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In Violent Video Games, the Gameplay Sends its Own Message

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I loved Hotline Miami.

Hotline Miami felt to me like the sort of game Michael Mann might have made in the early 80s, if he’d gone into designing video games instead of directing films like Thief and producing TV shows like Miami Vice. The neon visuals searing my retinas, the exceptional electronica soundtrack propelling me forward, I tore through its levels in an adrenaline-fueled rush. The presence of every individual enemy got my pulse racing to an almost uncomfortable degree, because in the blink of an eye, any one of them could end my life.

It was kill or be killed; each time I stepped out from behind cover to take a shot at one or to charge at one from behind, my body tensed up because of the huge risk I was taking, and each time I successfully shot or hacked or beat one of them into a bloody mess, I felt a little jolt of satisfaction as I stopped holding my breath for a moment before preparing myself for the next kill. With each mangled enemy corpse, I was one step closer to getting out of there alive. A lot of games are all about killing, but Hotline Miami’s combination of stylish graphics, incredible music, twitchy, risk-heavy gameplay, and brutal violence added up to an experience that made killing in games feel newly exhilarating.

Killing is thrilling in Hotline Miami.
Killing is thrilling in Hotline Miami.

At the time, I told myself that the intensity of the violence in Hotline Miami was a good thing. When you kill the last enemy in a level, the music stops, and you’re left alone amid the carnage you’ve caused. You have to walk back through the levels to get to your car, and without the threat of instant death lurking around every corner, the adrenaline starts to dissipate and you’re confronted with the horror of your own actions. At least, this is what I told myself, as a way of perhaps making myself feel better about the fun I was having, or as a way of convincing myself that the game was operating on some deep, meaningful level. Then I went on to the next level and enjoyed the adrenaline rush that came from slaughtering the next bunch of gangsters.

We like to think that games that feature violence as a core mechanic can be critical of violence, and in fact a piece was recently published on Paste Magazine called 10 Violent Games That Comment on Violence. (Hotline Miami is on the list.) But I no longer think it’s possible for a game that sets out to be fun and entertaining, in which violence is the primary way or the only way available to you of solving problems and interacting with the world, to do anything but glorify and celebrate that violence.


Of course, these games can establish concerns in their stories about the moral rightness or ambiguity of mowing down hundreds of enemies. But you don’t just watch a game; you play it. Gameplay mechanics make meaning as surely as stories do, and any narrative handwringing about whether or not violence is really all that great as a means of problem-solving is invariably drowned out by your moment-to-moment experience of actually using violence to solve your problems and to progress through the game. “Killing is fun,” the gameplay says, “and effective.” Violent games sometimes nudge you into contemplating what you’ve done. They almost never encourage you or even give you the option to stop doing it.

The world of Grand Theft Auto V is beautiful when explored in first person. It's also inescapably violent.
The world of Grand Theft Auto V is beautiful when explored in first person. It’s also inescapably violent.

When Grand Theft Auto V got an updated release on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 late last year, some critics praised the new first-person feature for changing the way that they felt about the acts of violence they committed in the game. For the first time, taking a life in GTA made them feel guilty, they said. But I don’t think it’s guilt at all. I think it’s just a more visceral reaction to the violence — perhaps slightly uncomfortable at first, but also more immediate, more intense and stimulating, and therefore more exciting.

Guilt is not a feeling we typically seek out. When something makes us feel guilty, we stop doing it, or at least some part of us wants to stop. In GTA V, if you actually felt anything akin to guilt about taking a life, you’d feel positively sick with guilt after taking the hundreds of lives you invariably have to take over the course of the game. But Grand Theft Auto doesn’t want to make you sick with guilt. It wants you to have a blast. That’s why so many people play it, and that’s why it makes so much money.

September 12th
September 12th

Perhaps the only game I’ve played in which violence is how you interact with the world that succeeds at being critical of violence is not an entertainment product. It is not fun, and it is not sold. It’s a browser-based game called September 12th, and it presents you with a city filled with civilians and terrorists. If you choose to fire rockets at the terrorists, odds are you’ll kill some civilians too, and your actions will inevitably result in the creation of more terrorists. Violence here is not exhilarating or sensationalized, and it is not effective. It’s worse than futile. You cannot win September 12th. You can only stop playing.

And that’s the thing. Many games acknowledge that violence breeds violence, but they present it as a tragic (but fun!) inevitable loop. Any game that wants to comment on violence in a meaningful and constructive way would encourage us to break the cycle, not to perpetuate it.


It should go without saying that this is not a call for censorship. I love lots of violent video games. I just think the only message most violent games can send about violence is this: Violence is good. Violence is fun. Violence can solve problems, and domination through violence is a normal core value for individuals and cultures. And maybe rather than telling ourselves that some of these games are functioning as a meaningful critique of violence, we should think critically about what the fact that we enjoy these games says about us, and about the world we live in.

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