Violence is embedded into videogame’s very DNA. 1962’s Spacewar!, which some say was the first videogame, focused on blasting your opponent out of the cosmos. And like DNA, we see patterns in the repetition: Space Invaders and Asteroids begot Geometry Wars and Eve: Valkyrie. On terra firma, we used our hands. For a time, to play a videogame meant to punch others in the face. Urban Champion. Kung Fu. Double Dragon. Vigilante. When clenched fists weren’t enough, we slung balls of mystical fire (Street Fighter II) or lodged harpoons into our opponent’s neck (Mortal Kombat). Then came the big guns: We built a labyrinth of Doom and got lost in it; we felt a collective Call of Duty to mow down a field full of soldiers; we destroyed the better angels of our nature but kept the Halos.
Go back to the very beginning, though, and we realize not all games spring from an innate desire to see others obliterated. Four years before that first war in space, William Higinbotham gave us a gentler version of spatial combat; his Tennis for Two depicted the graceful rebounding of a ball within a rectangle, evoking the same primal satisfaction that would be mined in that other industry cornerstone, Pong. Both incorporate conflict, yes, but also sportsmanship and a thankful lack of gratuitous plasma spurt. In a way these ur-games anticipated the same territory control featured in Nintendo’s Splatoon franchise, where the need for players to use and cover space supersedes the urge to end another’s virtual life. With Splatoon 2, Nintendo continues their pitch for seeing games as something other than another venue for annihilation.
But the Kyoto toymakers are not immune to gunplay. One of their most well-remembered games of the Nintendo 64 era is Goldeneye. Martin Hollis, an employee of Rare at the time, directed the James Bond shooter. A decade later, he would spearhead a very different kind of project, one based on his aim to lower our collective crosshairs and do something else… like cut them.
Bonsai Barber released on WiiWare in 2009. You play the titular barber whose clients are a bunch of stylish vegetables. Using the Wii Remote, you slice and manicure leafy stems in various shapes. Succeed and the happy customers will return, even sending you vacation photos featuring their new coif. Fail and risk their moody wrath. There is no other game like Bonsai Barber. And Hollis saw that as a problem.
“I feel the games that get made are typically from a fairly narrow set of possibilities,” Hollis told Wesley Lin-Poole of Eurogamer in 2010. “There’s an incredible range of possible games that could be made, [but] most people aren’t really exploring that.”
In the seven years since, an increasing pool of small teams and independent studios have mined the outskirts of what had been done before. But even here, outside of the traditional demands of corporations, many smaller games that find success—Super Meat Boy, Hotline Miami, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds—are steeped in violence.
Some blockbuster titles appear to swerve and do something else but the usual veneer is simply painted over; Sunset Overdrive wanted to be the game that shined through the years of brown-and-grey ammunition ballets but once your eyes adjust to its sunburst of orange goop you see another landscape dominated by mutants waiting to explode.
But perhaps the typical, perennial question—Are Games Too Violent?—is the wrong one to be asking. Violence is inherent to nature. We destroy others so as to survive. But too often games give us the lowest common denominator version. Violence is not only suffering. It can be beauty. It can be clever. It can be thoughtful and contemplative and surprising. And thankfully, an increasing number of game creators are using these other forms of violent impulse as a catalyst for new experiences.
Her Story is a depiction of the psychological violence created by our own perception and faulty memories.
Spelunky gives us a set of violent rules that mirror our own unpredictable world, finding humor in the inevitability of a shopkeeper’s breakdown.
How Do You Do It is an experiment in the same bodily violence we all enact upon our poor lifeless dolls in order to understand our burgeoning bodies and how they’re meant to work.
What Remains of Edith Finch takes the ultimate result of violence—death—and imbues it with the mysticism of childhood, each character’s violent end not an end at all, but the means of telling a compelling, playable story.
Splatoon 2 is not a triumph because it trades shotguns for Super Soakers and viscera for ink. It is a triumph because your guides are two anthropomorphic mollusks who sing, dance and spin records. Instead of maintaining the importance of a Kill-Death ratio, two cats sit in judgment of your paint-slinging efficacy. The first boss is not a historically accurate Panzer tank but a toaster run amok with eyeballed bread loaves. Games don’t need less violence. They need less violence depicted lazily or expected cynically.
A few years back, Hollis returned to his first-person shooter roots. But this was no Goldeneye 2. Designed specifically for the Game City festival in Nottingham, Aim for Love was a participatory game using the conventions of the FPS to ensnare strangers into spontaneous action. Two cameras were pointed into the festival’s crowd, each providing a live feed onto two huge screens. Players pointed the cameras at a particular person in the public square, who would then see themselves beamed onto the massive screen. It was up to them to decide how to act. Might they find each other and embrace? Hide behind their neighbor? Pretend to fall, as if sniped by the zoom lens? The chosen two then took over the camera and found their next victims.
“Most of the interest is in how people behave,” Hollis told The Guardian in 2013, “and most of the benefit is from forming relationships.” Games have the ability to portray an innumerable range of action. Too often that behavior list is “kill” or “be killed;” the relationships end when one pulls the trigger. More often than not, real-life relationships make our bloodiest gaming interactions look positively genteel. As developers continue to mine the angst and fraught reality surrounding them everyday for new ideas, our beloved shoot-em-ups will become an anachronistic thing of the past, like a film reel of a train pulling into a station.
Death and explosions aren’t going anywhere; we have a bottomless capacity to see virtual blood spilled, an unquenchable hunger to cause digital injury. But we’re tired of executioners lacking vision. Headshots are so passé. In this way, violence is the same as sex: Doing it the same way over and over can be enough but it gets tiring. Sometimes it’s the suspense of the impending moment, the anticipation for what comes next, that thrills. Higinbotham would agree: There’s a reason a long tennis rally is more compelling than a never-ending series of aces.
Our industry’s decades-long affair with physical violence has inured us to its impact. If our medium is to continue to evolve, the games of tomorrow must showcase a different kind of destruction. What does a heart look like the moment it’s being broken? How does a brain entrenched in the slow spiral of dementia crumple like a bombed-out building? What happens to desire when a long-held dream shatters like shrapnel? Games need to show us.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.