The Context of Violence in Video Games

Marcus Schulzke

Of the topics given most attention in the study of video games, violence ranks at or near the top. This is for good reason, as many scholars think that violent games are inherently dangerous and have a propensity to encourage immoral behavior. Empirical studies have reached mixed conclusions, with some showing the violent games may cause violence or at least lower inhibitions to it (Bartholow 2006; Carnagey 2007; Wonderly 2007) and others finding that games have little or no effect on players’ thoughts and actions (Ferguson 2007, 2007). However, what is frequently lacking in these studies, whatever conclusion they support, is contextual sensitivity to the games themselves. Many game studies are misguided because they fail to make a critical distinction between the kinds of in-game violence. This essay explores two forms of video game violence to illustrate the kind of difference that scholars must account for. It is not an exhaustive typology of games. Instead, it shows how violent actions in video games can take on a completely different character depending on presentation and narrative context. Studies of in-game violence should be sensitive to how the same kinds of actions can be imbued with much different content based on their presentation.

The first type of games considered are those showing heroic violence. These are games that represent killing in the context of heroic narratives that obscure the moral dimension of violence. These are among the most morally simplistic action games because they consistently present the player’s actions as justified and even praiseworthy. While players may be able to thoughtfully interpret in-game action, the games discourage a critical understanding of the actions the player is called on to perform. By far the most common setting for games showing heroic violence is World War II, as this is one of the least morally objectionable wars in modern history. For the Allies, it was fought for self-defence and to liberate conquered people. Given the popular fascination with the war, and its centrality to popular depictions of just war, it should come as no surprise that so many first-person shooters (FPS) put players in the position of an Allied soldier liberating Europe.

A second popular form of in-game violence is senseless violence. Among the most frequently attacked violent games are those made by Rockstar, such as the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. These are controversial because they give the player missions that involve killing police and innocent people. Each of these games allows the player to wander around a fictional city that closely resembles a real American city, attacking people at will. Many games show acts of senseless violence, but the GTA series is considered the exemplar in this essay because it is so often the focus of critics’ attention. What unifies games of this type is that player’s antisocial actions are clearly harmful, unjustified, and immoral. Games of this sort also tend to be heavily ironic or satirical; they rarely take themselves seriously. As this essay will show, the GTA series shows the player’s violent acts in the context of criminal activity and immerses them in irony and fantasy. The narratives encourage players to see the games as unrealistic and the protagonist’s actions as wrong. Even when killing advances the game’s plot, it tends to be overtly immoral. The player must kill for what are clearly the wrong reasons – to make money, to eliminate rivals, and to help allied gang members.

The controversy surrounding the GTA series and games like it is misdirected. As this essay will show, critics have misread violent games as encouraging players to emulate the violent acts. The senseless and gratuitous violence that is so often questioned is precisely what makes these games less problematic than critics suggest. We should be less suspicious of games that present violence as something harmful and anti-social than those that allow players to kill without encouraging any kind of reflection on what is being done. It is essential to reframe the debate over violent video games to be more sensitive to how different the same in-game actions can appear when set in different contexts.

Glorifying War

For years, critics have complained that they are tired of playing first-person shooters about World War II. It is widely seen as one of the most saturated genres. Since the first Medal of Honor was released in 1999, there has been an unending stream of these games, with entire franchises built around the WWII gaming. Despite being an overused genre, these games continue to do well and there is no sign that they will go out of style in the near future. The World War II shooter genre is dominated by a few franchises that make games covering nearly every major campaign of the war. The Medal of Honor series now includes the Medal of Honor, Underground, Allied Assault – Spearhead, Allied Assault – Breakthrough, Rising Sun, Frontline, Pacific Assault Infiltrator, European Assault, Heroes, Airborne, Vanguard, and Heroes 2.  Most of the Call of Duty series is set in WWII, and the list of its titles is even more impressive: Call of Duty, Call of Duty 2, United Offensive, Call of Duty 3, Finest Hour, Big Read One, Roads to Victory, World at War: Final Fronts, and World at War. The Brothers and Arms series has released fewer games than Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, and has a smaller market share, but its Road to Hill 30, Earned in Blood, Hell’s Highway, D-Day, Art of War, Double Time, and Hour of Heroes are among the noteworthy representatives of the genre. There are slight differences between these games: they focus on different campaigns and different characters, and each has a unique style of gameplay. However, there is an incredible amount of overlap in their content. Yet, this seems to have little effect on the genre’s popularity.

What can account for this genre’s remarkable success and its continued popularity despite the market’s saturation? There are practical reasons, which have to do with the war’s suitability for gaming, and psychological or ideological reasons, having to do with the comfort of playing games set in a just war. Practically, World War II has all the elements of a good first-person shooter. There are many factions, a wide variety of weapons, and campaigns taking place in Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and Asia. The war happened on such a vast scale that even with all the games produced, there are still battles that have not been incorporated into a game. Indeed, none of the major producers has made a game playable from an Axis soldier’s perspective, nor have many given much attention to the Pacific Theater. The war also allows designers to experiment with various fighting styles, as it involved every branch of the military. A single game can allow the player to fight as an infantryman, conduct scout raids behind enemy lines, drive a tank, and work as a gunner onboard a bomber. In short, an endless variety of weapons, settings, and armies makes this an easy setting for developers.

Yet, the practical strengths alone cannot explain why the Second World War is such a popular setting. Other wars have many of these same strengths and are rarely, if ever, the subject of games. Although the Korean War did not take place on a vast geographic scale, it did use many of the same weapons, was fought using similar tactics, and involved several different armies (Hastings 1988). Surprisingly, it has received no attention from major developers. By the same standard, the Vietnam War would be a good subject for first-person shooters, yet it too has attracted surprisingly little interest. There have even been many small military interventions by the United States and Britain since WWII that might also make excellent subjects because they were fought using small groups of elite soldiers and would be easy to represent in a video game. Apart from the Battle of Mogadishu and the first Gulf War, interventions before those launched as part of the War on Terror are rarely seen in games. The Second World War is certainly an easier subject to recreate and make into an enjoyable simulation, but not to the extent that its dominance is justified. There are other reasons that this conflict is a fixture of popular culture.

Most violent conflicts involve a great deal of moral ambiguity, even when they are started for the right reasons. World War II was no exception; there were numerous war crimes, bombings of civilian targets, prisoner abuse, and other atrocities (Knell 2003). Nevertheless, the conflict is retrospectively romanticised in popular representations. It is the subject of countless games, movies, and television programs because it is a war we can feel good about. The Allies were the good guys fighting to liberate the world from Axis domination. Games set in any war are often made tasteful by removing the moral ambiguity. Black Hawk Down, for example, was a marketable game because it simplified a complex battle. In it, the player fights the militia of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, just as US forces actually did, but the game leaves out the civilian population which was caught in the middle of the fighting. In the real Battle of Mogadishu, heavy civilian casualties were inflicted by both sides, and innocent people were often used as human shields (Bowden 1999).

Other games about modern warfare also take place in a simplified setting. As Höglund points out in his discussion of games representing conflicts in Arab countries, “to avoid the moral issues tied to urban warfare, the Middle Eastern city must be transformed from a teeming habitat into a childless and (often) womanless territory occupied primarily by terrorist guerrillas” (Höglund 2008). Commentaries frequently draw attention to how dishonest some of these games can be (Harmon 2003; Payne 2009; Stahl 2006), but almost all the critical attention is directed at games about the War on Terror. These tend to be very controversial, while those set in the Second World War hardly attract any attention. The key difference is that whereas the questionable justifications for the War on Terror lead to intense scrutiny of all actions taken as part of that war, WWII’s status as a just war and its romanticisation allows games set in it to show heroic and morally unambiguous violence without provoking any criticism.

The message of World War II games is that violence is heroic. There is hardly ever any moral dimension to the fighting. In fact, the games simplify the conflict to such an extent that they seem as much like propaganda as any games focusing on contemporary conflicts. The player always fights for the Allies as an American, British, or Russian soldier. German and Japanese soldiers are always the demonic enemy that are physically indistinct and use the same five lines of dialogue throughout entire games. German and Japanese soldiers never seem to resemble real people. They are fanatics – caricatures just as distorted as any that would appear on wartime propaganda posters. In these games, the enemies are always tough killing machines that seem to represent pure evil. One of the greatest offenders in this regard is Medal of Honor: Airborne, which even abandons the typical German uniforms and weapons in order to create a more menacing enemy. The games reinforce the sense of using justified violence through various techniques ranging from patriotic musical scores to cut scenes depicting enemy atrocities. The presentation of the enemy as simplistic and totally evil, the games’ narratives, their avoidance of any moral ambiguity, and their patriotic overtones all come together to give the appearance that violence is only used against those who deserve it and that its use comes with no consequences.

World War II first-person shooters reduce war to an uncomplicated exercise of killing the enemy and celebrating victory. Dead comrades are not mourned, civilians are not in the line of fire, there are no victims of friendly fire, and there is little interference with the impression that the people being killed deserve their fate. There is no essential link between this genre and heroic violence. However, when compared to the volume of commentary on other violent games, it seems to be one of the strongest examples of a genre encouraging players and scholars to take an uncritical stance toward in-game violence. This is in sharp contrast to those games that constantly draw attention to the morality or immorality of in-game actions.

Evidence that games cause violence or that they have a major effect in eroding players’ sympathy for other people is weak. Yet, if any games have this effect it seems that games with narratives that condone the player’s actions and do nothing to recast killing in a negative light, or even complicate it with some sense of moral ambiguity, would be more likely to have harmful effects. One of the persistent themes in gaming critiques is the argument that the mechanism of continually rewarding the player increases desire to play and normalises in-game behavior (Marin-Soelch 2001; Adams 2009). If this is the case, then heroic in-game violence seems particularly well suited to have a harmful effect on players because of the persistent stream of encouragement and lack of any negative repercussions. This is much different to games in the frequently criticized Grand Theft Auto series, which reward the players’ actions with a wanted level and police sirens.

Senseless and Ironic Violence

No video game series has received as much criticism, from so many perspectives, as Grand Theft Auto (Barrett 2006; Leonard 2006; Wadhams 2004). It has been charged with racism, sexism, and of course, corrupting players with extreme violence. The harsh reception has done little to diminish the game’s popularity (Kutner 2008: 93). If anything, it has made the games even more popular, as the criticism transforms play into a form of rebellion against censorship. By the end of 2008 the series sold over 66 million games (Martin 2008), making it one of the most popular series in video game history. Nevertheless, attacks on the games are unceasing and even include litigation (Kushner 2006). 

In GTA 3, the player takes control of a criminal who escapes from a police transport on the way to prison. The sentence was for robbery, and this turns out to be only the first in a long line of crimes the player commits. The player’s first quest is to steal a car and drive it to Liberty City with 8-Ball, another escaping convict. The opening mission, like those that follow, does not give the player a choice between good and evil actions. They player must steal, evade the police, and fight other criminals. The choice of whether to commit these acts in the digital world is made when the player buys the game. Unlike many other open world games, GTA 3 does not allow the player to solve quests in violent and nonviolent ways. Despite the apparent freedom of a huge city to explore, there is little control over the missions themselves. Like the WWII simulations, only destruction can take the player from the start of the game to its conclusion.

The GTA 3 protagonist is far from being a good person. While he is affected by forces outside his control, like the gangs and corrupt police, his criminal past and capacity for violence make him clearly immoral. He is eager to steal and kill to climb the criminal hierarchy; only through doing these things can the player advance the story. The same is also true for the main character in each of the series’ later games. The GTA protagonists even lack loyalty to other criminals and will readily work for anyone that pays well. Thus, the main character is not a person that players are encouraged to emulate; his actions are not portrayed heroically or as acts of self-sacrifice. He fights in a context much different from the heroes of the WWII first-person shooters.

In GTA 3, the player commits crimes for the various gangs of Liberty City. Most of these are violent, involving beatings, shootings, and bombings. The player also has the chance to steal countless cars, bribe the police, and lead them on car chases. Perhaps the most popular part of the game is just driving around the city, destroying things. Players can enjoy themselves by killing civilians in creative ways, beating prostitutes, and stealing expensive cars. Among the most controversial activities in GTA is the use of prostitutes. An injured player can hire one and have simulated sex in the back of a car. The sex is not visible, but the car bounces to indicate that it is taking place. Afterwards, many players kill the prostitute to reclaim their money, thereby making the activity a drawn out procedure to recoup health without losing money. Players perform almost every sociopathic activity one can imagine, some of which were probably unrealised by the developers themselves. The same actions are open to players in each of the later games and new ones are added. In GTA 4 there is even a drunk driving scene, which provoked a harsh response from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (Watts 2008).

The missions connected to the main story are also extremely violent as one can see from “Three Leaf Clover” in GTA 4. In that mission, the player has the task of robbing a bank to help three Irish criminals. It starts with stealing a car, then driving the group to a bank in Chinatown. The robbery takes a violent turn, as nearly all the game’s missions do, when a civilian shoots one of the robbers and is himself killed. With one of their men dead and the bank surrounded by the police, the player and the two remaining allied characters have to fight their way out of the building and through a maze of streets while police approach from all sides. To survive the player has to shoot countless police officers as the gang runs through the streets of Chinatown with the money. This mission is one of the most violent in the game and it pits the player against police officers, making it appear highly objectionable.  This is only one of many extremely violent moments from the series. However, critics tend to miss two things when looking at this and other violent missions in the game: that they are clearly unrealistic, despite the convincing graphics and they are set in an ironic narrative. These contribute to the sense that the in-game violence is without purpose and not to be emulated.

One of clearest signs that GTA is not meant to be as serious as the games depicting heroic violence is that missions like “Three Leaf Clover” do not recreate actual events, nor do they reproduce something that a reasonable person would consider possible. Alexander Galloway makes a helpful distinction about the kinds of realism found in video games. There is realism in a game’s appearance and realism in its narrative (Galloway 2004). The former is a function of advanced graphics and sound. This kind of realism makes the game immersive and gives it the appearance of being real even when the game is set in a fantasy world. GTA 3 stand out because it is one of the first graphically realistic games to allow players to kill innocent people. It serves a standard against which other potentially objectionable games are judged, and it was also the game which raised widespread critical attention to gaming. Games were violent long before GTA 3, but the game was released at a unique time, when graphical realism called attention to the violent plots more than in the past. As Reynolds puts it, “GTA3 represents what is supposedly the best and worst in current computer games and sits at the centre of the debate over the morality of games and game play” (Reynolds 2002). One outraged critic called it “a hands-on baptism in amoral and sociopathic violence" (Small 2002: C6). GTA is extremely realistic in appearance, but it is clearly unrealistic in the narrative sense. Players can kill pedestrians without repercussion, win a battle with hundreds of police officers, and avoid being arrested by having the getaway car repainted. In other words, we should remember that there is a vast difference between realism in appearance and narrative and not confuse the former with the latter.

Even more troubling than the conflation of different kinds of realism, is that critics rarely account for the games’ satirical tone. As Kiri Miller correctly points, out the GTA games do not take themselves seriously; they are full of irony (Miller 2008). There are countless jokes about modern culture in the advertisements, the things characters say, and the parodies of real world figures. Miller thinks that this irony encourages players to experience the game from a detached perspective. “The GTA series explicitly encourages the adoption of a tourist's perspective” and in doing this it transforms the player into an ethnographer encountering a foreign world (Miller 2008).  This distance is especially pronounced in GTA 4, as the main character, Niko Bellic, is a newcomer to Liberty City. He must discover the city along with the player; each is transported into an unfamiliar setting. For the player, Liberty City is a fascinating recreation of New York City that can entertain those who have visited it by seeing familiar sights and give those unable to visit it a sense of what it looks like. It feels like New York City, but it is a distorted caricature of it. The similarity is enough to make the reference clear, but Liberty City is still distinctly foreign because of the developer’s intentional defamaliarisation. As art director Aaron Gorbut put it, “We’re not at all aspiring to virtual reality — what we are aspiring to is what feels like you're living in your own world, halfway between 3-D cartoon and action movies.”(Hill 2008)

Taylor argues that the games’ satire is even more novel than the gameplay itself. “While the expansive world and emergent gaming – particularly as coupled with a mature theme – had not previously been seen to such a degree in a mainstream game, the satirical social commentary was even more novel” (Taylor 2006: 120). Unlike games that are depoliticised and try not to offend anyone, GTA freely criticises and makes fun of modern society. It has the “capacity to parody, pastiche and subvert vast swathes of mainstream media culture” (Redmond 2006: 104). There are many musical parodies on the radio and references to the blatant commercialism on radio and television. Much of this is directed at the US government, the military, and the police, leading Redmond to claim that “The key to Rockstar’s success was its willingness to shine a spotlight on the dank underbelly of the U.S. Empire” (Redmond 2006: 104). Some of the game’s missions take the jokes to extremes. For example, in the mission “The Fuzz Ball” the player has to drive around the city to pick up prostitutes for a police ball. It is a blatant attack on corruption and sexual misconduct among government officials.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas received particularly harsh treatment because it combines the violence of the previous games with racial overtones (Leonard 2003; Barrett 2006; Jones 2007). The main character in this game is black and lives in a stereotypical black environment – a poor neighborhood in a city resembling Los Angeles. The possibly racist character of the games seems to aggravate the violence in the GTA series by adding a dimension of hate to destructive acts. Barrett sees San Andreas as giving middle-class white kids a chance to pretend they are inner city black gang members. The main problem he finds with this is “that the game represents ‘blackness’ as inextricably reduced to the body” (Barrett 2006: 96). This happens because the main character, CJ, engages in little conversation with other characters. He is far more physically than intellectually oriented with his tasks including lifting weights at the gym and boxing rather than anything that would make him smarter. This is, Barrett argues, because black men are identified by their bodies rather than their minds. The game thus reinforces this image with its series of menial tasks to strengthen the main character.  Along similar lines Leonard argues that it depicts black and Latino men as violent criminals (Leonard 2006: 83). This is true – each are among the game’s criminals – but so too are many other groups. The games feature criminals of nearly every imaginable background. There are black criminals, Eastern Europeans, Irish terrorists, and Italians from the mafia. Of course, this does not mean that the games are not guilty of racism, only that they do not single out a particular group. Each of these groups could claim to being unjustly represented by the game.

These charges that the game merges racist and violent narratives miss the point that the game is not supposed to be taken seriously. Showing Italians as part of the Mafia, the Irish as terrorists, and blacks and Latinos in gangs is a deliberate use of stereotypes.  The stereotypes are not included in the games to encourage players to believe in them. They are, like everything else, part of a distorted and ironic world. Annandale expresses this perfectly:

GTA: SA transforms huge swathes of American culture and society into ridiculous caricatures. From radio ads that are recognizable in form and style but subversive in content, to a vision of corruption that extends to all reaches of society, creating a world of inverted moral and ethical values, the game is a digital incarnation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque. (Annandale 2006: 89)

Many of the charges made against GTA are correct. The games are extremely violent and the violence serves no deeper function than to gratify the player. However, there is something positive in all of the killing and destruction: it is not glorified. This may seem a strange strength to find in a violent game, but the same things that make the game appear so objectionable help to redeem the game. The civilian who is beaten to death with a bat is portrayed as a helpless victim of violence and not an evil enemy as the Germans and Japanese are in the WWII games. The people the player kills are not portrayed as monsters and the player’s own actions are not held in high esteem. In the WWII first person shooters the death of a large group of enemies is greeted by patriotic music and congratulatory messages of a job well done, but in GTA acts of violence are brutal, senseless, and without celebration.


There is some difficulty in establishing the players’ perspective on these types of in-game violence, as players can arrive at many different interpretations of the same game. Scholars studying fan culture often accept the view that texts are polysemic (Fiske 1989, 1991).  Sandvoss goes even further to claim that they are neutrosemic, “polysemic to the degree that the endless multiplicity of meaning has collapsed into complete absence of intersubjective meaning” (Sandvoss 2007: 30). While it is doubtless true that games do not produce a single reading, especially when they are set in open worlds and allow players a great deal of control over the story’s progress, all interpretations are of the same object. Players of the World War II FPS or the GTA series will encounter many of the same characters and missions. There is a relatively consistent text that will inform players’ interpretation.  “Interpretation is always interpretation of something, and that something functions as the object in a subject-object relation, even though it can be regarded as the product of prior interpretations” (Culler: 74). The video game player, like the reader of any text, must supply some meanings to make the text comprehensible, but the text shapes the range of plausible interpretations (Iser 1980).

Players may be influenced by what they see in games, but they are not blank slates. They are capable of discerning that GTA is an ironic, unrealistic game based around an immoral character (Kutner 2008; DeVane 2008). They have their own experiences and preconceptions that shape the way they perceive the game and it is naïve to think that they will simply give their values based on a few hours in a virtual world. Studies indicate that gamers are far less passive than critics suppose. We should give the players some credit and believe that they can understand that Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas are, despite their impressive appearance, only parodies of the real world. The lack of narrative realism and ironic presentation contribute to the games’ presentation of violence by making it part of a distinct other world in which moral rules are suspended. Players may be equally capable of understanding their own actions in the games depicting heroic violence. The central difference is that games of the latter type do not actively encourage a critical attitude. They discourage reflection, and this could lead them to have a much different influence on players.

Whether or not violent video games encourage violent behavior remains an open question. Claims that they do generally lack strong evidence, but there is no definitive support for either side. This debate is a worthwhile one and is increasingly important as violent video games become more popular, yet it is often framed incorrectly. Analysts ask about the effects of game violence without considering the different kinds of violence found in games and the differences in context and presentation. As this essay shows, there are significant differences in the way video games present violence, overlooked in many of the broad studies. Attention must be paid to the meaning underlying the destructive acts in games as each has its own narrative context that frames the player’s action. It may be that all of these kinds of violence are harmful to players or that none of them are, but unless studies show some sensitivity to the contextual differences it is difficult to see whether findings are intrinsic to games in general or confined to particular genres.


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