Pulling The Trigger: Is Game Violence Really Violence?

“That’s a bit violent, son.”

That was my mother, approximately two weeks after the first Doom was released on what we seasoned gamers lovingly refer to as Shareware. It sounds like a wholly foreign concept now but Shareware was great – in this case it meant a third of the game completely free, downloadable from bulletin board systems, with an option to purchase the rest of it if you liked it.

The violence? Doom’s riotous chaingun: a spinning, whirling bullet spewing cannon that fired alarmingly powerful bolts of lead at the oncoming legions of Hell. Zombied soldiers – once comrades of the player character – diced up into chunks at my hands, a tap of the mouse button enough to end their miserable, shambling (second) lives. Thinking about it, my mum was probably right.

Technically, of course, my actions were simply triggering functions and routines that made other variables change their contents. There were no undead hordes, there were just arrays of records that told the game engine where to position sprites that vaguely looked like bad guys. Once ‘dead’, their sprites were replaced by ones that looked like gooey blobs, and the player moved on.

Is that violence? Is an interchange of lines of code and a few pixels anything to get worked up about? Distilled down to first principles: no, but back in 1993 as a young man who thought he’d discovered the future in this frankly all too realistic virtual reality, it was absolutely violent. It was dark, scary, dangerous, bloodthirsty, sweaty, euphoric. It was amazing.

[videoyoutube]Thankfully, I’ve emerged from my youth as something approaching measured and balanced. I don’t dream about Cacodemons and I don’t visualise shooting the endless torrent of drivers that don’t indicate with a BFG – instead, I’ve found that quite the opposite has happened, whether from time-enforced maturity or just thinking about my actions I don’t know, but I now find it a lot harder to pull the trigger.

Now sure, demons from another universe are easy in-game cannon fodder – I’ve no qualms with dispatching bug-eyed aliens or eight legged monsters with whatever arsenal I have handy.

But watch me playing the first level of Battlefield 3 and you’ll see me wince a little as bullets leave my pistol and oncoming enemy soldiers recoil – if I don’t, they’ll shoot me and it’ll be game over, but if I do, their space in the PS3’s memory is overwritten by somebody else’s temporary presence until the RAM is required elsewhere. That’s all it is, but it doesn’t always feel like it.

It’s like I need a clear motive, a reason. In that train sequence you have neither – yes, it’s an insert from a later level when it’s all somewhat clearer, but when thrown into a situation that has no clear exposition and the onus is on the player to make the first move, there can be a momentary, uncomfortable air of confusion and anxiety. It only lasts a split second and it’s gone, but it’s there.

When I was younger, sniping Goldeneye’s enemies from afar, or drilling the head of one of Turok 2’s miscreants with the Cerebral Bore was a joy. The latter in particular was a real talking point, one that now seems rather antiquated and safe, but back then I thought the Bore was the business.

Nowadays it’s all shotguns and AK47s – real life weapons and real life scenarios to fire them in. Players are expected to behave like soldiers on a real battlefield, at least in a very disconnected, alternate sense, and games that revolve around abandoned space stations inhabited by teleporting masses of evil are few and far between.

If those soldiers on the train in Battlefield were human controlled – enemies with real thought control and purpose, firing is easier. I know they’re a real threat, they can think for themselves, and chances are they’re better than me at the game – so I need to take every chance I can.

Self defence, perhaps? Is that the difference?

When they’re computer controlled there’s always a fraction of a second’s hesitation – a pause – before the trigger is pulled for the first time. It’s why I’m not great at first person shooters (or, as they were known when I was a lad, Doom clones) and it’s why I’d rather battle the Chimera than the Russians.

It’s because the decision to cause violence is mine and mine alone, the computer’s only acting on a set of predetermined control points that loosely pass as what we’d normally term AI.

Whether or not the exchange of harmless data inside computer code can be classed as violence is largely down to the individual, of course. To my mother the pulpy mess of claret coloured alien skin clearly was very much violence; Doom’s hardly realistic, though, and she was probably more bothered by the noise the chaingun was making than the death it was dealing out.

Now though, nearly two decades later, I dread to think what she’d make of modern games.



  1. I honestly dont know what this article is saying. Maybe its all 0s and 1s?

    • Ands, ifs, nots, buts etc. Its all code when we break it down to this level, but when you’re immersed in the game world, you don’t think in those terms, but that’s exactly the point of why I play a game.

      • Unless you are a creator of games this breakdown is never thought of. Its the end product and how it makes you think/feel/ understand the concept. Games are made to create feeling as much as (if not more than) any other entertainment.

    • I’m with you on this one. Not sure what it’s trying to achieve. All violence in entertainment (such as films or video games) is pretend violence in the sense that it’s not actually happening. However, the very real concern is the impact that’s having on the younger, more impressionable audience.

      With good parenting comes good children (usually). Irrespective of certification and warning, good parenting can cover all of this. Take an active role in what they do and by the time they hit their mid-teens, they’ll be making great decisions themselves.

      Al – I won’t call it violence as long as you let the judge know what I have on my screen isn’t goat porn.

  2. Surely the most violent thing about Doom had to be the chainsaw…. to the FACE!

    I was brought up with Doom, Carmaggedon and the like ((i certainly wasn’t old enough for the latter) however I too turned out well adjusted without a violent streak too me!

  3. Oh Shareware. I miss Shareware.

    Some of my fondest memories was trying to play Escape Velocity on a Mac, and utterly crapping my pants when Captain Hector rocked into the star system telling me that I needed to pay up, then blowing me into smithereens.

    I’m sure none of you will have a clue what I’m on about, but if you do, then you just got a teensy bit more awesome.

    • I do, and I too loved the shareware days. Lets revel in our awesomeness!

    • I’m not old enough to understand that fully, but it sure sounds like a better system than ‘YOUR TRIAL HAS ENDED, PROCEED TO STORE AND BUY A DAMN KEY OR ELSE’ that we’re stuck with now.

  4. Bit of gritty video game violence never hurt anyone – well, except all those 1s and 0s I suppose…
    After a particularly stressful day at work, being able to fire up something like Left4Dead and blast some zombies certainly helps me chill out.

  5. I’m not sure I see the difference between a computer-controlled object and a human-controlled one; both shoot back and warrant self-defence in the game, so why the hesitation against the AI? If anything a human opponent has the option not to shoot, unlike the AI so hesitation would be more warranted.

    Doom was made all the more awesome by the cumbersome keyboard controls….Page Up and Down for the win!

  6. An interesting thing here are the stealth genre. Like the recently patched MGS4. You have the option of using violence, but you’re not really supposed to. The game rewards you for not killing anyone and shooting feels a little like cheating. It’s very satisfying getting past an enemy without killing them, and even more without tranqing or knocking them out.

  7. I like to avoid the first person shooters too…I like my games to be very obviously GAMES. I don’t want to be a soldier on the battlefield, or a sniper in the trees, or a guy raining death from above in a helicopter.

    Games like Ratchet and Clank, Buzz Quiz World, LittleBigPlanet and LEGO Harry Potter line my cupboard. In fact, the only “realistic” games I have are a few racers and the UnCharted games, and it’s the adventure, story and characters that draw me to those rather than the gunfights and neck-breaking.

    I’m not someone who subscribes to the notion that video-game violence is responsible for real-life violence, but personally I play games for the lighter side of them.

  8. How is this any different from me playing cowboys and indians as a child? Shooting berries at your mates through a pvc-pipe, mounted on a mock-up of something that resembled like a shotgun. As a parent you can do lots of things to limit the games your child plays. You can restrict the type of games in the settings menu of the ps3. You can set a pincode on the tv, limit router acces, set the tv and consol/computer in the livingroom, if you just can be bothered.

    I stared playing Leisure Suit Larry at the age of 12, boy did I learn much English that way, sitting there with a dictionary looking up all the synomyms for a “rubber jolly”. If you didn’t use a “french letter” you would catch a VD and your life would be over. Ahh, lovely memories.

  9. I would say the violence in gaming and movies is, in the words of the late, great, Douglas Adams “mostly harmless”
    It’s a lot harder to stomach when you see the real consequences of violence. Not that i’m an expert in the matter, but i was watching a series on one of the history channels not long ago, about the Vietnam war. It had previously unseen footage, and some of the images still live with me.
    Totally different when you know its real compared to pixels and special effects.

    Didn’t mean to put a downer on everyone as i love a shotgun blast to the face as much as the next man ;)

    • I know what you mean, I’ve seen the same series. Better to release your fury on pixels, I loose no sleep over those.

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