media” related incidents, even if at some point someone would come up with a study that undeniably proves that there is a “connection”: http://0.tqn.com/d/dying/1/0/c/0/-/-/death_graph.jpg

        I do believe in misguided crowds that are morally outraged about [insert latest tragedy/issue here], and in their outrage are trying to find a bogeyman they can direct their anger towards, then jumping on a bandwagon with everyone else and doing stupid shit like burning books or games (or constantly writing misguided moralizing articles on RPS). And I believe in politicians picking up these “concerns” of said incensed crowd and doing something equally stupid like trying to push through legislation to try and appease them by saying that “something is being done”.

        Although I also believe that the “gaming industry” has gotten too big and mainstream enough, and it being a profitable enough economic power compared to say 10 years ago that this isn’t as easily possible anymore, which is why I’m not too concerned about anything radical happening.

        If you have anything specific to talk about, like some latest study or the meeting between the US Vice President and prominent representatives of the “gaming industry” (I would really love to hear what the likes of Riccitiello and similar have to say about this, but unfortunately those meetings were held behind closed doors). Even if you’re a person that thinks games are bad for people or possibly addictive (which I can agree with to a point) and you’re doing a petition with a concrete “solution” like trying to ban certain kinds of them or change the ratings system we have something concrete to talk about.

        Other than that it makes you sound like Mr. Mackey that gets on his soapbox related to [latest incident still fresh in memories] and says something akin to “Video games are bad, M’kay!” with most of everybody else either nodding in solemn agreement or acting like they’ve just had some sort of deep insight imparted upon them.

        • gwathdring says:

          I don’t see why you need to get up on a soap-box asking people not to discuss the effects of media on individuals. It doesn’t have to be about good and bad, right and wrong. The article doesn’t speak in those terms at all–it talks about discomfort and associations and dissociations.

          Discussing these things isn’t what creates censorship. Censorship is created for all kinds of reasons, but mostly in the case of unreasonable censorship of sexual and violent content in video games and films, it’s because people don’t want to deal with discomfort. Don’t want to have discussions. Don’t want to think hard enough to start changing their conceptions with respect to entertainment.

          It’s one thing to not want to take part in these discussions, or to dislike the approach of the articles, but I feel like you’re taking it to a bit of an extreme.

  19. Henson says:

    True Story: the mass-killing story at the beginning of this article…I used to do pretty much the same thing in the hotel mission of the original Hitman. It was pretty disturbing as I hunted down and assasinated terrified people in suits and gowns with no police left to protect them, and I knew it too.

    The strange thing is, I’m not a violet person at all. I’m pretty well-adjusted. Yet I still would play this mission several times as a complete psychopath. Was it wrong of me to delve into this darker side of myself? Or was engaging my imagination with the ugliness of wanton slaughter a healthy exploration of my psyche, bizzare as that may sound?

    What do you guys think?

    • RogerMellie says:

      Haven’t we all run around a town in Fallout 3/Oblivion/Skyrim/whatever, trying to kill everything that moves, only to feel slightly disappointed when you discover that kids seem to allow bullets to pass right through them with no consequences?

      Right?

      Then reload and you’re the saviour of Kvatch once more.

      • Arren says:

        No.

        OTOH, it’d be farcical to levy moral judgement on those who enjoy indiscriminate virtual killing in RPGs such as you describe. Can’t say I understand it, though. In a game designed explicitly around virtual killing, like Tribes or Hotline: Miami, sure.

        • RogerMellie says:

          It’s not that I enjoy seeing people cower in fear and run screaming, for me it’s just another way to push the rules of the gameworld to see what happens. Eg in FO NV it kind of disappointed me that you can wipe out a whole campsite of powder gangers or whatever, and then have that news instantly relayed to every other powder ganger in the game, despite me being extremely careful to avoid any witnesses. Again, just trying to understand the rules of the gameworld.

    • Sheng-ji says:

      Personally I believe that because you are well aware that they are not real people, you are doing nothing wrong. You are not even indulging a darker side because your subconscious knows they are not real people. You are simply enjoying a challenge in a video game, a natural extension of the drive to eat the maximum number of ghosts on pacman every level. Maybe you roleplay that you are indulging a dark side but again there is nothing wrong with that – plenty of D&D players create Evil characters, it’s perfectly normal, natural and fine to do this. In my opinion.

    • Guvornator says:

      Generally I find myself playing with the morals of the in game character*, not the morals I have. For example on the original Deus Ex (spoilers, but you REALLY should have played it by now) everyone got taken down on purely situational basis, without thought of morals. I imagine this is how special agent work. I go on rampages in the GTA games but play as a goody two-shoes in pretty much any RPG. Long story short, it’s a fantasy – I just inhabit the character.

      *or what I imagine them to be.

    • capsela says:

      The murder simulation part is very realistic, but the stealth part is a fake garbage. Medical aneanesthesiologist train for years to understand how to properly anesthetize a human without killing him and they use precise instruments and machines.

      The idea that secret agents can go around putting people to sleep at will is a scientific farce. It is a wonderful plot device that sounds good in movie logic land but doesn’t work in real life. That’s why magical stun guns exist. They are a plot device to make people feel good about the world used when the writers are too scared to actually murder.

      The Russian army tried to use sleeping gas on terrorists and it killed half the hostages as well. It’s impossible to get the dosage perfect. Put cloroform rags on peoples face and they will squirm, fight and shout for minutes until they go out and you may easily kill them by overdose. Video games are using fake movie logic and rules because they are fake.

  20. Lev Astov says:

    Never have I read an opinion piece on game violence more perfectly aligned with my beliefs and experiences. Excellent write up, Joe!

    It is a shame that all the talk after the Sandy Hook shootings has turned to guns and games. People are just looking for easy targets. The real issue is the lack of education about mental health and how most of us, myself included couldn’t tell if our loved one was suffering from some seriously dangerous mental issues if our lives depended on it. And as we’ve seen, they do.

    • gritz says:

      Actually, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about mental health in the national conversation on violence, as it tends to be brought up by those who want to deflect the conversation away from their own pet issue (like guns or games).

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Sorry but:
      ‘Looking for easy targets’
      ‘mental health’

      Mental health IS the easy target, it was being used against all evidence as society’s scapegoat for violence long before computer games were invented. There is very little good evidence that mental health contributes to violence, although it’s a common misconception spread by the media so I’m not blaming you for thinking it. Blaming ‘mental illness’ is just another way (like blaming games) to avoid confronting social reasons for violence and the fact that for whatever reason a supposedly civilised country allows the ownership of items that can efficiently kill multiple times at range within a short time period.

  21. sophof says:

    I finished spec ops: the line last weekend and I must admit it was a startling revelation for me. I’ve been dismissive about game-violence in the past, but I guess this was mostly based on my own feelings. I still hold essentially the same beliefs; Games, just as all art/media, are simply a mirror of our society and inner nature and therefore never a cause of anything. They can be used to ‘incite’ though.

    Anyway, I finished the game and my reaction was a pretty big meh. Maybe some of it was too much hype, but I really didn’t feel anything and I especially didn’t feel bad. I simply felt I had played a mediocre game that was in on its own silliness. It was smart about the way the main character deteriorated, but the clue was coming from a mile away of course. However, this game has been written about and loved in such a way, that I have to confront that my reaction is in the minority. People have said they felt bad, that they felt ‘punched in the gut’ by the game when it told them they were responsible. That they had to stop playing during the white phosphor scene or were physically ill even.

    That reaction can only be there when you actually feel for these imaginary victims. But if you feel for them, you must give them some sort of humanity. And therefore you’ve been giving that humanity to victims in other games as well. That suddenly makes me very uncomfortable about the way many people enjoy violent computer games…

  22. FreshwaterAU says:

    While clearly a sidepoint to the article, I’m playing dishonored now and I’m trying my hardest to kill no one, basically everyone but the top folks seem innocent to me given their knowledge, I also find it much more fun to try and be stealthy.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Wait until you get put in a situation near the end of the game where you’re forced to kill someone and realise you’ll never get the achievement for a non-lethal playthrough. That was probably the only time the game really made me want to kill someone – one of the developers.

  23. Rossi says:

    I will happily play violent computer games, including Dishonored which graphically depict horrible deaths at the players hands but I won’t click on the link to an article someone posted on facebook about real life beheadings in Saudi Arabia. Why?

    Because I hate violence and real life horror and can identify the difference. I’ve been playing computer games since I was 10 years old, I’m now 36. I think by now, if computer games had any effect I would be in prison or dead.

    There are many things in this world which are much more horrifying than a computer game.

  24. Bluerps says:

    This is true. To have a choice about killing an NPC makes it – for me – much more uncomfortable to actually do it. When I have no choice (besides not playing the game), then I can shoot people in the face left and right without trouble (there are exceptions, though). Dishonored is a game full of people to stun and/or sneak by. Far Cry 3 (which I’m playing at the moment) is a game full of dudes to murder. I like playing both.

    However, I had a curious realization while playing Dishonored. I do not mind killing an NPC so much, when I don’t plan to continue playing after that. Sometimes I went on a killing spree, often after being spotted by some guard who turned around at the wrong moment. Usually I continued killing people until no one in the vicinity was left standing (or I was killed). I stopped time and attached those razortraps to people, I blinked all over the place and stabbed people from above, or I just fenced with someone until I could block an attack and behead him. And then I reloaded. For some reason, that changed the whole experience from something uncomfortable to me, to an entertaining action sequence.

    On the other hand, I don’t like seeing the close-up kill sequences you get for the assassination targets – like the one with one of the Pendletons, in that picture above – even when I reload after that. So I guess I’m just weird. :P

  25. Quatlo says:

    Every single time I was forced to kill someone in Dishonored I used the heart to know that he isn’t innocent (I know, the heart speeches are random, but I love to make things up to immerse myself more into the game)

    I think I killed about 5 people through the whole game. Not counting the walkers, they were put out of their misery.

  26. Bigmouth Strikes Again says:

    The most important, and most easily forgotten, characteristic of all violence in games, movies, music, books, etc. is the fact that it is a representation. It’s fiction. Unreal. Fiction that may approach, intersect or even mimic reality, but still fiction. I know, I’m stating the obvious, but apparently it is necessary now and then to say it: there are no victims. That’s what allows us to read, for example, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — a blood bath from beginning till end — without feeling guilty or sorry. And yes, it also allows us to enjoy it; to take pleasure from depictions of things that would scar us for life had we actually lived 1% of that. It seems to me that part of the problem lies there: we, civilized creatures, lords of this planet, can’t quite cope with the fact that we do enjoy descriptions or representations of violence (some, at least; like everything else, it usually takes art and talent to do it properly). Question: how many who saw Tarantino’s Death Proof can genuinely claim not to have felt, let’s call it thrill, when watching the frontal collision of the two cars, the climax of the movie? I’m not saying the feeling is universal, there’s no such thing (personally, I can’t stand romantic comedies), but general enough not to be considered a deviation from normality.
    Now, there would be indeed a problem if it were established that one led to the other; that enjoying fictional violence led to enjoying real violence. That link has never been established. And I’m not talking about a nut-job claiming that that was his case (it’s almost always a he; we men are fucked up), I’m talking about a sane, balanced, normal individual transforming, becoming the opposite and going on to kill BECAUSE of external stimuli, be it games, movies, and so on.
    As for the issue of games providing alternative solutions to violence, I’m all for it. But not because of violence in our societies, rather because of wanting better games. Options = choices = pleasure.

    • gritz says:

      Actually, I’m pretty sure the brutality in Blood Meridian is supposed to evoke feelings of guilt and revulsion within the reader. It’s probably the best book I’ve ever read, but not because its darkest parts were giving me some cheap thrill.

      • Bigmouth Strikes Again says:

        There are many types of pleasure. A horror fan enjoys being scared when watching a movie, sex is (most would say) enjoyable, and so is cheesecake. All in their own manner. Nowhere did I write that Blood Meridian gave me a cheap thrill. Those were your words. It gave me pleasure; it is indeed a great book. As for you feeling guilty over it, I confess that that eludes me.

        • gritz says:

          But did it give you “pleasure” simply because it was violent and you enjoy fictional depictions of violence for no other reason, or did it give you “pleasure” because the violence made you reflect on the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in the face of unrelenting savagery?

          • Bigmouth Strikes Again says:

            I wrote in the first post: “like everything else, it usually takes art and talent to do it properly”. So I believe that automatically excludes the “it gives you [me] «pleasure» simply because it was violent and you enjoy fictional depictions of violence for no other reason” line of thought. The book tells of a violent world, and it does so by depicting violence, not by merely suggesting it or watering it down. The masterly way in which McCarthy puts into words that brutality is, I’m sorry if it shocks you, beautiful (and relentless, and disturbing, and…, and…). I was careful in choosing Blood Meridian as an example. You are right when you write that the book (not just specifically the violence within, in my mind) “[makes one] reflect on the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in the face of unrelenting savagery”, but wrong in thinking that the value of that violence is reduced to that. There is art there. Art in how McCarthy shapes words into vivid massacres, acts of cruelty, sadism, etc. And there is beauty in that art (not a pleonasm, as anyone who knows anything about it understands).

  27. Chorltonwheelie says:

    Ahhh, the Boyle mansion.
    Far from encouraging the violent route… carefully sending the upstairs guards to beddy bye byes then piling up the bodies in a snugly lump on Madams bed resulted in the best snoring sequence of any game ever.
    If I could have thrown a blanket over the slumbering loves I would’ve.

    Great piece btw.

  28. Brun says:

    I wouldn’t feel too discouraged by that story of the player killing everything. You’ve got to keep in mind that for a significant portion of players, “killing” is the only interaction with the game world they are accustomed to having, simply because most other games do not allow interaction beyond that. In my experience, a relatively small portion of gamers (usually more experienced ones) are given to reading prompts and tutorials, the rest will simply ignore them and proceed to play the game in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Dishonored’s tutorial doesn’t really break down tangible benefits of avoiding combat (“the ending will be less dark” is pretty ambiguous), much less the intangible benefits that you touched on in the article (better gameplay, etc.). To someone familiar with stealth games, these benefits are obvious, as they tend to be pretty much the same across the genre. But someone who’s been playing mostly Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and similar titles, is likely to believe that the game is *meant* to be played with the combat/action approach, because to them, that’s how *all* video games are played.

  29. MrUnimport says:

    I don’t believe any game can have a proper treatment of moral choices until a real reason is given to the player to consider using lethal force. In a game, especially a game like Dishonored, a player doesn’t value their own life at all when the only thing lost is a few minutes (or seconds, with quicksave) of progress. Self-defence is a ludicrous concept. The reason to spare lives (even ones that are difficult to consider innocent) is mostly for the challenge or the satisfaction of pulling it off, not out of any real respect or empathy. And without investment in the life of either NPC or player character, can a moral decision even be made? My ideal game includes lethal force and encourages the player to use it; but only when necessary, and without the warm comfort of knowing that there will always be a nonlethal alternate option.

    It’s like Mass Effect diplomacy, as pointed out above, where most situations can be gotten out of without risk by choosing BLUE OPTION. If the goody two-shoes option works 99% of the time, then the situation becomes trivialized, the player doesn’t need to think about what it actually entails, and they certainly don’t have any reason to choose the Renegade option unless they want to be a pretend space asshole.

  30. Dick Page says:

    Thanks for your comments, Joe. As a video game researcher, It’s great to hear what designers are thinking when they put together a game. I enjoyed Dishonored quite a bit.

    It seems common to argue that the artistic advantage of a video game is the degree of player ‘freedom’, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Video games are actually highly structured and limited systems, and the ‘freedom’ within these systems is better described as ‘interactivity’. More freely creative uses of games would be mods, or games sometimes described as more like toys, like Minecraft or Sleep is Death.

    So I think your example of the mass-murder at the Boyle estate is more interesting if you consider the context in which the murder was committed. Why did that player decide to kill all the aristocrats? Did he want to see all the violent animations? Was he sick of these hypocritical characters? Was it an attempt to enact a proletarian revolution? When I played the Boyle Estate, I made it my first no-kill, no alert run of the game, because I thought a level where I had a disguise would be the easiest to accomplish this in, and I wanted to see what would happen.

    In that sense, I think Dishonored is more aesthetic than ethical when it comes to violence. There’s no deep thematic commitment to violence, so it’s kind of just for fun.

    I wrote a longer blog post with my thoughts on Dishonored. It’s my first try at blogging and I’m not sure its publishable, but it might interest some folks here. I would be interested to see what people think.

  31. Megazell says:

    I really appreciate his views and ideas. Lots of food for thought.

  32. Very Real Talker says:

    First of all I think video game players, developers and journalists are taking themselves way too seriously, it’s actually laughabe- “we need to discuss this- we need to solve sexism- we need to talk about our responsibilities in the violence happening everyday in the world” and so on. Grow the hell up. They are goddamned videogames, and you are mostly mediocre minded skinny-fat nerds.

    Having said that, I think that if a game wants to be a “narrative” experience like dishonored, letting you play as a murder machine even more murderous and with less feelings than the terminator is a choice dumb beyond words. The violence was really well done in dishonored, but the idea of just letting the player kill the world was really incredibly stupid and out of any sense and narrative logic.

  33. Chumbaba says:

    Personally, I feel that Dishonored is simply designed to kill people. It is not a stealth game like Thief, where the protagonist in simple clothes faced armored guards. It is not even Deus Ex, with multitude of stealth possibilities. Dishonored is a game about a masked assassin. Maybe 70% of all the gadgets in the game are solely to murder/wound people (mostly innocent guards just doing their job). About one half of magic powers are designed to murder people. Most of the missions are about murdering people the player never met, the player does not know and has no motivation to kill. The “nonlethal” solutions can be very violent in some instances (e.g. ripping out tongues).

    It is a big flaw in design of Dishonored. No-kill player has less to do, has less gadgets to use, has less magic to perform, the game offers less for him and he ends up playing Pacman with the guards. Dishonored is a game about murdering strange people without any real reason. Don’t be surprised that people are stabbing whimpering young women in the neck – you put it there. It is one of the many reasons why I don’t like Dishonored.

  34. bp_968 says:

    This is something I’ve considered a lot (as a US citizen and gun owner I find both of my hobbies under fire from politicians seemingly all the time). I saw another poster comment that he simply doesn’t get an emotional response from “killing” a pile of pixels and I mostly agree with him. I can blast a million civilians in Prototype and laugh hilariously about it because they are seemingly endless, they die instantly and the game almost seems to steer you into mass murder (even as a “good” guy). Yet when faced with death in reality I’m a wreck (and i’m a 35 year old man).

    Another important distinction is most “normally” developed humans fear and “hate” death. Its not something we “enjoy” or want to see or participate in. Another important aspect is games (and movies) typically make death very quick and mostly painless. Its not.

    My wife and myself “foster” cats and kittens for local shelters (basically they don’t have room and we take them until they can be found a home). I also do basic medical care for them with the assistance of a neighbor who is a nurse. One little of three came to me with respiratory infections (common with kittens). We gave all three of them antibiotic injections and one had a fatal reaction. I got to listen and watch it scream and convulse for 60 seconds and there wasn’t a thing we could do. It vomited and defecated and then died right after that. It was one of the most awful things I’ve ever seen and it still haunts me whenever any of my pets (or family members) need an injection. I can only imagine what horrors ER doctors see on a daily basis.

    What I am saying is a normal person can play these games and have a “dark” laugh about all the gore and death. Its just pixels. Its the same way you can watch bruce willis shoot 50 people in a 2 hour action movie and laugh and enjoy it. Its not real. And the same people who play those games and watch those movies and enjoy them are just as likely to be horrified when faced with real violence and real death. Because real violence and real death are horrible and suck.

  35. fenriz says:

    choice and all that is good, but they should simply decrease violent actions, so they can’t desensitize peeps.

    MORE DRAMA, more non-violent actions, more dialogue.

    These should tell kids that “hey these people have feelings, this hero is human, he doesn’t want to kill”.

    Yes yes, what i’m saying is every game should be like Broken Sword and co., for noless than 1/3 of its content and length.

  36. EmiliaJackman22 says:

    Madison. you think Helen`s postlng is astonishing, last saturday I got Mini Cooper after having made $4893 this past 4 weeks and-in excess of, 10/k last month. this is actually the most-comfortable work Ive ever done. I actually started eight months/ago and practically straight away started to bring in at least $79, per hour. I went to this web-site,, Fox76.com