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Violence and its effect on the video game playing community has been an issue for decades. Arguments were made as far back as DOOM that video game violence was responsible for school shootings like Columbine. Last year United States President Donald Trump echoed these claims in relation to the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting.
Violent video games do have an effect on their players but it was never as extreme as many feared. It can’t be denied that it takes a special and fucked up kind of perseverance and dedication to walk into a building full of innocent children and shoot them dead. In terms of who video game violence effects the worst we may have been looking in the wrong direction for a very, very long time.
Just under three weeks ago a story by Joshua Rivera over on Kotaku made waves in the gaming press and industry. Rivera spoke to a developer at NetherRealm Studios – the developer of the hyper-violent Mortal Kombat series – who confessed to being diagnosed with PTSD and suffering from horribly violent nightmares and hallucinations during and after development. Mortal Kombat in it’s last three iterations at least has been a very good, very solid fighting game. But that’s not really why people play Mortal Kombat is it? No, they play it for the bone-crushing, face-ripping, heart-crushing violence.
Mortal Kombat has reveled in extreme violence for nearly thirty years. No other game allows you to freeze someone solid before ripping their spine out of their back. So why, all of a sudden, is it a problem? Well since Mortal Kombat was rebooted back in 2011 the games have become realistic in terms of their character designs, animations and their violence.
It’s no small stretch to see how this realism can easily be seen as going too far. It’s fine when it’s a 2D sprite being disemboweled but a fully mo-capped 3D character? Mortal Kombat’s violence has always been cartoonish but applying the gleeful, gut-ripping violence of its more artificial looking entries to the realistically designed characters of Mortal Kombat 11 creates a distinct sense of cognitive dissonance. Especially when you’re the person designing said violence.
One developer that spoke to Kotaku, on condition of anonymity, said this about the workplace environment: “You’d walk around the office and one guy would be watching hangings on YouTube, another guy would be looking at pictures of murder victims, someone else would be watching a video of a cow being slaughtered”.
Video games, especially big ones like Mortal Kombat, take years and millions of dollars to make. The development from the bare bones tools to the Alpha build to the fully polished ready-for-sale copies is painstakingly slow. So too is the research.
Having to constantly look at photos of corpses, execution videos and murder scene pictures is bound to have a negative effect on the mind. I remember being given a book on forensic science by a cousin. About halfway through there was a picture of a dumped, rotting corpse infested with maggots. I shut the book and never picked it up again but since that day the mere sight of maggots draws an intense physical reaction from me. Entire generations of gamers are now desensitized to some of the most graphic, realistic violence ever put onscreen. But like everything in video games recently the human cost must be evaluated.
Mortal Kombat is not the only violent video game out there. Recent games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice reward stealth kills with geysers of blood. 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line forced players to rain down white phosphorous on innocent civilians. The ten-year-old Call of Duty: World at War and the nearly-as-old Modern Warfare 2 had players blow Nazis limb from limb and slaughter an airport’s worth of innocent civilians respectively. What kind of toll must that take on someone whose job it is to study and then design burnt, blasted and bloodied bodies?
Video game violence may not affect us as much as real world violence but it’s effect on those that create it must be understood. In 2003 Manhunt caused a great deal of controversy, far more than its violent predecessor had. Controversy in the video game industry normally means that people outside of the gaming community are upset by it. Politicians, activists, the Daily Mail. This was different. “Manhunt, though, just made us all feel icky. It was all about the violence, and it was realistic violence,” Jeff Williams, an ex-Rockstar employee, said in 2007. “There was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line.”
That’s all fair enough. Manhunt was a grim, grimy, gory affair. Players could suffocate foes with plastic bags, gut them with chainsaws and dig crowbars into their backs as if they were trying to pry them open. Playing it over a decade after it’s release I got no sense of joy or even any sense that all it’s bloodletting even meant something. In order for violence to serve a purpose in a game it has to mean something. The violence in The Last of Us is a constant reminder of the desperate grapple for survival in the post-apocalypse. Dead Cells’ riotous slaughter highlights how well-tuned its mechanics are. Mortal Kombat offered up violence as a kind of goofy reward for a match well fought. Or at least it used to.
As seen in the case of Manhunt and now Mortal Kombat 11 it’s clear that violence affects more than just kids whose parents should know better. It affects the people that make these games as well. What’s important to remember is that the artists, programmers and developers that design and render this violence don’t have a choice in the matter. It’s either draw Reptile vomiting acid on someone or find another job. The thing is violence is never going to disappear from video games barring some sweeping global legislation. Video games will likely get a whole lot more realistic as time goes on. Just look at the above trailer for The Last of Us Part II, wow but also yeesh.
But just because video game violence is getting more realistic doesn’t mean the people that design this violence shouldn’t be looked after. It’s bad enough that game developers are overworked and underpaid the PTSD is just the cherry on the shit cake. Counselors should be available for the likes of games like Mortal Kombat. There should be options for time off and the higher-ups should have the wherewithal to check in with their staff. Mortal Kombat is not the only video game violence out there but it is the most realistic and something tells me this problem will get a whole lot worse before it gets better.