After what feels like an eternity I’m finally done with my bachelor thesis 🎉
I was following a very media-science-y approach and tried to uncover why violence and humor in games are so heavily intertwined. Just think about all those funny Call of Duty or Battlefield videos, Ragdoll compilations or just playing a game and laughing at someone dying a horrific death. Why is it, that we can laugh at dying (virtual) people in games where the same thing would be unthinkable in Real Life?
Well, if you ask me, it’s all about the Frame™.
Basically, when talking about games in general, but video games in particular, one can easily identify some kind of cognitive distance to the action happening on screen. We know that the stuff we’re playing is obviously not real… Nothing too surprising there. But why is it, that sometimes even digital violence is “too much”?
The short answer: It’s complicated. Also, Frames™.
The long answer:
MAGIC CIRCLE. All the Game Studies people left the room. You know where this is going, am I right? Please, keep reading. I promise it’s not that boring.
Well… According to Rainer Leschke (Metaethik der Mediengewalt, 2011) there’s something called the meta-ethics of media-violence. The tl;dr of that is: an act of violence itself is always(!) something inherently negative, but if the act itself is positively distinguished by some other means (like the surrounding culture, the aesthetics of the act itself or whatever), then the act of violence can be received positively despite being somewhat cruel. A great example would be… oh I don’t know… NEARLY EVERY SHOOTER THERE IS. Killing Nazis in WW2? No problem, they are the bad guys! (Also, slow motion kills make happy brain stuffs go brrrr, looking at you Sniper Elite 😏) Running over pedestrians in GTA? Well, they asked for it by EXISTING, also they kind of look nice flying trough the air. There are so so many ways used in games to make killing feel good and rewarding (OR just plain unproblematic, because there are always more pedestrians, right?) that the act in and of itself is basically no problem. And if you’re supposed to feel bad about killing someone it’s also communicated as such. Thanks, Game Designers! In a nutshell, it’s arithmetics. Violence is negative and needs some positive reinforcement, if you want it to be perceived in a positive way.
Bad + Good = Good-ish when
Good > Bad
Bad + Good = Bad when
Good < Bad
Leschke calls this the “Wertarithmetik der Mediengewalt” which translates to something disgusting as Value Arithmetics of Media Violence (I love german for that lol).
Katie Salens and Eric Zimmermans book on Game Design (Rules of Play, 2004) suggests games should keep in mind that there is some kind of barrier around the game world itself, the Magic Circle. Rules inside of the Magic Circle can give new meaning to actions which can have a quite different meaning outside of the circle. Shooting someone to score a point in Call of Duty is quite a different action than shooting someone in Real Life. At least I think so. Gregory Bateson basically says the same thing in “Eine Theorie des Spiels und der Phantasie”. He compares games to rituals, where the same logic applies. A dagger is just a very pointy knife, but a sacrificial dagger is a ritualistic instrument to summon a demon or some shit like that. Basically, like everywhere in life, it’s all about context. Keep that in mind. This is important.
Another thing is, there are basically no real consequences (aka. consequences in Real Life) for killing an NPC in some game. Sure, there may be a bounty on your head in the game world itself, but you, the player, are completely fine with no repercussions (except the lingering thought of having ended a family fathers life you MONSTER!). According to Rune Klevjer (Enter the Avatar. The Phenomenology of Prosthetic Telepresence in Computer Games, 2012) the avatar as we know it is not just a playable character in game, it’s the players Proxy. This Proxy is not just about controlling a character, but being this character. We, the players, are in this game world through this Proxy, taking actions and feeling the result of our actions through the Proxy. The Proxy doesn’t just represent us, he IS us. But he’s not done yet! In addition to that, the Proxy also acts as a filter between the game world and our real world. As long as we are “connected” (aka. immersed) to this Proxy, actions taken in the game are not problematic for us, the players. But, if some action in game is very bad (in any way) it could break the immersion and sever the connection to our Proxy. If that happens, actions inside the game world will be treated AS IF they happened in the real world. That’s bad, because murdering pedestrians by running then over with your sports car is widely regarded a “dick move”, at least here in Europe (metaphor intended).
If all this doesn’t make sense just now, bear with me. I will explain!
Having talked about violence a lot, let’s focus on humor next. According to John Morreall (Humor as Cognitive Play, 2009) there’s a quite straightforward way to describe why people laugh. (For you humor guys and gals, this is about intellectual humor, nothing else. See Ziv:1984.) They experience some kind of Cognitive Shift, enjoy it and laugh as a result. The Cognitive Shift happens when there’s a shift in ones cognitive apparatus 😏. Basically, it’s just
Think about something -> Think about something else, where the shift must be enjoyed for humor to be possible. Morreall also said, that for something to be enjoyable in a humorous way you need to have some kind of cognitive distance to the subject of your laughter. He said that he and his wife laughed hard, when elephants broke out of a canadian zoo and just strolled through the streets, but it probably wasn’t that funny for the people who lived in those streets. At least at the time. Because time can also provide this kind of cognitive distance. A friend of mine nearly died because of a severe illness. It was pretty fucking scary and the most horrifying night of my life. But today we laugh about that, because of course we do. I think you can already guess where this is going.
Combining what I discussed (which was also my theory in my thesis):
If Leschkes arithmetics are positive for violence in games, the violence takes place INSIDE of the framing of the game (aka. inside of the Magic Circle). Then there is enough cognitive distance between the violence and yourself so you can laugh about it. If that’s not the case (and this can have a multitude of reasons), then the violence happening needs to be treated AS IF it was real and therefore cannot produce a humorous reaction.
So basically: Will everyone find my game funny because there is killing to do? Probably not. But! You can take some steps to make it more appealing by distancing your game from reality OR positively reinforce your acts of violence through any means you like.
This was a very, very short tl;dr of 30+ pages of theory crunching so sorry if some of the stuff doesn’t make perfect sense. I tried 😁
If you want a copy of my thesis (which was graded with an 1,0 (thats an A btw 😏)) just hit me up and I’ll gladly send it to you. It’s in german tho, so keep that in mind.
Thanks for reading! 🕹️