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July 26, 2012

Aiming higher? A video-game designer ponders history of violence

Posted in: Games

chris hecker1 Aiming higher? A video game designer ponders history of violence

Chris Hecker, an independent game developer, in 2010. Credit: Game Developer Conference.

“Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter read the headlines from Colorado on Friday and tweeted from the gut: “woke up to the news about shooting. this kinda thing always makes me question my liberal use of violence in storytelling.” Violence has been part of storytelling since humans began telling stories. Grotesque violence fills our video game screens — but it’s also hanging in frames at the world’s greatest museums and antiquity collections. Does the depiction of violence inspire aggressive behavior — or does it just give us something to do with Twitter and talk shows? We put the question to Chris Hecker, a game developer who has worked for Electronic Arts Inc. and is now working independently on his own game, called “SpyParty.”

HC: What role does violence play in entertainment? How powerful a tool is it in the telling of the story or the game mechanics?

CH: Violence is obviously a very powerful artistic tool for eliciting some kinds of emotions in art and entertainment, emotions centered around power, fantasy, tension, shock, fear and the like.  This has been true for as long as humans have been producing art and entertainment, so clearly violence, or the threat of violence, speaks to some deep parts of the human condition.

HC: Why is violence so prevalent?

call of duty2 Aiming higher? A video game designer ponders history of violence

“Call of Duty: Black Ops” has sold more than 25 million copies, making it the bestselling video game in history. A sequel arrives in November. (Credit: Activision)

CH: It’s a relatively cheap and easy way to generate these emotions in art, in the sense that it’s simpler to scare somebody in a movie by showing a guy with a big knife coming at you than it is to create a compelling love story. This is why you see it so often in lower quality works, like junk-food summer blockbusters. It’s a cheap and easy way to affect the audience. You can pour money into special effects and make the explosions bigger and know what you’re going to get.  In the more mature art forms, like film, literature and painting, there’s often plenty of violence, but the truly talented creators in these forms use it like a spice in a good meal: not too much, not too little.

HC: How has the use of violence evolved in games, more specifically?

CH: For me, the thing that’s different about games right now is that we tend to rely on violence as the main part of the meal, rather than as spice.  This is mostly a historical artifact of our current point in time, because as game designers we know how to do interactive violence, but we don’t yet know how to do interactive versions of all the other emotions in the palette that the other more mature forms have available to them.  I think this will change over time, as game designers learn how to use interactivity more effectively.

22 Aiming higher? A video game designer ponders history of violence

The Batman films of Christopher Nolan are dark but the violence is shown as having consequence and has never led to an R rating. (Warner Bros.)

HC: Is there an obligation on the part of auteurs to think about what effect violence may have on players? Is there such a thing as thoughtful violence in entertainment — in contrast to the cliché of gratuitous violence?

CH: There are definitely more- and less-thoughtful uses of violence in art, and in games specifically.  I think we’re seeing changes on this front in some games now. But the problem of how to design games that can elicit powerful emotions without violence is very hard, and we’re very early in the evolution of the art form.  In indie games in particular, you’re starting to see games that have very little or no violence, and we are starting to explore what other kinds of emotions we can access with interactivity besides power fantasy.  In my game, “SpyParty,” for example, there is no violence in the interactive part of the game at all, there is only the implied threat of violence, and yet the tension in the game is very high.  I think of it as a Hitchcockian use of violence, where the imagined threat is way more powerful than the act itself.

— Alex Pham

Twitter: @AlexPham


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