Combat Virtuality Part I: On Video Game Violence

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A few years ago I felt a sudden pang of sympathy for my fellow human being, leading me to hang up the virtual swords and shotguns in an attempt to only play non-violent video games for a while. This proved to be an incredibly difficult task; and I began to query the fact that non-violent video games are actually few and far between. Surely this must say something about our relationship with violence in video games and perhaps in the entertainment industry at large; the fact that violence is so pervasive yet also so entertaining makes me ponder the wider questions relating to combat, violence, and how it is portrayed in digital media. The purpose of the “Combat Virtuality” feature at large is to explore combat and violence in gaming, look at what is done right, what is done wrong, and consider the potential driving force behind what we experience every day when we pick up a controller or sit behind the keyboard and descend into a virtual world. I abhor the current trend of blaming violence in gaming for every problem in society so expect none of that simplistic nonsense here!

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Oh the humanity! Tomato sauce everywhere!

Combat in video games does not have to be accurate. In fact due to the current state of controller technology and the way we physically and emotionally interact with games I would go so far as to say that it should not be accurate; the quest to make things as hyper accurate as possible will only result in a poor game. There are some exciting new examples of technology that will greatly change how we actually control and interact with games in the future, (Occulus Rift anyone?) Despite this for the foreseeable future we’re going to be stuck with controllers, mice, and keyboards. Even with the deluge of motion controllers currently on the market none of them have managed to properly capture the feel of combat and still allowed gamers to remain competitive. The old ways are usually the best.

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Pew pew pew! Controller technology is coming on in leaps and bounds.

Killing things and blowing up other things has always been a staple of video gaming. But how have we gone from a triangle shooting dots at wireframe asteroids to gunning down dozens of innocent virtual civilians at an airport? We have a very modern idea that the violence and combat depicted in the games of today is excessive, and this is the cause of much of the media controversy that we are treated to every time a new Grand Theft Auto rolls around. Combat controversy actually started in 1976 with the coin-op “Death Race”. In fact it was so controversial that developers Exidy actually pulled the game from shelves shortly after release making original cabinets as rare as dragon’s eggs in the 21st century. The game was simple; run over as many poorly animated “Gremlins” as possible in a limited time. To our modern sensibilities this sounds tame but at the time it caused outrage and upset; it ended up being one of the most poorly received games of the decade.

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Death Race (1976). So much controversy…

Fast-forward to 1991 and we were treated to the J.B Harold Murder Club; a murder mystery game from Riverhillsoft. It received good reviews from critics however the media picked up on the mention of rape within the game and various stories were published in global media that negatively affected sales causing J.B Harold Murder Club to flop. It is worth mentioning that the rape was not depicted, it was simply a case that was described in passing within the game narrative. The mere use of the word “rape” seems to have been what largely angered the media and the public, many of whom will not have even played the game in question.

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You can smile all you like Catherine, just don’t mention the “R” word…

The early 90’s saw a slew of popular franchises pushed into the spotlight; many of which are still going strong today. Both Wolfenstein 3D (criticised heavily for its excessive violence and use of Nazi imagery) and Mortal Kombat (gratuitous gore everywhere) ended up attracting their fair share of headlines however these did not largely impact sales; as gaming became more mainstream any press was good press and some of the features did more to actually sell games than to sew the seeds of moral outrage. Controversial titles came thick and fast, including Carmageddon, the first Grand Theft Auto, and Duke Nukem 3D.

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It’s time to kick-ass and chew bubblegum… And cause a huge amount of upset in the media.

All of these titles caused varying degrees of upset and consternation, however one thing they all had in their favour was that they were, by and large, excellent games. The gameplay was fun, and the combat was either played purely for comedic effect or for dramatic emphasis. It served to underline a point; it wasn’t the only thing that the game had going for it. An enjoyable game had been crafted that just happened to feature excessive violence, gore, crude combat humour or similar. Contrast this to the despicable 2002 release “Ethnic Cleansing”, developed by the National Alliance. The combat mechanics were crude to the point of being borderline unplayable, the graphics were out-dated, the sole purpose of the game was to perpetuate hideous racial stereotypes and spread a strong white supremacist message. This game was designed to be violent from the outset; even if it had featured a sublime set of combat mechanics and gorgeous graphics it would still fail because the depiction of combat and violence is morally abhorrent. It doesn’t make us laugh, it doesn’t advance the storyline, and it doesn’t immerse us in anything (other than a deep sense of loathing and disgust).

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Who says violence can’t be funny?

Combat is everywhere in video games. It can be done properly or it can be done poorly. It can be excessive, or subtle. It can be fun to play, or feel clunky and poorly developed. And most importantly it can either serve a purpose or simply be included to sell titles. Taste is a personal thing; what one person finds hilarious another may find upsetting, but largely developers manage to put their finger squarely on the pulse of society and depict things that the majority of people find acceptable. So what constitutes “good” combat in games as opposed to “bad” combat? Find out in Part II when we begin to explore which games have pulled it off and which games have spectacularly failed in the past whilst pinpointing what they did right and what they did horribly wrong.

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Combat. You’re Doing it Right.

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About Chris Halpin-Durband
Chris is a western martial arts instructor, swordsman, web developer, internet privateer, crazy cat man, would-be writer and slayer of unicorns. Although he loves his life greatly he is always on the lookout for a new virtual world to inhabit; preferably one with both swords and laser beams.