Re: Killing as the default in games


Loosely in response to a video and Polygon article, I’d like to make a couple points about why “killing” is so often the basic gameplay mechanic in best-selling video games.

Killing is here defined as “pointing the mouse / crosshair / cursor at something and clicking to make it go away / fall over / evaporate in a blood-and-guts lightshow.” As seen in countless shooters, role playing games and MMOs, but going back all the way to Space Invaders and similar games. Today I’d estimate that most of the killing in video games goes on in competitive online multiplayer games. Mark the word “competitive.”

It’s true that conflict is one of the ingredients of an engaging story. And conflict sometimes means life or death, as in pretty much any crime novel or action movie. It’s also true that it’s all a part of human culture. Humans came up with martial arts, self defense and all kinds of military drills and tactics.

Thart explains part of it, but it only scratches the surface.

Technical point of view

Looking at it from a technical point of view, this killing and shooting can be summed up as “interaction.” Being an interactive problem-solving obstacle-overcoming kind of thing is what games are all about, and what separates them from e.g. movies. And it so happens that pointing and clicking is technically the simplest form of interaction you can get on a PC, be it in a Windows operating system or in a game, ever since the invention of the pointing device (aka, the mouse.)

Double-click to start the application. Click to overcome obstacle.

What other basic gameplay elements are available that are technically so simple as point-and-click? Not many, at least as long as we are stuck with the input scheme of a PC. There have been attempts to create different control schemes, such as the Wiimote. But even with that, point-and-click is one of the first things that comes to mind.

Point-and-cry is actually one of the first things a baby does. Point-and-click is the most mass consumer friendly kind of interaction in a game because it’s one of the first things everybody does instinctively.

So, point-and-click is a) a fundamental feature of PCs ever since the invention of the mouse, making it easy to exploit as a control scheme for games, and b) everyone can be competent at it within a very short time. If you can mouse-click, you can kill monsters.

Social / psychological point of view

Let’s get back to competition again. It’s probably blatantly obvious that life in Western society today is permanent competition. It starts in school – you are to compete for the best grades. You are to compete at sports. Later, you are to compete for jobs. For affection. For friends. For groceries. For apartments. For money. For ideologies. For being a smartass on the internet. Politicians and managers compete for power and influence. Countries compete in war. Few people ever dare to question this, because it is learned at such a young age that it seems to be without alternative the natural way of life. You are indoctrinated as a child, and you follow that doctrine even if it costs your life and your peace of mind. You will even defend that doctrine against any red commie who dares to run from the flag.

It’s fair to say that competition on all levels is deeply ingrained in Western culture, and it’s most visible in capitalism and imperialism. Where did first-person-shooters come from? The USA. The country that combines capitalism, imperialism and easy availability of guns like no other.

I once made the suggestion to remove the score board from a multiplayer shooter. That’s right, the thing that displays how many kills you managed to make in an online match. The reaction was an outrage. Everyone else on the team saw the scoreboard as a hugely important thing – what do you play for, if not for competition, and how do you measure yourself if not by the amount of kills?

My argument was that you should play for enjoyment of the game, not for establishing a hierarchy based on how many “frags” you get. (Can you see how hierarchy is a side effect of competition?) However, this didn’t convince anybody. After all, it goes against the ruling doctrine. Even very intelligent people are often incapable of questioning or even recognizing the existence of a doctrine if they are indoctrinated at a young enough age.

It’s often assumed that games are a form of escapism – but in fact people tend to repeat the same behavioral patterns in games, competition being chief among them. All that changes is the environment and the amount of control the player gets to exert. Games are real life by another name, especially competitive online multiplayer games. They allow you to take the competition to its logical consequence – the one that is usually forbidden in real life, but happens often enough – killing the other person.

Now it so happens that competition and keeping scores is mostly a left-brain function.

Out of the two hemispheres of the brain, the left is the one that does language, maths, exact calculations, symbols, that kind of stuff. The right is the one that does estimation, contextual awareness, guesswork, spatial awareness, seeing the entirety of the big picture instead of a succession of parts… in other words, all the squishy esoteric fringe stuff that is unpopular in a competitive environment.

The Western education system heavily favours the left side.

This – how they teach us, what they teach us, how our brains are molded when we are young – probably goes some way toward explaining why we end up so single-minded and almost brutally competitive. I’ve actually noticed several times that people tend to dislike game mechanics that require estimation and increased spatial awareness. Those tend to be right-brain functions. A challenge like that would require the player to pop out of the dominant left brain mode they are in – killing monsters, holding down the competition, removing everything that dares to question the player’s power and autonomy, counting kills and loot. Suddenly having to make an estimation instead of dealing with hard facts and numbers will throw the player off. Similarly, a lot of shooter players don’t take well to randomness. Competitiveness works best in a predictable (and linear?) environment (just compare professional sports.) The more exclusively the game focuses on killing, the more anger will be provoked at having to do something that seems out of line, such as a major right-brain activity.

Perhaps the fact that the development of the brain doesn’t complete until about the 25th year of life is also connected to why violent games are especially popular with younger people. But why do men seem to provide the majority of shooter players? Well, this has been examined before – in traditional Western society, men get a lot of pressure to excel. The traditional idea of masculinity is part of this puzzle – wanting to be the superhero, the gunslinger, the one who brings home the bacon, just serves to pour oil into the fire and make people especially competitive. A gun cult like the American one just serves to further fuel this process.

Tl;dr – the prevalence of killing in games is down to a combination of technical simplicity / ubiquity of certain computer input schemes with learned left-brain dominance, gender cliches and a doctrine of competition in modern Western society, plus the ubiquity of guns, superheroes etc. in certain countries.


4 responses to “Re: Killing as the default in games

  • The Brain in the Jar

    It was a joy to read this post. If I ever make a list of great analytical writings about video games, this will definitely get there.

    Here’s some random thoughts that popped into my head because of reading this:
    – We’re having a surge of less competitive games. Look at the success of Five Nights at Freddy’s. I wrote a long post about it, but it functions very differently from any video game. It’s more groundbreaking than people give it credit to.
    – Why is the doctrin of competition so strong, though? Nature does seem to be competitive. Animals struggle to survive. They kill each other for food. Nature is far from serene and peaceful. I remember when I researched a lot about insects and was horrified at how violent nature is.
    – Violence is an easy emotional appeal, like sex. It’s a form of content that’s immidiate. That’s why a lot of ‘shocking’ forms of art rely on it and sex.

    • kneedeepinthedoomed

      Good points. Animals do compete – it’s a basic thing among living things it seems. Mostly for mates and in some cases, for food. But animals still have much less of a hierarchy than humans do. Lions don’t create an elite, lions don’t grade their children in lion school, lions don’t have doping. And a lot of animals even when competing for mates will not kill the other guy – they stop when there is a winner. Plus, animals don’t feel the need to compete in their spare time – they usually rest. They do play, but I’d argue lion cubs play for learning and for the joy of playing. Ants even, although they have states, have a really flat hierarchy. It seems humans have taken competition to extremes to the point where their self worth depends on it and their entire culture is founded on it. By the way, there used to be human cultures with a lot less competition, but they were gobbled up by the most aggressive one. Perhaps the increase in numbers of humans on Earth also increased the competition. But the case of ants would point against that.

      The point about violence being an instant emotional appeal is very worth considering. So that means game developers have been using the simplest tools available – mouse clicking and violence. The mouse is the gun. And more than enough games have sex or sexism, too. It’s like games have historically appealed to the most basic instincts and turned the simplest input scheme available into their main gameplay mechanic.

      Thus we got the FPS, and the action RPG, and the MMO. And it was a success. And everybody copied it without asking too many questions.

      Kinda lazy.

      I’m aware there are quite a few games these days trying to get out of that rut. But the major publishers are risk-averse, another side effect of capitalism and extreme competition – eventually, everyone does burgers because they sell. I would even argue that capitalism, at least among its mainstream and among those companies who have the most money to lose, actually can stifle creativity. This might not be the case among the grass-roots fringe of it where the risk is low (or is it?) – but once it’s about multimillion dollar corporations, everyone becomes really cautious and decisions are made in light of profit, not in light of being innovative. Once you have a winning product, you milk it as long as you can with only cosmetic changes.

      And when the milk runs out, you simply buy a competitor. You let the small guys do the innovation for you.

      This leads to a setup where the actually creative people make the least money and have the least rights, but get to take all the risks. Just look at the lack of worker’s rights in the game industry, or at the life of small indie developers. It’s all connected.

      • The Brain in the Jar

        You’re right. Perhaps we have taken this competition thing a bit too far. I’d say we should focus less on competition, and more about just improving ourselves.
        Why? Because nature is not static. Everything changes constantly, and the only way to adapt is to keep changing.
        The violent grimdark is definitely the norm in games by big companies. It’s the indie developers that try to go in other directions,like Freddy’s creator.
        I think that competition is exactly what will knock these big companies down. FNAF was a tremendous success, much more than other mainstream titles. People are moving to indie games. Creativity is the source of profit. The big companies will either have to adapt, or die out.

  • kneedeepinthedoomed

    @Brain in the Jar: I think the big companies will simply buy the small indies or their IPs as they become successful, just like Notch sold Minecraft.

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