Video Game Violence: Does Killing Feel Good?


“—in the game? Does it?”

A friend asked me this the other day—a non–gamer, non–asshole, simply–curious friend with no agenda beyond getting some context behind GamerGate. Poor thing.

I replied something snappy like, “Uh, I dunno. No,” before moving the subject to the safer pastures of deeply-engrained sexism and the ethics of media journalism. I would much rather read him those brain-tumor-for-breakfast dudes’ hateful, threatening messages than consider my answer to her original question.

The short answer? Yeah, it does. It’s what drives us to play for hours, to level up and challenge ourselves. Almost every game out there, the ones that everyone plays, they’re about graphic violence in one way or another. Whether it’s a xenomorph, a French loyalist, or some other human with a name like “SuckdUrMom” floating a dozen pixels above his head—they’re all about killing. It’s not just completing a goal. The kill is the ultimately gratifying incarnation of winning.

That’s how we express progression. It’s how we express dominance. Sure, not every level is like that Modern Warfare airport fiasco that encouraged pimply fourteen-year-olds to shoot crying mothers in the brain, but when you think about it, you kill a lot. Orcs. Robots. Heartless. The infinite menagerie of adorable-but-deadly things that populate adventure games. People shouting at you in another language, probably Arabic, and people shouting at you in American English (sometimes virtually, sometimes telephonically). Goombas, gangsters, golems—and even other Pikachus. Slaughtered, all of ‘em.

Take this moment to look through your brain for even a shred of icky feelings when you consider how much of your gaming time you spend in the act of killing. Those of us playing all the (mediocre) big-release giants right now—Advanced Warfare, Assassin’s Creed, Sunset Overdrive, and, soon, Dragon Age—have been spending a good chunk of our days on murder. In an admirably diverse set of ways, developers strive to undermine murder mechanics with other, less morally-compromising factors: i.e. cuteness, abject evil, maximum fun, historical ‘irrelevance,’ inhumanity. The list goes on. Killing is—and since long before Columbine, has been—the big homicidal elephant in the game room. Designers, players, publishers—we all think about it. And, those of us that play, we know that we’re gratified by it.

So what does this mean? Probably, nothing, but it’s 1 a.m. and I’m thinking. Maybe it’s indicative that the white-male-dominated game industry might actually have been a big fuck up. Psychos on 4chan rambling that pro-minority writers are endangering the entire structure of games as we know it—what if they’re right? What if these brave women publishing op–eds under death threats really are setting time-delay charges on the foundations of an industry gone dumb with dominance and stagnant with slaughter?

First time I’m ever saying this, but I hope the psychos are right.

Forget whatever imagined gendered qualities you think women will bring to the game industry (Seriously though, do these guys really think female developers are going to predominantly want to make games about painting their nails and talking about Justin Timberlake? Like, what?). What women—and Latin Americans, and gays, and blacks; the list is long and important—will bring to the work force is diversity. It’s the law of averages. It’s what’s beyond the edge of space, beneath the singularity. The novelty that unravels the groupthink. With fresh minds and an infinite digital playground that isn’t run by old-school “boys rule, girls drool,” autocracy, we could create a virtual civilization that’s not dedicated to death. With so many new minds at work, the result would be beyond what most of us can currently imagine.

We could have more Flower. We could have more Journey. And even though killing will never, ever get scrubbed out of our gaming vernacular, we could have more killing in pursuit of theme, of an aesthetic. More The Last of Us. More The Walking Dead. We could have more diversity—in the games, the people making the games, the people in the games, and the people playing the games. I hate to say this, but we could have some real “E for Everyone” shit going on. Meta.

And yo, brothers and sisters of the controller creed, aren’t we running out of money anyway? Adapt or die, publishers. The lizards did it. Now it’s your turn.

Editor-at-Large, Patrick Ford-Matz