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Why do we need violent videogames?

What's the point?

I like to think that I'm a not-unethical, not-uncivilized man. I've never killed anybody, or double-parked (in fairness, I don't know how to drive), or entertained a negative impression of a co-worker on the grounds that they dislike cats.

I'm a vegetarian, which qualifies me to sneer obnoxiously when meat-eaters express disgust at the sight of blood, and I've been known to recycle, providing somebody else sorts the plastic from the glass. I tend to make room for old people on the bus, and as far as I'm aware, I haven't personally brought about the demise via tidal erosion of any charming coastal communities. As regards being the cause of real, physical harm, my moral accounting book is, for the most part, a clean sweep.

But during my time on this Earth, I have slaughtered, tortured, maimed and otherwise abused thousands upon thousands of passable recreations of living beings, via videogames like Gears of War, Modern Warfare 3 and Bioshock. And were you to ask me whether this really constitutes upright behaviour, I'm not entirely sure how I'd answer.


Appalling events this weekend in Connecticut have given rise to a debate about the ethics of depicting violent actions in videogames. The debate is worth having, but like most debates involving phrases like "civil liberty", it has become a godawful, unconstructive row between rival zealots, many of whom are happy to trade on common-sense knowledge and hearsay.

On the one hand, you've got tabloids like the Express pinning the blame for Adam Lanza's actions on Dynasty Warriors - a series where fabulously dressed feudal celebrities bosh each other in bloodless, SFX-heavy, flamboyantly unreal combat. On the other, you've got a range of gaming websites and individuals taking umbrage at the "scapegoating" of their hobby, and refusing to even contemplate the suggestion - which isn't, at a glance, unreasonable, however unreasonably posed - that exposure to violent media might trigger violent actions in reality.

As a games enthusiast of 20 years standing who's been writing about his hobby for five, I tend, naturally, to reserve my sympathy for the latter group. A study has yet to be published which demonstrates a conclusive link between digital and real-world violence, though there are studies which suggest we shouldn't rule it out. Censoring violent artworks or blocking them from sale constitutes an infringement of "free speech", under most definitions of the latter, and I have a hard time seeing the point of calls to do away with gun games when there are more guns in the United States than people.

But for all that - for all my distaste for nanny state philosophising about the evils of modern media, I do find the idea that I'm comfortable with violence in videogames... uncomfortable. I'm no fan of real-world blood-letting. Why do I take such pleasure in depictions of the same?

And why, for that matter, do you? What is it about violence that enthrals us so, excites us to the extent that every Xbox 360 game whose cover doesn't prominently feature a firearm seems doomed to failure? Canonical considerations aside, why does Lara Croft have to kill somebody to "come of age" as a person? Why don't we complain more when publishers glut their PR campaigns with gore and gristle, rather than showcasing the non-murderous subtleties? And why don't more games take the Dishonored route, whereby it's possible to get through the entire campaign without harming a soul?


I have my own ideas about the answers to these questions, but for the moment, I'd like to hear yours. There may be no concrete evidence for the case that gunning down paras in Call of Duty disposes you to do so in reality, but it doesn't follow that videogame violence is something we should tolerate unthinkingly - particularly not when big companies are alive to our questionable sensibilities, and happy to riff on them for private gain.