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Violent play — classifying violence in video games

Posted on 17 March 2017 by Hayden

Put into law in 1993, the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act (FVPC Act) requires the Classification Office to examine all sorts of media and classify it for New Zealand audiences. The video games that we classify almost always contain violence. So let’s look at that.

Following the process of the law, we first figure out what violence is shown, if any. Occasional punches or explosion-based action, like in superhero movies, generally end up without restriction. However when the violence gets more serious, s3(3)(a)(i) of the FVPC Act comes into play – this section is concerned with acts of torture, the infliction of serious physical harm, or acts of significant cruelty. The vast majority of video games we see at the Classification Office involve killing in some way, so we consider them here. This is the most interesting part of the Act, where we look at three things about how a video game deals with violence: manner, extent, and degree.

‘Manner’ is about how things are shown. Is the violence realistic or exaggerated? How is it framed on screen? Is it close up or at a distance? Is the violence interactive or does it happen in a cutscene? Are the enemies human? Are they aliens? Are they humanoid aliens? What’s the context?

‘Extent’ is an interesting one with video games. Most simply this is the amount of violence, not just in the moment but across successive hours and levels of gameplay. While many games feature linear levels with set combat encounters, others allow players to choose how much violence they engage in. Two video games which allow this kind of player choice are 2016’s Hitman and Watch Dogs 2, and we’ll use them as examples in a moment.

‘Degree’ is pretty straightforward. We’re looking at things like blood spray, reaction animations, whether gory injuries like decapitation or dismemberment can be inflicted. Cruelty is also a significant factor into the degree of violence, although most games shy away from suffering and prolonged deaths.

So if you’ll excuse the legalese, by considering “the extent and degree to which, and the manner in which, the publication describes, depicts, or otherwise deals with acts of torture, the infliction of serious physical harm, or acts of significant cruelty”, the Office can come to a conclusion about an age restriction for a violent game.

As mentioned above, Hitman (2016) is an interesting case. It’s a game about stealthy assassination, encouraging players to kill targets with ruthless efficiency. While the game doesn’t go so far as to show wounding, the animations and sound effects can be pretty brutal. So while the degree of violence and injury is relatively limited, the ‘manner’ in which it is shown remains quite strong.

Hitman - attack with a knife

This is compounded when you look at the context of the violence – some players might be axing their way through scores of innocents and dutiful bodyguards to get to their target. Others will slip through the level, with their target’s corpse the only evidence they were ever there.

So, the way each player engages in violence can vary quite a bit. Especially when one is busy drowning a man in a toilet, only to be interrupted by someone else wanting to use the bathroom. In a few moments, a quiet assassination turns into a disaster zone, ending in a pile of security guards, and Hitman Guy™ searching desperately for a new suit…

Yes, Hitman is a weird mix of black comedy, stylish subterfuge and brutal murder.

With so much variance in gameplay, when the Classification Office examines video games, we look at both what the game requires players to do, and what it allows players to do.

Alongside efficient assassination, Hitman also allows players to massacre civilians. An option which is neither required, nor encouraged, it is a good example of how some games allow much stronger violence than is necessary to complete the game. In a cacophony of screams and gunfire, scores of people can flee and die, resulting in disturbing imagery of civilian mass murder. Due to the presence of armed guards, this type of motiveless massacre requires a callous, planned approach from the player.

Hitman - fight scene

The game requires players to kill assassination targets. But it also allows them the freedom to kill anyone, or even massacre large numbers of people, in a variety of brutal ways. Because much of the game is about experimenting with different methods and strategies of killing, it was restricted to an adult audience (that is, people aged 18 and older).

Another game examined in 2016 was Watch Dogs 2. A stylish game of hacking and vigilantism, with an endearing cast of characters, it sets players loose in near-future San Francisco. With everything internet connected, powerful media companies collude in rampant invasions of privacy, sometimes for convenience, sometimes for nefarious means.

Watchdogs 2 - city street

Players control hacker Marcus as he and a group of friends known as DedSec use their skills to fight against gangs, corporate interests and opposing hacker groups. They also do things like steal movie scripts to punish creatively-bankrupt filmmakers. But just in case the player needs to kill someone on set, be sure to bring a gun.

Marcus And The DedSec are a bunch of loveable rogues, and the game implicitly steers the player towards the ‘non-lethal’ options like tasering or cracking heads with a weighted yo-yo. Hacking options like forcing power outages or distracting people with their phones can also be utilised for Marcus to slip past, unnoticed.

However players can also use explosives, and machineguns, and shotguns, and sniper rifles, and cars, to kill everyone. Or just a few people. Plenty of other games, like the Assassin’s Creed series or Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, just don’t let players kill civilians. It’s a failure state because it’s not something the player’s character would do. But Watch Dogs 2 is about choice, and so it allows that choice.

Watchdogs 2 - shotgun in donut store

When we look at the violence the game allows, players can easily stage their own bloody massacres, racking up kills and seeing how long they can last against the police. But with all the weaponry and hacking tools available, it’s trivial to shut down police alerts and escape arrest. It’s a concession to continuous gameplay and minimalizing player frustration, but results in a game which lets players commit violence as they see fit. Because the game allows this level of motiveless killing, the game was restricted to an adult audience aged 18.

However, the distributor disagreed with this decision and requested a reconsideration. Appeals are an important part of the process of censorship and classification, and allow members of the New Zealand public to request a new decision by the Film and Literature Board of Review. In this instance the Board of Review also decided that the way violence is dealt with in Watch Dogs 2 required a restriction to adults 18 years and older, so the game was released with that classification.

Writing about violence, it can be tempting to wax lyrical on the way blood spurts, seeps, sprays, spouts, gushes and gouts. While Watch Dogs 2 and Hitman were restricted to adults, the degree of violence is relatively tame for that age bracket. Yet, just because a game has decapitations and fountaining blood, doesn’t mean it’s automatically restricted to adults either. In some cases, like 2016’s Doom, the combat is a dance of blood and gore, but it never quite reaches a level of cruelty or believability which would push the age rating higher. It’s over the top in an amusing way. Like a parade of piñatas, lining the halls of Hell, waiting to be exploded.

Age ratings aren’t an exact science. No video game depicts the same degree of violence to the same extent, in an identical manner to another video game. This is why some rather gory games can be suitable for older teenagers, while other games without gore might be classified higher. As always, context is everything.

For more information about the classification system, contact our Information Unit.

Hayden works in the Classification Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. His views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

Still from Grand Theft Auto V - man with gun running from explosion

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