A New Approach To Video Game Violence

I’ve always wondered why violence is such a common way of creating engagement in games. Why don’t we have more puppies and rainbows in our games?  Even a game like Bioshock Infinite apparently has to have gratuitous violence if it’s going to be sellable. I’ve explored this matter elsewhere, but didn’t get much closer to a truth.

Now, Jamie Madigan, Ph.d in Psychology has written a very interesting article on why violence in games is so appealing, even among perfectly well-adjusted people like the ourselves. He suggests that violent video games satisfy some ”very basic psychological needs”. That in itself isn’t a revolutionary thought, and it’s been covered by others before. Ethan Gilsdorf suggests that ” offer a hunt/shoot/kill scenario as a way to solve problems because, well, our psyches seem to need these visceral, adrenaline-rich experiences”. This honestly seems like rather simplistic viewpoint, that sort of suggests that humans are inherently brutal creatures that crave blood and violence.


What’s different in Madigan’s analysis of the issue is that he refers to the three psychological needs presented in Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound (Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan). They are outlined as Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness (feeling important to others). In other words, violence isn’t directly a necessary factor in crafting enjoyable games. However, Madigan suggests that violent video games are so succesful, because they tap into all three of these needs.

As he writes, ”Competence is communicated by immediate and unambigious positive feedback in response to your actions – you see opponents stagger, see blood fly off them, and ultimately see them collapse.” He also notes that slides of headshots always ”produce a smirk”, not because of sadism, but because it shows mastery. Autonomy is achieved through having many different paths through levels, and many ways of customizing your loadout, giving you a huge sense of freedom when you’re playing. Relatedness is gained through playing multiplayer games, as you become part of a larger whole, as you band together with like-minded people to combat another team.

The authors of Glued to Games also did a study where they had test subjects play a high-violence and a low-violence version of Half Life 2. The low-violence version involved simply tagging your opponents, and getting rewarded for it. The conclusion to study was that violence didn’t affect people’s enjoyment of the games. They both fulfilled the need for Competence and Autonomy, and people walked away satisfied.


Based on this, Madigan concludes that violence isn’t crucial to the enjoyment of games, as long as the three needs are fulfilled. Unfortunately, this is where I feel something’s missing, because there’s no explantion as to why games are still generally focused on violence. There must be other ways to channel the three needs than through violence? I’d imagine it has something to do with creating an interesting setting for the player to play around in. Tagging players would get dull without a clear reason. It could also have something to do with publishers not understanding that violence isn’t the main selling point after all, and simply demanding that their games be violent because of the success of other violent games.

I do think this is something that needs to be addressed. The article by Ethan Gilsdorf was written in relation to the Newtown massacre, where video games were once again suggested to have influenced the gunman’s decisions. When talking about video games in the media, violence is something that’s always brought up. However, it’s very rare to see proponents of video games do anything but defend violence, instead of maybe offering the alternative:  That mainstream games might slow down the violence. I hope more people take notice of Madigan’s article and Rigby and Ryan’s book, because honestly, I think the games medium would benefit from – to some degree – turning away from violence. There must be tones of interesting mechanics and settings that we’re not experiencing because of this.

What do you think the reasons are that we have relatively so much violence in games? Post a comment below!

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  1. Darth_Mooo

    We could cope with less violence in games, but it requires more developers and Publishers to use their imagination. There are some excellent and popular games that have very little if any violence, LittleBigPlanet, Portal, Flower, Journey, SSX and Ico to name a few.

  2. Kenshi Ryden

    Some of that theory seems pretty solid- but they don’t engage with the core meaning behind combat in games. The “why”. Combat isn’t there because of violence- I use the word to mean it’s malevolent, damaging motive- but as a game mechanic. A game with boring combat, no matter how violent, will not get good reviews and not get played. Combat in games is simply an obvious, attention-grabbing way of creating engaging game mechanics, as it’s the core root of competition in organic life- but the mechanic still has to be well designed. Sure, “violence” taps into something inherent, but more importantly it has to be cleverly handled so that it equates to maximum fun. I’ve had more fun in the last day or so with Guacamelee! because of it’s fantastic combat (which isn’t that violent) than I have in weeks of playing something like Gears of War: Judgement, which is very violent but has pretty stale combat mechanics.

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