Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part Three: Turtles in Time

In my last two posts, I looked at two factors that affect performances of violence in game-space: mediation and signification. In terms of the latter, I looked at the degree in which acts could be signified as violent or otherwise, and how these significations affected play experience. In case of the former, I looked at how the degree to which play was controlled, in terms of what a player could and could not do.

So now we have two major forces at work, shaping how violence is portrayed in video games. I think we all know what I have to do now.


This graph is funner than a skin graph, but less delicious than a pie graph.

I made this graph using the most cutting-edge software available to me: The paint program that comes with every computer. You might want to click on it to make it big, instead of "undersized the point of Clown Car hilarity."

Here are twenty games, plotted in relation to the degree in which their acts of violence are signified, and the degree in which these spaces are mediated. In placing these games along these two variables, a number of considerations were made regarding what constitutes highly signified violence, and how mediation should be understood in this context. After placing these games, a number of things stuck out:

1) The games that exhibited the highest signification of violence did so through very different means.

Fallout scans so highly because, in terms of representation and play factor, pains were taken to represent a space in which violent acts are real, and have consequences on a game-world. If you breeze into town and blow everyone away, it'll be a ghost town for the remainder of the game. There's no respawn, and no 'reset switch'.

State of Emergency, as a riot simulator, places graphic violence as chief thematic element and central play element: It makes even Grand Theft Auto seem restrained in comparison.

Finally, Super Columbine incorporates footage of actual event to distinguish their game as tied to the actual fact of violence, rather than something divorced from reality.

2) Though genres tensed to shake out along the horizontal axis, with puzzle and free-roam games tending left and more mediated play experiences like platformers and role-playing games tending right, a number of influences could cause a game to shift both in terms of mediation and signification.

When the Final Fantasy series, a highly mediated play experiences that contains moderately signified acts of violence (other figures are 'killed', within context, but this killing is not graphic or thematized') produced a "Tactics" spin-off, it significantly introduced a feature in which injured party members could 'die' permanently if not tended to on the battlefield. The result is a game where the constant RPG 'killing' is given consideration and resonance, bolstered as well by a darker, Machiavellian narrative of court intrigue.

Once in a public washroom I saw written "Machiavelli was naive."
Underneath it, someone else wrote "SO WAS YOUR MOM."

We can see a game like World of Warcraft make a similar shift in both mediation and signification when play moves from a player-versus-player to a player-versus-environment game setting. With the former allowing players greater opportunity to attack and hinder unwilling players in the vast no-man's land of contested territory, gameplay is both less mediated, and has a stronger signification of violence. Implementing one change, albeit a major one, can shift a game along both axes.

3) In most cases, the games that graphed lowest in terms of signified violence avoid such signification through abstraction, instruction of non-violent game mechanics. In the case of Puzzle Pirates, the ostensibly violent acts of attacking and plundering another shop on the high seas are reflected through simple and cheery mini-games. Abstraction plays a major part in the innocuousness of a game like SimCity, one in which you can level entire metropolises through fire, wind, earth and water.

In this scenario, the final element of 'heart' is replaced by 'monster'.

In a strictly denotative sense, these are acts of massacre, to rival the bombings of Hiroshima or Dresden. But because these acts are abstracted to the point of inoffensiveness, because you can 'hit a button' and restore your shattered burgs, because it is fundamentally a game thematically concerned with building, rather than destroying, these acts carry all of the freight of a someone knocking over a pile of blocks.

By plotting franchises, rather than individual games, there is of course room for imprecision. The recently-released Fallout 3 would scan slightly to the right than previous entries, and lower down, due to the game-designers decision to omit the ability to kill children, a move that has, incredibly, earned them some criticism.

On the other hand, the top-down, splat-cartoon vantage and tone of Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2 would scan a good deal lower, in that its homicidal bent is treated both at a distance, and with a dose of irreverent humour.

Finally, user-generated content like suicide booths and grave plots in games like Second Life offer a chance to inch both higher and further left, though these additions currently are purely cosmetic propositions.

In a week, I'll conclude with an examination of games that vary wildly in terms of mediation and signification of violence, including a few that attempt to subvert the long-established tropes of violence-as-progress and the function of conflict in game-space.

And then it'll be right back to the dick jokes and oatmeal recipes, I promise.

- Rook

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