I’m still plugging away on this MOOC. Week 8 of “Understanding Video Games” (hosted by Leah Hackman and Sean Gouglas through Coursera) starts off talking about violence in early games and begins with the old platform games (i.e. jumping to or swinging from platforms), ranging from Donkey Kong (static screens) through to Super Mario Brothers (scrolling), and on further into cinematic platform games. Even the cartoonish games attracted concerns of parental groups who wanted to limit ages or locations for arcades.
In the second video, the pair talk about blood and gore, and it’s long artistic roots in art as an aesthetic. They then move on to flagging the different interpretations — gory violence as nothing more than a video game “horror movie” experience; gory violence as a murder simulator; or merely a source of catharsis. Yet it is the same questions that have been posed of art, comic books and television too. In the end, violence can be seen as either gratuitous or as an ingredient to drive a narrative story arc (such as the need to resolve conflict or overcome strategic or tactical challenges).
The third and fourth videos focus on consequences and morality. As a starting point, they assume that there is feedback to all actions in a game, including violent ones, and then look at the cost or reward for committing violent acts, including:
- Punishment for attacking “non-player characters” (NPCs) such as Ultima III;
- Rewards for attacking NPCs (Crusaders);
- Mixed punishments and rewards with competing mechanics (Grand Theft Auto 3);
- Mixed mechanics where emergent play (setting your own goals) decides the reward or punishments; or,
- Complex mechanics of moral choices (such as avoid, talk their way out, bribe the NPCs, or fight) with differing narrative outcomes, or rewards (the “clean hands” achievement for finding a non-violent solution).
However, some games use “gating” techniques — i.e. you can’t get to the next area until you satisfy the previous area’s requirements in a specific way. In many of these games, there are no “pacifist” solutions. Usually, this is the default option for any game that has a boss.
Watching the video, I was reminded of my first time playing Syphon Filter…there are two levels that are “gated”. In one, you have to kill terrorists to rescue hostages. And no matter what you try to do to stop the one bad guy, he would always end up killing the hostage and the level would reset. Unless you did one very specific thing — killed him with a sniper rifle shot to the head. No headshot, no advancement. A short while later in the game, another level required you to go through the whole level without setting off any alarms. But there were so many guards, the only way to get close to your objective was to repeatedly use headshots to eliminate bad guys. No headshots, no advancement.
The fifth video delves into the idea of the degree of photo-realism to the violence. I found it interesting the example of Mortal Kombat 2 — it was initially viewed as gratuitous violence, yet is now viewed as relatively over-the-top cartoonish violence. However, with increasingly realistic physics mechanics (destructible buildings, bullet trajectories, etc.), the immersive experience increases.
This leads to the final video for the week, dealing with how academia has studied video game violence. It identifies three common threads in the discussion:
- Playing video games can cause desensitization to real violence;
- Playing causes players to act aggressively;
- The more graphic, the more likely they are to be aggressive.
The focus though is on two research questions — does it increase the likelihood of violence and/or decrease empathetic behaviour? The main approach in academia is to rely on social learning theory aka mimicry. The humanities may also look at the political, moral, and cultural aspects of violence and video games. However, some academics identify multiple methodological problems with the research, such as:
- Ethical design issues;
- Choice of undergraduates as the sample guinea pig;
- Lax and flexible definitions of what actually constitutes violent and non-violent mechanics, and how to separate/isolate the violent parameter;
- Impossibility to test for real-life violent behaviour in an experiment; and,
- Journals have systemic biases towards publishing negative results.
Overall for the week’s videos, I expected more direct reference to situations like Columbine in the U.S. as one of the “hot button” examples that media pundits like to reference. I was also disappointed that they didn’t explore a bit more of the argument by some psychologists that video gameplay was not causal of aggression but more likely symptomatic of aggressive tendencies. In other words, aggressive people were likely to play violent games and commit violent acts, not as cause and effect but as a series of symptoms of their aggression.