Due to their nature as a form of competitive entertainment, games are a form of expression seeded with conflict. This means that since over-exaggeration is the easiest way to accomplish a reaction from any given audience, games (especially digital games, which rely on visual and aural ques to elicit response) tend to be very violent, as there is nothing more viscerally compelling than the sight of blood and the struggle for survival. This reality can be approached from many directions, and indeed argued from different viewpoints, but at this juncture I'm willing to let that sleeping dog lie, and concentrate on a particular detail on the various ways players are made to experience violence and the consequences of their violent outbursts.
I mentioned above that digital games are more relevant to the topic of gamified violence, and mostly that holds true, because of the way they present the game content to the players. Digital games are audiovisual entertainment, and as such they have to show and tell everything that happens very tangibly: we see the slaughter, and hear the lamentations. This is not the case with boardgames or table-top games in general, where we just move the gamepieces, and possibly imagine the havoc we have wrought in our heads. The same goes for table-top roleplaying games (and I suppose most live-action RPGs as well): we are told something happens, and we imagine it.
With table-top games, our own mental faculties and imagination sets the limits to the brutality, and most often we don't dwell on it at all. For example, had an Arkham Horror session I played in recently been a film, I don't think I'd have wanted to watch it at all. The game started with the first player murdering a maniac in the graveyard, and the next player beating a cop up at a gentlemen's club. Next the third player got mugged and beaten to an inch of his life somewhere near the docks, and I finished the round roughing up a nurse at the mental asylum, just to score some drugs. Instead of walking out the theatre, gagging severely or being traumatized forever, we had a hearty laugh about the comedy of a bunch of world saving do-gooders acting like a gang of delinquants, and continued on to repel Azathoth back to whence he writhes at the center of the universe. But had I had to suffer through all the violence in that first round in visual form, I'd have probably been nauseated and disgusted, and most likely would not have found any of it particularly funny.
Seeing is believing, and digital games do a fair job at presenting their audiences with all sorts of violent input. Fighting and survival are at the core of many a play experience, and volumes could be written about the details of various representations of the age old struggle of life and death. But today I'm more interested about what happens after the fight is over. What does the battlefield look like once there's but one man standing? Is the player faced with the fruits of his violence, and what does it mean for the play experience?
To explore this detail further, I will propose two examples I've recently come across, and which got me thinking about the topic in earnest. Firstly, the acclaimed Hotline Miami, which will act as the posterboy of post-modern ultraviolence, where there is blood in pixelated oodles and zounds. Secondly, an older classic, Neverwinter Nights (the first one, not the sequel), with its heroic dungeoncrawling and realistic combat simulation powered by the amazing AD&D 3.0 ruleset.
There are obviously major differences between the games, but similarities abound as well. Mainly, both have the player character running around in corridors, killing animals and people in various innovative ways. This is the core activity of the player, and this is why I feel the comparison is fair. In both games, if the player doesn't manage to kill stuff well enough, he dies. But if the player is indeed the best at the efficient disposal of other beings, he gets to go on, and keep killing some more things around the corner. Then, once the deeds are done and the set of corridors is empty of challengers, he has to navigate his way back to the entrance (to eventually get to the next set of corridors full of monsters). In Hotline Miami, everything in the previous areas remains as the player left it, which is means everything is most probably covered in guts and gore, with corpses strewn everywhere. But in Neverwinter Nights, the dungeon is squeaky clean, apart for maybe a few loot bags left behind. None of the corpses are there anymore and everything is empty, never mind how many guards the player slaughtered to get to the good loot.
This is a fundamental difference between the two games. Hotline Miami forces the player to face the massacre he made in a very concrete way. Even the driving techno beat which sets the background tone for the fast-paced murder spree stops, and everything is dead silent on the walk of shame back to the exit. Neverwinter Nights obfuscates the repercussions of the violence by fading away the dead bodies (or indeed, the bloodstains: there is an option to set the violence rating on ”special”, which means enemies literally become explosions of gore upon dying). Apart for your expo meter ticking up by a small notch and your backpack getting cluttered by trinkets there is nothing to remind you that you just beat something to death.
What, then, does this mean to me as a player? How are the play experiences different, and what can we learn from the difference? For me at least, the main difference is in my own reflection of the things I do for fun. Hotline Miami forces me to realize that I've spent an hour trying to brutally murder a number of virtual enemies, and that I've enjoyed it. The walk of shame back to the exit and towards the next house of blood and gore is used to make me think about violence, which has a bigger impact on me than the actual action: when you fight in a game, you don't think, you react, and you try to survive. Neverwinter Nights doesn't want to make me think about my deeds or their motivations (which are occasionally rather seedy, so far my ”hero” is basically a glorified burglar), it wants me to have an adventure.
From a design standpoint the comparison underlines the fact that very small design decisions can have a profound effect on the end-user experience. The whole tone of Neverwinter Nights would be very grim if the players would have to wade through the corpses they create on a regular basis, and Hotline Miami would likely lose its edge (and thus be a worse game) without its walk of shame. What you show your audience is important all the time, not just during the action bits. It also raises the very pertinent question of the prevalence of violence in digital games in general: when two so differently age-rated games (Hotline Miami being rated 18 and Neverwinter Nights just 12) can be reduced to basically the same core activity, is game design and production really the field of wonderful innovation we always advertise it to be?