Bamboo Cyberdream

a panda wanders the electronic landscape

Violent Video Games

I’ve never experienced violence in any real way.

I’ve lived a pretty good life — I was lucky enough to grow up in a nice neighborhood and be sent to a good high school which took me to a quiet suburban college. I’ve lived in cities cities since then, but my experiences with crime have been limited to having electronics stolen from my car. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been in a fight, and of those fights, nobody ever left with more significant injuries than some scrapes and bruises.

I was lucky to find employment and thus was not forced to join the military1. I always participated in non-contact sports. I was a theater kid. Shit, I think I was even involved in Amnesty International at one point?

I have no idea what it’s like to genuinely fear for your life. I’ve never been in a situation where the stakes of the crisis were actual lives. I don’t know what violence is.

But it was always part of my life in some simulated form. I’ve cheered at football games ever since I watched my brother win a state championship for our high school. I’ve seen Star Wars more times than I can truly count. I read adventure books, watched Saturday morning cartoons, saw horrible things in movies, and play-acted some (retrospectively) pretty intense scenarios.

And then there were, of course, the video games.

I was a junior in high school when the Columbine massacre happened. The media had been amped up about violent video games for a long time, but this was the first time it reached a head while I was mentally aware enough to understand the discussion. I remember having a talk with my mom afterwards — she was always a lot more savvy than I gave her credit for, and had a pretty good understanding of the role games and movies played in my life. More than anything, she was puzzled about why I, a pretty good kid who had never really shown aggressive behavior, enjoyed those things.

“I think it’s about having a sense of power, of being able to do something I’m not able to do in real life.” Even then, I was hustling power fantasies and escapism.

“But why would you want to do those things?”

Sorry, mom. I still don’t have a good answer for that one2.

I’ve often taken the position that media is a reflection of a culture more than it is an active agent within it. That it’s an artifact of it’s particular society; that people’s actions are not influenced by it. As with most opinions that I formed when I was a teenager, I’ve come to realize that it’s much more complicated and subtle than that. Even if the wingnut theories about Klebold and Harris mistaking real life for DOOM were just paranoid fantasies, they still lived in a culture immersed in depictions of heroic individualism, often manifested in its most physical acts.

Michael Moore has never really appealed to me — I found him overly bombastic, smug, and often moved to incoherence by a self-righteous belief in his own intelligence.


The night of the 2003 Oscars, he said something that has stuck with me. Most people remember him from that night (if they remember at all) being upset about the start of the Iraq war, and yelling, “shame on you, Mr. Bush!” during his acceptance speech, to the apparent shock of the other nominees who he had invited to come up with him. Regardless of my agreeing or not agreeing with him, this struck me as tasteless, but whatever, it’s Michael Moore and it’s what he does.

But then, backstage, he cooled off a little bit. The interview afterwards is what echoes in me. After a brief attempt to spin the fact that he was booed during his acceptance speech, he posed (and answered) a question:

What was the lesson that we taught the children of Columbine this week? This was the lesson: that violence is an acceptable means to resolve a conflict.

Of course, he’s right. Parents, teachers, religious leaders, and role models take such pains to impress upon children the importance of using their words, of not hitting, of being nice to each other. And then the adults turn around and declare war. And cheer a hard-hitting football game. And laugh at the scene where Indiana Jones shoots that guy who was playing with his sword.

So I’ve never really been a part of violence. And I’ve long felt uncomfortable with the role of violence in my society. But here I am, working in the most readily vilified form of media we have today.

I don’t know what responsiblity we have as game developers. I have a responsibility to my leads to produce compelling work. I have a responsibility to my producer to do it on time. I have a responsibility to the other departments to make their stuff look good. Is it also my responsibility to try and improve the collective psyche of my culture? Is it wild hubris to even think that’s possible?

We, as developers, have plenty of defense mechanisms for skirting our larger responsibilities. We all get the question about violence from people outside the industry — I’ve gotten it from romantic interests, from older relatives, from former teachers, from priests, and from strangers. I usually babble something about the importance of choice, and how providing the option of violence adds weight to player choices, and how we strive to show the consequences of violent choices. I say that I’m personally more interested in other forms of gameplay but emotional and story games are unsolved problems and that’s why it’s a really exciting time to be a designer, et cetera.

But come on, folks. We all know that’s bullshit.

After the Sandy Hook shootings, I found some measure of self-serving relief in remembering that I’d never made a game where the player could use a gun. Not ten seconds later I felt that horrible wave of guilt that follows conscious self-delusion. My games may not have guns, but they’ve included beheadings, crotch kicks, defenestrations, and incinerations, all as direct player actions. And of course, someone with the right magic spell could cause as much mayhem as any school shooter5.

I see trailers for interesting games reduce the wide-ranging gameplay to a highlight reel of inventive murders. I walk down the aisles at E3 and see row after row after row of gun porn and roundhouse kicks.

As developers, we like to point out the violence in films, TV, books, Shakespeare, the Bible, etc, hoping that deflection will absolve games. But even the most hopeful among us has to acknowledge the stark disparity in Percentage of Time Devoted to Violent Acts among the different kinds of media. Even in a summer action flick, the amount of time spent punching and shooting things is substantially lower than it is in the video game tie-in for that same summer action flick. (I don’t have any actual numbers here and am going strictly by my own perceptions; if anyone does have hard data, I’d love to see it.)

I still believe that games aren’t the problem. But every time I say that, and every time I hear another developer say that, it sounds a little closer to the rhetoric of the gun lobby insisting that guns are not the problem. I don’t think guns themselves are the problem either. But I don’t think anybody who isn’t lying to themselves DOES know what the problem is, and in the meanwhile, maybe we could just start asking ourselves questions about why we do what we do?

  • I’ve had numerous positive, safe experiences with guns. I think responsible gun ownership is not only possible, but likely even the norm. At the same time, I also think there is no reason for a civilian to have access to a gun only designed for killing large numbers of other humans.
  • I’ve had wonderful, empowering, memorable experiences with violent acts in video games. I think most people are capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality and not have their virtual actions bleed over into their real lives. At the same time, I have to ask myself why the things we make are so focused on causing harm to other living things.

The answers are predictable: it’s what we know how to simulate; it’s what people will buy; it’s what players want to do. But these are just answers. Answers are easy. Solutions are hard.

1 In my last semester of college, I made a long list of my options for after school, ordered by my preference. The penultimate one was joining the Army (with aspirations of being an intelligence officer), right above moving back home. It was far from something I wanted to do, but I was genuinely open to the possibility.

2 My mom was famously good at disarming her kids during tough discussions. When my oldest brother wouldn’t tone down his language and exhorted someone to “Turn up the fucking volume!” she looked at him and said “You’re smarter than that. Why would you say that? The volume can’t fuck.” He also didn’t have an answer for that3.

3 Hmmm. I may just be proving here that the Liesegang boys are easily stymied4.

4 We are.

5 Oh my, how would you even regulate dangerous magic spells? Imagine someone barging into a Tamriel classroom wielding Flames. At least in our world it’s possible to control firearms, but how would you protect a world where anyone can learn to literally make fire come from their arms?

4 archived comments Why no more comments?
  1. Rachel Klimmek wrote:

    Thank you Shane. I thought this was a very thoughtful, even funny post on a topic that is not only politically-fraught but also not that funny. It’s nice to hear that people in your world are grappling with these issues, even if you do not have all the answers. [Full disclosure – while I enjoyed my share of gaming growing up, I gravitated more towards Ecco the Dolphin and Atari Winter Olympics than, let’s say, Mortal Kombat or, in more recent years, the first-person shooters that have become such blockbusters on the market and also occupy a significant portion of my husband’s free time.] What happened last Friday was tragic – so much so that people in town have had to create spreadsheets just to figure out how they can possibly attend all the funerals of the children and staff and families they know affected by the shooting. And only half of the memorials have even been scheduled so far, because that’s all they could accomodate in so many days. In the end, I don’t think there will ever be any one thing anyone can point to and say, “This is why this happened”. Nothing will ever take away the grief and pain and loss that has occurred. And perhaps none of the steps taken in the wake of this latest mass shooting will actually prevent future, similar tragedies. But to have thoughtful people such as yourself coming together, starting conversations about what might help – not necessarily to prevent a future Newtown or Aurora or Columbine – but to make the communities we live in better places for each other and especially for the generation coming behind us – twenty of whom were taken Friday – that, to me, is a first step towards healing.

    Posted December 17, 2012 at 9:36PM
  2. :) Jen wrote:

    Hi Shane,

    I really do appreciate the beautiful stories that game developers tell. I played WOW for a few months, and I always appreciated the creativity, attention to detail, and freedom of choice that it afforded. You know I would have been all over Skyrim in a hot minute if I had the time.

    One thing I did notice while playing was that I started to drive my car like I rode my horse.

    I don’t think video games are the only source of the problem. I do think that viewing violence repeatedly, in any form, is harmful. Unfortunately, we have a generation of young people who have absorbed the implicit message that fear is an emotion to be sought out. How do we wean them off of that emotional high?

    :) Jen

    Posted December 17, 2012 at 10:15PM
  3. Brett Douville wrote:

    Well written piece, Shane (even though the bit about you being in high school when Columbine happened made me feel about 8000 years old).

    I struggle with this myself, and blogged about it just a few days before the horror in Connecticut last week. I don’t have any answers and I wish I did. The truly compelling and memorable moments in videogames are buried under a lot of… well, let’s just say less compelling moments.

    Thanks for the further thoughts. I feel like these are things we should talk about at work on occasion.

    Posted December 18, 2012 at 5:15AM
  4. Adrienne wrote:

    Nice article.

    I think any artist worth their salt has to question what good their art is to anyone else. Unless you do it only for yourself, you are responsible for what you make. Even if you don’t totally understand it. Which is great and sucks at the same time.

    I’m a girl. For the record: I haven’t every really had urges to pick up a stick and pretend to shoot something with it. I was out of the loop for most of the development of gaming until recently I played SKYRIM. I enjoyed the shit out of it. I also noticed something:

    When I first played, a giant spider would jump out at me and I’d scream and throw the controls across the room. A week later a spider would jump out at me and I’d blast it with a fireball and scream “Oh my god I killed it.” A couple weeks later, I took a perverse glee in slamming him with my newly heightened firepower across a room. 400 hours of game play later, I annoyedly said “Get the fuck out of my way” and destroyed his eight friends without so much as a pulse quickening.

    To me that’s just habituation. Which isn’t bad, or good. It just is. I habituated to a situation in which, when a giant spider jumps out at me, I know that I need to destroy it to move forward.

    I am pretty confident that I will never walk down the street and see some guy jump out at me and confuse that guy with a giant spider.

    Am I as interested in spending 400 hours of gameplay habituating myself to shoot people? Personally, no. But I also don’t think my fiancee is going to confuse a guy who jumps out at him for the Nazi in the game he’s currently playing.

    As with all art, there’s a spectrum of metaphor, intensity and responsibility. There’s probably a level of detail and realistic portrayal of violence that could possibly habituate one to something closer to real life. There’s probably an amount of interface with violence that increases one’s general tolerance. We all know people less able to create responsible boundaries between their inner lives and other people. And there are many many factors that add up to a person creating an incredibly poor decision, any one of which removed might change the outcome.

    And that’s not totally your responsibility, nor does it absolve you from the question of what kind of mark do you want your work to leave on those who engage with it. But you’re a smart thinking person. And as long as you stay a smart thinking person, you can be a leader in charting the course for where your medium heads to in the future.

    I have some friends in town that made a piece in line with some of the stuff you’re talking about here. Check it out, I think you might enjoy:

    Also, sorry that Philly stole your GPS.

    Posted December 22, 2012 at 10:16AM
3 archived pingbacks
  1. From When There Are No Solutions | Walt McGough on December 20, 2012 at 10:08PM[…] inestimable Shane, a friend and video game designer, has a wonderful and ruminative post up on his blog that shares some thoughts from his perspective on video games, violence and media […]
  2. From Responsibility | on December 22, 2012 at 4:07PM[…] friend of mine who works for a well known video game design company recently posted a thoughtful article on violence in video games. Reading this got me thinking about responsibility in art […]
  3. From CHRISZAMANILLO.COM » This Week in Videogame Blogging:December 23rd on December 24, 2012 at 1:16AM[…] in his personal blog, developer Shane Liesegang shares his own reflections and addresses his fellow developers in regards to defending the prevalence of violence in […]