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Cyberplay: Why do so many games have violence and devil imagery?

May 30, 1997
Web posted at: 7:31 a.m. EDT (1131 GMT)

By Steven L. Kent

Why do so many computer games have violence and devil imagery?

Walking through the game aisle of your local software store is a lot like touring the hall of horrors in a wax museum. The box art for Diablo, a product from Blizzard Entertainment that (at the time of this writing) is the hottest game on the market, shows a glowing, snarling red devil with ram's horns on his head and tiny yellow eyes. A few shelves away, on the box for Shivers Two, from Sierra On-Line, is a gray devil with deer-like antlers.

Looking around the store, it appears half of the games have devils or violence in some form depicted on their boxes. The box art for Outlaws, from LucasArts, displays a gunfight; Command and Conquer, from Westwood Studios, shows a soldier watching an explosion; MechWarrior 2, from Activision, features a menacing robot.

OK, IndyCar II, by Sierra, has race cars, and Myst, from Broderbund, shows an island. Still, judging the computer game industry by its covers, it looks as if computer games are mostly about violence, killing and devils. Are computer games more violent than television and movies?

Let there be no doubt about it: games such as Doom, WarCraft II and Quake do contain a larger quantity of violence than found in motion pictures or television. In fact, if such ultra-violent movies as "Natural Born Killers" and "Reservoir Dogs" had half as many killings-per-second as Duke Nukem 3D, audiences would become bored, numb or nauseated.

What these games have in quantity, however, they lack in quality. For the most part, computer game violence has a repetitious cartoon quality to it. Most of Doom's demons die the same way whether you punch them, shoot them with a pistol, fry them with a plasma gun or slice them with a chain saw. They growl, splash blood and fall backward.

When characters die in movies they often seem to suffer and die slowly. Sometimes they lose limbs or roll around in agony. Movie deaths, in other words, take time. Computer game deaths are generally fast, one moment a character is fine and the next moment it pops like a balloon and dies. It's been that way for several years.

"In 1993, a little company called id released a game called Doom, which happened to use as its theme violence, blood and Satanic imagery," says Chris Charla, editor and chief of Next Generation, one of the most respected computer and video gaming magazines.

"Doom did really great. I think it would have done great without that imagery and violence, but it did great with that imagery.

"What you have in the computer industry," Charla continues, "is that every innovation is followed by years and years of slavish copying. As soon as Doom came out, everyone decided that the way to be successful was to make their games Satanic and violent too. People were trying to `out-Satan' Doom. It's not just the Satan-imagery, it's the violence too."

Actually, before it created Doom, it released the enormously successful Castle Wolfenstein 3D. Castle Wolfenstein 3D was just as violent as Doom, but it was about killing Nazis instead of demons. According to Doom and Wolfenstein 3D creator John Romero, the people playing the games really enjoyed their violence: "No one had done a game like that before. Of course there was the original Wolfenstein, but it wasn't as graphic as the one that we did. Everyone could identify the music and the characters on the screen as real Nazi stuff."

To Romero, violence, puzzle-solving and other gaming activities are all equal, they're just things you do in games. "Mario 64 is a pure exploration game," he says, "You run around and you collect things and you explore. Shooters basically adds shooting on top of that... I'm sure that we can probably come up with something else to do, but shooting things is pretty fun."

Henry Jenkins, director of media studies at MIT, says computer game violence "occurs because video games are taking the place of traditional backyard boy cultures, which were rooted in violence. They were cultures of daring, stunts, physical challenges and fisticuffs, which were part of the way that boys in American society grew to manhood."

According to Jenkins, whose field of study includes science fiction and popular culture, violent games are not new for boys, but computer and video game technology are exposing many mothers to their children's violent forms of play for the first time. "Video games are more controversial because they are in the house. Mothers who were never exposed to that outdoor culture are suddenly confronting it, and they're frightened by that violent imagery."

In Jenkins' mind, video games may even offer a safer release than older, more traditional forms of play. "Video games take the place of that violence and daring and offer up some of the same images, often in a safer way. They take place inside the house and people can play them without coming in contact with each other physically."

As Romero phrases it, "Going around shooting things is something that you can't do in real life unless you want to go to jail for a long time."

OK, so why the devil?

If Jenkins is correct, backyard culture may have involved violent game play for the last century, but it certainly hasn't involved worshiping Satan. Games such as Doom and WarCraft II are littered with pentagrams, and Diablo, Phantasmagoria and Shivers 2 have pictures of devils on their boxes.

"Those images are probably there for the same reason that Black Sabbath put that stuff in their albums back in the '70s ... for shock value," Romero says.

"I don't think it makes games more immersive when you add Satanic images, but some people may be affected by it. Lots of games are immersive, but games like Doom also have this fear factor. People are fearful of the game. That's different from point-and-click adventure games in which there isn't anything going on emotionally."

"When you can invoke fear in people, whether it's through Satanic imagery or dark passageways with monsters growling, that's better feedback for the player."

Romero should know. Doom is arguably the most popular computer game of all time.

"I don't think anybody at id worships demons," Charla said. "It was just the look that they chose for the game."

Charla sees the appearance of occult imagery in computer games as an extension of today's popular culture rather than an indication of religious beliefs. "I think that a lot of games and computer gamers are interested in fantasy stuff, and that lends itself to spells and magic users and the occult and arcania.

"That's one origin. You end up with a lot of images that are not Satanic in the minds of the people playing the game. They don't consider them Satanic; they're just occult. Whether or not that means they are automatically Satanic is a whole other argument. They're just window dressing. They're just neat."


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