Can we talk about video game violence?

Kip Kniskern

Gears of War 2 Screenshot

This isn’t a post that purports to have answers, or a call to action, or the one true way. Rather, it’s an invitation to open a discussion.

Last week, one of the most horrific acts of non-wartime gun violence in US history unfolded in Orlando, Florida, where a single man unleashed an assault weapon inside a nightclub, killing some 50 people and injuring more than 50 more.

Just a couple of days later, Microsoft, Sony, and a number of game developers held press events around the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, and each one of those events were filled with action detailing brutal and bloody virtual killings, sometimes on a grand scale, all in the name of “fun.”

My colleague Brad Stephenson was moved nearly to tears by the brief acknowledgements by Phil Spencer of Xbox and Aisha Tyler of Ubisoft, deploring the violence that had just occurred in Florida, but the juxtaposition was clear. Microsoft went on to showcase the bloody Gears of War among other violent titles, and Ubisoft featured their own brand of violence with Watch Dogs 2.

Here’s what James Brightman at wrote:

First of all, let me say that I find it almost comical that almost every one of these conferences began with condolences to the victims of the Orlando massacre only to be swiftly followed by demos containing extreme shooting and violence. This is all happening at the same time that ESA head Mike Gallagher noted that publishers would be “sensitive to the national mood” following the tragedy. Frankly, I don’t see it. As Jonathan Blow summarily wrote on Twitter, “The lesson of E3: Game studios are working very hard to build fantasies about how cool it is to be a mass murderer.” That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the simple fact is that a bulk of what we saw was focused on extreme violence, whether from guns or good old fashioned face stabbings.

This isn’t a post that tries to argue that video games cause real-life violence (although there are possible connections: both the murderers at Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook New Jersey were avid violent video game players). There’s no evidence that Omar Mateen was driven by video games to perpetrate murder. But that’s not the point.

In fact, for most of us, video gaming, even the most violent variety, IS fun. We can separate our fantasy life from our real one (although we may look at that one hated teacher or the obnoxious co-worker and get a little twitch in our game controller trigger fingers), and we can have fun shooting zombies or aliens or even human “bad guys” and not have our fantasy and real lives collide.

But what is the effect of video game violence? Not on the mostly well-adjusted young people who play the game for fun, but for the outliers, the outcasts, the angry, violence-prone to begin with losers who seemingly can’t real life from what they see streaming onto their HDTVs, in all its full gory color? What are we doing to them, in order to have a little fun ourselves?

Is it worth it? For Microsoft and Xbox, for Ubisoft, for Sony, and for most of those presenting at E3, that answer is apparently an unqualified yes. Game producers are raking in big money, almost all of it based on the premise that the bloodier a game is, the more money it will make.

For most gamers and fans, that answer is apparently yes as well . Hitting that head shot, or spewing blood all over the street, is satisfying and fun, and as gamers, we’ll pay top dollar to do it again and again.

But what are we creating in the process? Or more correctly, as there has been actual real violence in this world for far longer than there have been video games, or television, or even books, what are we promoting or exploiting?

Is on-screen violence pushing some already-troubled problem child over the brink so that gaming companies can make another billion and if so is that okay? Is it okay that gaming companies make their billions by enabling us to take out our aggressions and talk about our “kills” in school or at work the next day?

This isn’t a post about regulating video games, or banning violent scenes, or taking up lost causes. Video games, and violent ones, are probably here to stay, and they certainly are as long as the money keeps flowing into game producers’ coffers and gamers are free to buy and play them.

No, this post just asks the question: can we at least talk about video game violence? Share your thoughts in the comments below.