The industry’s most popular games revolve around death – but are they making light of it? Develop discusses how developers can and should tackle the themes of violence and war as we enter a new generation of realism

The other side of violence: Finding empathy in digital warzones

[This feature was published in the Dec 2013 / Jan 2014 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]

The next generation of video game consoles has arrived, and unsurprisingly the most prominent launch titles are centred around large-scale battles and violent combat.

From the bullet-spewing firefights of Call of Duty: Ghosts, Killzone: Shadow Fall and Battlefield 4 to the brutal conflicts seen in Ryse: Son of Rome, the superior processing power that Xbox One and PS4 offer are being used to provide more realistic, graphic and detailed ways of killing things.

But while the bodies littering Ryse’s battlefields are part of the title’s atmosphere, where do we draw the line between a realistic depiction of warfare and glorified violence developed primarily for its shock value?

“The glorification of violence isn’t neccessarily the issue,” argues Paul Stephen-Davis, director at Retro Army, the studio behind anti-war parody game Super Trench Attack. “What’s more important is the context and how it’s presented to the player.

“I worked on Manhunt as a level designer, It’s a very violent game but the execution was done in an intelligent way: it was deliberately over the top. Yes, it does have shock value, but it also had a dark sense of humour thanks to the director’s humourous commentary, which helped take the edge off the violence.

“Without the humour and out of proportion violence, I think it would have been too much for most audiences. Games can become too violent when they become too close to reality. The trick is maintaining that it is a game.”

Positech Games founder Cliff Harris adds that the depiction of death also needs to be considered carefully: “All you really need is to make it clear that someone is dead. Maybe some blood, an ‘arghh’ and falling over pretty much conveys that. Hacking off body parts and extended gurgling noises don’t really have any justification in my eyes, other than a childish desire to offend or shock.

“The assumption is that gamers love all that, but I can’t imagine turning off gore is too difficult to implement for those who don’t. I do wonder why this isn’t more of an option in games.”

Some firms already take a ‘no gore’ approach to their games, including Wargaming. Despite its games being dedicated to large-scale conflicts, the nature of World of Tanks and World of Warplanes is unaffected by the absence of human casualties.

“We are against games with blood,” says CEO Victor Kislyi. “We specifically avoid body damage, blood, things like that – there are no humans in our games. There are just machines, and we stay away from human violence.”

Harris adds that, while he believes the industry can be “far too defensive” about how it portrays violent acts, developers and publishers must also accept that the more graphic titles can be genuinely distressing.

“Of course games affect people,” he says. “So do movies, plays and books. But only games are interactive. A game that rewards a player for violent acts is more damaging than a book that gives you a passive position as a reader about someone else’s actions.”

If a game has a war setting, it can be impossible to avoid depicting death and violence. But, says Stephen-Davis, it’s the disconnect between gaming and real warfare that can give developers artistic licence to experiment with how they present these aspects.

“The violence in war video games is constant throughout,” he says. “Deaths are presented in an over-the-top, glorified way, which isn’t meant to be realistic, but fun and visually rewarding.

“The player is usually a one-man army taking down hundreds of enemies single-handedly without worrying about moral implications – but they understand it’s just a game.

“In real life, a soldier is simply part of something much larger. In games, the world revolves around the player’s actions. It’s clear to anyone that war in a game does not follow the rules of reality.”

But that’s not to say games shouldn’t try to recreate war and other violent situations realistically. In fact, the International Committee for the Red Cross has openly urged more studios to integrate the consequences of war into games as well as the mechanics.

“One game we helped with removed all civilians from an urban setting to avoid controversy,” said public relations officer Bernard Barrett. “To us, that doesn’t make sense, and it reinforces the message that anything that moves can be shot at. But in modern conflicts, not everyone in urban settings is a combatant, and the military has to make choices to shoot or not shoot.”

Stephen-Davis agrees: “Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian mission is a good example of conveying an anti-violence message in an intelligent way, as the player is given the choice on whether to shoot innocent civilians or not. It’s the choice that matters.

“It would also be interesting if games showed both sides of the conflict, rather than good guys versus bad guys.”

None of these experts believe developers should shy away from war as a topic.

“Whether we want it or not, military conflicts have been part of our history,” says Kislyi. “And today, there are various sized conflicts still going on. So we cannot pretend this does not exist.”

Instead, video games can be used to explore the themes of both violence and war, just as films and books do.
“Games present a unique opportunity,” says Barrett. “A lot of soldiers play them in their downtime. And there are parallels between these titles and military training simulations.

“They are also played by an age group that is likely to be recruited by the military. We need all of these people to understand that in armed conflict, it’s not a case of anything goes: there are restrictions and rules.”

Playmob founder and CEO?Jude Ower adds: “By providing historical relevance, games can act as a very effective educational tool which could also encourage tangential learning. The developer must be mindful of the audience they are targeting, tailoring the content depending on who will play.”

When it comes to the broader perspective of war, strategy games can also help convey the negative consequences.

“Civilization has taught me to avoid war at any cost,” Kislyi explains. “The cost of failure is so high that you should only go to war if there is no way to avoid it. Civilization teaches you that wars are expensive, long, and will make mincemeat of your troops and the enemy’s.”

Even the most controversial games can be used to convey messages of anti-violence. Playmob ran a campaign called Peace Games alongside the United Nation’s global day of peace on September 21st – the same week that GTA V was released. But far from shunning this notoriously violent game, the team used it to their advantage.

“We had GTA on our live stream, on the condition that non-violent activity happened in the game,” Ower explains. “And there was a huge amount of activity for players: sky diving, golf, flying a plane, cycling, stunt jumps.

“We had around 500,000 viewers check out the channel in 24 hours. This also shows that gamers are not violent people. The more the industry can get behind doing good in their games, I feel the more the general perception of ‘games being violent and bad’ will diminish.”

However, companies are keen to stress that developers should not bombard gamers with
anti-violence messages.

“We don’t want to stop the game and have it give players a preachy three-hour lecture on the Geneva Convention or anything like that,” says Barrett.

“Various penalties can be worked in that would be realistic but not bring the game to a grinding halt. It can be very simple things like getting shot at by your own side or lose command of your troops if you shoot civilians. Because if the game is boring, that’s no good for the player, the game manufacturer and it’s no good for us either.”

Stephen-Davis adds: “I don’t think it’s our job as developers to provide a social or moral commentary on war issues, as games can’t be compared to the realities of war. I think we should focus on providing fun experiences rather than attempting to recreate a realistic war simulation.”

As the next-gen launch line-ups have proven, there is still plenty of demand for games centred around violence and war. Even the Xbox One and PS4’s most anticipated future releases, like Titanfall and Destiny, share these themes. It’s how developers tackle those themes that will hopefully change in the future.

Harris concludes: “To be honest, people who buy a game with a war setting pretty much want to see stuff blow up. I’m open to anti-war messages, but sometimes I just want to satisfy that primitive testosterone urge to smash things to bits with big guns, safely, as a fantasy.

“Blackadder Goes Forth had the right approach: highlighting the pointlessness of the situation, but still ‘enjoying’ the setting despite the madness that has led to it. I think that can work, where you tell someone how futile and pointless the conflict is, and in return for the player accepting that premise, you then give them what they probably want. Which is stuff exploding.”

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