Speculative Musing: Why is There So Much Violence In Video Games

jmaltz@pnosker.com September 20, 2010 0

No, this article is not written by Jack Thompson or any of his supporters. Rather, this was inspired by a study published back in 2008 which stated that, on average, M rated videogames received higher metacritic scores and sold better than other titles in the US. Now, although you could conclude from this that critics are willing to give M rated games a higher score because of their mature content, that likely doesn't tell the whole story. After all, Uncharted 2 received multiple GOTY awards, Super Mario Sunshine continues to receive critical acclaim with each new release, and the Pokemon franchise wouldn’t still sell like hot cakes with each new release. Instead, it seems that video game companies are choosing to make their best titles be M rated, the question is why?

First, let’s get a bit of clarity on what I'm saying about when I say companies choose to make great mature titles instead of teen/everyone titles. Game companies can, in a very real way, choose which of their titles will be successful. The most obvious way of doing this is simply by not pursuing certain game proposals. For example, say you work in a generic video game studio, we'll call it Games inc.


Your developers come to you one day with two proposals for your next game: GenericFPS or UniquePlatformer. Assuming Games Inc. is a talented development studio, if they choose to create GenericFPS, they have made a decision to produce a good mature game over a good platformer. Similarly, if both GenericFPS and UniquePlatformer are in development already and Games inc dumps an extra $1 million dollars into UniquePlatformer in order to get better artists, designers, and programmers, Games inc is, in a very real sense, choosing to produce a good platformer over a good FPS. With this in mind, I don't think it is the M rating which is driving sales but rather game companies are creating more AAA titles that have M ratings, a fact which in turn drives ratings and sales of such games.

With that in mind, the question becomes why are companies choosing to pour their money into M rated games? The most succinct answer is most likely money. After all, the video game industry is a business and as a result, for all the talk about developers undertaking creative endeavors, video game companies, especially large studios are in the business of making money. However, if we are operating under this assumption, the question then becomes why do video game companies feel that M rated games will sell better than other games with less mature content. It is this question which I feel is at the heart of why there is so much violence in the best video games.

One of the most knee jerk reactions that you’ll hear to this is “gamers are growing up, and as a result games have too”. This is an unsatisfying conclusion though. Gameplay will always be king, at least of quality and quality will always drive reviews. What instead has happened is that hyper realistic, high-resolution graphics are an obvious signifier of the quality of gameplay. Think about it, when was the last time that you played a game there has been a large amount of attention put into making the graphics hyper-realistic and the gameplay has come up woefully short? Sure, there are cases where the gameplay has been uninspired, but never bad.

The fact is that graphics have become a marker of how much time and money has been put into a video game. When those graphics are more based around pastels and cartoony visuals than realism, gamers’ first inclination is to dismiss it as kiddy and having simple mechanics. As evidence, think of the last review that you read/saw of a game with “kiddie” visuals; it inevitably starts with something along the lines of “don’t be fooled by the visuals, this game is surprisingly deep”. Thus, part of the reason that video games have become more mature is that a mature appearing action game creates an instant impression of quality, thus bolstering sales.

Adding to this is the tendency within the video game industry to emulate that which is successful. Of course, this emulation can take many forms. Sometimes it will take the Bobby Kotick form and successful games will be rereleased with what are essentially new skin and slightly different features, often times resulting in a title which is worse than the original. The other, and much more common, form that this emulation takes is in taking some features which were popular about one title and incorporating them into a new and fresh idea. Perhaps the best example of this is in the sandbox style games which sprung up all over the place after the GTA series became popular. More recently, gamers can look at the prevalence of narrative storytelling which never lets the player out his or her character, a carry-over from the success of Half Life and the original Call of Duty Series. Thus, when companies see high quality games such as Halo 3, Assassins Creed and Modern Warfare 2 selling well with an M rating, they are more likely to create games in the same vein. This will, in turn, cause more mature rated games to be successful.

To be sure, there are likely multiple reasons that haven’t been mentioned as to why M rated games on average score higher than other games, not the least of which is the difficulty in creating a character and game mechanics which will appear to both a family audience and a more mature one (something which Shigeru Miyamoto somehow continues to do nearly without fail). Ultimately though, as more and more of the design space around mature rated video games gets taken up developers will need to look for new ways to appeal to gamers. Perhaps once this happens designers will gravitate towards more mass market appeal with their characters. Or maybe, just maybe, gamers have become so quick to judge games as “kiddie” that they will not accept the next Mario simply because of how he looks.

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