March 31, 2006

Authentic Interactive Characters To Solve Violence in Games Controversy

by Andrew Stern · , 11:59 pm

[Note: I timestamped this post 11:59pm March 31, so you'd know I wasn't joking.]

There was sometimes fascinating, sometimes frightening testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing last Wednesday on the effects of violence in games. One of the only voices suggesting that the social science data is perhaps not yet conclusive was UIUC prof Dmitri Williams, who blogs at GTxA compatriot site Terra Nova. (Interestingly Williams’ was the only testimony not available to the press as of yesterday; luckily Williams has posted his statement on his site, along with everyone else’s.)

Violence in games is not something we usually talk about on this blog; we’re more interested in the aspects of human behavior typically not represented or simulated to date in interactive entertainment (1 2 3 4 5 6 7, for example). When we do occasionally talk about violence, it might be about how it seems to seep its way into character-centric interactive entertainment experiences, how violence is such a one-note tune in contemporary game design or in media coverage of games, maybe how life can eerily imitate game violence, or meta-commentaries on violence in life vs. games, or the military’s involvement in gaming (1 2 3), or perhaps to expose the occasional violent debate between game scholars.

An axe I often grind is the need for what I’ve called “authentically interactive” characters and stories — how we need them for the medium to progress and mature, for creative, artistic and aesthetic reasons.

But couldn’t authentic characters also be the salvation for the violence in games crisis?

I’m sure it’s not a new idea. But if characters in games reacted more deeply and holistically to the violence they inflict and is inflicted upon them, they’d be doing more than attacking you back in more intelligent ways.

They’d be conflicted about the violence they’re partaking in, and perhaps changing their mind about being violent. Innocent victims would be begging for their lives — and if you spared them, it would mean something to them. As the player, you could perceive and receive that reward of compassion. They’d be crying for the loss of their friends and family, and you’d have the ability to converse with and understand their pain.

(Please don’t bash me on this; I’m serious.)

If virtual characters had such depth, could players so gleefully or unthoughtfully kill them? Could adding meaning and agency to the player’s actions be the solution to those who have fears that senseless virtual violence desensitizes or brainwashes players into committing real-world violence?

10 Responses to “Authentic Interactive Characters To Solve Violence in Games Controversy”


  1. michael Says:

    Warren Specter’s recent Escapist article also suggests that moving beyond simple, unreflective violence
    (the overplayed “blowing shit up” approach to game design) is necessary for solving the violence-in-games crisis. As Warren says:

    “We can continue as we are – making mindless, pathetic killfests or sports games that revel in blood spurts, bling and bad attitude. (And, no, I don’t believe the industry statistics about how few games are actually like that.) That leads, I think, to a coarsening of our culture and to government and judicial intervention. And that means eventual cultural irrelevance.

    Or, we can knuckle under to the pressure from external groups, clean up our games and offer players nothing but pablum. That’s what comics did following congressional investigations and in the face of pressure from folks like Frederic Wertham. We see what that got them: A medium that almost achieved some credibility among adults was reduced to trivial entertainment for kids for 40-odd years.

    Or, we can seek a third way, offering players a wider variety of game types…”

  2. Graham Says:

    This is a tale from Oblivion I originally posted on my own blog, but it’s about exactly this type of thing, so I’ll post it here.

    I arrive in one of the province’s towns and head towards the Mage’s Guild. As I’m about to enter the building, I hear someone nearby. “Psst!” they say. I turn and look around, spotting a man about 10 yards away, standing in the middle of the street. It’s just started to rain.

    I head on over to him – his name is Galfindir, or something similar, and in hushed, conspiratorial tones he tells a story of how everyone in town is plotting against him. He tells me to meet him behind the chapel at midnight. I agree, and he walks off. I continue about my business, and meet him at the agreed upon time.

    Basically, it turns out that he’s enormously paranoid. He’s convinced that everyone around him is spying on him, and he wants you to confirm or deny his fears. He gives you a list of names, and you go off to investigate – or not, based upon your whim.

    As I leave, I’m approached by the head of the guard in the town. He asks me why I’ve been talking to Galfindir, and requests that I inform him if I’m asked to do anything unusual. Apparently old Galf is known for being a crazy, and they’re just not sure if he’s dangerous or not. I play it cool and feign ignorance.

    Heading off, I look into these three people by following them around on their daily schedules and talking to them a bit. A bit of persuasion, a bit of bribery, and it becomes abundantly clear that none of them are spying on him at all. They’re all perfectly harmless people who just live nearby and think of Galfindir as a somewhat odd and suspicious man they walk by each day.

    But here’s the kicker: After investigating each person, you report back to Galfindir. You have a choice. You can either tell him the truth – “These people are innocent, and you’re just a bit mad.” Or, you can confirm his deepest fears. “Yes, they’re all out to get you.”

    Now, no judgements are made upon these choices by the game. This isn’t Black & White or Fable, and there is no choice that’s labelled “good” or choice that’s labelled “bad”. You won’t warp for doing the obviously amoral one, and either way he still pays you for your troubles. So it’s entirely up to your own morality and decision-making as to which you do.

    I lied to him, since it just seemed more fun.

    After having investigated all three people, and telling him they were all out to get him, he gives me my final task scribbled on a piece of paper. He wants me to kill all three, and in return he’ll give me 1000 septim (the in-game currency). This is a substantial sum of money, and after 15 hours of play I’ve only got around 1500 septim in my pocket. I agree to perform the task.

    Breaking into one of the houses (having earlier pickpocketed the key, luckily), I move upstairs to find my first victim sleeping in his bed. Hovering over him, sword drawn, I pause.

    During my tenure with this game, I have committed more heinous acts of evil than this. But each time I have done so, it has been met with a gnawing kind of regret. A “maybe I should have gone the other way” feeling. This is partially curiosity over the road not taken, and partially the feeling that what I’m destroying here isn’t a static entity.

    You see, each character in Oblivion performs day-to-day tasks. They get up, they eat, they go to work, they go to the pub, they come home, they sleep. The routine changes slightly each day, but it’s a fairly straight-forward approximation of suburban life. It’s also often broken.

    But that doesn’t matter. These aren’t characters that respawn, and these aren’t characters that exist in a vacuum. They don’t stand rooted to the spot at all hours, and they don’t just disappear at a certain time of the day designated as “night”. Each character in the game has a house in which they live.

    So as I stand over the bed of a would-be victim, I’m struck by the idea that should my sword fall upon this persons head, that they will have no tomorrow. That they will not wake up, or go to work, or do any of the things they normally do the next day. This is unnerving. Suddenly I’m denying someone something. I’m denying this person from a future; a future of mundane automaton-style labour, yes, but a future nonetheless.

    And so I decide not to kill him. In fact, I instead decide to take the note Galfindir gave me and give it to a guard. I’m not going to be responsible for the destruction of an innocent person’s life.

    The guard I give it to promptly reads it and runs off to confront Gilfindir. I follow him and end up at Gilf’s house. He comes out, and his killed by the guard.

    And it hits me. I AM responsible for the destruction of a life. Galfindir was paranoid, yes, but I drove him to attempt murder with my lies and in turn I got him killed.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m aware this is a game, and I still stole his gold and lockpicks after he was dead. But it doesn’t change the fact I felt bad about this. This is one of the reasons the game is awesome.

  3. Patrick Dugan Says:

    Andrew, are you SURE you’re not trying to “make games more homosexual”?

    God damn, that letter was a turning point in the history of the medium. And if that guy knew english, he’d probably think twice about framing his complaint as games becoming MORE homosexual.

    A recent Escapist article, an interview with the editor of gamepolitics.com, really made me aware or just how endangered out medium is if we don’t grow up and fast.

    So heres my solution, for about a year now, I’ve been meaning to build a storyworld using Chris’ engine. The storyworld will be called Pack Appeal and will take the metaplot structure of Beowulf, the setting of a 90′s era high-school in the Cheasapeak region of virginia (like Denmark but inverted) and the theme of school violence. The player will play a new kid, an atheltics all american teen boy, who gets invited by the cool kids to sit at their table. They try to cajole him into fighting an alienated, obese, self-stylizized goth kid they call the “Grendel.” The player can handle this in a variety of ways, but one way or another a feedback loop kicks up with the animosity variables, eventually catalyzing the Grendel to try and shoot up the dance. The player then has to deal with this.

    I hope that’ll shut Hillary up.

  4. mark Says:

    Is it really the lack of authentic characters that’s the problem? Perhaps if your goal is explicitly to force people to interact with round characters, and you limit yourself to creating games with few characters experienced up-close, people will feel uncomfortable killing them. If you model the world more as it is, though, I think you’ll find authentic characters still get shot. After all, there are plenty of authentic characters in the real world who get shot daily. Why would people be less willing to kill the digital ones than the real ones?

    More to the point, are you arguing that we shouldn’t have games like Medal of Honour? I can see an argument that we shouldn’t have only those games, but it’s quite another things to argue that those games should not exist. Unless some sort of authoritarian government bans “violent video games”, I think you’ll find that even in a utopian future where plenty of interactive narratives are available, there are still plenty of people looking for some good ol’ death-match gaming.

  5. nick Says:

    Andrew, are you SURE you’re not trying to “make games more homosexual”?

    Well, that letter is from 2003. That was back when there was that preliminary version of Facade that featured Gus and Trip, right?

  6. michael Says:

    Perhaps if your goal is explicitly to force people to interact with round characters, and you limit yourself to creating games with few characters experienced up-close, people will feel uncomfortable killing them. If you model the world more as it is, though, I think you’ll find authentic characters still get shot. After all, there are plenty of authentic characters in the real world who get shot daily. Why would people be less willing to kill the digital ones than the real ones?
    Um, very few people get shot in the real world (the percentage of people shot versus the total population of the world). And when people are killed in the real world, there are complex repercusions for the killer, families and friends of the killer and victim, etc. Games tend not to represent these repercusions (there are exceptions).

    And no, games don’t always have to represent those repercusions. I don’t think anyone is saying there should be no violence in games. Rather, all we’re saying is that the full range of human-experience should be represented in games. So yes, I hope the future of games includes good ol’ death-match gaming, as well as romance games, poetry games, nobel peace prize games (to take the themes of the last three GDC game design challenge panels), spiritual quest games, coming of age games, witty comedy games, erotic games, and so forth. High agency interactivity can yield extremely powerful audience effects; why limit this power to representations of shooting weapons?

  7. mark Says:

    Um, very few people get shot in the real world (the percentage of people shot versus the total population of the world). And when people are killed in the real world, there are complex repercusions for the killer, families and friends of the killer and victim, etc. Games tend not to represent these repercusions (there are exceptions).

    I was thinking more in the context of current games: War gaming, for example. In wars in real life, lots of people get shot (even percentagewise), and they rarely see the full repercussions on their opponents. So I’d expect even a fully realistic war game to have a lot of people getting killed, often without the percussions being fully represented.

    I do agree that gaming can encompass more aspects of human experience, but I don’t see how that will end the violent videogame controversy, since it isn’t going to get rid of violent videogames. There are currently some very popular nonviolent games (e.g. The Sims), but that doesn’t seem to have been enough to mollify the Congressfolk and other assorted anti-violence crusaders.

  8. andrew Says:

    We have violent war movies and ultraviolent horror / thriller movies, but they’re a small subset of what movies get made. Even within the violent movies made, some have a decent depth of character portrayal, of the killers and victims, which we see so little of in games to date, since game characters are such cardboard cutouts. Violent action movies tend to have at least clichéd interpersonal subplots (e.g., romances) mixed in, to soften and humanize the violence a tad.

    The point is, everybody knows cinema is capable of a far greater range of expression, so there is much less excoriating of the movie industry than what we’re seeing with games right now. Violence between characters in today’s hyperrealistic games, which are often the best games out there in terms of agency and therefore popularity, is increasingly falling into the ultraviolent camp.

    Even some mobile phone games!

    >are you SURE you’re not trying to “make games more homosexual”?
    Well, that letter is from 2003. That was back when there was that preliminary version of Facade that featured Gus and Trip, right?

    Nick, you meant Will and Grace, right?

    Actually, it doesn’t seem Grace over Gus made a difference to some, who may want a touch of violence available to them.

    Graham, thank you for that post about your experience with Oblivion; last week I ordered the game, since it’s gotten such rave reviews and looks worth playing. However, your dialog to the characters (and thus the majority of your moral choices available to you) are, I presume, in the form of short menus of phrases you are given to say. Within the game, you are not speaking in your own words, but choosing from a short list of choices that the game designers pre-wrote, correct? Some of us feel that is too limiting, that it stifles player expression. Do you feel that way at all? That said, within the limited range of moral choices available to you in the game, from your description it seems Oblivion offers a relatively nuanced and satisfying experience.

    Patrick, your idea for an interactive drama that touches on school violence sounds excellent, I’ll be the first to want to play when it’s ready! (I have Elephant high on my Netflix queue, btw. Gus van Sant lives a few miles from me here in Portland — haven’t met him though. I do hope to introduce him to Grace at some point. Especially since he’s a homosexual named Gus.)

    (Cool bit of trivia: My local PAGDIG meetings are organized by a guy named Corwin, who made the videogame parody footage for Elephant by programming an actual custom videogame, which I’ve been told allows players to shoot at Gerry. Can’t wait to see it. How many people get “video game designer” in a movie credits?)

  9. mark Says:

    The point is, everybody knows cinema is capable of a far greater range of expression, so there is much less excoriating of the movie industry than what we’re seeing with games right now.

    I’m not sure that’s true, though: Most of the same people who are attacking the game industry also have attacked (or are currently attacking) the film industry, and in most cases also the music industry. Surely nobody thinks music is incapable of nonviolent expression, but that doesn’t mollify people like Tipper Gore. And I’m not sure people even have that perception about games: Most parent-age people I know complain about violent games, not games in general. Almost everyone is already familiar with popular nonviolent games like Tetris and Pacman.

    Most of the proposals for games, furthermore, are those that have already been instituted for films, like rating systems that more strictly prohibit access to people below a certain age (rather than the current more soft videogame ratings that some retailers enforce and others don’t).

    So basically, I think it’d be great to have a wider range of expression in games, but I don’t think it’ll provide much political cover. The fact that Mozart and cerebral films exist hasn’t kept people from excoriating gangsta rap and Hollywood movies, and I don’t think the existence of nonviolent games will be any more successful in keeping the politicians off the back of violent games.

  10. andrew Says:

    Interestingly, Clint Hocking of Splinter Cell, whom you may remember as one of the Emily Dickinson game design challengers in 2004 and who has just started a new design journal blog called Click Nothing (alright, another major game designer who has started blogging!), pointed out an Escapist article I happened to miss, “Magic Words“, which explains a few examples set in contemporary violent games about how ancillary dialog can help add nuance and meaning to the violent actions you’re taking. I agree this is good stuff — the kind of content that is necessary (but not sufficient) added depth, required to mollify the violence in games controversy.

    More interestingly, Clint posted his GDC 2006 slides on Intentionality (big .zip), plus his lecture script, which is great stuff. When I get a chance, I very much want to write a top level post reacting to this formulation, how it relates to agency, that we talk so much about here.

    Further, Clint posted lots of older lectures he’s given. Very cool. So much to read, so little time…

    Thanks to gewgaw for linking to Clint’s new blog.

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