Authored by: Peter Krapp

The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies

Print publication date:  December  2013
Online publication date:  January  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415533324
eBook ISBN: 9780203114261
Adobe ISBN: 9781136290510


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Humans have always had violent games, from individual competitions such as wrestling or boxing to spectacles such as gladiatorial combat or rugby; these might variably be seen as appealing to instinct, as expressions of frustration in civilization, or as necessary and playful steps in social learning. Human culture has also long included representations of violence in the arts, whether on the theater stage or the painter’s canvas, in literature or in cinema. So what is it that puts video games in particular into the crosshairs of criticism? Is it merely that conflict is never boring—and games are at a basic level about avoiding boredom? Or is it is the medium specificity that sets gaming apart? Certainly interactive immersion poses a different set of issues than representations of violence on stage or on a TV screen. Arguably, it is easy to see why there is a good deal of violence in video games: exciting interaction beats boredom, and adolescents in particular, who feel little control over their lives or power in society, may gravitate to transgressive thrills of fighting, shooting, and war. Here it is less a question of game genre than of what kind of violence the in-game actions afford the player. While few people would object to the quaint two-player interactions of jumping, crouching, feinting, and punching in games such as Karate Champ (Technos, 1984), Street Fighter (Capcom, 1987), or Tekken (Namco, 1994), some critics question the morals of more recent fighting games such as the Mortal Kombat series (Midway, 1992–2009) that allow the victorious avatar to murder their defeated opponents with special moves. Similarly, critics of other game genres tend to object not to the portrayal of horror, war, or gun fights in general, but specifically to graphic features such as the slow-motion impact animations of Sniper Elite (Rebellion/MC2, 2005) that appear to glorify violence. The salient question is therefore whether there might be harmful (side-) effects of violent gaming. In retrospect, the public debate about the difference between the film Death Race 2000 (Roger Corman, 1975) and the arcade game based on it, Death Race (Exidy, 1976) may seem quaint, but it is worth noting that while the film’s deliberate excess was controversial because its dystopian social satire questioned culturally-sanctioned and institutionalized modes of cinematic violence (military, police, frontier justice), the game reduces the plot to a car race to mow down pedestrians, and so, despite its crude stick figure graphics, it was perceived as more provocative than the film (Kocurek, 2012). As negative as the media coverage of the game was, it clearly drove sales of the game, and this has remained true of infamous games since then.

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