How do games justify their violent content?

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reluctant to write about the ethics of violence in games. However, last week, Jack Thompson was disbarred in Florida and that changes the landscape of the conversation significantly. Mr. Thompson’s presence in the debate meant that it was all too easy to reduce any conversation about violence and ethics in the gaming media down to a shouting match between: “video games are the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio” and “first-amendment violating, thought-crime, fascist!”

Now that reason has temporarily triumphed, I want to look at violence and ask how certain games justify it in their narrative. I do this in hope that in asking these questions we can learn something useful and reach conclusions without the polarized rhetoric. The first question I want to ask is: how do games frame violence in their narrative and storytelling?

Looking at the games I’ve played and going so far as to purchase and play some familiar examples of violent games, I’ve stumbled upon three broad categories that generally describe how games justify violent content. First games situate their violent content in a justified situation. I call this the “just war” doctrine. Using socially accepted justifications for violence: gamers simulate soldiers in a just war, police protecting society from criminals, or the last defense of human civilization from genocidal aliens. These games present violence as justified, necessary, and good. “Personal context” games are another set of games takes a less black and white approach to violence. Rather than presenting the player as fighting for good, they situate the violence in a context. Role-playing games in particular situate action and player choices in a character. Thus a player simulating a “terrorist” in a game can see the charachter’s choices in context and perhaps justify the actions as being a “freedom fighter” or perhaps not justify them any further than an extension of the characters will to power. A third option is games that do not attempt to justify violence at all. Games that refuse to justify violent acts either in a socially acceptable context or in a personally justified context raise different kinds of questions. For a “just war” game, it is relatively easy to judge whether or not the violence is ethical. If a person accepts the conflict simulated as being just, then the violence is justified. In personal context games, the ethics of the violence can be judged according to how identifies with the simulated context, i.e., if one can find empathy for the character one can understand why the violent acts were committed. This third set of games risks undermining social constraints against violence by not seeking to justify or condemn it. They also, if they are well designed, offer the player insights into understanding the nature of violence and its effects that other games do not.

I’m at risk of running on here, so I’m going to describe each of these three categories in future posts. In order to examine the just war justification I will look at the games Call of Duty, Doom, and Swat. Situated context games will be explored in Grand Theft Auto, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Oblivion.
For unjustified violence, I will examine The Witcher and Deus Ex.

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