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19 January 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:08pm

The reason video games feature stabbing, shooting and starting fires: it’s more fun than talking

The reason so many mainstream games are so violent isn't because of lack of imagination - it's just that, for now, it's the most effective way to create a compelling, competitive experience for the player.

By Phil Hartup

There will come a time when people will look upon the limited options of modern mainstream gaming and be baffled by the appeal of it – much in the same way as we look back on the games of a few decades ago and wonder why anybody would want to hammer their keyboard into bits just to make Daley Thompson run the 100m, or just what the hell was going on in Jet Set Willy. The children growing up on Minecraft or any of its myriad creativity-driven descendants are not going to be satisfied with games that offer a succession of corridors full of mindless bad guys to be shot in the head.

The idea that mainstream games should expand beyond merely being about shooting, stabbing or jumping on people has gained popular traction in recent times, and this is a good thing. Games should expand the array of options available to the player as technology improves and we should be encouraging heightened expectations over complacency.

A problem is going to come, however, when people realise that – for mainstream games at least – these broader horizons won’t necessarily lead to happier, friendlier games. Better worlds will usually mean more interesting people to murder, and more to do will translate into more ways in which murder them.

This limited scope stems from the fact that games still rely on an element of challenge in order to be successful and engaging. While this can take many forms – and beyond simple carnage we have seen both survival- and construction-based games growing rapidly in popularity – one of the simplest is direct competition. The easiest way to manifest this competition in a game, and the one that most embrace, is through some form of violent confrontation.

Maybe this has become the default by laziness, but I would argue that there is a case to be made that conflict and violent confrontation are simply more comfortable in a video game than many other activities. Violence fits easily into the competitive nature of games and also translates very neatly into the mechanical systems that make up their rules.

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It is not just that violence fits into video games so readily – there is also a sense that a lot of the alternatives to hostility don’t translate well into games well at all. For example, how do you make a game out of friendship or romance? Attempts by the bigger game developers like Bioware and Rockstar have so far been pretty horrible.

For instance,the Dragon Age series relies on strategically wooing the object of your affection with gifts and saying the right things in order to score points so you can later bed them. There is no chemistry at work, no instant mutual attraction, just presents and saying agreeable things. The Dragon Age games approach their romantic subplots with enough respect that things avoid being creepy, but they’re still not comfortable.

When it comes to platonic friendships, GTA IV gave Nico a cell phone full of people who wanted to be his best buddy, who would phone up and want to hang out. Hang out with your friends enough, they’d help you out if you called on them, shun them and they’d get sad. This mechanic got old so fast a Mayfly could have grown sick of it. In a world where you can steal a car and go chasing through the city, and there’s no consequences to that, why would you want to partake in a really bad facsimile of an activity that you could just do in the real world with other people?

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The questions these failed adventures in making games out of human interaction ask us are twofold. Firstly, can human social interaction be made into a game that offers the same amount of enjoyment as games about hurting people? And secondly, isn’t there something inherently creepy about turning human social interaction into a game? The idea of manipulating people in order to win at being friends, or be rewarded in a competitive sense feels quite sinister.

All this is not to say that games cannot have entertaining characters and deep emotional relationships in them. They can happen and they do happen. But when they have done so far they have been the product of good writing. An example of this is the friendship that usually (assuming he doesn’t die) develops between the Commander Shepard and Garrus in the Mass Effect games. There is no game to be played in this relationship, you can do a quest to ensure Garrus is “loyal”, but this isn’t a social interaction so much as a simple question of did you do his loyalty mission or not. The friendship grows over the three games in the series and is expressed purely in the writing and how the characters interact. There is no bar that runs from “Bro” to “Foe” that needs to be topped up. And it works extremely well.

At this stage in the history of video games there is no point saying that anything can’t or won’t be done. Not everything is possible now, but that is not to say it won’t be down the road. We’ve already seen with games like LA Noir that people are investigating the potential to make a game of human interaction with a competitive element. For now though the future of mainstream games looks like more games about stabbing, shooting and starting fires, albeit amid ever more interesting settings.