Violence in Videogames: The Second Person Perspective

Bill Loguidice's picture

Author: Buck Feris
Editing: Lori Feris, Bill Loguidice, Matt Barton
Artwork: Buck Feris (Screenshots taken from the author's collection unless otherwise indicated)
Online Layout: Buck Feris

The progression of videogames is very singular compared to other art forms. The videogame medium seemed destined to do one thing: allow people to simulate and experience violent fantasies. The idea of one game/three lives has become so prevalent in Western culture that a sort of violent terminology has emerged when discussing videogames, whether the games themselves are violent or not. Even when playing a game such as Tetris, it is common to exclaim, “I died!” when the game ends. In fact, most videogames end upon the death of the protagonist.

Even though it is undeniable that videogames are violent, we are still left with the question: Why are videogames so violent? In this article I will try to explore this question, and in doing so, perhaps shed some light on this dark part of the human psyche. We also may find that the violent nature of videogames should not alarm us if experienced under the right circumstances.

No one questions the fact that as an art form, videogames seem to embrace violence more than music, literature, movies, or any other sector of the media arts. Violence in movies has sparked controversy, that has produced a rating system, but there are still a large percentage of movies that are produced that have no physical violence whatsoever. Hundreds of comedies, dramas, and romances are produced each year without having to consult a special effects artist about placing squibs on the actors. What about violent music? Indeed, there is also controversy in rap music concerning street violence being glorified, but the vast majority of popular music seems to be concerned with pleasant feelings such as love. When was the last time you played a love game?

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

(Screenshot from the official website)

A quick look at the Top 40 British software titles at reveals some interesting statistics. Thirty seven of the software titles listed are games. Twenty three of those titles contain some sort of violence. Fourteen of those titles include graphic violence throughout the duration of the game. Some of the titles in this category include Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, Onimusha: Demon Siege, Full Spectrum Warrior, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Red Dead Revolver, Hitman: Contracts, Soul Calibur II, and others.

In contrast, a look at the top 40 grossing films last weekend (July 16th thru 18th, 2004) only reveals 15 movies with any violence. Among those fifteen movies, two were documentaries, and many were comedies or children’s movies that contained some cartoon-like violence. A comedy about dodgeball, a Harry Potter movie, and Shrek 2 were included in the list containing violence. An inspection of the Top 40 Billboard charts will reveal even less violent content.

For a history of how quickly violence pervaded videogames after their invention, see the timeline at the end of this article.

In our quest to find out why videogames are so violent in comparison to other art forms, it would be logical to look at what sets videogames apart from other art forms. What is different about videogames?

The first major difference that comes to mind is perspective. Videogame perspective is usually limited to two categories: First Person and Third Person. It is interesting to note that the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre is defined by roaming around in a 3D world performing acts of violence, usually with a projectile weapon, hence the term shooter. However, these two categories are inadequate when discussing other forums of art such as literature. Literature has three perspectives. In addition, these perspectives are not defined in the same way as they are in videogames.

The first person perspective in literature has a story that is being told to the reader as if the events had occurred to the author. If someone is reading a novel in first person, it is not implied nor inferred that the action is happening to the reader. A novel may contain quotes such as, “I drove down to the dock,” or, “She was filled with pity for my situation.” However, the action did not happen to the reader. In contrast, the first person perspective in videogames usually means putting a weapon in the hands of the player, and letting her roam through the gaming world committing acts of violence. It is implied that the actions and experiences are happening to the player.

Third person perspective in literature has a story in which the author is relating events that happened to a party that is separate from the author and the reader. The reader experiences this story with a certain level of detachment since the action in not happening to him. In contrast, the third person perspective in videogames still puts control of the protagonist in the hands of the player. The layer of detachment that exists in literature is gone. Although the player may be controlling what is perceived to be another entity, the skill of the player and the actions taken will decide the outcome of the story. In many cases, the death of the character is at stake. It is interesting to note that since this layer of detachment is removed, the player often identifies herself as the character. When someone is playing Galaga, even though the alien invasion is not being fought off from a first person perspective, it is still customary to say, “I died,” when the game ends.

So what is the other perspective in literature? It is the second person perspective. While there are not many examples of this in literature (or other art forms for that matter) it can be argued that all videogames fall into this category. If a novel is written in second person perspective, the reader is meant to infer that the action is happening directly to her. Quotes such as, “You drive your car down to the docks,” and “You are struck in the chin by your assailant,” can be found in novels in this perspective. The novel Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is one example as well as the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series of books written for adolescents.

There have been attempts at using the second person perspective in other mediums that have met with varying success. There was a popular off Broadway play making the rounds a few years ago entitled Toni and Tina’s Wedding. Theater goers attending this play were encouraged to take part in the story as guests at an Italian wedding. Another known attempt at second person perspective was made in the popular TV show M*A*S*H. In an episode entitled Point of View, all of the scenes are shot from the perspective of a wounded soldier. The viewer is asked to experience the show in a new way as you are wounded, flown to the 4077th, and operated on by the cast members.

Where this level of participation is rare in other mediums, it is the standing rule in videogames. The player must control the action in some way in order for the story to progress. It is always implied that the player’s actions will somehow guide the experience. The very nature of the experience of a videogame is an active one, where all others art forms are passive. In fact the argument could be made that all videogames are played in some variant of the second person perspective. I know full well that the videogame critics of the world are not going to change the terminology with which they discuss perspective, (I doubt the editors at PC Gamer will read this article and immediately tell their writers to refer to Doom III as a Second Person Shooter) but in the interest of defining terms in this article, I will make the distinction.

So, what can we draw from the fact that the first art form to embrace the second person perspective immediately becomes defined by its violent content?

Perhaps people need a safe way in which to explore violence and tragedy. This is not a new concept. The philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) is credited with tackling this subject first when he introduced the term catharsis in his work, Poetics. It was his contention that people have a need to purge emotions such as pity and fear through aesthetic experience. This purging is looked on in a positive light as a way to safely explore these feelings without any real danger or tragedy taking place. Much has been written both in support and opposition to this viewpoint. However, opponents never seem to be able to answer the simple question, why would we want to watch tragedy? There must be some reason for this exercise.

Much later, Freud explored related ideas in his book, Civilization and Its Discontents. To paraphrase, men and women are animals with natural instincts relating to sex and violence, for better or for worse. Through intellectual and technological growth, a civilized society has formed where the members agree to give up certain freedoms and repress certain urges in the interest of peace and safety. However, this orderly society comes at a cost, as the repression of these urges causes tension. Some are able to cope with this better than others, but some level of tension will always exist.

Most forms of art play directly to this system, allowing people to safely explore their desires and urges without consequence. Why would we want to sit down and watch a romantic comedy about two people falling in love? Why would we want to watch a movie about the horrors of war? The reason is because it reminds us of our own desires and instincts. It gives us a release from the tension that has been built by the social contract.

The study of music theory reveals much about the need for humans to experience a cyclic tension and release. The very structure of chords and scales are built to move toward a pleasant ending. But first we must be taken through a progression that may include some dissonance or tension. Beethoven as well as other masters of the Romantic Era of classical music had a rich understanding of how this cycle could affect the listener. Tension was created through dissonance on purpose, only to meet in consonance at the end. Think of how obvious the ending of a symphony written in the Romantic Era is when it finally arrives. This completes the cycle. The listener is taken through the stages of tension and given a reward at the end.

In contrast, this cyclic tension and release is purposely abandoned by modern composers to great effect. Dissonant chords without a resolution are used by composers such as Serialists in order to sustain tension and make the listener feel uneasy. By structuring the scales in a mathematical fashion, resolution becomes all but impossible and its effects on the listener do not go unnoticed. Many of the modern composers employed similar techniques to make statements about postwar society much like an abstract painter would.

Literature also has its cycles. The plot must progress and crescendo, until a climax is reached. Then, many times, the reader is given a denouement in order to bring things full circle so that the reader has a sense of resolution. With this cyclical technique, the reader can experience love, death, fear, anguish, rage, or any range of human emotions and be brought down safely again.

Unreal Tournament 2004 (PC)

In applying the same theories to videogames, we see that players now have an arena where they can safely explore violence. Feelings of fear and rage were always possible, but technology has allowed the player to be immersed in the experience like nothing before. According to the timeline displayed later in this article, the public didn’t waste any time using this new technology to do just that. One can hear a piece of music and feel sadness, peace, love, or rage, but they cannot be violent. A full range of emotions can be explored in the theater and the cinema, but it is always done in first or third person perspective. A young man can watch Lethal Weapon or some Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and feel exhilarated, but in the end it was someone else’s story, not his experience or achievement. Vanquishing one’s enemies in a round of Unreal Tournament 2004 is akin to the happy ending of a war movie.

Who is the audience for this new art form? Who are the people playing these games? They are young males between the ages of 18 to 35. Who else would feel the need to explore such violent fantasies? This is the same audience for action movies. This is the same audience for heavy metal and rap music. It only makes sense that young males would gravitate toward such a medium.

This is the same demographic that is also attracted to sports. It has long been theorized that some sort of sport has existed in every human society as a way to allow young men to safely experience competition and battle. This is a structured environment where young people can learn to channel aggression and competitiveness in a positive direction. These feelings do exist, and young people will explore them. How our young people explore those feelings is determined by societal norms, and now, technology. If school sponsored sports have long been upheld as a positive way for our children to channel aggression, why wouldn’t we view videogames in the same light?

The answer to the question ‘why are videogames so violent?’ is that this was the one remaining experiences we could not have with other art forms. Since before Aristotle’s time, we have been missing out on one important avenue of catharsis. Elizabethan Revenge plays such as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy came close. Metaphysical poets such as John Donne came close. Shakespeare came close. (How many people died in the last scene of Hamlet?) As soon as the experience became available, we jumped into it head first. Videogames are violent. They always will be violent. In a way, it is their function to be violent. And we as a society need them to be violent. Sports have been available up to now, but there is no aesthetic there. We need to experience these emotions artistically. In addition, not all people are lucky or gifted enough to be able to excel in sports. However, anyone can now channel aggression and experience the spirit of competition in his or her own home.

Hunt the Wumpus (TI99/4A)

I believe as time goes on videogames will even become more violent. In the infancy of any art form, the waters are tested carefully. Public reaction to a new medium is usually mixed and boundaries must be prodded before they are brought down. I can remember the controversy concerning the red screen that was produced when Hunt the Wumpus players took a wrong turn and were eaten. However, as graphics become better, and the immersive experience of First Person Shooters becomes more real, the demand for more violence is amplified. Where running over stick figures in Exidy’s Death Race was considered shocking in 1975, advanced skeletal models that allow decapitation and the severing of limbs are popular marketing points today.

This is catharsis in its final incarnation. Videogames are what every child wishes sports could be. Now we have the aesthetic to add to it.

Several studies have been published in the last few years suggesting that the playing of violent videogames somehow correlates to real life aggression. It is not the point of this article to dispute this. Before anyone quotes me as saying we should let our children explore their violent tendencies, let me interject by saying our roles as parents need to be approached with common sense. My daughter is now three months old. There are many forms of artistic expression that will be harmful to her if she is allowed to experience them while she is too young. As she grows up there will be movies she will not be allowed to see, books she will not be allowed to read, TV shows she will not be allowed to watch…and videogames she will not be allowed to play.

Ratings systems for the arts are a fine idea, but sometimes I have to laugh when they are applied to videogames. When was the last time a videogame tried to hide its violent content from the consumer? The violent content of these games is a prime marketing tool, not something to be hidden. If a parent is willing to buy a game with illustrations of flaming demons and skulls on the cover, I doubt a warning label will save his or her eight-year-old son from an inappropriate experience. There is a time in everyone’s life when reading books like A Clockwork Orange, watching movies like Apocalypse Now, and seeing TV shows like South Park is appropriate and even educational. There is also a time in everyone’s life where a game like Postal or Soldier of Fortune may provide a much needed release from societal tension.

However, it is true that we cannot watch our kids 100% of the time. Mistakes will happen. Chances are that my child will have some sort of experience with mature art or pornography before she is old enough to fully understand it. However, if some twelve-year-old boy commits some horrible act of violence, unhinging years of parenting after just a few hours of playing Mortal Kombat, I question the skill of the parents rather than the content of the game.

Some parents complain that their children are able to buy these games without their knowledge. This also puzzles me. I’m not sure what goes on in the houses of people who make these complaints, but I very much doubt that a pre-teen under my supervision will be able to make it to the mall by herself, plop down the prohibitive $49.99 US for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and be corrupted by it’s supposed 150 hours of gameplay without my noticing.

Legislators are still attempting to alleviate the situation though. In recent years (mostly in the wake of the Columbine shootings where it is believed that playing videogames somehow led the assailants to commit those violent acts) many attempts have been made on both state and national levels to either declare videogames harmful or obscene. In so doing it is believed that their sale can be limited to minors. So far, not one law that made it to fruition has survived being challenged in court. Most recently the U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington overturned state bill 1009 that limited the sale of videogames that allowed players to participate in violence against police officers. A similar bill is making its way through Judiciary Committee on the national level. Joe Baca’s (D-California) brainchild has no less than 43 co-sponsors.

If a bill like this ever passes, will it really restrict minors from playing violent videogames? How many kids under the age of 17 regularly see rated-R movies? How many kids under the age of 18 smoke and view pornography? How many kids under the age of 21 drink alcohol? If these other laws are largely ignored by our children, I seriously doubt that yet another prohibitive law will somehow alleviate parents from the responsibilities of raising their children. Enforcement of these laws still starts at home. Although I am not morally opposed to a law that prohibits children from viewing violent and sexually explicit content, I am frustrated that our government is wasting valuable time and tax dollars trying to pass laws that will have no effect while further diluting responsibility from the party that is really in question here: the parents.

One of the big opponents to the censorship of videogames is the IGDA (International Game Developers Association). The following is a position statement taken from their website:

“The IGDA strongly believes that digital games are a medium of expression and an art form. Digital games deserve the same level of respect, and protection, as other forms of art and entertainment. Games are part of our cultural fabric and are enjoyed by a very diverse audience. The IGDA fully stands behind voluntary, industry driven, content ratings that allow consumers to make informed purchasing/playing decisions for themselves and their families.”

The IGDA puts their money where their mouth is. They are often the organization bankrolling the legal battles against legislation such as bill 1009 in Washington state. However, I have to wonder, if the IGDA advocates a rating system, and the current rating system works, why would they oppose its enforcement? In theory, applying enforcement to a system that already works would have no effect on who gets to play these works of art. Sadly, I doubt that the IGDA’s funding of these court battles has anything to do with free speech. While attempting to sound noble, it is far more likely that the IGDA is worried that sales might decline if the children of irresponsible parents were no longer able to purchase videogames that contained inappropriate content.

Videogame violence is here to stay. This is steeped in tradition since the conception of the medium. The active perspective of this new art form demands it. We play these games for the same reasons that drive us to watch movies that make us cry, and play sports that make us bleed. The visceral experience of videogames is as old as art itself. Although I am not opposed to a rating system for this medium, I question its effectiveness. The key to good parenting is education and participation. Is there a good time to introduce children to the danger and competitiveness of sports? Is there a time in someone’s developmental cycle when they should be introduced to the horrors of war and other adult subjects? The answer is obviously yes. All these things happen in our current educational system. There is a time and a place to allow young people to explore the tension and release of videogame violence as well. We just need to use some common sense and do it responsibly.

Part II of this article (coming in issue #5) will further delve into this topic. Some bold statements were made here concerning the need for people to explore violent tendencies. I will attempt to prove that this need exists, and that aggressive tension is just as pronounced as sexual tension, but goes largely ignored during cognitive development in this modern, safety-first society. I will also try and make some suggestions on how to approach this problem as a parent, and yes, videogames may be part of the solution.

In order to better show how fast videogames became violent after their invention, I have provided the following timeline:

1958: It would be very supportive to my argument to say that the first videogame ever produced contained violence. Alas, I cannot make that claim. According to historians, a version of table tennis was produced on an oscilloscope in 1958 by Willy Higinbotham.

1961: However, the second videogame ever produced had the word 'war' in the title: Space War. This game, originally designed in the computer lab at MIT, pitted two players in a death match in space.

1966: Ralph Baer, arguably the inventor of the home videogame, created his first playable game in this year. It was a chase game that was decidedly non-violent. However, one of the first peripherals he made for his system was a light gun that resembled a Winchester rifle.

1972: A programmer by the name of Will Crowther created the first widely distributed computer game called The Colossal Cave Adventure. This was a text adventure that had Dungeons & Dragons type elements that allowed you to type in such commands as ‘kill dwarf.’ There were also many ways for the player to get killed during the game.

1975: By this time a handful of arcade games were being produced, and a game by the name of Death Race was released. Death Race was released to coincide with the movie Death Race 2000 starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. In the movie, racers are supposed to run over pedestrians for points in an attempt to win a gruesome game. The arcade game Death Race had a similar theme, allowing you to run over stick figures for points. Although Exidy tried to soften the subject matter of the game by calling the stick figures ‘gremlins’ the game still caused quite a bit of controversy. Before release, the working title of the game was ‘Pedestrian’ which also gives some insight into the spirit of this game.

1977: Atari released their first home based video console called the Atari Video Computer System. For years it was shipped with one game inside the box: Combat. If the name is not obvious enough, it is a game that allows combatants to engage each other in various venues on the ground and in the air.

1980: This year saw the first 3D arcade game produced by Atari. Battlezone allowed players to control a tank in a vector drawn 3D world. It is interesting to note that upon seeing the game, the United States military commissioned a version of the game to use for training purposes.