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6 February 2020updated 30 Jul 2021 11:58am

Why game developers are giving up on guns

The world’s most popular and profitable entertainment medium has a long association with violence, but the people making games are increasingly turning away from combat.

By Samuel Horti

He may not be a household name, but Alex Hutchinson was behind some of the most popular entertainment products of the last decade. The two games of which he was the director – Assassin’s Creed III, the story of a Native American assassin in the 18th century, and Far Cry 4, an explosive shooter inspired by the Nepalese Civil War – have jointly sold more than 20 million copies. But last year, Hutchinson told me he’d “made enough games about murdering”.

Hutchinson is not alone. Developers from across the games industry have told me of their appetite to make games that are less violent. None have suggested that combat in games will, or should, disappear – “if I’m running a crime organisation, I expect to have a gun”, says Hutchinson – but there’s a growing sense that by eschewing violence, videogames can tell richer stories to their huge and growing audience.

Worldwide, the video gaming industry is worth roughly as much as the film and music industries combined; it is estimated that more than two billion people play. Developers, however, still talk about their medium as one that is finding its feet. Rami Ismail, co-founder of the independent Dutch games studio Vlambeer, says violence is partly a relic of early game development; pointing and shooting was the easiest mechanic to base a game around, and game-making tools grew up around this basic principle.

As graphics became more sophisticated in the 1990s and 2000s, violence in games became “culturally traditional”, says Ismail. The industry competed with more established media for attention, and the easiest way to get attention was to shock and disgust. The nadir of this trend for hyper-violence came in 2003 with the release of Manhunt, a game that rewarded players for the brutality of the murders they committed, and Postal 2, in which players could urinate on the dismembered bodies of their victims. Ismail says this adolescent phase was, like Grand Guignol theatre and the splatter movies of the 1970s, something the industry needed to “get out of our system”.

Now, he says, “creators are slowly coming to terms with the fact that… we frame how people look at the world”. “If you make a lot of games about shooting people in the Middle East, what does that teach [players] about people in the Middle East?”

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This responsibility means different things to different people. Phil Warner, art director at UK studio Mediatonic, which makes games for smartphones, says becoming a father made him reflect on the impact of his work. “I now want to make games that I can be proud of, and show them to my family, particularly my daughter,” he says, adding that he has “a desire to treat controversial subjects – including violence – in a defensible way.” If he were offered work on a game that involved gratuitous violence today, Warner says, “I would be more likely to walk away.”

Warner explains that earlier in his career, working on a game about combat was a source of mental strain. On the military simulation series Operation Flashpoint, Warner and his team had to research real-life battle wounds. “Some of the artists,” he recalls, “would spend their days with photos of… horrific injuries on their screens”. He left the game during development, to work on the Brian Lara Cricket series.

Hutchinson agrees that the nature of the game affects the mood of the team working on it. “If some poor modeller is sitting there modelling desecrated corpses for two years, that’s going to be in their head.”

It remains the case, however, that violence and gunplay sell games. The Call of Duty series produced three of the ten best-selling games of the 2010s. Last year Kurt Margenau, game director of the eagerly awaited The Last of Us Part II, questioned whether an action game (which almost always involve shooting) “without combat, could ever be considered a AAA blockbuster”.

But for small and medium-sized developers, this creates an opportunity. Ismail says that these developers are getting better at “finding more audience. We’re proving that there is an audience for a lot of these [non-violent] games, and in proving that, we’re facilitating the creation of more.” Last year saw a number of success stories, including the playful Outer Wilds, the mischievous Untitled Goose Game and Disco Elysium, which tells the story of a failed political revolution without using combat.

Jack Attridge, co-founder of British studio Flavourworks, agrees that independent developers are increasingly less tempted to “lean on the assured effectiveness of action games”, where they’ll be competing against companies with far larger budgets. Meghna Jayanth, writer for games including the Bafta-nominated 80 Days and the upcoming Sable, tells me that for smaller studios, removing guns and violence “opens up room for so much experimentation”.

Every now and then, a developer who is prepared to experiment in this way discovers a mechanic more compelling than pointing and shooting. Three of the five best-selling games of all time – Minecraft, Tetris and Wii Sports – contain no guns in their original versions.

Last week, Alex Hutchinson released his first new game since leaving Ubisoft in 2017. Journey to the Savage Planet is not free of violence – the player carries a laser pistol, and exploding fruit is used to deter the more aggressive aliens – but its focus is principally on exploration and a sense of humour. Hutchinson says this makes the game more relaxing and playful for him and his team, both as developers and players. “It’s just a better feeling to spend your day to day, dawn to dusk, in a bright, happy world.”

Samuel Horti is a journalist who specialises in writing about video games.

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