After wrapping your fingers around his throat, you smash his face into a burning hot-plate and hold it firmly against the bright red steel while his skin chars and blisters. His screams hint that he’s about to give in and rat on his friends. In Splinter Cell: Conviction, torture is a gameplay mechanic. Put a new disc in. Now you’re Ezio Auditore Da Firenze jamming knives into the throats of your family’s enemies – a particularly terrifying and gruesome way to be murdered, if it’s possible to rank such things.
These events are commonplace for millions of gamers around the world. There’s nothing wrong with these people. They live their lives as decent men and women, productive members of society. Most of them will never even commit a crime. Yet in their leisure time they spend hundreds of dollars per year to experience ever more exotic forms of virtual violence.
In her recent book Reality Is Broken, author Jane McGonigal argues that videogame avatars allow us the opportunity to practise being the best possible version of ourselves: the version that helps people in need and accomplishes epic deeds. The avatar, however, can just as easily turn us into a monster.
Why is it that the average person abhors violence in the real world, and yet relishes the chance to actively participate in violence when it’s simulated on a TV screen? What psychological processes allow peaceable gamers to commit such unspeakable acts without a second thought? Is it something deep inside us that cries out for blood? Or are killing and aggression just naturally compelling design mechanics?
There are many common answers for this, yet none are particularly satisfactory. ‘Catharsis’ is the explanation that pops up over and over again. However, explaining that killing in games is fun because it is cathartic is like saying ice cream is fun to eat because it’s delicious. These words (delicious and cathartic) are descriptions of the emotions that arise during the process of consumption, not explanations for their potency. Ice cream is delicious, but that fails to address the deeper, more interesting question of why humans are uniquely suited to find ice cream delicious.
So the question remains: why do we love to kill? Make no mistake about it, we do love to kill. Just two weeks after the release of Call Of Duty: Black Ops, players had accumulated a kill total higher than the population of the entire planet.
It’s not just about graphic violence as realistic as Black Ops, though. Killing is omnipresent even in children’s games and cherished retro classics. Even the utterly innocuous Super Mario Bros games feature a protagonist who spends half of the game stomping things to death and burning creatures alive just for being in his way. Even when we try not to call it killing, the same acts still pop up in a vast number of games. Batman: Arkham Asylum, for instance, refused to include killing in order to better reflect the Dark Knight’s vow to never take a life. Yet the actual gameplay difference was purely semantic. Rather than ‘killing’, players spent their time bashing the heads of their enemies into concrete until they never got back up again. Surely a case of po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
Why is it so difficult to remove killing from gameplay? “The pervasiveness of killing in games is due to the nature of the medium,” says Andrew Hicks, professor of video game culture at Columbia College Chicago. “It is now, as it has always been, easier to program death than life.”
This statement is reflected in the history of videogame development. Games that are based on death and destruction are extremely common. Games that simulate life are rarer and are far more complicated to develop into fun entertainment products. They also generally require a lot of design talent and considerable financial risk.
“It just happens that violent gameplay is something we are able to simulate very, very well, and it’s easy to make fun gameplay out of it,” says Richard Rouse III, lead singleplayer designer on Kaos Studios’ Homefront. “On the other hand, simulating a full conversation with another human is very difficult, and it’s even harder to make fun gameplay out of it that doesn’t seem shallow. Even a complex game like Mass Effect 2, with all its emphasis on dialogue between the player and various characters, allows for far more player expression in combat than in the conversations.”
There may be something about killing that is tied to the very nature of videogaming. Shooting (aiming a projectile) has been around since the earliest games because it involves several of the necessary ingredients for good game design: skill, strategy, and ample opportunities for rewarding audiovisual feedback. The ‘death’ of an opponent may simply be a convenient, easily communicated shorthand for ‘goal completed’.