Video Games at E3 are Obsessed with Violence

When you think of video games, what’s the first one that comes to mind? One of the Super Mario Bros. games? Perhaps an old childhood favorite like The Legend of Zelda or one of the games on your phone that you’re playing in your spare time like Clash Royale? Maybe it’s even Minecraft. Now that you’re thinking of a game, does it have violence in it? I’m willing to bet the majority of you are thinking of a game that does, even if it’s just Mario jumping on people’s heads.

The Electronics Entertainment Expo (or E3) was two weeks ago, and I couldn’t help but notice – most of the games at the expo had violence in them. The violence ranged from the ultra bloody State of Decay 2 to the classic Mario jumping on Goomba heads, but it was almost always there. It got me thinking – what percent of games shown at E3 had violence in them and which ones didn’t?
 

The Data

Thanks to IGN‘s mostly complete wiki of games shown at E3, I was able to watch the trailer for 233 games demoed and categorized them into one of four categories:

The Categories

Realistic Violence: This is where one character (usually player-controlled) is physically attacking another character in a bloody, gory, and somewhat realistic way. Grand Theft Auto, State of Decay, The Walking Dead, Battlefield, and Uncharted all fall under this category.

Comic/Stylized Violence: This is any kind of violence where one character is physically attacking another character. This includes all of the Mario games, Final Fantasy, Pikmin, Pokémon, Hearthstone, and many many more.

Sports/Racing Game: These games consist of racing games and traditional sports games like golf, football, soccer, and basketball. The usual suspects of Madden, NBA Live, Gran Turismo, Rocket League, and FIFA fit into this category.

Non-Violent: These games all have zero violence in them. Very few games fit this category – even games like Minecraft have a small subsection that contains violence although the main part of the game doesn’t.

Most of the games I looked at fell easily into one of the categories, but a few games were on the edge between realistic violence and comic/stylized violence. In those few cases, I made a judgement call, which didn’t greatly affect the data because of how many games I looked at.
 

Why the Sports/Racing category?

I categorized this separately because even though sports and racing video games do not have directed violence in the sense that you can attack another person or character, the activities they are based on and their origins are often quite violent. People who play sports break bones, get concussions, and can even die while competing. Racing is even more deadly, especially if you look at one race in particular which is more likely to have a death every year than not, with the most deaths in a single year being eleven (!!!).

The video game versions of these sports aren’t as bloody or deadly as real life, but they mimic the real life activities accurately enough to often feel violent. Some games even go so far as to say the violent collisions are a feature of the game. There is a difference between directed violence and the violence in sports, but enough violence exists even in the video game versions to warrant a separate category.
 

The Results

After analyzing the data, the graphs showed me that most games shown at E3 did, in fact, have violence in them.

As you can see, the vast majority of games have comic or stylized violence in them with realistic violence coming in at a distant second. It’s a little hard to tell how large of a percentage those categories are from bar graphs, so next is a pie chart with the percentages.

Now it’s even more apparent just how many games feature violence in them in one form or another.

And lastly, when you single out the non-violent games, it’s astounding how few of them there are.
 

Which Companies are Making Non-Violent Games?

There were so few non-violent games shown at E3 that I can list them here:

GameDeveloper
AnamorphineArtifact 5 inc.
BestLuckJae Cloud Yoo
Chess UltraRipstone Ltd.
Coma RememberedSerenity Forge
Harvest Moon: Light of HopeNatsume
Harvest Moon: Lil’ FarmersNatsume
Just Dance 2018Ubisoft
Manifest 99Flight School Studio
Roto Color RhythmBlue Volcano
SemblanceNyamakop
SumerStudio Wumpus
Surviving MarsParadox Interactive
TacomaFullbright
The Artful EscapeBeethoven & Dinosaur
The InpatientSupermassive Games
The King’s BirdSerenity Forge
Tornado TowerDizzy Slugs
Where the Water Tastes Like WineDim Bulb Games
Which developers made those games? It turns out, only one of them is being made by a big name company. One. Just Dance 2018 by Ubisoft is the only non-violent game from a large company at E3. There are three by smaller companies like Paradox Interactive (Cities: Skylines) and Natsume (Harvest Moon), but the rest of the non-violent games come from indie companies. I’m positive there are non-violent games being made by the larger companies, but why are they not being promoted and shown at E3? Why is the focus of this event primarily on violent games?
 

Why so much Violence?

Most video game have a majority of literary elements in them including Characters, Setting, Plot, Theme, and Conflict. The conflict in video games is often physical violence as it’s easy to convey when an action is good or bad. It is easy for players to understand that violence against the player is bad and violence against opponents is good. Video games have featured this design mechanic going back to one of the first widely available video games ever created.

We’ve been making video games for over 55 years that feature violence as a form of conflict, so we’ve had quite a bit of time to get good at displaying it in different ways. You can shoot people, stab them with swords, jump on their heads, punch them, eat them, drive over them with a car, blow up spaceships, and have one of your cards attack and damage another card. Yes, that last one feels a bit silly compared to the others, but it’s still a form of physical violence which the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) categorizes as Fantasy Violence.

My theories as to why

1. Games are incredibly difficult and time consuming to make, so because there is an extensive lineage of games with violence, developers are able to use those common design patterns to not have to explain mechanics new to players. In a Mario game, you know you can jump on an enemy’s head because you have 30 years of experience telling you it’s good to do so. Many non-Mario games allow you to jump on enemy’s heads to deal damage for this very reason. Finding new mechanics that work to convey good and bad actions is incredibly time consuming, so developers have chosen violence as the easy path. It sounds lazy, but when developers are facing the difficult task of finishing and shipping a game, they’ll take any easy wins they can find. Violence is easy to create and contain in a game design, and so is often the first choice.

2. Games are made predominantly by young, white men. In the IGDA’s 2016 diversity report, 75% of responses identified solely as white (81% for white multiracial) and 72% identified as male. The report even goes on to say “This data presents the prototypical game industry worker as being a 32 year old white male with a university degree who lives in North America and who does not have children.” Because game developers, as a group, aren’t very diverse, the games they create aren’t either. Their common background, and the history of violent games, doesn’t easily allow new ideas that would work in place of using violence as a game mechanic. The people making games have played the older, violent games and use those as a basis for creating new, violent games.


 

Is 2017 representative of violent games at E3?

Feminist Frequency has been tracking the violence shown in games over the past 3 years at E3, and the trend has largely stayed the same. They use a slightly different categorization method than I do, but you can see in their 2015, 2016, and 2017 posts that it’s very similar to what I’ve shown here. 2017 wasn’t a unique E3 with regards to violent video games. It would be interesting to see if Steam, iOS/Android, and consoles have an equivalent percent of violent video games on their platforms, but even if they don’t, it’s interesting that the games developers choose to show at E3 have so much violence in them. If game developer create more non-violent games, why do we choose to promote the ones with violence at E3?
 

Why is this an issue?

There are an infinite amount of games we could make, but right now the games shown at E3 are almost entirely violent games. That’s sad to me. I want to experience all of the different types of games possible, not just the ones we have now. I want more games like Astroneer, The Witness, Bounden, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, and Flower. We can’t have those different types of games without also changing which mechanics we use and focus on.

Also, media influences how you perceive the world, so it’s important to remember that games developers create influence those who play them. Feminist Frequency has been successful at changing how developers portray women in their games for this very reason. It is important to have a variety of design mechanics otherwise people who play games could be influenced to think that violence is the only answer to conflict.
 

Should we stop creating violent games?

No. Just because we’re overdoing it right now doesn’t mean we should stop entirely. Rather than having violence be the default conflict game mechanic, I would like everyone making games to be intentional about picking violence. If a game calls for it because you’re doing something that relies on violence as the sole way to explain what’s going on, then it absolutely makes sense to use it there. If game developers are doing something that would work with non-violent forms of conflict, then they should explore those other types of non-violent mechanics.

Violence is the easy answer to many game design choices, but it shouldn’t be the only tool we have in our bag. We can develop others that are just as good as violence, it’ll just take some thought to do so.

 

Addendum

[1] Categorized Data
[2] Thanks Ashley Kelmore, Jason Weiler, Forrest Smith, and others for helping improve this post.

Games of 2015

For whatever reason, I didn’t beat, or even play, that many games this year. While I didn’t play any AAA games, it sounds like there were some great ones (Witcher 3, Mario Maker, etc). I was busy buying a house, transitioning into a new role at work, and dealing with some health issues. 2016 hopefully won’t have any of that, so I should be able to play more games! Unfortunately, none of the games I played stood out as games that I’ll remember in 10 years. Regardless, here’s the list!

Most gorgeous game I played: Ori and the Blind Forest

Not only was this game the prettiest I played this year, it’s one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played. I was surprised when I heard they used Unity to make it as I didn’t think Unity was capable of driving a game like this. As for the gameplay, I love me a Metroidvania game, and this is no exception to the rule. The gameplay itself isn’t that inspiring, but it’s worth dealing with to appreciate the stunning visuals that this game constantly throws at you.

Game I thought I wanted but realized I didn’t: The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth

I’ve loved everything Binding of Isaac related for several years now, so when I heard there was an expansion to Rebirth (which I played over 140 hours of), I was excited. When I finally got it and started playing, I realized that I had already played pretty much all of that game that I wanted to. It had a couple of new mechanics and game modes, but nothing really inspired me to play it the way that the previous two games did. It’s like getting an ice cream shake after you’ve already eaten an ice cream sundae. Sometimes, you just can’t eat anymore ice cream.

Game that moved me (emotionally and physically) in 5 minutes: Bounden

I only played this game for a total of about 5 minutes at GDC, but it was one of the most distinct experiences I’ve ever had with a multiplayer game. You and another person hold the same phone and contort your bodies in dance moves in order to beat levels. I played it with the guy who made it, and it was surprisingly emotional; after we finished, I felt like I had had a moment with my partner in a way that I’ve never felt after playing a video game. I danced with a stranger and felt a closeness with him that is very rare with someone I just met. Bounden is not a particularly good game, but I’ll remember that experience for a while.

Game that finally made me hate Free 2 Play mechanics: Trials Frontier

First off, this game has better controls and handling than any other mobile game I’ve ever played. I thought gamepad type controls on a mobile phone would always be a disaster, but I was completely wrong. I never felt like the game cheated me and I always felt in control. That is a HUGE accomplishment for Red Lynx. If I could have purchased this game for $40, I would have done that. Unfortunately, this game reveled in its F2P mechanics. It had timers, an energy mechanic, crafting, multiple currencies, daily challenges, a leveling system, and a multiplayer component that required constant monitoring. The game was structured so that you could do everything without paying money, but it would take you AGES to do it. Some upgrades took over 144 hours to complete. I found myself playing the game constantly so that I could collect parts to upgrade my bikes so I could compete online. Instead of advancement being based on skill, it was based on time and money spent. It felt cheap and I realized I wasn’t enjoying playing it, even though I played it more than any other game this year. Trials Frontier is a good game wrapped in shit no one wants to deal with.

Game that made my wife almost kill me: Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

I’m always on the lookout for games my wife and I can play together, and I thought Lovers would fit that bill. It’s cute, it’s co-op (instead of being versus), and it has cats in it! Unfortunately, the way this game plays in co-op mode is similar to how it feels to drive in a country that doesn’t speak your language while completely lost with no GPS. The game is quite cute and the weapons are neat, but the gameplay is a bit lacking. Because of how the spaceships are set up, I always found myself piloting and having the AI fire for me. I wish that the ship was a bit more automatic in how it responded to threats instead of having to manually dictate what should happen. Overall the game is quite polished, but just not quite what I wanted out of it.

Favorite game of 2015: Snakebird

If there was any game that I played this year that could be said to be fully polished, it’d be Snakebird. This game has to be polished considering you’re going to be spending most of your time cursing while playing it. I have never played a puzzle game that makes me feel inept on the fourth level before. Snakebird is incredibly cute and easy to pick up, but oh so fucking hard to actually beat. After playing a single level for an hour to beat it, I would feel hugely accomplished. One of the things I disliked about the game was that I often knew how to beat a level, but it required very specific movements. I would get frustrated and look up the solution only to find out I had it correct, I just had to turn left once instead of right in ONE spot. I don’t think this game is for everyone (it’s one of the hardest games I’ve ever played), but I enjoyed the time I had with it.

For reference, here are the games I beat this year:

Android
     Botanicula
     Knights of Pen and Paper
     Lara Croft Go
     Sky Force
     Trials Frontier
     You Must Build A Boat

PC
     Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist
     The Talos Principle

Xbox One
     Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime
     Ori and the Blind Forest

Here are the games I played but didn’t beat (or couldn’t “beat”):

Andoid
     Alphabear
     Bounden
     Framed
     Leo’s Fortune
     PDTA
     The Firm

PC
     Action Henk
     Gunpoint
     Snakebird
     The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth

Playstation 4
     Axiom Verge

XBox One
     Life is Strange

Games of 2014

I completely failed at Last Year’s New Year’s resolution (which is why I try not to make them), but I am going to do an end of year writeup.

Similar to last year, I only played two AAA games and tended to focus more on indie games that had unique gameplay or themes. I had a bunch of games that I started at the end of the year, but didn’t really get into because the first game in my list destroyed my ability to play anything else. With no further ado, here are my most memorable games of 2014!

Game I couldn’t stop playing: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

This game was a short term addiction. I played it for 157 hours in the span of two months, got 100% of the achievements (which only 0.9% of players accomplish), and got ridiculously good at this game. I played the original in 2011 for at least 100 hours, so it’s easy to say that Rebirth was a huge step up for me to have played it as much as I did. The entire game was redone to make it a silky smooth experience and a bunch more was added that the original didn’t have. I can’t recommend this game enough; it’s a combination of The Legend of Zelda original meets fucked up Christian theme meets bullet hell meets randomization. Fantastic stuff.

Game that made me question everything: Desert Golfing

I thought this two color game would be something easy to write off. I thought it’d be a waste of time. All you do in this game is try to put the ball in the hole. The game doesn’t change. So why am I still playing? Does the score matter? It doesn’t seem to. Does it matter if I fuck around and don’t try very hard? I seem to be getting good at this game. Wow, that was a difficult hole, but I made it! This doesn’t really seem to have a purpose. I don’t get it, why am I still playing this game? This is quite relaxing, I almost feel in a zen state. Wow, a cactus!

Best looking game on the Playstation 3: The Last Of Us

Not only was this game stunningly gorgeous, it was also an amazing experience. I loved the dynamic of the two main characters – it felt much more real than most games do. I actually cared when they got hurt. The zombie theme got a little old, but the game kept me enthralled all the way to the end. I highly recommend this game, especially if you can pick it up on the PS4. For 2015, I’ll have to try out the DLC as I hear it’s quite good.

Game I was most disappointed in: Super Time Force

I loved Capybara Games’ last big release: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, so when I saw trailers for Super Time Force I was ecstatic. It looked like everything I wanted in a throwback to the old Contra and Metal Slug style games. Unfortunately, it turned out to not be anything like what I thought it was going to be. It was more of a puzzle game about how to progress through a level and save your guys than it was a bullet dodging side scroller. Sounds fun, but in practice it didn’t play nearly as well as I thought it should have. Most of the heroe’s abilities I didn’t care about, which made the game feel lackluster even though it had exceptional quality all over the place. Sadness.

Best choose your own adventure game: The Stanley Parable

The way this game was made astounds me. You can beat it in the first ten minutes you play it, but that doesn’t stop you from replaying it over and over and over again. It is very polished and was a delight to play. Some of the situations I found myself playing through in The Stanley Parable were completely unique from any other game I’ve ever played. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if the game was fucking with me or if I was in on the joke, but I enjoyed it all the same. Everyone will like this game, and if they don’t, they have something wrong with their sense of humor. So very good.

Favorite game of 2014: Papo & Yo

I didn’t know what to expect from this game since I got it out of a Humble Bundle and hadn’t heard of it before that. I watched a trailer before playing that showed me a cute style, but not much else and decided to give it a try. I couldn’t have possibly guessed that Papo & Yo would affect me the way that it did. There is a very, very short list of games that have been able to make me feel a specific emotion powerfully, and Papo & Yo is high on that list. The gameplay is a bit light, but the childlike wonder of the game shines through like no other game I’ve played. The makers of this game were going for something specific, and they hit it out of the park. I don’t think this game is for everyone, but it is easily the most memorable game I played of 2014. Even though I played The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth 50 times longer than I played Papo & Yo, this game is more memorable to me.

For reference, here are the games I beat this year:

Nintendo 3DS
     Shovel Knight

Android
     Hitman GO
     Monument Valley
     Pixel Dungeon
     The Room

PC
     Antichamber
     Papo & Yo
     The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
     The Stanley Parable
     To The Moon

Playstation 3
     The Last Of Us

Xbox 360
     Super Time Force
     Trials Fusion

Here are the games I played but didn’t beat (or couldn’t “beat”):

Nintendo 3DS
     Cave Story

Andoid
     Desert Golfing
     Threes

PC
     1001 Spikes
     DOTA 2
     Joe Danger 2: The Movie
     Legend of Grimrock 2
     Never Alone
     Risk of Rain
     Road Not Taken

New Year’s Resolution

I don’t really like New Year’s Resolutions, but I think in this case, I’ll make an exception. I want to make an in-depth post about every game that I finish/play over the course of the year. I’ve been wanting to do it for a while, so hopefully this will give me the impetus to do so.

Games of 2013

I beat 19 games this year, which is more than any other year since I started keeping track in 2006. What’s most interesting to me is that there’s only one that I wouldn’t consider indie (The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds). I’m really close to beating Dishonored, but I didn’t get around to finishing it before the year ended. I think it’s mostly because I don’t actually spend a tremendous amount of time gaming these days, so I really like shorter games that I can finish in a couple of play sessions rather than giant RPGs or something similar. I also tend to like new games (not sequels) because I value unique gameplay over almost everything else. I love seeing new game ideas done well or a tweak on something old to make it feel fresh. Sequels rarely deliver that, so I tend not to play them as much.

Now for the awards!

Worst Game of the Year: Starseed Pilgrim

I picked up this game because Jonathan Blow said it was one of the best he’d played in a while, and I generally value his gameplay opinions. Starseed Pilgrim is one of those “I can’t tell you anything about the game because it’ll ruin it” type games. It’s also an exploration game. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly painful to play, and not in a Dark Souls type of way. It’s just more frustrating than enjoyable, and even though I found myself getting decently far, I wasn’t really having fun. I was incredibly disappointed with this game, especially because of it’s high praise from Blow.

Most Enjoyable Game That Made Me Work: Papers, Please

Remember when I said I enjoyed new gameplay ideas done well? This is the shining example of that. I had fun doing work, and it was all because of the environment that existed in the game. Am I going to be arrested for letting someone through a checkpoint when I shouldn’t? Who is the quirky guy that keeps giving me obviously fraudulent passports? What is the “right” thing to do? I know a bunch of people didn’t like this game because it felt like work, but I think that was an absolutely necessary component of the game in order to get you to feel the pain of the decisions you had to make. This game is going to be one in which people will point at it many years down the line as something truly unique and charming.

Game I Love Watching More Than Playing: DOTA 2

I really only played maybe 10 matches of DOTA 2 last year, but the number of hours in which I watched people play it has to be over 1000. I love incredibly complex games that also require teamwork and a ton of skills, so DOTA fits the bill. What I don’t like is how my behavior changes when I play those styles of games. I get angry at people and frustrated to the point where it ruins my day. Watching people play, however, rarely does that. Putting The International‘s finals on my big screen TV and watching them was one of the highlights of my year. That was such an amazing tournament to watch. Competitive gaming has come a long way. The game itself is a testament to how Valve can still put out quality games. Everything about it is top notch from how well it’s balanced to how it looks and how well supported the community is. Having played DOTA for over 8 years now, I have to say I’m still not tired of it. Such good stuff.

Best Throwback Game: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

My favorite game of all time is A Link To The Past, so I pretty much had to pick up A Link Between Worlds. This is the first game I’ve played for more than five minutes on my 3DS, and while I enjoy the system, I don’t think it’s something I’d have bought for myself. The game itself is quite fun, but I was slightly annoyed that the layout of the world in ALBW is incredibly similar to ALTTP. That being said, I enjoyed myself immensely and recommend this game if you like 2D Zelda games.

Best Multiplayer Game: Towerfall

The OUYA console is a piece of shit, but my coworker picked one and brought it to work to play Towerfall. If you ignore the system it’s played on (by getting ps3/xbox controllers), this game is an amazing multiplayer game. The depth to a simple mechanic of having limited arrows, one hit kills, and powerups is quite amazing. Towerfall reminds me a bit of Super Smash Bros. in the best possible ways. I can’t count how many times we had people pick up the game for the first time and fall instantly in love. I’m excited to see that it’s coming to the PS4/PC in 2014 as more people need to experience this game.

Favorite Game of the Year: Thomas Was Alone

The premise of you being a bunch of blocks with different abilities seems weak at first, but then when you actually play the game, you realize how well executed it is. The game is gorgeous, and that’s a really strange thing to say considering it’s mostly just blocks and simple levels. The way the story is told, and the puzzle mechanics that are created from these simple blocks are really well done. In the same way that I have Bastion’s narrator’s voice forever stuck in my head, I have Thomas Was Alone’s as well. The game was a delight to play the entire way through; I wish I could do it again anew. I highly, highly recommend Thomas Was Alone.

For reference, here’s the list of games I beat this year:

Android
     Clash of the Olympians
     Ridiculous Fishing
Nintendo 3DS
     The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
PC
     Dear Esther
     Gone Home
     Hotline Miami
     Legend of Grimrock
     Little Inferno
     Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine
     Papers, Please
     Rogue Legacy
     The Swapper
Playstation 3
     Guacamelee
XBox 360
     BattleBlock Theater
     Brothers
     Dust: An Elysian Tail
     Mark of the Ninja
     The Walking Dead: Episode 2

Here’s the other games I played but didn’t beat (or couldn’t “beat”):

Android
     Candy Crush
     Kingdom Rush
     Punch Quest
OUYA
     Towerfall
PC
     Don’t Starve
     DOTA 2
     NightSky
     Starseed Pilgrim
XBox 360
     Bioshock 2
     Runner 2