Thanks to everyone who joined us for our inaugural 2012/2013 session!  We took on an ambitious topic, “VIOLENCE,” to kick-off our third year of gaming KEYWORDS. Our discussion included considerations of different forms and representations of violence as experienced in digital games.  Given that video games are “often more than just showcases of the latest graphics and design ideas; for many triple-A developers, they’re also opportunities to flaunt the latest advancements in virtual violence” (Caoili), we questioned the fixation on video game violence as only about combat, weapons, war, and physical violence, or, the “new ways to show how the human body crumples from a close-range shotgun blast” (Caoili).  What are the consequences of this narrow view of violence?  What might be gained from thinking more broadly and critically about the overt and covert violences represented, enacted, and engaged by video games and video game play?

Looking at the status quo anti-video game position, we discussed the (at times unfounded) ties between virtual violence and real-world violence, considering not only the ongoing debate of the causal connection between violent video games and enacted violence but the violence (and threat of violence) as part of a protective stance of gamer culture.  In other words, given the recent spate of gamer-on-women gamer violence gaining media coverage (stories like Slate’s “What’s It Like for a Girl Gamer?” and Bitmob’s “Misogyny and Apologists”), how might we unpack the way game play, game communities, and game cultures create, condone, or are complicit with certain kinds of gendered, racialized, homophobic, even nationalist violence?  We expanded our views of what might be considered violence as a multi-colored cube trying to navigate through a hostile 8-bit environment in Lim to the social and political implications of re-skinning a first-person shooter platform for blatant propaganda in Ethnic Cleansing.   Is the allegorical representation of violence in Lim any less violent or powerful than the first-person perspective of all FPS’?   Or, does the context of Ethnic Cleansing make it more violent than other FPS’?

Individual contexts and experiences were also considered as reference points for how games can be interpreted.  Interpreting video games as interactive texts and cultural artifacts may be a springboard for broader discussions on difficult topics like school violence and bullying.  However, this is dependent on how we position ourselves to interpret our in-game interactions with out-of-game experiences.  In this sense the meaning of the violence depicted, whether it be cartoon or high fidelity, is determined in part by the way the player chooses to interpret and experience it.  Ben DeVane and Kurt D. Squire muse, “[A]s players learn to experience games, they understand their ‘design grammar’ and come to develop meta-cognitive understandings of how violence is represented” (7).  On the other hand, players and game play are also framed and constrained, more often invisibly and “naturally,” by a certain banality of violence, a privileged space where violence is never “close to home,” embodied, or consequential.  For blogger Robert Yang, this is precisely the problem with games about war; he says, “The danger is not someone going out to shoot a school or impulsively join the army; the danger is that these games are affecting how we think of war in a decidedly misguided way, and that pattern of thought affects popular support of real-life wars that actually kill people.”

Ultimately, our discussions, albeit fruitful and interesting, left us with more questions than not.  On the table, though, was the desire to leave behind the pro/con binary of video games as good or bad, moral or amoral, fun or violent for a more nuanced exploration of challenging questions: Is violence only limited to the diegesis of the video game?  What violences are privileged and what violences are silenced or erased?  And, even more difficult and troubling, when is violence in a video game relevant, necessary, even—dare we invoke another troubling term—“artistic?”  The debate and near dismissal of games like SuperColumbineMassacre RPG point to the failure of the mainstream to abandon the binaries above as well as the failure to recognize that by refusing to talk about violence in a substantive, critical, and self-reflexive way, we give into the banality, the misguidedness, the blindness.

Getting ready for the start of the Keywords GIG session on “Violence” and video games. October 11, 2012. Simpson Center.

Thanks for your attention, support, and participation.  We hope all those who attended enjoyed our discussion.  Please continue to read, play and comment on our keywords this year, we look forward to having you join our follow-up and future discussions!

Theresa Horstman
I received my Ph.D. in Learning Sciences in 2013 from the College of Education at the University of Washington. My research focuses on games for learning, specifically how the design of educational games supports learning. The research projects I’ve been involved with include online induction support for teachers, math and science games, and achievement/badge systems. I have 15+ years experience as an instructional designer specializing in integrating new technologies and games for learning. I received my B.A. with a focus in philosophy from The Evergreen State College and my M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Washington.

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