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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!


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Good analysis. Though I have to say... I don't think I enjoy the God of War games because of the brutality. In fact, I don't particularly care for it. I don't like gore in any media. What draws me to GoW is the epic spectacle of the battles and the theme and environmental art. There is certainly visceral satisfaction in swinging a giant chain sword around and knocking monsters down. But I could live without the disembowelments and eye gougings.

I think there is an interesting distinction to be made between "brutal" and kinetic action in this context. And also between "brutal" and... vicious maybe? You mentioned Grand Theft Auto in passing, but I consider those games to be far more brutal than God of War simply because the theme presents us with a protagonist who for no reason other than the fun of it will run down innocent bystanders or light them on fire, etc. At least in God of War there is a cause... and you're right, the fantasy context does make a big difference.

Anyway, just thinking out loud here. Maybe defining your meaning of brutal as compared to kinetic and vicious would be a good exercise.

I'd say:

Brutal = graphic gore
Kinetic = flying bodies and crashing cars
Vicious = sociopathic use of violence for mere entertainment

Josh: interesting distinctions you draw here... I'm going to set aside kinetic for now and focus on your distinction between 'brutal' and 'vicious'.

How can you make the claim that God of War is not both brutal and vicious (in your senses of the words)? Is it that you want to say that because the narrative wrapper of the game provides an excuse for its viciousness this allows it to be set aside? But it is the decision of the team making the game to make it this way, and I can't say for me it makes one iota of difference to have a narrative justification. As I understand it, Kratos murders his wife and child *while he is murdering innocents* - that's a sociopathic use of violence as far as I'm concerned, and its goal seems to me to be mere entertainment, since the story is a long way short of any relevant social commentary, moral discourse or cultural merit.

In respect of the GTA titles prior to IV, the choice of a more game-like representation (less photorealistic graphics, pickups in the street etc.) lessens the sense of "sociopathic violence" - it gives the game world more of the feel of, say, Westworld/Futureworld - a place where you can act out violent fantasies harmlessly. In the case of Westworld, it was because the people being harmed were "only robots", in the case of GTA, "only virtual".

Furthermore, the humour of the game further distances the action from the reality of the acts. In the same way that, say, South Park mixes humour, violence and gore for satire, GTA makes the same blend for a slightly childish schoolboy kind of comedy.

But God of War takes itself seriously (too seriously for my tastes). Like, say, Kane & Lynch, it wants to portray itself with po-faced aplomb - the only thing that prevents it from being taken entirely at face is the fantasy setting. That for me is just not enough to excuse what the game routinely delivers - which is a shame, as I love Greek mythology and hack and slash games. But God of War presents a play experience I want no part of.

I can act out in a (pre-IV) GTA game and dismiss it as play because of the sillyness of the context. No such pressure valve exists for me to dismiss the viciousness of God of War.

Thanks for commenting!

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