The Clockwork Game Design Podcast: Episode 4 – Violence in Media


In this episode, I discuss violence in videogames. This is a less “game-design-theory” episode, and more of a culture/media episode, but I do discuss a lot of user comments from these recent articles.

Cited in the article:

“Dehumanization” on Polygon

Beyond the Pentakill on Gamasutra

In addition to those, I also wrote these relevant articles:

Violence, Pt. 1: Glorification

Violence, Pt. 2: Game Design Ramifications

Thanks for listening! As always, you can support this show here.


  • Jesse Fortner

    It’s going to be hard to ask this without people interpreting it as “Here comes Mr. Fedora,” but when you say that feminism has won, what do you consider the primary agenda of feminism, and in what respect has it won?

  • Well the primary agenda of feminism *generally* is for gender equality. But in games specifically, it was “let’s wake up to these patterns we have of repeatedly showing women as sex objects over and over again”. And I think generally people have started to kinda wake up to that.

  • Tommy

    I think it’s very unfortunate that we can’t have discussions about how games affect players without talking about violence and sexism, especially when there’s no evidence to suggest a one-to-one causal link between games and reality.. In fact a lot of studies seem to have debunked the myth of violent games causing violent behavior in real life..

    Of course games affect us, otherwise there would be no point in making or playing them.. But exactly HOW do they affect us..? I think that’s a lot more complicated than just “monkey see, monkey do”, and something that we should definitely study further, but it’s a long shot from proclaiming that feminism has won (in regards to sexism in games) or that violent games causes violent behavior..

    It’s easy to see violence and sexism in games, if that’s what you’re looking for..

  • I sort of sit on this issue like I do about meat eating, where I think it is ultimately better if we consume little to no meat as a society, and that I as a person should therefore consume no meat or dairy products in order to compensate. But I still eat meat when it’s put in front of me and seek it out fairly regularly. I agree that we should have less violence, but I still enjoy it. None of this is especially relevant to my response, but it might help frame it a little bit.

    It seems like a big part of your push regarding violence is that you saw success by feminists pushing against sexist representations and a lack of non-sexist representations. I think that message has been accepted by developers and publishers for reasons that won’t apply to reducing the prevalence of violence, or its glorification.

    Creating video games with broader representation and avoiding sexist representations makes games more accessible to a larger portion of the population that would have avoided them otherwise, and doesn’t push away very many people in the process. But a huge portion of media advertisement is still about inducting children to become lifelong consumers. Selling a simplified message that you expand and add nuance to without directly challenging, in ways that reinforce that original message, is very effective at in turn selling products.

    I think there are certainly people who want to play games that are less violent, and less glorifying. And we’ve relegated them to some corner of the market with brain games and mobile skinner boxes. Serving these people will almost certainly be profitable, and will allow you to make better, more moral games as a developer. But it will likely come at the short term cost of lost potential sales to people who already do idolize violence, and who are receiving reinforcement from other sources on that fact. It’s hard to convince media to be a leading force in social change, since it often relies on being acceptable in the status quo.

    Instead we usually look to art, and art games do seem to do more to challenge violence (or simply don’t include it) than aaa games, or indie arcade games.

  • One of my favorite comments I’ve ever gotten! Thanks.

    The thing about “sitting on it like I do meat eating” – I’m in a similar boat as you on that topic. The thing is, I think if you and I aren’t going to stop eating meat, we should at least admit that that’s not what we should be doing, and not make excuses for it. Like sure, we still do it, but don’t pretend that just because we still do it, that that makes it somehow more OK.

    I agree though that the like, “core gamer” type – basically what I was 5-10 years ago – I have a lot of work to do to convince them that what *they* should be wanting is less violence.

  • I never said it was “monkey see, monkey do”. It’s obviously way more complicated than a direct connection like that.

    And yes, it IS easy to see violence and sexism in games, and your brain sees it even if you don’t.

  • Rob Seater

    “a slippery slope towards progress” is a great phrase

  • Rob Seater

    To your point, LotR is often considered to be a whimsical story, but it has many rather tasteless subthemes. It’s violence has pretty overtly racist overtones. This is no exaggeration: In one letter Tolkien wrote about the books, he said that he chose to describe the orcs as “squinty eyed” because that would make them sound Mongolian, which he thought would help readers see them as enemies. The whole story is about how difference races of intelligence beings are fundamentally good or evil, and how they have predictable personalities based solely on their race. That is 19th century style racism in its purest form.

    The defense I would put in Tolkien’s favor is that he was attempting to imitate the styles of older epic literature, which were mostly about heroes, religious metaphors of good and evil, and glorious violence against the enemy. Perhaps that justifies him, but it doesn’t support viewing fantasy as a harmless or whimsical theme or reusing it for modern games.

    That said, I still enjoy many elements of LotR. There are compelling themes about loyalty and allegiance, carrying burdens, giving up power, and personal sacrifice. But it is often seen as an untouchable go-to template for games, which results in those games being implicitly racist and explicitly violent. I wish gamer designers drew on the source material a bit more judiciously.

  • I would say that explains Tolkien’s work more than it justifies it.

  • Jimmy Mac

    I had two comments; one is a version of the reality vs. fantasy argument in favor of violence in games, and second a version of an argument Anita Sarkeesian (among others) made.

    First, although I think you are right that fantasy matters, even if we know it’s not “real”, you don’t really get into why fantasy matters. Fantasy and imagination, and by extension, play and games can give us a way to encounter our fears, taboos, and existential crises in a safe environment. It’s actually better than safe. The nature of play is one of possibilities. In real life, I can’t fly, but I just say, “make believe I can fly” and now I can imagine that. One function of play is that it increases flexibility in thinking. When a child goes through something traumatic, they will draw or play out related metaphors and themes. Negative life events constrict our thinking. If I can pretend to be a bird, I can think differently about the car accident I was in. Games are less free than imaginative play, but I think they still retain some of that world of possibility.

    When I play Super Mario Bros. I see the world in a new way. Crucially, because games are an interactive medium, they allow exploration in a way a movie cannot. We agree violence is horrible, and yet, we know it occurs, and we may even think it justified in the cases you mentioned. Games about violence don’t merely encourage and glorify violence, although they often do, but they also allow us to explore the meaning of violence and think about it. Or, at least, I think they have the potential to do so. Only in the last couple of years do I think people making games have grappled with the moral implications. We’ve come some ways from Rise of Triad ( in the ’90s were you were forced by the game to shoot people on their knees begging for their lives. A game like Red Dead Redemption had moments where players had to confront what their character was doing.

    So I do think that there is room for violent media. Violence, death, and the nature of evil are compelling because they require explanation. When we hear someone died, we want to know how, we want to know why. When a mass shooting happens, we want to know what explained it, what were the motivations. Of course, good stories can be told about other things, but violence has been a subject of art since humans started making art. I think game makers ought to think more about the artistic statement they are making about violence for sure, but I also think that games have a potential to explore these themes in a way other media cannot.

    However, I’m going to defuse my argument for including violence in games. I think I heard something along these lines from Anita Sarkheesian. I think the biggest problem isn’t that games cannot tell a meaningful story that includes violence. The problems are that 1) games often don’t say anything interesting about their themes, and 2) almost every game is violent. In a world saturated with violent games, filled with cliche, it’s difficult to really defend the current crop of violent games as meaningful art. It’s as if every movie that came out was about prison. In this alternate world, there are prison romantic comedies, prison dramas, quirky indie movies, all genres are represented, they just take place in prisons. Then the Shawshank Redemption is released. Even though that movie is a good movie, in a cultural context where everything is about prisons, it would beg the question, why can’t people make movies about other things? I think that’s where games are at with violence. I think meaningful things could be said about it through games, but it’s the only thing people make games about for the most part.

    I appreciated your take on the issue. I’m not disagreeing with you, just sharing some of my thoughts that came up as I listened.

  • Venom

    As someone who is on the otherside of the whole feminism debate that now, roughly half a year later, feminism has lost or at least bitten their own head off (due to tactics used by popular figures within that). Mostly due to the extreme double standards used by those people advocating for it and in quite some cases just plain scummy tactics to “prove” their case. The recent gawker thing being an amazing example of it, when it’s a sextape of a famous woman they write about how evil people are that watch it and spread it but when it’s a famous man suddenly a good thing to spread even after a court order they keep spreading it. And that same double standard can be seen pulled though their Kotaku site.
    Or taking Sarkesian who in more cases than not ignore that the same things happen to men also in games.
    And both rather chalk up actual criticism of their tactics and double standards as harassment and often categorize them with the death treats. An example with Sarkesian again would be here recent crowdfunding campaign where one of her critics set up a counter crowdfunding campaign to help women in Africa and Arabic countries. That under the idea of “Sarkesian isn’t helping women, but this will”. Her reaction? “In response to our new project, a very vocal, known harasser who has spent years attacking feminism and individual feminists on YouTube, has launched a counter-fundraising campaign specifically designed to both discredit me and mobilize his viewers to abuse me further on social media.”
    Calling him a harasser is already a stretch, he is extremely blunt sure. But criticism is still criticism regardless if you say things like “you idiot” behind it. That doesn’t make it friendly but certainly doesn’t make it harassment.
    And that is just within the “gam-o-sphere”.

    As for the actual meat of your point of this podcast, I just chalk it up to laziness in writing and violence and sex sells. You see the same in low budget movies and books. It’s far more an indication of lack of depth than anything else to me. As for the glorification of violence I find that that really doesn’t hold much meaning. A sane human being can make the distinction between real life and fantasy and while it might certainly desensitize someone to violence that is in most cases a double edged sword. People might find a mild amount of violence more normal than otherwise but at the otherside you’d also be more desensitized to the shock value or in other words the result of violence. Which is a good thing, I’ve heard from a paramedic friend of mine, for example, that he watches and plays a lot of VERY bloody movie and games for the simple fact that that makes him act more rational and less stressed in situations he tends to end in.
    And for myself I can say, as someone who had a quite violent history, that violent games is a great way to blow of steam and direct violence towards a place where it has no real world effects.
    At the end of the day I thing the good of fantasy violence out way the bad.