In the wake of the mass shooting on Sept. 16 at the Washington Navy Yard, a familiar scapegoat popped up: violent video games. The accused gunman, Aaron Alexis, was reportedly a huge fan. Research has never offered a conclusive answer to whether games increase real-world violence, but given the meticulous realism of the experience—the weapons, the carefully rendered victims, the controllers reverberating in a player’s hands—it’s hard not to worry.
That worry has now started to percolate in an unlikely place: inside violent games themselves. Though it’s so far been ignored in mainstream discussion, gamers have noted that a handful of last year’s best-selling games incorporated distinct if subtle antiviolence messages. In “Spec Ops: The Line,” the soldier protagonist uses white phosphorous to incinerate a camp full of enemies—only to find later that he has accidentally murdered a large group of civilians. As last November’s “Far Cry 3” progresses, other characters start to tell the protagonist that his violence has made him a monster.
Perhaps most interestingly, a megahit called “Dishonored” made waves with a design innovation: The player, an assassin, can win the game through truly horrific acts of violence, but every kill increases the game’s “chaos” factor, making it harder to play. It’s also possible to play the entire game without committing a single murder.
Joe Houston, one of “Dishonored”’s core developers, considers himself part of a growing but little-known phenomenon of game designers who believe the industry should confront violence from within. He recently formed his own independent gaming company, Roxlou Games, and is working on its first title, “Unwritten Passage.” As with “Dishonored,” it will force the player to face consequences for immoral acts like killing and enslaving.
Ideas spoke to Houston from his home in Austin, Texas, about whether it’s possible for games to teach a lesson about violence even while appealing to gamers’ impulses to pull the trigger. This transcript was edited from two conversations.
IDEAS: How did the gameplay of “Dishonored” encourage players to think critically about violence?
HOUSTON: It’s an assassination game where you don’t have to kill anybody. Each time you play the game, there’s a mission, and the goal is to get rid of somebody in the world who’s causing great harm. There always is another option—and it’s usually complex—where you can eliminate them from the world and keep the people behind your movement happy, but not actually take a life.
IDEAS: The game also tracks the chaos you cause, which seems so subtle. Why not just penalize players for being violent?
HOUSTON: When you want the player to think about morality, I think you have to give them decisions that are not binary, that have consequences that are harder to weigh....If you have an overall message that you’re trying to get across that’s very specific and you’re telling the player what they’re doing is on- or off-message, you’re failing to teach them anything. Because either they already agree with you and they’re playing the game and enjoying it; or they disagree with you and if they continue to play the game, they’re annoyed that you keep ramming this message down their throat.
IDEAS: Modern games can really shock outsiders with how realistic their violence is. Do they deserve the amount of worry they trigger?
HOUSTON: I think that there may be some consequence to viewing violent acts everywhere, but I do not think the consequence of those acts is making people murderers. I just don’t see that. It’s more to me that viewing violent acts over and over and over again, maybe that’s harmful to your short-term memory, it’s harmful to your ability to appreciate more drawn-out experiences. I don’t know the answer to that. But I don’t think violence in video games is making children more violent, not so simply as that.
IDEAS: But if violent games don’t cause violence, why bother infusing them with a conscience?
HOUSTON: Because, at heart, I’m a nerd. I want to explore the world. I want to see every aspect of it, and I want there to be content out there for people like me, who want to talk about things meaningfully....Once I had the revelation that games I’ve worked on or pitched weren’t addressing this issue in the way they could, that seemed to me kind of shameful, creatively and personally.
IDEAS: A violent video game is a pretty strange medium for expressing a nonviolent message. Why mix the two?
HOUSTON: The obvious thing is that it’s my medium. I’m a game developer, so that’s the tool with which I can approach the problem. But I do think that it’s interactive. You submerse yourself in a world, in a video game, potentially in a way that makes you question yourself much more than reading a book or watching a movie or anything that’s not interactive....If you’re playing a video game and you participate in something you find repulsive, that carries real weight. You have to stop and think about that.
IDEAS: Do you get pushback from fans?
HOUSTON: [In some online forums], there’s definitely a resistance among gamers to talk about violence at all. Part of that is, they’re reacting to the way game violence is depicted in the media, which feels like it’s leading down the road to censorship.
IDEAS: Given that the center of a game like “Dishonored” is still an assassin who can commit vicious murders, do you worry that any subtle messages are kind of trivial?
HOUSTON: Yeah, I’ll be honest, that’s a risk you take when you make a game like that. I feel that you have to put trust in the humanity of your players, without rejecting your responsibility to provide proper context....I don’t think there are a lot of games where game designers trust their player-base enough to let them make those kinds of decisions.
IDEAS: I presume you still play ultraviolent games, though. Do you still find some kind of giddy joy in virtually killing people?
HOUSTON: Yeah, for sure! It’s fun to be powerful, and that’s the narrative that’s going on there. It’s not so much about being fun to kill people. I think the important thing to understand, as a game designer and a person, is that it’s a power fantasy. It’s fun to be powerful. That’s the underlying experience. A lot of time, you play a game and it’s fun to have an adventure....The answer is almost never, “It’s fun to kill people”—it’s deeper than that.
Abraham Riesman is a multimedia journalist in New York City. You can see more of his work at abrahamriesman.com.