The Road movie posterAre games art?  Are games too violent?  These are the two most prominent and powerful questions posed to the gaming industry in recent memory.  Questioning their artistic merit more contemporarily while questioning their morality is more of a historical nuisance, happening most frequently and loudest during the 90’s and early 2000’s.  But try this on for size – realizing the proper way to use violence in this wonderful medium of ours may also be the most effective way of proving how artistically potent games can potentially be. 

Violence can be an extraordinarily powerful tool in storytelling and in visual art.  Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road is filled with grim, chaotic and genuinely despairing violence, and it is one of the reasons for its deeply affecting atmosphere and depth of the world it creates.  This novel is art, and one of the key ingredients in said novel is violence. 

Films are similar.  Salo: Or the 120 Day of Sodom is a deeply controversial piece about the limitlessness of human evil and the festering normality of human cruelty.  While most will despise the film, it has garnished some of the most heated debates of any movie I’ve seen, but I’ve not heard many say that this film is not artful or without merit.  This film is almost all violence; it uses nothing but violence to get its bleak point across.  But it is considered art.

So back to games then.  What’s the difference between game violence and the violence shown in these works?  Why is it when works such as those utilize violence they are praised, rewarded and recognized for their achievement, while violence in video games are seen as childish, immature, and immoral?  Well, because more often than not, it is. 

Violence in video games has not yet matured beyond the tendencies of movies like Saw or The Expendables – that is to entice and entertain as opposed to provoke thought or an emotional reaction, which is what art must really do before anyone really gives a damn.  Gears of War is extremely violent, but how many people are disturbed when they chainsaw a big muscular mutant?  The key is for some games to utilize violence with a purpose, not just to create a fun filled bloody treat for the player, but to invoke a reaction that has more in common with witnessing a horrible car accident than a fun filled action movie. 

God of WarAnd there is the dilemma of interactive entertainment, or video games.  The name implies something fun – a game; Something that children play, something that people use for hollow entertainment and little else.  What’s in a name?  Quite a bit, actually.  And as long as this hobby of ours is seen as nothing more than a child-like method of escapism, or a virtual game of laser tag that we play with our friends, then who can blame those who reject its artistic integrity?

The bitter irony is that logically speaking video games should be the medium where violence could potentially be the most powerful, for no other has its level of interactivity.  Where in films we are watching violence happening to others and in novels we are reading about it, if properly done a video game could make us feel it in a subjective sense.  It would actually be happening to us, or at least our avatars.  Few would deny the resonance that this implies, but even fewer would actually take part in it.  But that’s how it should be.  Utilizing violence for the sake of artistic expression is rarely pleasant.  And while such games won’t encourage mass purchases nor will they bring in the big bucks, in the long run they will go a long way in proving the artistic merit of video games.  And over time, people will find them.  Art doesn’t have to be fun, it just has to be art.