Finding Serenity in Chaos: Violence and Easy Mode
Author: Grace Hester
Violence in video games has always been a contentious issue, especially lately. It’s created a sort of stigma that’s been very difficult, if not impossible, for games to shake off and has tainted their perception among those who might not understand the full scope of what gaming has to offer. Even among those who play games regularly, there’s a divide between those who embrace violence and those who would prefer to see games move in other directions.
Having carefully considered all sides and playing games for so long, particularly violent ones, I never had too strong of an opinion one way or another. But then I spent a week with DOOM (2016), playing it on easy mode due to a tough time in my personal circumstances, and I came to a sort of realisation.
Violence in games doesn’t have to just be a celebration of gore, violence and various increasingly creative ways of destroying your enemies until they’re a combination of red mist and bloody chunks spread throughout a level. Which, at first, sounds kind of strange when I say it took me DOOM to realise this. That there’s a different way of looking at violent video games, one that’s cathartic, relaxing, even comedic at times.
I was exploding my umpteenth demon, facing very little challenge as I did so thanks to playing on the easiest setting, when I thought ‘you know, this is probably a nice, relaxing day for the DOOM Slayer. This is probably his idea of a relaxing Sunday’. I came across this idea of a shared concept between myself and the player character, in that I was having a nice relaxing day playing on easy, and the character was also having the same relaxing experience instead of an adrenaline fuelled bloodbath that would be on the next 60 Minutes episode of ‘why video games are bad for you’.
And so I took this theory, this relaxing, new-found hobby, and used it in other settings. I tried classic Build engine games like Duke Nukem 3D and Blood. I tried more modern titles such as Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Far Cry 5. The only prerequisite was a difficulty setting on some variation of ‘easy’ and a design philosophy that meant it didn’t take itself too seriously (meaning a lot of Call of Duty titles, for example, were out).
The first, most obvious finding was that, naturally, it was thrilling to have complete control over my character and their surroundings. To be an unstoppable force of nature. To experience this degree of control I lacked in my own life while exploding some poor mook’s head. But the true joy came from, similarly to DOOM, exploring the connection I had with the character and how they experienced this spate of violence in the world.
It’s of course important to have a strong sense of morality in your lead character and perhaps a message decrying violence and the slaughter of everyone in your way, but it’s also just as important to have a scenario where you can turn your brain off and not have to think about the path of destruction you’re laying beyond a sense of ‘this is delightful’. Which certainly has a place, in that I know I’m killing pure evil in these games, like Nazis or demons. While Far Cry 5 might be a little more questionable in its morals, it also has the talent of allowing the player not to concern themselves with who they’re killing beyond ‘evil cultists’.
It creates a sense of calm in not having to worry about why the violence is happening, just that it is definitely happening and you are the instigator and you are having a great time. There are plenty of games that debate the morality and require a more active experience, but for the player that wants to tune out and take back control, the passive experience of easy-mode in a morality free environment is amazing. Especially when it allows the player to better connect with the character in question.
Playing these games I found myself thinking more and more about the connection between myself and the character with each head I split open or each alien whose innards I splattered across the wall of a dingy bathroom stall. The game didn’t try to take any other stance than ‘aliens are bad’ or ‘Nazis are bad’ or some variation on that and I was thankful for it. I wondered if the character was as well, knowing they had a simple goal and not having to worry about heavier moral implications weighing them down. I wondered if they found it as soothing as I did blasting through enemies in a gory spectacle without any real challenge just as enjoyable.
Complete control over a situation, no real threat of danger, but still having all the options of a game at my disposal allowed me to play and experiment where I wanted to, or just see how fast I could get through a level, or even just take my time and admire the scenery, occasionally stopping to dismember a demon. It turned what should have been a high-octane, adrenaline fuelled experience into a leisurely Sunday stroll that one might expect more from a classic walking-simulator style game such as Gone Home or The Witness.
It completely changed my perception of what these games can be, what they can offer, and how I can relax and take control over elements in my life while also exploring my ties to the player characters in the games I enjoy.
I also killed so, so many demons and Nazis to learn this, which was a bonus.