Wednesday, April 16, 2014

We Shouldn’t Like Violence: How The Last of Us is Different

Violence in videogames has been controversial since nearly the very start of the medium’s history, since the 1976 arcade release Death Race allowed players to run over suspiciously human-looking creatures with a pixelated car (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, et al. 62). Brad Bushman, a violent videogame researcher, recently declared unequivocally, “The research clearly shows that playing violent videogames increases aggressive thoughts…aggressive feelings…[and] aggressive behavior.” Though Bushman certainly cites a great number of studies, his discussion—and much of the wider cultural debate on the topic—lacks some important facts and perspectives. Other research, writing, and careful study of particular games can fill much of these gaps.

Recently, other researchers have attempted to bring some of that greater perspective into the
discussion, with surprising results. Dr. Andrew Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute, for instance, just published a study linking the increased aggression caused by videogames not to their violence, but to the difficulty in mastering the game’s controls. Professor Richard Ryan, a co-author on the study, said, “The study is not saying that violent content doesn't affect gamers, but our research suggests that people are not drawn to playing violent games in order to feel aggressive. Rather, the aggression stems from feeling not in control or incompetent while playing” (Lee). The aggression these videogames cause, then, is not dissimilar to that of any playground sport—players exhibit greater aggression because they are in a competitive situation of which they are attempting to gain and maintain control. As most of the violent videogames studied by Bushman and others include a competitive element requiring technical mastery, these findings call much if not all of the previous research into question. However, despite these findings, the wider cultural view of videogames remains antagonistic, including frequent calls for the banning and/or control of the sale of violent videogames altogether—the most prominent example of which being a California law that was taken all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where videogames were found to be protected under the First Amendment as free speech. The Supreme Court reasoned that games deserve such protection because, “video games communicate ideas—and even social messages” (Schiesel). It is these ideas and social messages that Bushman and others seem to largely ignore in their studies.


Naughty Dog’s 2013 release The Last of Us is one such game that uses violence as part of a larger social message. It is a game that is horrifically violent, but only so to question the value and power of human relationships, and to purposely push the player to question the costs of survival in a post-pandemic world. The game is set twenty years after the real-world cordyceps fungus inexplicably jumps from ants and spiders to humans, with apocalyptic effects on human civilization. In the game, players take on the role of Joel, a middle-aged former construction worker who lost his daughter shortly after the outbreak to a soldier attempting to contain the spread of the infection. In the bitterness and disillusionment that follows the loss, Joel lives outside the law of the military state the pandemic left behind, working as a smuggler and doing whatever it takes to survive. Everything changes, though, when Joel is hired to smuggle a girl, Ellie, out of the city, and the journey leads them both across the entire country as they search for the only group that might be able to produce a cure for the infection.

Every act of violence in the game, then, is an act of either survival or protection as Joel fights for his own life, but even more for the life of Ellie, the de facto second daughter he refuses to lose under any circumstances. Players take on both human and zombie-like “infected” in the game, committing terribly graphic acts of violence against both—but never is this violence gratuitous, it is purposely horrific to emphasize the terrible costs of survival in this fallen world, always challenging the player to question what he or she is fighting for and if it is worth it. This is why one writer on reddit wrote that the game, “taught me something about myself that I never knew before…that I have a very strong paternal instinct.” In this way, the game is as much about the depth of love between Joel and Ellie as it is about defeating their enemies—the title is, after all, The Last of Us, and it is in the defense of and fleshing out of that us that the whole game blooms.

The message of the game’s violence is supported by its mechanics and systems to the same degree of attention as its narrative. Videogame journalist Nathaniel Mott explains this well: “Killing someone in the Last of Us takes time. Nocking an arrow or aiming a gun isn’t an instantaneous process. Making your shots count requires patience — which means that you spend more time observing your target than you otherwise might have. You have to hear them talk, watch them walk, and recognize that they’re as alive as you are (in the game, anyway) before you’re able to change that fact.” Resources are very scarce in The Last of Us, especially in the higher difficulty levels, meaning that as the game increases in difficulty, the player actually has to find more ways to avoid confrontation altogether in order to survive. In this way, the game frames violence as less desirable—the better players find more ways to avoid it—and reemphasizes that role of the violence as only an act of defense and survival.

When violence does come in The Last of Us—and it does come often, even to those who try to avoid it at all costs—it is most often in close quarters, chaotic, and full of improvisation. Joel will use anything around to his advantage, picking up bricks, bottles, pipes, planks, and other things. Depending on the player’s environment, Joel will even use hand rails and tables to smash enemies against for killing blows to the head. The designers have even go so far as to use the word “intimate” to describe the feel they were trying to create in such moments (Reilly). At times, enemies will plead with the player to spare their lives, or negotiate for the life of a friend Joel is holding at gunpoint. The game works very hard to never let the player forget that even though they are fighting for their own survival, their enemies are in the exact same situation. This, then, serves to make the violence all the more horrifying and viscerally disgusting. Many would point to this as the heart of the problem of videogame violence, but Ian Bogost argues the exact opposite—that the more realistic and more revolting violence is the better because violence is revolting. “If anything,” he writes, “trivializing death and torture through abstraction is far more troublesome than attenuating it through ghastly representation” (140). In many ways, The Last of Us is one of the best examples of how to treat violence in a videogame—honestly, and with each act both showing a real price and drawing a real cost from the player.

Violence in videogames—and any media, for that matter—has always been controversial, as it should be. But in the end, it is more dangerous to trivialize and generalize violence than it is to realistically depict it. If videogames do depict violence, it is the responsibility of the game designers to emphasize the human cost of violence—its abhorrence and terror. The real danger is in videogames reducing violence to cheap, easy clicks and button-presses, easy to perform and easy to digest. The Last of Us asks its players to consider what justifies violence—and what the cost is even when it is supposedly justified. Violence is terrible—and when it is simulated, it ought to be terrible as well.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things With Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.

Bushman, Brad. “Brad Bushman – “Is Violent Media ‘Just Entertainment?’.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 February 2014. Web. 15 April 2014.

Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, Jonas Heide Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca. Understanding Video Games. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

imawesome1124. “This game taught me something about myself that I never knew before.” reddit. reddit, inc. Web. 15 April 2014.

Lee, Dave. “Agression from videogames ‘linked to incompetence.’” BBC News. BBC, 7 April 2014. Web. 15 April 2014.

Mott, Nathaniel. “The Mechanics of Mayhem: Considering The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto 5.” Medium. Medium. 9 October 2013. Web. 15 April 2014.

Reilly, Luke. “The Last of Us: Silence and Violence.” IGN. IGN Entertainment, 17 June 2012. Web. 15 April 2014.

Schiesel, Seth. “Supreme Court Has Ruled; Now Games Have a Duty.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 June 2011. Web. 15 April 2014.