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Dear Ken Levine: Is True Violence Really A Game's Duty?

Ken Levine is one of the true visionaries of the video game industry. There is no doubt that his work has been critically acclaimed the world over, and that work has indeed inspired countless developers.

I love the Bioshock franchise, which always presents us with an extraordinary narrative and a memorable, often unparalleled, atmosphere and environment. When one plays a game directed by Ken Levine, one finds himself fully immersed and the result is a singular, even enchanting form of entertainment.

But I'm not sure I agree with his stance on the "responsibility" of games to authentically reproduce violence. During a recent Boston Magazine interview, Levine said that mainstream media sources have a way of hiding the brutal reality of violence and war. That's why it falls to all forms of art - video games included - to give people an uncensored look at the badness. It's to rectify the mistakes done by mainstream falsehoods.

"One of the responsibilities of art is to actually show this is what it looks like when someone gets shot, because it’s really obfuscated [in media reports]. War is about sending pieces of metal very fast at people and tearing them to bits on the most primal level."

That's true, of course. However, I always thought art was about elevating humanity beyond that "primal level;" instituting a form of sensitivity and intelligence unique to the animal that is a homo sapien. After the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, Levine was quoted as saying that violence is "going back to the dawn of narrative" and it's "part of the storyteller's toolkit." Also true, but is it not the duty of the artist to interpret reality, for better or for worse, and present it as a work of fictional creativity? Art is about showing, not telling, correct?

My point, Mr. Levine, is that anybody can show reality in its most brutal form, because that is reality. It requires no talent whatsoever to faithfully recreate a murder on a video game screen. The accurate blood spatters and the authentic animations of a body in the throes of agony don't tell us anything new about the human condition. It certainly doesn't tell a story. It just tells you what happens in graphic detail; i.e., "See, this is what really happens when someone gets shot in the head; as you can see, it's very different from what you may have seen on TV or in movies." Okay, so it's different. So what? How is that knowledge enriching my life and furthermore, how is that art?

Like I said, any fool can take a picture of something horrible and show it to other people. That's essentially all you're doing if you create a true-to-life example of disgusting violence in a video game. The role of the artist is to interpret the world around him, present that interpretation in any creative form he chooses, be it a sculpture or a novel, and give his fellow man something to think about. Seeing violence in its most primal state doesn't give me anything new to consider. Perhaps it may give me a fresh respect for life but at this point, given the inundation of violence we've all experienced in the past half-century, if I don't have that respect yet...well, something is dreadfully wrong.

I understand that to effectively tell certain stories, one shouldn't pull any punches. To make a point, it's sometimes necessary to show that which we don't wish to see. But that's part of a higher sphere; it's only one color on the easel that will eventually, ideally, portray a masterpiece. I can easily paint a black streak on that easel. That's the realistic image of death, which anyone can show you. It absolutely does not require an artist. The artist takes that black streak and magically creates a special symphony of matching and occasionally contrasting hues and shades. It's the talented individual's unique dance of communication.

That is the responsibility of art, I believe, Mr. Levine. I see no honor or duty in showing the worst parts of life as they really are. Such an approach benefits man nothing; of that, I'm 100% certain.

Tags: video game violence, violence in games, ken levine

12/4/2013 9:28:12 PM Ben Dutka

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Legacy Comment System (16 posts)

Wednesday, December 04, 2013 @ 10:42:19 PM

Video game violence to me is no different than watching an 80's horror movie like American Warewolf in London. It was a graphic gorefest but obviously fake. Should it be the industries duty to make a statement that the media refuses to make(though that's arguable that they refuse to make it) I'd say no. Because in the end video game violence is always way too cartoonish to be taken seriously. Besides, Bioshock is hardly as bad as some other games out there. God of War 3 and The Last of Us are way more brutal than anything I've seen in Levine's games.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013 @ 11:11:59 PM

As much as I like your games ser, ...NO.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013 @ 11:22:53 PM

Drama is conflict and very often in stories conflict is violence. That's been true since our ancestors told each other stories around campfires and nothing has changed but the medium.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013 @ 11:37:03 PM

But its not the only art there is.

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 12:24:04 AM

For the record, Levine has clarified his position on his Facebook page.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 2:12:49 AM

I don't think it's the duty of videogames but I don't think game designers who want to do that should be censored either which I think would be the case.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 3:27:39 AM

man i think his work is great i very much respect him and his work because its not the main stream so much more different which i greatly welcome so yeah he's doing great things for the games industry as a whole.

happy gaming =)

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Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 4:42:30 AM

Completely irrelevant, but Levine is a real weirdo. :)
I saw an interview with him on Ginx (the new 24/7 gaming channel, you guys got it on your side of the pond too?) and he's like... Real weird. So geeky it's fascinating. :)

But I dig weirdos so naturally I'm an even bigger fan after I saw him on TV.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 7:37:36 PM

He kinda reminds me of a Zack Schneider of gaming.

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Lawless SXE
Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 5:39:05 AM

I really like this editorial...

That being said, I really think that that single comment has been taken somewhat out of context, or at least doesn't give the full picture of Levine's ideas. I mean, he proved with Bioshock (can't speak for Infinite yet) that he understands that as intrinsic a factor as violence is for games, it can be utilised in a way that serves the narrative themes.

Rapture as a utopia failed due the greed of the populace, which led to violence. You are given the option of initiating violence against Big Daddies if you want to deal with the Little Sisters, and choosing to harvest them implies further violence while presenting a moral quandary at the same time. What I find interesting is that the violence portrayed in-game isn't all that realistic at all, though the themes that it is used to portray are.

Moving on... art is about presenting one person's interpretation of the human condition, right? That much I agree with. You have to concede that violence is a central part of humanity, as terrible as that is, and so violence, realistic and horrible, certainly does fall within the realm of the artist. This is more true in video games than any other medium due to the fact that it is an interactive one and it is considerably more difficult to explore anything without conflict. In saying that, Gone Home is a brilliant example of a game that says a great deal without resorting to violence, but then... it's not exactly what you might call 'fun', which is what sales are generally predicated upon.

I haven't personally played Spec Ops: The Line yet, though I have read and seen much to indicate that it uses realistic violence to great effect in order to explore themes of humanity. I bring it up because I wonder if the same ideas and themes could be explored outside of the war setting and without the player being tasked with committing atrocities.

To cut it short, the display of violence IS a duty of art, but not for the sake of displaying violence, which is something that the past work of Ken Levine proves that he understands. It needs to be in context, and it needs to say something, and Bioshock (and Infinite, according to many) says something.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 6:50:02 AM

To be honest if a game is going to feature violence due to the nature of the game, I have no issue with it. The Violence within Bioshock was justified with the situation/setting.

My problem is how gear up the industry is towards violence. It is clear that there has been a rise in violence within gaming this gen, but not just due to the depiction of graphics. The majority of AAA games this gen are violent easily 90% of them.

The problem I have is that nearly every successful game this gen has use of weapons to cause violence with. We're lacking a really strong set of Platforming games that we had back in the PS1 generation. We have a few racing games, but beyond that most games have guns/weapons of some sort - This is where the industry needs to change.

Upon playing JRPG's, I never really considered the violence. I mean you are slashing up monsters with swords and frying them with spells. But I don't think there is the focus of killing, such unlike a FPS where when you kill it has to be detailed to be satisfying. I'll never need that with a JRPG - limbs being cut off, blood soaking everywhere just isnt needed, a collapsing animation is sufficient for beating the enemy.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 9:22:06 AM

Its not arts responsibility to depict violence in all its glorious colours of reality. Art is an expression or abstract of reality. Art imitates life, but does not copy it exactly. Minus photography or course but that is blurry line that crosses reporting or recording history and an artists expression of it.

Great games from a visionary like David Cage. But art is also in the simplistic way a form or entertainment. Seeing someone die in anguish in a game in great detail... is not entertainment to me. Maybe for some, but not me. It may be part of the story of game, but does not need to be the same as seeing someone dying in pain on a news report in some war.

Games are a stress release at the best of times, but bringing reality in to a game and the stress that comes with it... not thanks.

Keep playing!

With that though I can't wait to see what Levine and his team give the gamer next.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 11:14:23 AM

Not all gaming is stress release, online gaming is stress production.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 10:03:58 AM

I guess I think he's right IF cutting through the bull of fake Hollywood violence is part of the vision of the artist. I'd like the pro gun folks to see the corpses of those Sandy Hook kids to see what war weapons do when their bullets shred children to bits, but that wouldn't be art, just a picture.

Games should do what they think is right, if they want hilarious ragdoll physics deaths then there's nothing wrong with that either.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013 @ 11:33:40 AM

The impression I get is that he's not paying homage to violence, but rather showing how brutal it is.

I recall playing the orignal bioshock. Armed with only a crow bar and scared crapless I took on the transformed townfolk.

I was horrified as I swung the crowbar in fear to defend myself and heard the metal of hitting the bone of my opponent multiple times. I could only play for a few minutes at first.

One thing I never want to do, or have done to me is to hit/be hit (by)someone with a crow bar!


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Friday, December 06, 2013 @ 12:35:43 AM

I know what the insides of a human being look like. Would I like to see them splattered all over the walls and floor in a video game? Nope. The only game I'm ok with being stupidly gory is Mortal Kombat. Because it looks fake, cartoony, video game-y. Bringing gore, and violence to the next level of realism, should not be a games purpose. If Bioshock Volcano Rapture has blood and guts flying all over the place it won't be making GOTY status, unless the die-hard gore fanatics love it enough to vote for it.

Ha, Volcano Rapture.

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