Why So Few Violent Games?

With as much time as game designers and critics think and write about the specifics of game interactions, it’s often useful to step back and look at the basics. Let’s ask a simple question: why are there so many video games dealing with social interaction and relationships, and so few that explore violence and action-oriented gameplay?

In some ways, it’s a historical aberration. If Gygax and Arneson had made some war-focused game instead of Counts and Courtship, or Will Crowther had decided to entertain his kids with his obscure caving hobby instead of an exploration of his childhood friendships, perhaps the focus of our games would be different. Doom wouldn’t have been an oddball niche title if there were a hundred other games at the time about shooting aliens with guns.

But I think there’s a more fundamental issue at work here: violence and action are really difficult to simulate, unlike simple relationships.

Think about it. When modelling a conversation between two people, there’s a limited number of variables in play. How much do they like each other, and in what way? Given a few basic ways of manipulating the interaction, how does that change the relationship? These are all simple systems to simulate, so much so that we have a long history of unimaginative, sappy romance games made by genre-obsessed, cookie-cutter developers. Physical positioning can be pre-scripted, movements can be automated, and emotions are a well-understood programming domain.

Look at some of the abortive attempts at combat games, on the other hand, and you can see the complexity of simulating violence. Real-world physics is complicated, involving enormous numbers of forces and subjective physical sensations. Some quirky art games have done a decent job of evoking the feeling of a firefight, but even those experiences feel clunky and unrealistic. Treating a bullet as a geometric ray projected from the barrel of a gun just feels uncompelling. And how can you possibly track the complexity of someone’s health state in the same way you measure their emotions? People can be injured in a hundred different ways, while emotions can be abstracted into just a handful of easy meters. There’s a reason why games which attempt to insert secondary combat systems end up with the morale mechanics being far more fun than the gun mechanics.

One of the most ambitious attempts at combat games, Chris Crawford’s oddly-named Gorytron, simulates combat to dizzying detail. It tracks blood flow, heart rate, muscle fatigue, and an array of other internal properties of its NPCs. One would think that this approach would be the perfect way to present interesting action scenes. Yet its clumsy menu-based interactions and awkward presentation make it into something Crawford himself admitted was a failure. Action games are just really hard to make.

In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know how to make games about the human heart, but struggle to deal with fists, swords, and guns. And the gamers that grew up exploring Mario’s frustrated relationship with Princess Peach before moving on to the transhuman sci-fi romance of Cortana as adults are reluctant to buy games full of blood and muscles. With those uninterested gamers, big AAA game companies will never invest in, say, a video game where you play a US special-ops soldier fighting terrorism. Combat games are destined to remain the domain of small indie developers.

22 thoughts on “Why So Few Violent Games?

  1. Haha this is great! I like this alternate reality. Had to google “Cortana”, but that made that reference more satisfying after I did.

    This needs some graphics though.

  2. At first I thought you were asking a serious question about Facebook games. But I like what you’re doing here. You’re so right. Emotions are so much simpler to simulate than health. I’m tired of seeing all these unimaginative, sappy romance games.

  3. This is certainly a call for indies to innovate and broaden the field of our art. I really think that the market for violent games is bigger than we expect and has barely been touched. Hey guys, anger and bloodlust are emotions too. I think Doom may have been on to something deeper that we have all overlooked.

  4. I really liked your text. My opinion is that t he so-called “violent games” we have today are imature in some sense. They lack a certain dose of seriousness and, many time, of character configurative deepness.
    I don’t usually play many violent games because they fail to attract me in these aspects. If the game does not offer anything that pops out and calls my attention, it is just another violent game.

    On my website, I usually write gaming reviews and some point of my research in games. Sometimes I publish translated texts about gaming criticism/analysis which I think are really nice.
    Would you allow me to translate your text to portuguese and publish it at my website?

  5. I am appalled at how genuinely confused I am right now. Thanks Greg, as usual you’ve broken my sarcasm-meter, and now it’s all out of calibration.

  6. It seems the basic fundamental reason for the shift to casual games is missing here. Casual, social games appeal to females. The iPhone, Facebook, and even the Wii have introduced gaming to an entirely new audience that didnt exist person. The Call of Duty gamer is not the same person infatuated with Farmville.

    1. There is a gender slant to casual game demographics, but it’s a mistake to see that as the core distinction. There are plenty of folks from every gender continuum who are more interested in farming than shooting, and plenty of very successful casual games that involve violence (Mafia Wars). I think the growth of the casual woman gamer is mostly due to the increased accessibility, acceptability, and addictivity of casual games. Many casual gamers either never got into games before Facebook or were alienated by specific elements like gory violence or adolescent boob-rendering. While these attitudes are correlated with being female, I don’t think gender is the fundamental determining factor.

  7. Maybe if there was more violence in games, it would appeal more to different genders, at the moment, gaming is seen as a girls hobby.

  8. Even if feelings/social relations other than “war” or “violence” are hard to simulate/emulate/gamify, it doesn’t mean that war is simulated in a “good” way today. Maybe we just have bigger expectations on other types of relationships and how they are supposed to work, how compelling they are, according to what we have to compare with.

  9. This is the smartest thing I’ve ever read about games on the internet.

  10. I think what you is absolutely right. For example the creators “Battlefield” worked and still do work very hard on the physics of the bullet for example. It’s really hard to make an action shotter game that can stay truthfull to all those variables. There are few games that can be almost 100% realistic but it takes year for a “squad” of game creators and designers to calculate all of those things.

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