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Violence in Videogames, Part 1: The Early Medium

The Early Medium

Way back in computing history, early interactive computer games - like text adventures with ASCII art - had simple graphical user interfaces and rudimentary representations of graphical violence. For those few of you unfamiliar with it, ASCII art has been a fully developed art form for some decades as of this writing. It is pictoral imagery composed of letters selected from font styles and characters available on the computer keyboard. I never played early text adventure games, but I studied the documentation and archived discussions of the designers who did.

ASCII art representing violence in many early games was often simple stick figures with X's over their heads. This represented a player being stunned from an impact to the head or body, or, a horizontal figure represented someone who had perished or was unconscious.

Historically, X's and O's were used for romantic interpretation. Instead, they began to represent violence and it's effects. Call it typeface iconic dramaturgy if you will. ASCII art could be as complex as the famous Mona Lisa graphic that many fans of pop cultural history remember to a simple smiley :), perhaps the first emoticon. Was the emoticon the father of ASCII art? Is the emoticon a derivative of ASCII art, or a separate thing entirely? Readers, please let me know in the forums.

These early games were likely the most enjoyed games in all of computer entertainment history. They were not advanced in eye candy, response design or interactivity innovation like more contemporary titles, but they represented a new toy. They were a new way of interacting with machines, a marriage of old entertainment mediums and new technologic ones only partially discovered and as such an irreproducible event. The magpie is always fascinated with the mirror, but the first time it beholds reflection, it is transfixed. Curious fascination is at work the rest of the time.

That unique experience will manifest only again when a generation of games comes along so far advanced that we cannot conceive of them yet, even with all our industry inculcated visioneering skills.

My speculative opinion is it will be something like 'gameborg', sans the collective mind control connotations half that description infers. Today, gamers have very high expectations. Designers can't meet them all, all the time, so we have our work cut out for us for some time to come.

We've been playing computer games for over four decades now, so as part of the deal games garner critics and criticism - qualified, constructive or not. It's the same in every artistic medium. Film has been around over a hundred years and yet still critics find something negative to say about it now and then, just as easily as critics will profess misunderstanding about cubism, which has been around nearly as long.

Early games were created rather inexpensively compared to today's giant budgets and schedules for AAA titles. They also represented a major scale of accomplishment upon the part of the coders and designer-coders, creating within incredibly restricted and demanding technology development environments.

But as greater color ranges and rendering ability became available, and 2-D isometric perspective environments, path finding, mapping and graphing, state logic and AI evolved, so did the ability to represent greater, more evolved stories, interaction, challenges, animation and art.

When 3-D, photo-realistic, high frame rate game environments came along, these early masterpieces faded into nostalgic obscurity. Representational violence in those early games, though it had a place, was not always the primary emphasis of the gameplay experience the designer was trying to create. As a result, it was represented often in a more comical style, or in the best representation available through the graphics standards of the time.

In fact, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings system gives a very clear definition of all the graphical varieties of violence representation, and those descriptions are like a walk back through time and tolerance. We will explore their work in more detail in a later segment.

By contrast to these early games, more contemporary titles have clearly stated (or obviously implied) objectives, taking players though game worlds densely populated with violence opportunities easily chosen (as either the lowest effort choice of player interaction or commercially sensitive developed challenge designs) for gameworld player interaction.

Violence depiction in early text adventures and other genres often conveyed via narrative description, for example: Sir Fogley bonks Mugwart on the head and runs away in fear, headed in the wrong direction, or, Fuddler impales the attacking Grumpler with his sword and it perishes, he loses two armor and two health points. Then the player would go on to the next challenge, level or path, depending on the rules design and/or the player challenge choice(s) and results within the game loop.

With the invention of the early graphics file formats (like the bitmap, still widely in use today), animation became popularly representative of everything imaginable. One of the most basic early images of violence had to be the explosion.

If one of the first video game graphical representations of violence was the explosion, then other early violence representing graphics were likely bodily figure trauma and injury and structure destruction. Since early market demographics of young, technologically savvy, intelligent males were the primary target market in many eras of videogame marketing (less like it is today, if recent media are correct), explosions and object deformation (appearing as bodily damage or destruction of human, animal, fantasy or alien life forms, structures or materials considered useful or valuable) had to be high on the consumer demographics preference list for early video games.

There is ample historical preference for it, so it is no real surprise representing violence was chosen early and often. After all, weren't game publishers catering to what sells in the market? Nobody goes into business to lose money if at all possible. In terms of interaction design, challenge design and project management complexity considerations, violence can cost less in time, budget and development.

This art would have been one or more simple or sophisticated bitmaps of 4, 16 or up to 256 colors. Some of those graphics specifications are still in use today for rendering efficiency, or when the art spec requires nothing more sophisticated.

This imagery was soon accompanied by sound effects of a scream or differing sounds of concussion - whichever object was being broken into bits one way or an other - being deformed, for those of you not familiar with the animation modeling term.

Since graphic resolution then was not what it is today, the explosion gave us popular, widely recognizable and exciting to observe effects to compose and render. Today we all know industry competition levels, what consumers demand and what producers and publishers who believe they know their consumers demand. That demand is detail, realistic detail and even hyper-realistic detail in higher and higher polygon counts at higher and higher frame rates. Some have even surpassed this, graphically representing explosions and other violence representations that don't exist anywhere else but fictionally in the mind of the conceiver.

Things like fog and finer particulate animations like steam, smoke or dust in the wind were not achievable as yet, unlike today. Explosions could be done in a few simple colors like red, orange, white, black and shades of gray, relatively simple colors to render on the early graphics displays.

Simple may not be the word to use, as those early masters sometimes had only 4 or 8 bits of color to work with, as well as other technological restrictions. It is amazing how they were able to achieve what they did. That was the era when man was going to the moon, so that was what America was about then.

Now, in terms of representational violence, we were getting somewhere. The ante was being upped to stay in the game of games. But it would be awhile before that hand was dealt to the industry to play, because some of the most pivotal players were not even at the table yet.

The art and animation in these early games didn't represent in highly realistic detail graphically violent images, so nobody really gave any thought to the shoot 'em up aspects that might have a psychological effect upon the player.

Lack of realistic detail in graphics was abstraction brought about by technological limitation, not by design choice. That limitation may have delayed potential diagnoses of player behavioral effects that realistic, or even hyper realistic violence in video games would one day have.

All of the violence we were exposed to prior to this didn't seem to be having any measurable effect, with the exception of what we called 'battle fatigue', and its interpretation was limited to battlefield conditions. If there was another effect from violent video games, nobody was noticing or looking for it.

There didn't seem to be a need to look for effects, we thought in those days, if we thought at all about it. And why would we? Violence was a constantly present and necessarily acceptable fact of life for almost all of history before video game art began representing it. We were, and for the most part are now, desensitized through overwhelming preponderance and proliferation of violence in reality.

In many early games, gameplay was emphasized or designed as problem solving through traditional game and original innovative challenge device design. For example, tricks, traps, puzzles, mazes, mysteries, anagrams and other tools game designers had at their disposal, creation or discovery. An objective of challenge device, gameplay response design or interactivity design was wit.

Early game design pioneers developed many aspects of what game designers call 'gameplay' that are still in use today, though primarily graphically or interactively represented, and many genres have built magnificently upon these early breakthroughs.

This tradition is carried on in today's game designs, which contain the increased difficulty and variety one would expect of evolving design disciplines. However, players are constantly improving and demanding more. The greatest demands of game designers are yet to come, and not far away. These will not be just business and technology demands like we see today.

If these challenge designs are to be found today in some games, it is often only for necessity of variety and pace in gameplay challenges as a design requirement for market competitiveness. Many are beginning to mimic the predictability of film, which I don't feel represents well the interactive entertainment industry so early in it's market maturity curve, but it may be market forces at play. I'd certainly like to think it was not a shortage of creativity.

In another design choice approach, challenge designs might be found where the design of the game and its genre did not require or rely on a lot of violence for its entertainment value. That's right, violence for entertainment value. We'll discuss that.

There are many online games as well as different genre games such as RPGs (Role Playing Games) or MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) that have actually resurrected, improved and/or innovated many staples of game challenge design. Some designers added their own challenge devices by design widely considered significant or incremental advancements in that area of the game design field.

A consistent aspect aptly demonstrated in many mass entertainment mediums is the presence of violence, particularly and ironically in comedy, considered by many the alternative to drama. The Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton and the 3 Stooges are clear, early examples. For some reason, it just wouldn't be Gilligan's Island if the Skipper weren't hitting Gilligan over the head with his skipper's hat for doing something silly or stupid. You got an audience perceptual conditioning guaranteed laugh track and an audience expectation conditioning in one fell swoop of the Skipper's arm. How that has paid off is a double edged sword.

One of the many definitions of comedy is the ability to laugh at another's misfortune. Often, the more misfortune we bestow upon a character, the more empathy we can derive from the audience, increasing our chances of a greater catharsis payoff down the plotline. Emotions are sales, as the old marketing axiom goes. Empathy is a very powerful emotion. Are we actually that cruel? Or, were we once that cruel, and now in denial of the fact that that is where we came from, and what still bubbles along deep inside us, millennia old, perhaps genetically incorporate.

Ironically, without violence, comedic or not, one's entertainment could be deficient in terms of what audiences demand or expect. Nobody likes to hamper the box office. One of the first rules of improvisational comedy is to get the other person into trouble. What more rapidly developing and emotionally inciting trouble can we get a character into than immediate physical danger? Immediate sex? Immediate fortune? Immediate omnipotence? Hmm.

Social and political comedy only came along after a great deal of social evolvement and often at great personal cost to the creator. People like Erasmus and Al Franken are good examples. So, both in entertainment and civilization, it's relatively new.

Politics and politicians have been fair game in comedy for hundreds of years. I find it troubling some comedy today can be considered un-American, when Erasmus himself stopped the inquisitions by getting the church to laugh at itself. Speaking of Erasmus, has anybody ever gotten his or her Erasmatron program to work? I haven't, and I think I am in need of interactivity technical support… Calling Chris Crawford… Report to interactivity trauma center… Stat.

More practically, from a producer's standpoint, inclusion of violence is what keeps audience attention, prevents them from turning the dial, pressing the remote, or, in the case of more modern times in game design, exiting the game loop to chat about how lame the game was.

It's about exclusivity in stimuli. Violence equals market share, jealously fought for and protected. It's protected because if it can create unique and special complex or primitive feelings and responses no other competitor can superiorly produce, despite the fact the user is just killing or destroying stuff. Your product owns the consumer's value perception, and you own part of the mind of the consumer, the holy grail of marketing.

It's what you are destroying, from what POV, for what reason and as who that makes a difference to the bottom line, even though violence is a high enough tide for most boats to float into profitability. Just look at the weapons industry.

Add in the fact humans still barely, as a percentage of total consciousness, understand themselves at all in terms of these complex or primitive feelings, and there you have it: flocks for financial fleecing if you can make content to push those buttons. The harder you push, the more money you make. Older than Moses, and dies harder.

I actually enjoyed turning alien monsters into puddles of steaming slime with incredibly powered weapons because it was my planet earth they were trying to take over, and my fellow humans they were turning into slaves or food or vaporized dust. If I was the only person on the planet that could save them, well then, it was money well spent and time well given. I felt kind of patriotic defending Earth. Wouldn't you? It isn't just a trend anymore, it's territorialism waaay grown up and morphed.

If we can experience those complex or primitive feelings we don't understand - but need to acknowledge and make sense of - in the safety of a game loop privately in our homes, or in a darkened public theatre, then that's worth the investment in a ticket or a title itself. Unless you just want to keep on repressing them, which frankly, some segments of society would gladly have you keep on doing. Yeah right, that's healthy.

So all along, violence in entertainment (mass or family room) has audiences (and relatives) pushing buttons for banana pills like monkeys without being consciously aware that their arm was even moving, thinking only of the reward.

Granted, most people, even in the early days of entertainment, were aware that their emotions were being manipulated, but they may not have known how or why, and certainly not what the results might be. How it is being done and the design of the response, well, that's where the money meets the meter. True interactivity is another response (if it can be called response; perhaps shared response is more accurate) altogether, and requires a different standard.

Thus great (or not so great yet daring, original or innovative) art was often sacrificed to the trashcan god because it flew over most people's heads. Everybody, however, understood pain, fear and domination, and that was where the profits and emotional response manipulations lay, in the lowest common denominators.

More and more, realistically represented animated violence became a graphical extension of imaginative play. Emotions, responses and visualizations evolved in antiquated yet traditionally played male children's games of conflict, like 'army' and 'smear the queer'. It cannot be dismissed or discounted that these games formed the first fun non-computer entertainment game experience for the majority of American males alive today.

Between explosions and deformation, a whole lot of action (with the simple addition of a projectile aimed, triggered and hitting an object prior to deformation) could be shown, and the simple 'shoot 'em ups', today known as 'shooter' or 'twitch' games flourished.

In 1961-2, Steve Russell developed the very first video game, Spacewars, at MIT. This game, developed during the cold war and space race, didn't raise any apparent controversy, likely because of such low exposure. No criticism was generated and nobody was looking for anything back then in video game violence and it's potential effects on the user and/or society.

We hadn't thought about those effects since the Westward expansion of our own American history. Nobody really felt too badly about the tragedy perpetrated on Native Americans for the sake of frontier settlement, so it was clear why observation of computer game violence representation didn't seem to raise demonizing similes during the computer game's invention and early days.

If you try to compare the effects of early video game graphical violence representation to the two dominant mediums of that era - television and film - you will be very hard pressed to find any significant or relevant ones except one. Film and television violence was incredibly proliferate in the culture and media. How proliferate I will exemplify later, and you will find the implications staggering, as I did.

Today's designer ought to reflect upon this: that in most important fields (and I contend the computer entertainment game business will become one of the most important ever, particularly when we get past this content infancy issue of violence effecting small part of the industry) we do, indeed, stand on the shoulders of giants, but we need not walk in their footsteps twice.

To me, that means our implicit and explicit responsibility to our players grows also. For even as we know more than our forebears did, we need also remain aware that we can apply new knowledge beneficially and entertainingly. As Marshall McCluhan wrote, "those who think entertainment and education are two different things don't know the first thing about either." Therefore any competent designer, with complete design criteria as a goal, ought ask themselves somewhere along the way, "What am I teaching with this game?" There's no requirement for educating anything progressive, relevant or important; idyllic response is just as sublime to humans as discovery is, and perhaps just as important. But be aware, that's all I'm suggesting.

The higher the realism gets, the higher influence on perception the interactivity will have on users.

Yet you cannot convince me, or any reasonable and objective standard the fundamental ability to perceive difference between reality and a technically created virtual reality can cause confusion between the two in the perception of a normal human.

The only exception I can think of would be if all the following criteria were met: a) that was the intent of the design, b) the technology existed where an actual resemblance of reality could be produced to the point of simulation (and we are not there yet technologically) and c) the user meets psychological criteria indicating virtual reality could influence their behavior to a significant enough degree to temporarily alter it. We aren't near "Total Recall" by any stretch of the imagination. So somebody who is influenced by a video game enough to alter them behaviorally has got to have a pretty challenged reality, and that causality lies elsewhere, not with the game.

No great stretch of rationale there, granted, as many a developer knows, but I want to ensure the development community understands the degree of the influence we create in our games has exponentiality built into it, as our technology grows in its ability to perceptually influence users.

Speculatively, I'd say we are at least twenty generations away before we even have to consider it as a ramification of design criteria, but alarmists will cry the sky is falling at anytime, and we are no longer in a position to afford to dismiss them, as I will argue later.

When something contrived looks really real, it's more perceptual workload making distinctions between it and reality, but you'd have to have underlying perceptual problems in distinguishing reality from non-reality to get into trouble over it. Costume jewelry and the compliments they can receive when mistaken for real precious and semiprecious stones are an example of this.

Fortunately, the distance between the monitor surface and the human eye, ear and mind ultimately arbits the distinction, and mostly requires far less examination to make the distinction between fake and real than costume jewelry can.

With virtually every aspect of human behavioral history to draw upon for content, eventually every graphically violent era, battle or event that was in the history books or the human imagination sparked by these influences became fair game for a computer entertainment title's content.

Between sounds, animated images and interactivity, even early games were beginning to rival, from a response design/audience impact context, the impact film and TV mediums can have on the audience, and one day will surpass them. Then, exposure levels just weren't there yet.

Nobody gave the game medium the credibility it would one day garner (to the point where it is clear to more than just this writer that games will eventually absorb both entertainment and education; perhaps this is what the critics fear most. Their fears are unfounded, as I will reveal) simply because games appear realistic and believable to the eye of the beholder, giving the old perceptual trap "seeing is believing" credence. That too, like everything, is changing.

Also, interactivity was not fully understood or accepted (and who is to say it is yet?) as a method of entertainment experience popular with audiences en masse. Now you can see reasons why popular acceptance of the medium lags behind its growth.

As interactivity isn't fully understood from a perceptual standpoint by Joe Average Consumer, they take small bites off the new apple of interactive stimulation. Some consumers, however, clearly see the future and aren't waiting. I remember working at a large software retailer years ago, and you couldn't keep parents from swarming the children's interactive learning titles. I remember parents bragging to me how their child at eighteen months was tearing through software. That was eight years ago, and was a fairly common thing to relate.

This slow change, I believe, is in part due to things like people change slowly and culture changes faster than people, creating a perceptual gap catch-up scenario. Maybe this has already happened, and the content quality hasn't made it clear to me.

However, I, like many, eagerly await the next two blockbuster-cum-paradigm shifter titles Doom III and Half-Life II to see if the supposition bears truth. It may be a few next generation games beyond those titles before we really see the mass market biting deeply into the apple of interactivity (as it already has in simulations), because they now more trust the thrill. Remember the magpie attacks its reflection first, fearing before the transfixion and fascinating experiences occur. Humans, unlike the magpie, can learn from reflective interaction.

Last but not least, there is still plenty of financial interest in existing mass entertainment mediums content to wait until the old cash cow ain't what she used to be. Until then, industry change will not largely occur until solid locks are made on market share pre-positions in the new medium, or an innovation so significant comes along change will be mandated for competitive survival reasons.

To my imagination, this on one hand bears resemblance to a giant motor vehicle corporation holding the keys to the patent office on fuel cell technology tightly away from the public until all the money on oil based technologies that can be made has been made.

On the other hand, it could just be the Shakespeare of game design hasn't completed or compiled his first design soliloquy yet, that will force said change into the marketplace via innovation. There is no question in my mind the current state of games today is nowhere near what the medium is capable of, despite the fantastic products that have come out.

As you will see, this oil baron, railroad baron, steel baron and pork barrel mentality and methodology have been inherited and implemented quite nicely by the Intellectual Property barons who use violence effectively, and for a long time to come, will use violence primarily for financial gain.

So, the advancement of graphics is one of the major aspects of gameplay (in terms of vividly and realistically depicted art and animation) that brought about an increase of violence in videogames, but the popularity, broad recognition and proven emotional response values were the main drivers.

When graphics started to get really good (and I haven't seen the state of the art lately), what primary aspect of demonstrating new graphics techniques could be more emotionally evocative than imitating real life fascination with violence, precisely because it has a long history of qualification that equals profits?

Further, like the early comedians and comedic producers knew, what act could reach more people on a basic emotional level in greater numbers than violence, even if comically depicted? After all, isn't it all about the bottom line anymore? We shall see, but in some ways I will hedge my bets against it. Mostly because I believe there is a better way.

This fascination, indeed, this human behavioral trait called violence, becomes the significant operator in the solution equation I propose in the installments ahead.

  The Early Medium

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