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Should animal-killing feature in video games?

June 17, 2016

There are many things one enjoys as part of fiction, but does not enjoy as part of real life. Serial killers breaking into houses and hiding in closets; gangsters shooting innocent bystanders in the head; violent neo-Nazis coalescing in unnerving numbers.


Usually, the reason that we experience these differently between fiction and life is because we accept that the two are not the same – and that in a stable system of morality, right-thinking people (most people) can tell the difference.

In video games, this process is taken further. You, the player, are responsible for the criminal or immoral actions of your protagonist. It is entirely down to your own choice – in so much as, if you don’t like what the game prompts you to do, you need not play the game, just as if you are not enjoying a film, you need not watch the film. Increasingly, video games provide more choice as to the range of antisocial things you can do.

This does not increase rates of violence in any society. That in mind, it would be understandable to posit the argument that violence in media doesn’t matter because it isn’t real, and stands no significant threat of becoming real. In terms of human violence, I tend to agree. However, I do not agree when it comes to animal violence, for one simple reason: human against animal violence is an established and largely unquestioned part of our society. Challenging casual violence against animals in media is a step towards questioning the normality of this real-life behaviour.

In video games, animals and humans alike are bits of software written by humans, attached to visual representations constructed by humans. Every sound and every hair is fake. Therefore, you could say that it doesn’t matter what you kill in a video game – man, woman, child, animal. Yet, within the industry, where people have liberal attitudes towards fake violence, there are certain opportunities for violence that the developers will not put in. In games where there are children and the ability to kill most human characters, the player cannot kill children. In games where violence is the main point of the game, children frequently do not feature at all, in order to remove the temptation.

The temptation itself exists because of the forbidden fruit; in society, there are certain acts which are morally reprehensible, and our reconstruction of these in video games demonstrates, not a deep-seated desire to perform this acts, but an interest in breaking social taboos, within a safe environment where there will be no consequences. In other words, we love to be naughty. A game that requires or encourages violence can only contain naughtiness if there are still rules – don’t kill children is Rule #1. So, most likely in fear of moral outrage, developers stop players breaking the rule by making it impossible.

What’s interesting about this is that, even though your average player knows that this violence is fake, and that Child X is no more a child than “Uncle Bob” is actually your uncle, it still often makes people uncomfortable to kill child characters. This discomfort is also present for graphic violence, such as torture or particularly nasty methods of dispatching a character. In the latter case, it is likely that the realism makes us uncomfortable – these are not clay pigeons with pre-recorded voices any more.

They scream and beg like humans, writhe like humans, and have recognisable facial expressions. Our separation of fact and fantasy doesn’t hold realistic and graphic violence to be entirely fictional. Only those with the strongest stomachs or most sceptical eyes don’t wince when watching such a scene in a film, provided it is well-acted. Horrors are designed to be extra-reality, and are not deemed horrors without a certain lack of believability.

The other issue is one of innocence. Children represent for us a certain innocence, which extends to the game world. They do not kill or attack you. They are usually no threat whatsoever. Evidently, players and developers alike are wary of making victims of such people. In games where this is not true, the emotional discomfort of attacking children drops to zero. Their perceived innocence forms a desire not to pick on them; as soon as it is evident that this innocence is not there, that these are not children as we perceive them in real life, violence against children becomes nothing but standard video game violence.

There is another group of creatures who one is often loathed to attack in video games due to perceived innocence – animals. My brother, who is no vegetarian soul, once said that he thought it was a shame that you couldn’t hunt people in the Grand Theft Auto V hunting mini-game, as opposed to deer. He didn’t like the experience of killing these creatures, even in video game form. That changes as soon as the animal is made into some kind of a threat; cougars, pumas, wolves and bears in video games are freely slaughtered as a means of pre-emptive self-defence which, in video games unlike real life, always turns out to be justified.

Our inherent sense of fair play stays with us even as we suspend our disbelief and launch ourselves into worlds full of hundreds of bodies designed for no purpose than to be furniture until they are killed. So the question, really, is not: “Should animal killing feature in video games?” but rather: “Is there a market for animal killing in video games?” If you asked the same question about children, we’d all like to think the answer is no. For sure, some people hunt in real life, and are unlikely to feel anything about fake hunting. But for the majority that don’t, it is an experience they don’t desire.

Let’s think about the psychology of hunting. People hunt for a few different reasons. One is for survival by obtaining a source of food. Another is survival by removing a potential threat. The final and least common is for sport, which requires a challenge of some kind; it’s hardly hunting to break into a chicken coop and shoot a brooding hen. Sports have largely replaced this sort of fun, as balls of wool distract cats that would otherwise chase mice. We increasingly recognise the moral value of replacing killing with harmless pastimes that provide a similar experience.

Having eliminated sport as a primary motivation of hunting, the only motivations left are ones of necessity or perceived necessity. In video games, there is rarely necessity of this type; the exception is in survival games. These frequently involve killing for defence or collecting resources. Many people don’t like killing the Minecraft cows because they’re cute, with their googly eyes – so much so, you can buy cuddly toys of them. But killing the cows produces leather for crafting items, so players eventually overcome this reluctance because of perceived necessity.

Most developers don’t realise that art doesn’t need to imitate life when it comes to animal butchery, and its audience would probably prefer it if it didn’t. I doubt the developers of Minecraft thought: “Let’s make some cute things for people to kill.” They simply created animals that most closely resembled designated function animals – cows, sheep, pigs, chickens. The reason they chose to do this is because they felt it would make a better survival game if it contained materials which players would understand the usage of via life experience. For example, if you have egg, you can make a cake in Minecraft. Is it necessary? Of course not. But many people find it neat and funny.

We are worlds away from the concept of removing animal products from casual representation in fiction. Developers that create fictional creatures for slaughter often attempt to make the creatures look different to real life, thinking that this will prevent people from associating video game slaughter with real slaughter. This is particularly ineffectual when the altered creature is cute, in its own blocky, alien way. “Cuteness” is the human experience of anthropomorphising and ascribing innocence to a non-human creature or object. In essence, the thing that makes Minecraft players unwilling to kill the cows is because they see in those googly eyes a thing which is harmless and worthy of protection.

The other alternative developers have is to use entirely fantastical, ugly or vicious creatures to provide the animal products. If you could only obtain dragon eggs because chickens didn’t exist in-game, the experience of thieving from the animal is different. The dragon represents a (usually intelligent) creature, from which we steal its reproductive products in order to benefit ourselves; but, the fact that the dragon attacks us, as any good mother would, generates no reaction but a feeling that this is a fair fight, and she a worthy opponent. The “punishment” of a creature attacking your for stealing its eggs does not translate in the mind of a player as punishment, but rather a challenge which renders a reward, and thus legitimises the trophy.

Softening the impact of slaughter and animal misuse via fiction techniques betrays a lack of understanding about the root of human discomfort over them. The use of slaughter for unneeded gain is an integral part of material building in video games because it is a tacitly accepted part of real life. I have yet to discover a video game that used material gathering and building as its main game function which did not include animal product collection.

I wonder whether it would be conspicuous by its absence; if players would wonder: “Why can’t I kill this animal? Why can’t I take its milk?” or whether they would simply accept such a game as it was, and feel no particular draw towards fake animal slaughter. The world of video games is designed to be unrealistic. If there’s one form of unrealism I’d like to see, it’s a world where no one has a concept of “animal products.”

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