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The Column icon The Column: Issue 47

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

Killer Gaming: The Instinct of Aggression
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

A good computer or console game is wholly absorbing. Whether you're a newbie or an old hand, playing a game can transform your place of being. The player learns the rules of engagement as they pit their wits against the unknown and progress through the gaming narrative. Good games require the right balance of challenge and reward. Some pander to our thirst for adventure and mystery, others to our ego, competitive spirit, or aggression. I ponder on when a game crosses the boundary from being a positive force to a negative one...

Gaming Violence

Violence comes in all shapes and sizes. For this column I will restrict my definition to how it applies to gaming:

Computer/console gaming violence occurs when the player's actions result in sounds or images that depict realistic pain or hurt in a representation of a living entity.

Cartoon Violence

I do not view the cartoons of Tom and Jerry as gratuitously violent. Their representation is unrealistic and their recovery from misfortune in expression and action, immediate. In other words, the depiction of violence is playful fantasy rather than one of realism.

The level of game violence is an issue that we have long contemplated in our home. We have a library of games designed for the original Game Boy through to the Nintendo Wii which my son received for his birthday in January - lucky boy :)

Wii Sports which is bundled with our newest console includes Wii Boxing. This is a "soft" boxing game with three modes. In the main game the player is rewarded when their punch strikes the face or body of their opponent. The opponent "reacts" to a well landed punch with representations of mild pain. Their facial expression changes and their body contorts in discomfort. Monkey Ball Banana Blitz, another Wii game, delivers a small step up in the pained expressions of the characters when struck.

I mention these two games as although they are at the very lowest level of gaming violence, there is no doubt the games cross a threshold. What is interesting is that the many other Monkey Ball games which have "physical challenges" resulting in an opponent being disadvantaged, do not appear personally violent.

The perceived gaming violence seems closely aligned to the level of realism in the negative effect a player's action has on their on-screen opponent. That is, the game-play might be identical, but there is no perceived violence if the opponent is not represented as being hurt.

An early example of a great series of games for the Play Station One which contained cartoon violence is Crash Bash. Indeed the game play continues to be outstanding to this day, despite the less sophisticated graphics as compared with modern console games. There are numerous instances when characters are "bashed", but none where they are shown to be realistically hurt. Crash Bash is like an interactive version of Tom and Jerry. I don't believe the experience is any less challenging or competitive because of the lack of gore. It is however less aggressive.

Don't Be Soft

Graphical and audio violence is de-sensitizing. One quickly becomes accustomed to violence through a coping mechanism which helps us survive by giving us the ability to adapt to extreme circumstance. In the game and movie space however, it is a force to favor ever more increasing and explicit peril.

There is no question that we all need to be desensitized to a degree. If we stay in the dark all our lives, the daylight will be too strong to ever venture out into. That said, if we stand in a floodlit room for long periods we damage our eyes so as to not see the subtlety of colour and tone. As with all things it is a matter of balance.

The less our parents and peers are sensitive to our needs as children, the less we feel empathy to others in adult life. If we are ignored, so we ignore, if we are loved, so we love. Think about your childhood and how the seeds of your temperament grew according to the climate of your personal environment.

Necessary Violence

Showing violence may be necessary in the context of a narrative. I do not for example view the depiction of violence in the movie Gladiator as gratuitous, despite its intense and explicit portrayal of Maximus Decimus Meridius. The movie is about physical, psychological, and political power and shows both its noble and brutal consequence. Playing a console game as gladiator is very different. The message and complexity of the movie is transformed into a simplistic struggle defined by violence and survival. It is the place the deranged Commodus is seen to inhabit as a bloodthirsty spectator watching the reinaction of a battle in the Flavian Amphitheatre now known as the Colosseum.

The Greater Challenge

Creating violent games is simple. Playing them is simple minded: your focus is to stand victorious, your enemies, inevitably slain. From childhood we struggle long and hard to construct a wall of bricks and know how short a time it takes to knock it down. You choose whether to spend time building, or practicing the ignoble pursuit of destruction. The greater challenge by far is to master the instinct of aggression.


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also the Creative Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company.

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