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Stop worrying about video game violence, and start thinking about dehumanization

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I remember how happy I was the day Jack Thompson was disbarred.

Thompson, a Florida lawyer who brought repeated lawsuits against the videogame industry, was basically a joke to everyone I knew, and rightly so. It wasn’t like he had some "expertise" on the subject, or that he was responding to scientific, peer-reviewed studies of video game violence on people. Instead, he seemed to represent many parents of 1990s kids who didn’t know much about games, but they sure didn’t like what they were seeing.

At the time, I saw it as out-of-touch moralizing from a bunch of people who didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Our generation pictured them in the classic "parents just don’t understand" trope. It was just like when their parents told them that rock and roll wasn’t real music, that it was noisy and destructive.

I’ve been playing video games since I was four, and I’ve been making them since I was about twelve. I now run a small indie development studio called Dinofarm Games and, moving forward, I want to be thinking a lot more about how and why we portray images and concepts the way we do in video games.

When I see video games as an adult, I still do not come to the conclusions they did; however, I do think I see what it was they were seeing. I do not think that violent video games, comic books or films will make anyone exhibit violent behavior. Indeed, there are now a number of studies that demonstrate that there’s no such connection.

Violent acts are only part of the discussion, though. Media which glorifies violence contributes to some of the ugliest aspects of our culture and our beliefs. We carry this ugliness into our conversations with family and friends and, ultimately, into the voting booths, where it manifests in the physical world.

Before I go on, I should make it crystal clear that I am not advocating for censorship — neither legal censorship nor self-censorship on the part of content developers or publishers. What I am doing is making the case for why we shouldn’t want to glorify violence while dehumanizing so much of the outside world.

Warring narratives

If the second World War was a modern videogame, Douglas MacArthur might have typed "REKT" into the console after it was over. The United States kicked some serious ass in World War II.

There have been thousands of books written about the outcomes of that war, and it continues to be a powerful force in our thinking and culture. The combination of how effective we were and how cartoonishly evil the opposition was creates a narrative of war — a narrative that almost every new action movie (unintentionally) helps to maintain.

The narrative: war is glorious, righteous and, if only secretly, a total blast! No one really gets hurt, except for the bad guys, who deserve it!

The actual horrific nature of the war is so well-known that it feels trite to even say so.

It was also a terribly dehumanizing war. We read about that war in terms of numbers on a page, and tactics are discussed in terms of pieces on a board. The loss of life and suffering caused by the conflict is almost impossible to comprehend on the personal level.

The Holocaust is the obvious example, but Americans also did their fair share of dehumanizing killing, particularly in Japan. You can’t really firebomb Tokyo or nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki if you think the Japanese are human beings with friends, parents, lovers and children.

And you certainly can't do this.

Of course, military leaders have been using the myth of the "glory of war" for as far back as the records go. In this way, WWII is not unique. However, it is unique in that it's America’s most recent example of a war that most everyone can really get behind. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea — it’s too hard to sell these wars as a bunch of American superheroes "coming to save the day."

In fact, both Vietnam, as well as the most of the media surrounding that war including films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon and The Deer Hunter, have created an opposing narrative: one that paints war as a pointless hell, a complete breakdown of humanity and civilization, and one that I think is much closer to the reality.

I think that perhaps for the past few decades, any time we had to consider the prospect of war, there’s a little fight in our brains between the WWII narrative and the Vietnam narrative.

The Vietnam narrative has the "truth advantage", as anyone who knows a veteran will tell you. But the WWII narrative has the constant, never-ending stream of action movies, anime, comic books and video games that for the most part have its back.

Even if we accept that the reality of World War II was horrific, the fact we were facing a genocidal force that was seen as quite literally intent on taking over the world makes it easy to justify the war as being "worth it."

The idea that that the Allied forces were doing terrible things to fight an even worse thing is hard to convey without the context of the time and the combat itself. I'd argue that idea of righteous, justified violence has informed our pop culture ever since.

Action films and violent games set up crazy scenarios wherein violence really might be the only option, just so that we can see some cool violence. We set up these super evil puppy-kicking villains, just so that we can feel alright about killing them.

It’s not just that we’re seeing people getting killed on screen. It’s that in the back of our minds, we know that the creators set things up so that things would get killed on screen. The message is clear: war is obviously the coolest. All we need is someone we can feel OK about killing.

The message is that there are bad guys. That there are people out there who are subhuman, who are not deserving of any rights at all. To some extent, you have to dehumanize the enemy — see them as bad guys — in order to want to go war with them. This is probably getting harder and harder to do as we become more connected to each other globally and more mature as a civilization, but the fact remains.

No one sees violence and then is inspired to commit violence, but the constant parade of pop culture that shows everyone who doesn't look and act like us as "other" and worthy of violence may be carrying a real cost.

When I see a game like Call of Duty, or a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy, I feel someone trying to sell me on this myth, even when I know that that’s not consciously what the creators were trying to do. Sure, maybe we all consciously write off the idea that there are bad guys.

Maybe we compartmentalize and remind ourselves that war isn’t really like that. But at the end of the day, we are — on some level — accepting the premise that watching people shoot at each other is one of the most entertaining things a person can do with their time.

The Penal System

I think this dehumanization also influences us when it comes to how we’ve set up our penal system. Most people know that America’s prison population situation is completely out of control. It has more than tripled since 1980, and it’s by the far the largest prison population on earth. There are a number of reasons for this — racism, the drug war and the privatization of our prisons come to mind.

prison chart

But beyond that, I think we also have to acknowledge the role that a "bad guys" narrative might have in this regard. What happened in 1980 that started this "hockey stick" trend on the graph? A lot of people attribute the "tough on crime" harsher sentencing laws to Reagan, but he hardly started it, and it’s pretty much a straight line through Democrat and Republican administrations.

The "tough on crime" meme really caught on, especially with those who were most likely to vote. With this came harsher sentencing, mandatory sentences, "zero tolerance" and other unforgiving policies that aimed to bring down the swift hammer of justice on all these damned bad guys marauding the streets. We began to legally create more "bad guys," and if there’s one thing we all knew how to deal with, it was those damned dirty bad guys.

Not all countries have a penal system. Some countries, most notably the Scandinavian countries, have something more like a rehabilitation system.

"It is not one problem that our clients face, but two or more, sometimes as many as seven or eight different ones, including perhaps drugs, alcohol and psychiatric problems. And these problems did not just appear overnight. These are things that have developed over years. Most of the sentences in this country are relatively short. The window of opportunity that we have to make a change is very small, so we need to start from day one."

- Nils Öberg, director-general of Sweden’s prison and probation service.

While of course, we have to hold people accountable for their actions, the fact is that there are reasons that can be broken down and understood. No one is just "evil", in the comic book or video game sense of the word — that sort of "evil" just doesn’t exist. Evil is part of the bill of goods we were sold to get us to want to go to war. It’s the reason we lock people up for even small offenses. It’s why it’s so easy to assume the enemy soldiers in all those games are just there to soak up our bullets.

But we have a penal system instead of a rehabilitation system at least partially because of our acceptance of the "evil" concept. These criminals, these thugs, they need to be put away!

It’s also interesting to note that the United States is one of the last rich, developed nations on the planet that continues to use the death penalty. Could this be partly because of how easy it is for us to slip into dehumanization mode?

We don't lock up people. We lock up "bad guys."

Failure of Civilization

When a person does something truly terrible, the easiest reaction to have is to call them monsters and block out any contextual information that might illuminate the why of such a situation. It’s the easy way out.

It takes real effort to fight through that disgust, and try to remember that that monster is actually a person — a product of their atmosphere, just like you, and who has a story, just like you do. What I’m talking about here is having compassion.

It’s actually hard to have compassion, especially for people who do the most despicable things. You can train yourself to be more compassionate, and "get in the habit" of empathizing with others, but it’s difficult and we all fail often. It’s just so easy to say "ah, they’re just evil".

But here’s the thing: we should not be proud of our failure to understand. Civilization fails when we stop seeing each other as human beings, and start seeing each other as monsters. And proudly gunning down monsters are what our video games and movies are all about. We are, in fact, training ourselves to do just the opposite: to get comfortable with the idea of "bad guys." There are no Saturday morning cartoon bad guys, only bad acts.

Sure, the violence isn’t real. And you know that the violence isn’t real, of course. But the concepts, they are real, as real as any concept can be. The concept of this game is: there are bad guys and I need to kill them. On some level, you must accept that concept to carry it out.

We know now that we really shouldn’t be concerned about a direct "I saw violence, so now I’m going to go do violence" connection. It’s a lot more subtle than that, but every bit as important. Let our past misguided efforts here not blind us from the real danger of the slow and unintentional maintenance of our worst ideas.

What We Can Do About It

So what’s the difference between violence, and violence glorification? My favorite example is from one of my favorite shows, Breaking Bad. There was a moment in the first season where the main character, Walter, must kill a man. He has already gotten to know this person somewhat, and there have been a couple of episodes-worth of him trying to find a way to avoid this situation. But Walt knows that if he lets the guy go, it’s highly likely that he’ll try to get revenge later.

While Walt eventually kills him, he is crying, and repeating "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry."

Why isn’t this violence glorification? Because it is presented as what violence actually is: a failure, a tragedy. No one yells, "YEAH!" and raises their fist in the air when they watch this scene. It’s not heroic. But there are carefully laid out circumstances which show us that while violence is not the least bit cool or desirable, there are conceivable circumstances when it could be necessary or at least understandable.

Achieving this kind of nuanced message is difficult enough in films, especially given our cultural bias towards violence glorification (even Breaking Bad has a few moments where it falters). But in video games, it’s even more difficult to toe that line.

When games give you a character who looks like a soldier and is running around with a weapon in their hand, it’s already hard to reverse course. The inherent message here is already that a world of violence, or a character who frequently engages in violence, is a fantasy world.

The heavy armored and cloaked super-soldiers of the Call of Duty franchise can feel like superheroes to the children that play those games and that idea, planted at a young age, is dangerous in a world where such groups operate daily around the globe with a chilling lack of oversight.

Just making it "cartoony" or even farcical doesn’t really help. My first game, 100 Rogues, is highly farcical in a Dragon Quest kind of way, with silly anachronisms and spell names like "Whack of Glory" and "Magic Crystals". But looking back, I think that was just a way for me to feel OK about having made a pretty violent video game.

Unless you’re doing a satire — and I mean a real satire, one that harshly rejects the message it’s satirizing — "lightening up" your theme doesn’t correct the problem. We wouldn’t accept the "it’s light-hearted" excuse from a developer who created a game that portrayed all of its females as sex objects, and we shouldn’t accept that excuse here, either.

The simplest way to avoid violence glorification in your game is to not have the core actions be inherently violent. We can make huge progress on this front is to hang up the old gun-toting marine and sword-slinging knight tropes, which we probably have enough of anyway.

We should think outside these old boxes, and come up with new verbs, new settings, new characters. To those who would say that this is too harsh a limitation, I think the real thing that’s limiting you in that case is your own stifled imagination. If you fill your world with people instead of human-looking targets you're going to create a much more interesting game.

My message here is one about honesty. We should be creating fantastical worlds that reflect who we, modern 21st century people, actually are. Instead of emulating the values of 1000-year old texts of ancient warlike peoples over and over again, we should be looking forward, and paint a picture of what could be.

Keith Burgun is a co-founder and lead designer for indie development studio Dinofarm Games, the creators of mobile strategy games 100 Rogues and Auro: A Monster-Bumping Adventure. He's also an author, most recently of Clockwork Game Design, as well as a frequent blogger for Gamasutra and his own site at keithburgun.net.