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September 2010

What is the Appeal of Brutal Games?

Mortal Kombat Although far from the most successful videogame titles developed, the games industry has a reputation for creating violent, brutal fantasies, and the sales for such titles are often solid. But what is the appeal of this kind of play?

The answer to this question is far from obvious. Comparison to cinema and book sales is instructive: while brutality and violence can be found in both these media, the step off in popularity is tangible. Apart from Jaws and The Godfather (incidentally, both book adaptations), there have been very few violent movies to make good money, and nothing truly brutal racks up good numbers at the box office. Book publishing is dominated by successful children's books, licensed novels and romance; brutality enjoys a minor cult market at best, although there are certainly signs that violent horror movies – being cheap to make, and not requiring expensive stars to draw in an audience – have carved out a viable niche market.

Now compare the paradigm cases of brutal videogames. Both Manhunt and MadWorld can be considered as largely unsuccessful titles (despite the tremendous media coverage generated by the former game), so the poster children for successful brutality in videogames are probably the Mortal Kombat, God of War and Gears of War franchises. The popularity of the former peaked in its early days, in the 1990s, and never cleared 3 million units (although in its day, with lower development and marketing costs, this was a massive commercial success). The G-War twins have had incredible development and marketing budgets, but still God peaked at 3.73 million with the first title, and has tailed off since, while Gears has been pulling in some 6 million punters each outing. (I am putting aside the GTA franchise here since, while undoubtedly violent, the games lean towards comic overtones, and generally avoid brutality).

Lets put this in perspective. On a fraction of the development and marketing budget of these games, Animal Crossing: Wild World sold twice as many units as any of these titles. Nintendogs was similarly developed on a fraction of the budget (although heavily marketed) and racked up 23.84 million units – more than all the violent games mentioned above combined. The high watermark games this year are equally lacking in brutality: New Super Mario Bros. Wii has already sold 15 million units, and Modern Warfare 2 has cleared 20 million units (benefiting in this case from sales on both the PS3 and the Xbox 360, while none of the other recent titles mentioned have been cross-platform). If one were to look at the market for videogames dispassionately, you would certainly see the commercial value of gun violence, but you would be forced to conclude that brutality, as such, wasn't the best horse to back.

So why all the money invested in brutal games – and especially, why all the marketing money invested into brutality? Continental philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek offers one possible diagnosis in his entertaining Channel 4 series The Pervert's Guide to Cinema:

You think it's just a game? It's reality. It's more real than it appears to you. For example, people who play videogames, they adopt a screen persona of a sadist, rapist, whatever. The idea is, in reality I'm a weak person, so in order to supplement my real life weakness, I adopt the false image of a strong, sexually promiscuous person, and so on and so on – but this would be the naïve reading: I want to appear stronger, more active, because in real life I am a weak person. But what if we read it in the opposite way, that this strong, brutal, rapist, whatever, identity is my true self (in the sense that this is the psychic truth of myself) and that in real life, because of social constraints and so on, I am not able to enact it. So that precisely because I think it's only a game, it's only a persona, a self-image, I adopt in virtual space, I can be there much more truthful. I can enact there an identity which is much closer to my true self.

Žižek's claim is thus that players of brutal games do so because they would wish to be this brutal in real life, but are prevented by social norms and so forth. I get the sense that Žižek wants us to take this claim as applying to a very wide range of individuals, but of course the sales figures we see for brutal games only account for at most 5% of the market for videogames. If Žižek's explanation is to carry any force at all, we would have to conclude that the players who buy and play the brutal videogames are closet sociopaths or, at the very least, would be given the right circumstances. He may be right – it's certainly not easy to prove or disprove such a claim – but I find something about this account suspicious.

David Jaffe, the creator of the God of War franchise, has said that his motivation was to create the kind of game he's always wanted to play – apparently, a highly brutal and violent version of Golden Axe, with added irritations and puzzles for maximum sense of triumph over adversity. So if Žižek is to be believed, Jaffe really wanted to be enacting brutal violence in the world about him, but was too domesticated to do so. The use of fantasy (e.g. bastardised Greek mythology) or science fiction settings (e.g. space marines) is justified by Žižek on the grounds that the positioning of the action away from realism permits the player fantasy to unfold without complication. The plausibility of this account is certainly open to debate.

I believe a clue lies elsewhere in Jaffe's career. His first (and to date only) PS3 title thus far has been the budget download game Calling All Cars!, a tightly competitive multiplayer knock-about, in the vein of his earlier Twisted Metal franchise but much more cutely presented. The design of the game is, to my mind at least, clearly motivated by the same factors I identified in Testosterone and Videogames, namely dominance play. Calling All Cars! is a playground that invites this masculine (but not wholly male) battle for supremacy, full of frustration and schadenfreude – the joy of screwing over your friends. And similarly, God of War's relationship with its player is clearly also drawing against testosterone-influenced play themes, in this case, frustrating the player so that they can achieve the ultimate hit of triumph (fiero) when they eventually overcome.

On this reading, Žižek's account must be read slightly differently: it is not that the fantasy fulfils an escapist need for the player to do what they would wish to do in real life so much as it is that the emotions of play correlate with the effects of testosterone. Žižek's psychoanalysis follows Jacques Lacan, and is thus ultimately in the Freudian school: libido is advanced as something of a universal answer in this tradition, and we can easily read testosterone for libido (with, no doubt, some objections). So if this is a valid interpretation, we shouldn't be surprised that the main audience for the G-War games are adolescent males, since these are the people experiencing the most disproportionate spike in testosterone levels.

Game studies researcher Jeroen Jansz published a paper in 2006 entitled The Emotional Appeal of Violent Video Games for Adolescent Males, in which the following claim was advanced:

...violent video games provide a gratifying context for the experience of emotions. The fact that gamers are largely in control of the game implies that they can voluntarily select the emotional situations they confront. This freedom is attractive for adolescents who are in the midst of constructing an identity. For them, the violent game is a safe, private laboratory where they can experience different emotions, including those that are controversial in ordinary life. Gamers may deliberately select emotions that sustain dominant masculine identity (e.g., anger), as well as emotions that are at odds with dominant masculinity (e.g., fear).

In other words, the adolescent male (according to Jansz) is struggling to work out who they are, who they are becoming, and the (single player) videogame provides a safe space for them to experiment with their emotions and in so doing construct a viable identity. This is not wholly divorced from Žižek's account, but it does put it into a different context, and also supports my general interpretation of brutal games in terms of testosterone as the key influencing factor. (Of course, Jansz has no explicit explanation for why Jaffe would want to make a game like God of War as a fully grown adult. But this line of enquiry can only lead to the question of why any adult would work in an industry that still principally targets teenage males, and that discussion risks being tangential: we do not ask this question, for instance, of teachers or toy-makers).

I suspect there is a grain of truth in Žižek's explanation, in so much as it expresses the drive to dominance associated with the psychological effects of testosterone, but Jansz's account does more to explain why brutal games are principally purchased and enjoyed by adolescent males. The final point to raise in this regard is the logic of the publishers in focussing so much money and attention on the G-War games. In part, no doubt, there are sound commercial concerns at work. Adolescents have the time to play games, and thus are a key market. But as the sales figures quoted above show, there's a disproportionate spend by publishers on brutal games that we don't find in any other media industry.

My suspicion, which I have voiced before, is that this reflects the high testosterone levels among marketing executives, who are the individuals with the most influence in the pathways to funding within the upper market for videogames. James McBride Dabbs has shown that marketing executives (both male and female) have statistically some of the highest testosterone levels of any profession – whether because this job market is particularly competitive, or because competitive people are drawn to it because of the high pay and expense accounts, the marketing profession remains dominated by psychological effects of testosterone.

Perhaps the giant marketing spends by Microsoft and Sony on the G-War games is a reflection of this concentration of testosterone in the ranks of the marketing departments – or perhaps I should say the executive department of these organisations, since as one developer quipped to me recently, there is no distinction between executives and marketing when it comes to the upper ranks of a platform holder like Sony and Microsoft. To be a high level executive is to be concerned with marketing. What is certain, however, is that Nintendo has made gigantic leaps in sales and profitability by designing games beyond the testosterone box and hiring marketing firms outside of the videogames space to promote their DS and Wii platforms.

Brutal games will probably always have a role in the market for games. But it seems possible that their commercial value might slide gradually towards that of the viable niche market of brutal films. If Sony and Microsoft are serious about trying to capture some of the wider market that Nintendo has currently cornered, they should think twice about the mass market advertising campaigns for games like those in the God of War and Gears of War franchises: since these games are only selling to gamer hobbyists anyway, the effect of such public displays will be to connect the PS3 and 360 platforms in the minds of a wider audience with brutality. And this, ultimately, will be counter-productive to reaching a wider audience for games.

Do you enjoy brutal games? Or do you dislike them? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Best Learning Game Award

Greenmyplace_certificate I'm pleased to announce that Green My Place, a serious game project for which International Hobo has been serving as design consultants, was awarded first prize in the category of "Best Non-Professional Functional Game" in the 1st European Best Learning Game Competition. Congratulations to Ben and the rest of the team at CKIR for their success in the contest – it's been a great pleasure working with you on this project, and the recognition is well-deserved.

Representation in Counter-Strike

De_wallmart3 Does Counter-Strike need its representational elements, or are they mere glosses upon the underlying gameplay?

Continuing the argument that I presented in Slaying the First Colossus in favour of a more nuanced view of the role of representation in games, I want to make the claim that even in situations where representation seems disposable it is nothing of the kind. In particular, I want to consider the role of representation in the multiplayer first person shooter Counter-Strike, which I have a personal relationship to because I play it every other week with my regular gaming group.

In an interesting paper entitled Spatial Principles of Level-Design in Multi-Player First-Person Shooters on the role of the environment in Counter-Strike, Christian Güttler and Troels Degn Johansson argue:

Game environments for multiplayer-shooters like Counter-Strike can be seen as disconnected from a narrative and thematic context; a context that is more easily established with cut-scenes and a pre-defined series of tasks and challenges. In multiplayer games it is more adequate to see the environment as a kind of virtual football court or paintball court where two teams meet and only one of them wins the game.

On the one hand, this claim is well-observed: there is an undeniable continuity between the paintball arena (or, for that matter, laser tag arena) and the Counter-Strike level; this comparison is apposite. But is there no role whatsoever for representation in the paintball court or laser tag arena? The answer, of course, is that even these play spaces leverage the advantages of representation, drawing upon features of archetypal warzones in order to populate the playing area with cover and features that add to the experiences of the players.

In a game of paintball, the participants are prescribed to imagine they are fighting with real weapons, and that hitting someone with a paintball in the agreed target areas (often excluding the face for safety reasons) prescribes that someone is "killed" and no longer participates in the game. You will not find a paintball arena decorated in fairy, unicorn and flower motifs because this is not a suitable representation for the game of make-believe to be played. Rather, you will find props such as barrels, tyres and towers which allow the players to imagine they are in a warzone. It is part of the fun of paintball that this fantasy can be maintained.

This is true also of Counter-Strike, where the value of the representation begins at the point that one team is denoted counter-terrorist and the other terrorist. This is more than a disposable element in the play of this game; identical gameplay could be fashioned with a different representation, and it would be less popular (say, Pizza Delivery Kerfuffle, where one team are the pizza delivery crew and the other team are ruffians seeking to prevent pizzas from being delivered). In specific reference to the above quote, it is the case that certain levels gain favour by being well-designed, by taking into consideration what Güttler and Johansson call "collision points" i.e. the locations where meeting engagements (to use the military jargon) are likely to occur between the two forces. But popularity of a specific level does not wholly depend on its efficiency with respect to core gameplay. Representative elements also come into play.

There are many levels on the rota for my group that produce wildly different opinions as to the degree of enjoyment they offer, in particular, 747 (which represents an airplane at an airport), Wallmart (a shopping centre), and Wild West (a cowboy town). Some players dismiss these levels as "gimmick maps", and perhaps not unfairly. But where these have appeal, it is in part because of what is represented. I enjoy Wallmart (pictured above), for instance, precisely because it prescribes I imagine I am having a firefight in one of those dreadful Wal*mart shopping centres I so loathe in real life. As a prop, it is pretty ugly and poorly made. But it serves in its role adequately enough for my purposes. The value of these representational elements varies from player to player, and from level to level, but it is still an important factor of the play of this game.

What is more, because a great deal of the fun of Counter-Strike comes from playing as a team, the representation also feeds into the conversations that develop from the play. A bomb site is "the pumping station" or "the computer room"; the package has been dropped "in the courtyard". The representation not only provides intrinsic pleasures as a representation, it is intimately tied up with the play of the game at the level of player communication. Only rarely do my team talk about "Bomb site A" or "Bomb site B", even though this is how the locations are formally designated. Far more commonly do we talk in terms of how those bomb sites are represented in the game world.

Of course, this is only natural for a number of reasons, not least of which being that human language is suffused with representations in the form of metaphors. Take Güttler and Johanssons' "collision point" – which refers neither to a point (rather, a region or set of areas) nor to any kind of collision (rather, a meeting or encounter). But we understand their term because we can play the prop-oriented make-believe game associated with the metaphor "collision point" and thus reach an understanding of what is intended.

Counter-Strike, which seems at first sight utterly divorced from narrative or fictional context, is thoroughly dependent upon representation for a great deal of its appeal. Even a thoroughly abstract game like Oware still manages to represent via terms such as "house" and "capture". Are there any games which are not, at some level, intimately caught up with their representation?

Game Design as Travel Journalism

Indie game developer and critic Jordan Magnuson, creator of the startlingly effective minimalist artlet Freedom Bridge, has an insane vision of travelling the world and sharing his experiences via creating games. It's quite the most insane proposal I've heard in quite a while, and thus right up my street. As he said to me:

I have plans to set out on an around-the-world trip, and document that trip through short computer games: to use computer games as a form of travel writing. I'm excited about it, because as far as I know, computer games as a medium have never been put to that kind of use.

He has created a KickStarter page and is requesting donations in order to fund his endeavour, which is described in full at He needs $5,000 pledged by Friday October 1st, and is currently about half way to his goal. Fancy sponsoring a mad project that will further blur the lines between art and games? Follow the links!