25 February 2004

What is the point of video game violence?

Clive Thomson observes that a video game about killing Japanese soldiers in WWII sells briskly in Japan because the ''subject matter'' of computer games doesn't matter.
Really hard-core gamers often look past the cultural ''content'' of a game. They're mostly worried about a more prosaic concern, which is whether the game is fun. The geopolitics of a game melt away as players, like philosophers musing on their favorite platonic solid, ponder gameplay in the abstract.

We're accustomed to thinking that a piece of entertainment is nothing but its cultural content. A movie or TV show is just what you see on the screen. But a game is also about play, and play is invisible. That's why outsiders are often puzzled by the success of games that would appear to be nothing but screamingly offensive content. They can't see the play. Sure, you've got raw guts flying around -- but for the player, part of the joy is in messing with physics (even if that happens to be bullets and shoulder-launched grenades) or with strategy (even if that's figuring out how to starve a village).

Computer game designer Brian Moriarty finds this puzzling and provocative.
A conflict without hope. A forever war. I suspect that this is the secret reason why non-hobbyists are disdainful of today's computer games. They intuitively sense the lack of a larger purpose behind the events they see on the screen. Aside from a few jingoistic platitudes, a bit of narrative hand-waving to set up the slaughter, there's little or no justification for anything. The fighting just seems to go on and on. It's not the violence that bothers people, really. It's the uselessness.

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