Battlefield 3, a video game developed by Electronic Arts (EA), has caused a stir. The debate of violence in computer games has become not just a regulatory issue but a political one too. Perhaps understanding why developers create such games might help deal with this debate better.
Joe Nandhakumar and I have been speaking to game developers in London and Dundee, a hub for games development, about why and how they create violent games. Our detailed results will be published later this year. The hope in conducting this study was that we could find a way of building games that meets gamers’ need for action and excitement without the need for violence.
The answer to why game developers make such games is simple - violence sells and violent games make more money. To understand the answer how they make them, it is important to understand game design. The main aim of game design is to create an engaging experience for the player. Some essential elements of that experience are mechanics (rules of play), aesthetics, technology (interaction, control system) and story. The aesthetics and interaction systems of today are such that games are made to be cinematically impressive and immersive.
Based on those factors, it is not difficult to see why violent games sell. To make the game more immersive and more impressive, it becomes acceptable to make violence stronger and more essential to its existence.
We found that the story element of game design played a key role in the design of a violent game. The mechanics, aesthetics and technology elements were spin-offs from the story. What was particularly characteristic of the stories the game designers drew upon was that they constituted epic accounts of war stories that were potent, gripping and compelling. They served as prime generators of design ideas.
In one example we looked at was Age of Empires III, which is based on the Siege of Malta that occurred in 1565 when the Ottoman Empire invaded the island of Malta. This epic event served as a meaning structure or interpretive scheme that contributed to the designers’ legitimation of the game project. The historical accounts of the Siege of Malta were taken as self-justifying – no reflection or probing of the event was needed. They became a potent context that shaped the violent content. By establishing a “cast iron” context or back-story to the violence, this interaction between the context and content generated an air of irrefutable acceptability among the designers.
This insight challenges the research into the effects of violent games, which tends to claim that it is the level of graphical realism in computer games that is so harmful and addictive to children. Actually, it could be the epic accounts or stories that are presented in the material that are the most captivating and compelling element. If that is indeed the case, then the success of the Call of Duty series, which is primarily based on World War II, is hardly surprising.
The gaming industry continues to grow and become an increasingly significant part of the creative industry sector and our everyday culture. We need to be more active and thoughtful then in finding a balance between sales and our values around what constitutes acceptable forms of entertainment.