Video Game Violence: The Sad, Limiting Standard

What sells video games?

Conventional wisdom says if you want to sell a couple million copies of a game to the core set, you need to make an action game. But merely having action is not enough, judging by the vast majority of releases by major publishers in the last few years. Games need to be violent. Really, really violent.

That gaming is a mostly violence-oriented medium is not a new concept, but it’s gone from being mostly violent to almost entirely violent. Most AAA games are now shooters, and few of them have any sort of gameplay mechanic other than shooting. And when there are other mechanics, such as in the Tomb Raider reboot, they don’t play a big part. You will spend the majority of your time interacting with that game by shooting people. And if you’re not shooting people, you’re banging on them with a blade. That’s what sells, the money men think.

Triple-A gaming is a storytelling medium as well as a gameplay medium, but all we’re getting out of it is violent stories. Putting you, the consumer, inside a story as an active participant is a profound artistic idea, but our role in those stories doesn’t often go beyond killing hordes of bad guys. That’s starting to bore us, and it’s showing in a tangible way as so many recent big violent releases have underperformed, sales-wise.

And yet that’s still all we’re being fed by the major publishers, because it’s easier to keep making all these violent games than to try something new.

“I would like to see less violent games out there. Not because they’re bad or wrong, but because I think creatively they’re too easy.” -Walt Williams, writer on Spec Ops: The Line

Williams explains, in a sentence, why we have so many overly violent video game experiences. It is easier to wrap a story around a gameplay experience than it is to write a story and then build a gameplay experience tailored to it. Developers tend put the game first and the art second. They draw storyboards before they even know what the story is going to be.

To be fair, there are games that can justify endless combat. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, for example, is a game specifically about putting you into combat situations, and all of said combat is supported by the narrative. And that title is very good about not feeling repetitive. Treyarach was creative in their scenario designs, and the action never feels like busywork. They were telling a violent story, and they always give you reasons to be violent.

But usually what we end up with is violence for the sake of violence. It’s there because that’s what we do in video games. We have to fight because there is a place in front of us where the developers could put enemies. We’re just playing a prettier, souped up version of Galaga that has the pretense of a plot. The art is an afterthought.

But that’s how it goes in the modern game development process.

“Since games are driven so much by gameplay and level design, part of the challenge of being a game writer is making the story work even when the gameplay or levels change or if there is something that is added to the game which would be really fun to play but might not make total sense in the story.” -Haris Orkin, writer on Dead Island: Riptide

The AAA game design process is pretty convoluted. Writers are usually involved, but they tend to be at the mercy of everyone else involved in the development process. Jill Murray, the lead writer on Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, shared an anecdote at a Writers Guild of America panel in which she described how others on the dev team at Ubisoft decided during development that they wanted to have a mission at a fort, and so she had to write one into the game. Game plots are often not fully mapped out before design begins. (For more on the writing process, check out my feature on game writers at Kotaku.)

And so you end up with a game like BioShock Infinite — a game, I should note, that delivers only a single-player story experience — for which there was an entire world constructed before they had the final game’s plot written (see the 2010 Infinite gameplay demo for evidence of this). Irrational knew that game would take place on a cloud city and that it would be a shooter before they settled on the story. And so that we ended up with a story that doesn’t really jive with the gameplay they had already built is not so surprising.

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19 Comments on Video Game Violence: The Sad, Limiting Standard


On April 26, 2013 at 8:09 pm

You guys are… amazing. Confronted with the soulless evil of endless mass murder, you try to argue it’s- “not innovative enough”. You recognise no other story (no other aspect of life?) contains the (one can only call it) DEBAUCHED evil of games. You repeat “violence sells” like “sex sells”- abandoning love and free will and anything that actually could make the game’s designers responsible for what they make (perish the thought- gamers too). If something “sells” it’s ALWAYS good and just and not at all sick and twisted and awful. You try. You call out desperately for something that ISN’T MORAL to justify your disgust. AH HAH! Innovation. There you go. Sameness is bad- difference is good. BUT GOOD ISN’T GOOD, BAD ISN’T BAD. I really hope you all read this comment, because it just might be the last thing that can salvage your empty retched souls. I mean that. I don’t want to meet you people, becuase you believe genocide is FUN. Go to f|_|cking SOMALIA and find out if you still believe that. Rowanda. Iraq. Holy sh!t- the mad dictator of that country killed FIVE THOUSAND PEOPLE WITH POISON GAS??? HIGH SCORE!!! I bet you haven’t even read this far. But if you have, remember this. You SPOTTED the decay, the barbarians at your gates. You REALISED something was horribly wrong when you played Bioshock Infinite. All I’m saying is- what’s wrong is we (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘people who aren’t me) play, PLAY at genocide. This is what we want to do for FUN, IN OUR SPARE TIME. So- don’t be afraid to make mention of morals. Justify things based on morals. If you don’t have any, can’t use any, then there is a true big f|_|cking problem. With you. Hurts, eh? What about the stupid sheep that read this site? That vote? That allow the USA to hold the world to ransom with the threat of nuclear annihilation? High… score??

raised eyebrow

On April 26, 2013 at 10:19 pm

So quick tooth… you feeling alright? Those were some words up there…

Hand Grenada

On April 27, 2013 at 2:53 am

Someone’s been watching MrBTongue recently.

Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage: Slow Down the Violence can be found here –

Also, quicktooth – sand in the vagina is annoying, yes, but it’s no excuse to aimlessly troll an article. Especially an article posted on a site that is almost notorious for being overly PC and hyper-sensitive, spending an unproportionately large amount of time covering sexism in gaming – which isn’t an industry-wide problem, regardless of what these men want to make you believe – as well as doing similar things like criticise Assassin’s Creed 4 for having a white protagonist even though it makes narrative sense, and unintentionally (or perhaps it was intentional) advocating the segregation and separation of homosexuals from the rest of society by lauding the shamelessly controversial and borderline-exploitative ‘ planet’ in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

If you think these are the type of people who would play down genocide then clearly you haven’t been paying attention to a little body of work known as “literally every single article ever published on GameFront.”


Hand Grenada

On April 27, 2013 at 3:00 am

Just to prove my point further, the word ‘g-a-y’ in ‘g-a-y planet’ was censored by the laughably sensitive language block, even though the article I was referring to actually referred to it by the exact same term. You also can’t type the word ‘c-u-m,’ which means that the five people a year who want to use that sequence of letters as a slang term for male semen can’t do so. The many, many other instances where words such as ‘doc-u-ment’, ‘ac-u-mulate’, or ‘circ-u-mstance’ are rendered totally incomprehensible are a small price to pay for saving us from a rarely-used fraternal term. Good job!


On April 27, 2013 at 3:39 am

Not sure why you folks think I’m trolling. I’m a philosophy student, I’ve done logic. Don’t try to tell me that delighting in Prototype or Big Modern Shooter means you don’t approve of genocide. Why write on Gamefront, who are already thinking/careing/allowing themselves to matter? Precisely BECAUSE Gamefront has shown it’s staff actually use their heads. Because they may read that post and might allow it to mean something to them. Because the usual “YOU ARE A BAD PERSON BECAUSE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT AN ISSUE AND LIKE PEOPLE AND AREN’T A PSYCHOPATH” doesn’t seem to hold water with them. Gamefront is genuinely trying to deal with some things that matter. It therefore worries the hell out of me when they take great pains to assure people that in fact they do not do so out of any genuine concern with their self respect, the value of anyone at any level, etc. That in fact they REALLY do so out of amoral or unemotional reasons like Game Design Theory or whatever. It worries me because it sounds like they’re still (not) thinking like IGN, Gamespot, Kotaku, et al. Of course Kotaku thinks SOMETIMES, but Gamefront has a SPINE. It takes a STAND. And in our world of hopelessly apathetic sheep, that means they CHOOSE what (at least some) people think. See why it’s important? Us people who think don’t often actually voice what we think- and maybe if we had that world wouldn’t be the sh!thouse it presently is. So if it is in my (soon to be) professional skill set to notice that someone who matters has a problem (and presumably can deal with it once they know this), I d@mn well better say something. See?


On April 27, 2013 at 2:22 pm


I would guess that part of why some might think you’re trolling is making statements like enjoying a game like Prototype means that a person also approves of genocide. You say you’ve “done logic” but then make a huge leap like that. Yes, there are plenty of other things that can be done with games besides killing hordes of enemies, and it is a shame that it isn’t done more often, but it is also important to recognize that most people can distinguish fiction from reality. It also might have something to do with how your first post was rather incoherent.

Darryl Revok

On April 27, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Quicktooth….you may be absolutely right in some abstractly logical fashion…but that means all of jack s in physical reality. Psychologically speaking, violent video games have done absolutely nothing to contribute to real violence. There are even studies to suggest it is a cathartic, positive venting of our natural, aggressive impulses. You must understand the vast majority of the human population lack the mental capacity to all be thoughtful, socratic thinkers…so they are fed bread and circuses to keep them happy and content. There is a massive variety of gaming genere’s to choose from…the fact you are upset that violent shooters happen to be the most popular is more a reflection of your own disappointment in the reality of human nature. Violent crime has in fact plummeted in direct proportion to the widespread proliferation of violent gaming…in no way am I claiming a correlation, but none of these control freak politicians who want to regulate the industry have a leg to stand on in way of justification.


On April 28, 2013 at 2:24 am

I found a picture of Phil on Google.


Hand Grenada

On April 28, 2013 at 2:35 am

I notice my second comment, the one which pointed out how stupid it is to censor the words ‘g-a-y’ and ‘c-u-m’ when g-a-y is not a derogatory term – and was used BY GameFront in the context of the Star Wars ‘g-a-y planet’ without issue – and c-u-m is a part of several oft-used words (e.g. document, circumstance, and accumulate) has not been published. I guess challenging the mechanics of the site isn’t allowed on here, just like challenging the author’s belief isn’t permitted on anything written by Ian Miles Chong. Ironic, really, when you consider Jim Sterling wrote an article lambasting others for not being able to handle criticism keeping things they claim to love ‘static.’ Maybe he should have been directing it at some of the other GameFront staffers.

It’s a shame because there are some great articles on here (and actually this one is pretty decent, albeit I prefer the TUN episode on the same subject that I gave the link to) but it’s undermined by a complete inability to act on complaints or even moderate critique from its audience – something which you rightly rejected BioWare for doing last year.

Hand Grenada

On April 28, 2013 at 2:37 am

I take that back about ‘c-u’m’ (I don’t know if it works on its own or not) as it’s clearly present in the examples I gave. It didn’t use to be, though, so I guess that was an instance where GameFront DID listen to the readers. So fair enough.


On April 28, 2013 at 5:50 am

I agree with this article for the most part, but I’d like to point out the indie side of success. Minecraft, Terraria, The Bridge, Braid and Journey just to name a few.Again, not saying the article is wrong. Just pointing out that non-violent games do get serious recognition, just not enough.


On April 28, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Considering the fact that the United States has the most stressed out people in the world which is saying a lot. There is really no surprise that violent video game sell so well and will continue to do so. Although I wouldn’t mind a change of pace in video games and please enough with the hypocrisy. A game with violence and parents seemed to be okay for the children to play until some chick or dude is in a nude scene then somehow it’s ruining our kids.


On April 28, 2013 at 6:17 pm

The fact is we need a change, its not that violent video games are bad, its that we don’t seem to be putting out anything other than violent video games, and I believe that more choices are always better than less.

I actually pose a challenge to my fellow commentors, and the staff of gamefront if they feel inclined. Come up with a concept for a AAA game that involves little or no violence.

Here’s mine: An exploration game set on an alien planet, you are a surveyor robot sent down to find a suitable spot for the establishment of a colony. After an initially promising site that you were set down at proves unviable do to being prone to earth quakes you set off to find another location. Along the way you are tasked with cataloging the local flora and fauna, valuable mineral deposits, and finding a place that is a perfect combination of workable farm land, stability, and closeness to the various valuable resources that are the reason for the mission in the first place.

Again, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t condemn violent video games any more than I condemn violent action movies. I’m a huge fan of wretched gushing excess as found in things like Saints Row the Third and Troma films, it’s just that I also like movies like 2001 and games like Monkey Island and Minecraft.


On April 28, 2013 at 9:32 pm

@R.J.- Actually mate, you kill THOUSANDS of people in Prototype. In one city. That’s genocide. Not mass murder, genocide. But it’s all good- I wouldn’t want to put anyone through my extensive university education either. And about separating fiction from reality, I can only point out once more that you’ve got to be as awful as can be to think that crimes against humanity – consequence free! – constitutes a good/relaxing/enjoyable time. Finally about incoherence- thanks for pointing that out. I was going for an evocative feel, but that can’t work if it doesn’t make sense in the first place.


On April 28, 2013 at 10:31 pm

Have you heard of the game waking mars? It’s 2d but you do a fair amount of what your describing.
I could see making an argument for alex mercer attempting genocide in prototype 2. In neither game canonically the player character does genocide. Unless your count the infected. Heller does do that to the infected in prototype 2, and the military combined with black watch do it in the first game.
For regular humans neither protagonist does genocide. Mercer saves the city from nuclear destruction in one. Heller saves the city from being over run by infected in 2.

Jamyule L. Saxon

On April 29, 2013 at 3:06 am

The fact that quicktooth is still referring to Prototype as ‘genocide’ despite correctly being contradicted on this clearly emotional term by others is very telling. I’m not sure what his definition of genocide is, but I would suggest it’s similar to the concept of eugenics – i.e. a political move, a motion to eliminate a certain section of society from existence whether it due to race, religion, sexuality party allegiance or even occupation. It’s a deliberate, selective maneuver. You cannot possibly compare that to Prototype, where you go around slaughtering people indiscriminately due to rage. The ONLY thing they both have in common is that people die. In fact, considering the essence of Prototype is a virus, a better comparison would be the Black Death.

I suggest quicktooth tries playing the game, reads a dictionary, and stops using his education in philosophy (and we only have his word to go on that he even has that) as a self-distraction mechanism to justify his clearly imbalanced, partisan and underdeveloped thoughts on this article.


On April 30, 2013 at 11:51 am

“That’s starting to bore us, and it’s showing in a tangible way as so many recent big violent releases have underperformed, sales-wise.”

“Because that’s what sells, and that’s what developers know.”

Wait, which is it?

Look the article attempts to make a point, but it clings to random supporting factors that hold no weight. Publishers push games that sell, obviously. There are huge audiences that love said games and buy them up. You made a point about Black Ops 2 and I have to agree, but really it is not up to you to judge what level of violence belongs in any given game. I could sit there and say that turtles have nothing to do with anything in regards to a plumber saving a princess, but who would take me seriously? Can the shoddy argument apply to MMOs… just because WoW? Well, I guess partially at least, with the fact that medieval fantasy is so saturated right now.

I am speaking only for myself here (for some reason I need to state this). I believe that all entertainment is written differently. Heavy Rain is out of place. Who cares about completion rate… it plays like a movie with quick-time events. Is that what you guys wanted Bioshock to be like? Why don’t you guys instead petition Hollywood to make more interesting movies instead, but games have a certain element called gameplay. If the gameplay is weak, then no amount of story will save it. Some people enjoy lengthy narrative in their games, but I want some gravy with my mashed potatoes and kind of enjoy a mix. Watching, that’s right, watching Heavy Rain is just like watching any other boring movie where you can’t scream at the protagonist loud enough for them to realize that they are morons.

Anyway, what I am trying to say is pick better battles and don’t grasp at straws with the articles for shock value. You guys came armed to an empty battlefield. Are you even fighting the games that like the extra violence, or are you fighting the publishers for pushing the said violence on WILLING customers? You got the mob mentality ready, but who is going to get lynched today? Do you have a point? So what if most of the games are violent? So what if most of the games have anything. So what if most cars have 4 wheels. Are you saying that violence ruined Bioshock or Gears of War or Spec Ops? If so, then grasp to something substantial, like straight up accusing players of violent games in heightened potential to commit crime.

Personally, I have not been disappointed with any video games that you guys bring to question. Bioshock, Spec Ops, and a myriad of others, are simply fun. How do you guys game while wishing for the gameplay to be substituted for something less interactive? Guess I am on one side of the fence looking at the other, but all I see are crappy shaming tactics.


On April 30, 2013 at 10:10 pm

At first, I wanted to make an account just to comment on this article, but then I realized I didn’t know how to say it. Then your comment comes along and I just made an account solely to comment that I coudn’t have said it better. Also, the commenting system here is pretty confusing…

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