Creativity in video games is vital, and your choices send a powerful message.
There’s an old, tired debate, about the potential impact of violent video games on the people playing them.
Various groups and organizations have studied the evidence over the past few decades. The American Psychological Association alone lists 163 results on its website when searching for “violent video games” as a topic. There are news media reports, and historical court cases surrounding these concerns. There’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to the subject at large.
Whether or not playing violent first person shooters is going to bring out homicidal tendencies, or even just momentary anger spikes, in any individual is subjective at best. There is no single answer that fits everyone.
But this article isn’t about all that. Instead, we’re going to look at how violence in video games has become a crutch, and why continuing to blindly perpetuate it is having consequences on the video game industry and players alike.
I’ll Buy That Experience
In her book Thirty: A Collection of Personal Quotes, Advice, and Lessons author Emily Maroutian writes:
“Energy is the currency of the universe. When you “pay” attention to something, you buy that experience.”
The same could be said in a more literal sense about buying a game from retailers or game companies. We’re paying money (and/or time) to invest ourselves into each gaming experience.
Every time we do this, we’re also sending out a message, loud and clear, to companies that create and sell games. The message is that the game you purchased has the type of content you are paying attention to. It’s the kind of experience you are willing to invest in, both financially, and energetically. Companies are very interested in having that information.
Looking even deeper into that idea leads to further realizations. Not only do we choose the type of experience we want through buying, but we are also sending a message that says we support everything that went into creating that experience. That includes supporting the company of individuals that produced the content, and there are numerous examples of toxicity in the workplace for video game development and publishing studios alike.
Whether we think about it or not, we are supporting that culture when we decide to buy and engage with their games. Are we okay with continuing to support sexist, racist, degrading, and harmful experiences and ecosystems? Look into your favorite game companies and find out what you can about how they operate on a day-to-day basis. Try to see what they value, and how they treat the people working there. Think about the bigger picture in these terms for a little while, especially if you haven’t considered this connection before.
How Do Video Games Make You Feel?
Don’t worry, we’re still avoiding talking about the great debate, but let’s get back to Emily Maroutian’s quote from earlier.
If you play video games, try asking yourself this question. How do games make you feel while you’re playing them? Have you ever stopped mid game and really noticed?
Next time you’re playing a game that simulates realistic gore or violence, is aggressively competitive, or presents scenes of horror and fear, pause for a moment. Pay attention to your breathing, your heartbeat, and your body in general. What do you find? What thoughts are going through your mind while you play?
Is there a tightness in your chest or shoulders? Is your breathing short and labored? Were you squinting without knowing it? Do you feel tension behind your eyes, at the bridge of your nose, or around your temples? Are your hands or arms shaking? How does your body feel overall? Are you relaxed and comfortable? Or does your body feel heavy, tense and rigid?
Just pay some attention, and take note of what you observe in yourself. Then contrast that experience with a completely different type of game. You may play something you might call “relaxing” or “for kids” or even “boring” depending on your perspective. Try something slow paced and without a focus on violence if you can. Maybe try a popular farming simulator game that requires your focus and attention for prolonged menial tasks, or a puzzle game with no time limits that allows you to comfortably exercise your mind, or even something in the open-world sandbox genre where you can take your time and create to your heart’s content, without any pressure.
Then feel the difference in yourself. Your body, mind and emotions will most likely all be telling a very different tale than they did with the horror game or the violent shooter. It may sound obvious putting all this into words, but if you really pay attention to this phenomenon happening inside of you, you will better appreciate the ways these different experiences influence you personally.
If you had to pick between them, which feelings would you choose to operate with outside of the context of video games? What experiences feel better to you on the inside? The answers may vary between persons and circumstances. As you continue to pay better attention to what you are feeling inside of yourself while you experience the games you choose to play, you can begin to refine your own choices. You’ll start to really understand the underlying effects of the experiences you are buying into, and where you wish to direct your energies and attention going forward.
Creativity And Innovation - Daring To Be Different
Many people tend to want to repeat peak moments that they have enjoyed in their past experiences. One problem with that idea though, is that no two experiences in life are ever exactly the same, even if they seem very similar to the mind.
In general though, this tends to apply to gaming in a way that is more habitual than anything else. Many game companies that are afraid of taking financial risks rely on this tendency in people. It’s why we tend to see a lot of sequels to established franchises, or the same themes coming up repeatedly. Sure, they’ll be dressed up in slightly different costumes between installments, or across different intellectual properties. More often than not though, disguised underneath that fancy new dress is the same tired skeleton.
When was the last time you saw a fantasy-themed game that didn’t have orcs or goblins or elves, or that wasn’t about triumphing over “evil” through conflict? What about a first person perspective game that had no horror, violence, or shooting elements to it? There are exceptions to these established norms out there, but they tend to be a short list.
Playing it safe is much easier of course. Stick to what works, some might say. This is what people want, we have statistics to prove the money goes to these kinds of games, so keep on making them. Design to your audience and keep within the expectations of your chosen genre.
These ideas are all fine and good to a point of course, and they do have merit within certain contexts. But the greater issue here is that people don’t even really know what they want most of the time. Most of us are devoid of real meaningful choice when it comes to video games, particularly the big budget ones from bigger studios, because the majority of what we’re repeatedly presented with is violent game #1, and violent game of a different flavor #428.
This is because for-profit companies, especially in the case of big budget game studios, tend to prioritize the trends in money. They’ve spent copious amounts of their own funds on making sure the advertisements for their new game have convinced you that your life would improve by experiencing their next violent shooter, and that without it, your life experience will be somehow less fulfilling.
With all that invested interest they have, game companies become like a train going full-speed down the tracks. It’s a wondrous machine made up of many moving parts, but it only knows to follow the one path set before it that focuses on financial gain more than anything else. After all, they have concluded that it is the only way to win at this game called “the business.” And really, who are you to argue with ads anyway?
There are countless individuals working to create the game experiences we all enjoy, and many of them are being taken advantage of or exploited in these efforts. They’re left by the wayside without having a voice or any real influence on the direction things proceed in. Imagine how much more they could accomplish with fewer limitations being placed on their creativity. There are fantastical ideas out there that are being squandered and squelched probably even as you read this, just because they don’t fit into the current limited boundaries defining the illusion of “success” within the video game industry as it stands today.
It’s a cycle that, ironically, the game companies do not really control like they may believe. In truth it’s the game players and buyers who actually have the influence to change things. Again it goes back to the idea that what you are focusing on is what you are choosing to support and to empower. But as things stand, this is where the dangers to creative expression come into play most strongly, because of our often-unobserved tendency to favor repetition of past peak experiences.
Fortunately, thanks to progress made over the past decade or so, we do have a thriving indie game space, which continues to innovate in ways that many of the larger studios are still too afraid to try. This is where the true heart of creative expression in gaming continues to thrive in many cases, and it is also where you can find a genuine wealth of experiences across a variety of genres that you won’t find coming out of the bigger studios.
Speaking hypothetically for a moment, let’s imagine money was removed from the equation entirely, and current bias towards violent experiences in video games was suspended. Imagine the kinds of creative endeavors and exciting new experiences large teams of game creators could offer to people that would be impossible for the smaller studios. Let’s just think about that for a little bit.
What if The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had a pacifist mode, with all the wonder of exploration and discovery left intact, but without having to fight anything along the way? Would people still enjoy playing it? What if it had a different name that wasn’t so popular or recognizable? If it was a completely different new intellectual property instead, would it go ignored?
What if the next “Call of Duty” game in a surprise twist, wasn’t about realistic war portrayals and rewarding how many head shots you could get with that sniper rifle, but instead focused on simulated rebuilding of a war-torn society? What if your “duty” was leading efforts to negotiate peaceful settlements, and rehabilitating displaced lives? Is there something inherently less compelling about one concept versus the other? Does it really seem like there wouldn’t be an interesting game to be experienced in the latter idea?
What if the next “God of War” game wasn’t about taking revenge on deities in a vengeful bloodbath of a rampage, but instead was a “Goddess of Peace” endeavor, focusing on building empathy and harmony between previously warring factions? What if you had to find peaceful ways to reconcile the differences between humans and the larger-than-life beings, instead of tearing them down in moments of extreme anger and viciousness? Would it really be less satisfying of an experience to explore how the giants walking among humanity lived their lives if they weren’t filled with conflict and strife?
What do you think would happen? Have you ever experienced games like these before? It’s clearly demonstrated here that anyone can come up with viable ideas for games people haven’t experienced before. So why don’t we see more things like this from the game industry? Why don’t we see more unorthodox ventures? More uniqueness, different than everything that has come before?
By repeating the same ideas over and over, we’re only suppressing our own creativity, and limiting the possibilities for our digital entertainment. By continuing to buy into the same experiences as we have previously, it sends signals to companies that it’s okay to keep walking in place on a treadmill, instead of moving forward in new creative directions.
What Would You Like To See More Of?
What do you really want to pay attention to? What kinds of experiences do you want to choose for yourself in your entertainment? What kinds of creative environments do you want to support and empower? Think about these sorts of things before you purchase your next game.
Search inside yourself for these answers. Don’t rely on media or outside opinions to tell you how to think and feel. It may be that you really do want more violence and anger and fear-based entertainment, and if that’s the case, then you can make a more informed choice than ever by coming to understand more about how you feel as you play.
But you may be surprised to discover that you’ve been doing things repeatedly out of habit, without really paying attention to yourself. You might not have known what you really want to be feeling and experiencing. When you look deeper inside yourself, you may even discover that you feel ready to make a different choice than you have in a very long time, or even a brand new one you’ve never made before.
The video game industry as a whole would only stand to benefit and flourish by moving further away from the familiar. Sure, some experimental projects would be financially unsuccessful, just like many of them are today. But determining success solely based on financial gain or lack thereof is a narrow mindset. The more that innovation, creativity, and imagination are encouraged throughout video game development, the more exciting and refreshing the variety of new experiences would be from even the biggest game studios.
Ultimately though the choice is up to you. You hold all the power, whether you realize it or not. You get to decide for yourself, regardless of what is being propagated out there. Your decision sends a message to the whole world about who you are and where you stand, what you believe in and what feels right to you.
So give some thought to what experiences you are paying into the next time you’re ready to buy that new game. At the very least, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision than you ever have before regarding your own preferences. And you never know, you might even surprise yourself with what you choose to help bring about next.