I was playing a particularly violent video game earlier this week, one that involved stamping an enemy into the dirt before setting fire to this hellish creature’s comrades then sending in a brutal dinosaur to eat the survivors. While Mario was scraping fresh Koopa guts from his boots and Yoshi picked his teeth clean I wondered why are games in general so violent? Even the seemingly peace loving Italian plumber was quite happy to maramalise plant and animal life left, right and centre simply for being in his way. So why are so many perfectly sane individuals so willing to kill and maim pixilated baddies in the name of fun?
Many people will claim that it’s an excellent way of letting off steam but surely catharsis can be found in ways that don’t involve death on a grand scale? It also doesn’t explain why people will play for hours at a stretch perfecting killing moves and combat strategies. What possible purpose could perfecting your headshot technique serve in the real world? Maybe these games are simply an outlet for aggression that was traditionally filled mainly by sports.
…sports simply appear to be training for hunter-gatherer skills…
Strip away the layers of civilisation and many sports simply appear to be training for hunter-gatherer skills used by our ancestors. Strength, accuracy, teamwork and use of an object specifically designed to beat an opponent are all inbuilt into the rules of most sports. Transpose these skills back about 20,000 years and you have all the abilities you need to go catch your dinner. Looked at like this even the apparently genteel game of badminton can seem brutal.
Now consider that the target market for the majority of computer games is young males, who buy titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops by the blood drenched bucket load (a staggering 5.6 million copies of Back Ops were sold on its first day of release alone).
…computer games remove unpleasant aspects of violence…
Like the sports that came before them computer games remove unpleasant aspects of violence and make it palatable for a mass audience, killing is reduced to a task to be accomplished in a world free of moral consequence.
In the game world you are encouraged to become the best character you can be and that usually equates to acquiring bigger and more destructive weapons or levelling up to become stronger and more dangerous than your opponents.
So does the idea that our ancestors trained to kill to survive mean that we are programmed to seek ways to learn these skills? If so then computer games are uniquely designed to cater to this need and reward a player for being good at it. If the global kill count for Call of Duty: Black Ops (as of February 2011 players had killed every person in the world nine times over) is anything to go by then if a new ice age comes we’ll be more than ready.
Images courtesy of Nintendo, EA Games and Call of Duty