Rune Klevjer

Rune Klevjer is associate professor at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at the University of Bergen, Norway.

Contact information:
rune.klevjer at

It’s Not the Violence, Stupid

by Rune Klevjer

Gareth Schott's book "Violent Games," with the slightly enigmatic subtitle "Rules, Realism, Effect," does not follow a straightforward recipe, and is difficult to capture in a simple pitch. It is a broad introduction to game studies, of sorts, motivated by a need to respond to public perceptions and political debate on games and violence. Its 223 pages cover a lot of ground — the bibliography counting roughly 800 references — while framed by a clear central idea: in video games, violence is not really about the violence.

What this book does question is the prominence and dominance of the image over the underlying rule systems of games, as it is my contention that rule fashion a different kind of logic and awareness, one focused on the competitive activity that players engage with for the challenge it offers. (p. ix)

Within game studies, this formulation is a variant of what we may refer to, in rough terms, as the concept of gameness. Games are games. When looking at play from the outside, looking at the screen, at the images, it may appear as if violence is the motivation, but appearances deceive; it's the gameplay, stupid. Violence may play an important role, Schott contends, but is gamified, re-appropriated, "under new codes and laws" (p. 196). Violence is an added theme, a visual spectacle, a mode of representation rather than a mode of action. In Violent Games, the gamification thesis is as much a theoretical credo as the pillar of an educational project, a master tool to engage with ill-informed perceptions of games in society.

The gamification thesis opens the door to a broad discussion on the general nature of video games and video game play. The stated aim of the book is to "promote the value of conceptual, theoretical, and empirical work that is taking place within the discipline of game studies" (p. iix) and " promote and explore the discounted properties of games as rule-governed systems" (p. 223). Promote and explore are key words in this context. Violent Games advocates a consistent view on the nature of violence in games, and mobilises a mind-boggling amount of games studies literature to prove it.

At this point, let me disclose my main objection to Schott's project. Although it has an important and clearly argued agenda, and offers a wealth of insights from the field of game studies, it covers far too much ground for its own good, and suffers from a lack of structure and coherence. The book covers the wealth and breath of ideas to fill a three-volume textbook, but written in a loose explorative style. The chapters are a mix of condensed game studies literature reviews (a kind of game studies crash courses), interspersed with more focused mini-essays and research reports on selected topics, strung together by infrequent re-articulations of the gamification of violence thesis. Much of it, like the introductory essay on Columbine and the role of guns, is a rewarding read. Still, as is often the case with books of this nature, I get the impression of a patchwork of separate research efforts collected from over the years, with different aims and topics, forcefully joined into a seeming whole.

The dense and unstructured nature of Schott's game studies explorations does have a reasonable motivation. A whole lot of game studies research is relevant to the understanding the general nature of games, all of which may well count as indirect elaborations of what apparent "violence" is really about. Consequently, a generous amount of research notes has found its way into the text. This approach gives a lot of game studies education for your buck, and as such the book is undoubtedly useful. However, focus and readability suffer quite a lot. Significant parts are a tough read, especially chapters 1-3. Caught by a merciless flow of ideas and references that appear connected only at the very general level, I sometimes found myself struggling to follow a topic from one page to the next.

Schott's explorative and compact approach also means that it is hard to catch the main ideas or lines of argument that separate each chapter. Adding to the problem, chapter titles are rather uninformative, and there are no summaries to help out. In a modest effort to amend this, and to give prospective readers some kind of overview of the diversity of content on offer in this book, let me give a brief outline of the chapters:

Chapter 1, "Violence from games," addresses the games and violence debate. The Columbine massacre is used as a case study, including a mini-essay on the meaning of guns, and the event as social drama. Then there are broad introductions to the significance of genre and the concept of performance, with an emphasis on their ludic and non-representational nature.

Chapter 2, "Games as violence," deals with the challenge from media effects research, and it also "... continues to explore the value of considering and upholding the importance of game rules as a link between games' narrative and their abstract layers when interpreting the nature of games acts" (p. 30). There are further elaborations on the ill-conceived understandings of game violence in public debate, and the relationship between the violent effects paradigm and regimes of regulation and classification.

Chapter 3, "Re-framing games," goes through more ideas on the centrality of rules, the gamification of violence, and the gamification of realism. There is an introduction to games and fiction, and discussion of studies of game play motivations, including the author's own work linked to Raphaël Marczak's PhD project on gameplay metrics (Marczak, 2014). Examples from Bioshock 2 (2K Australia, 2010) and Battlefield 3 (Digital Illusions CE, 2011) are used to illustrate the way in which the understanding of game experience in representational terms is misleading.

Chapter 4, "Indexicality and realism (in action)," mainly elaborates on how games "alter the codes of realism by virtue of their gameness" (p. 86). As such, it is more thematically focused than the first three chapters, and attention is also given to specific contexts and meanings of violence in particular types of games. There is a particular concern with ideas of photorealism ("indexicality"), and the ways in which games represent war and conflict. The last section is an essay on the role of sound, which does not explicitly discuss the implications with respect to violence.

Chapter 5, "Player control, obligation and orientation," considers "the nature of intent" (p. 113), in a broad sense. It begins with an introduction to player-avatar theory, followed by a section on proceduralism, and a discussion of the diversity of style and intentions in gameplay. The link to violence is briefly explained, with emphasis on the gameplay-focused, rather than violent, nature of player intent.

Chapter 6, "Performativity and violence," is a highly interdisciplinary exploration of performativity, showing that what may pass as simply "violence" in public debate is a far more complex and diverse affair. At the same time, the rule-governed and system-oriented nature of performance in is emphasized.

Chapter 7, "Violence as spectacle," as the title indicates, offers a positive articulation of the nature of violence in video games. Most of the chapter is devoted to representations of violence outside games, in society and the media, including news media. This serves as a context for the thesis that violence in video games is a visual experience, external to the nature of game play. When playing a game, the player is "likely to be primed or attuned to the more immediate performative demands of the activity" (p. 168), rather than attuned to an aesthetic mode of experience. The example of Max Payne (Remedy, 2001) is used to illustrate the re-appropriation of violence as visual spectacle in games. Playing apparently violent games is not motivated by aggression, Schott concludes, but by positive emotions of satisfaction and achievement (page 176).

Chapter 8, "Compulsion, cues and fixed outcomes," discusses gaming without agency, with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's (Infinity Ward, 2009) infamous "No Russian" mission as the prime example. An analysis of the role of violent imagery in Manhunt (Rockstar North, 2003) emphasizes how a lack of agency undermines the nature of violence as violence. There is also a discussion on gamified morality in role-playing games, as a parallel to gamified violence.

As shown in this outline, there is indeed, interspersed among literature crash courses and game studies essays, a coherent argument on the nature of violence in games, supported by a consistent conceptual framework. This argument is sound and relevant: violence in games is a separate breed, and you cannot understand it without understanding what playing videogames is about. Playing a violent game is not really about the violence as such, even if it may appear so to people who do not play them. The general concept of gameness, emphasizing the nature of games as rule-systems and challenge-based performances, is also firmly established and largely uncontroversial in game studies. Schott's variant of this paradigm explicitly draws on the duality of action versus representation, a familiar and text-oriented conceptual framework canonized by new media theorists like Marie-Laure Ryan (2001) and Lev Manovich (2001). As is common in game studies, the general action-representation framework is joined in a happy marriage with the paradigm of gameplay versus theme/narrative that has been a staple of game culture discourses and design literature going back to Chris Crawford (1982) and probably further.

I have no pressing qualms with this model of thought, but it can be unduly limiting in some contexts. In this particular case, it is drawn upon to support the claim that violence is a visual experience, that it is essentially image, a matter of representation rather than action, a surface of spectacle. This view strikes me as unnecessarily restrictive in the context of a public debate on the role of violence in games. First, it seems to work mainly as a negative argument, about what violence in games is not, rather than seeking positive articulations of what violence means in different types and genres of gaming, to different kinds of players in different situations. This is a limitation in scholarly terms, but the staunch claim that violence in video games is a red herring will also very likely be interpreted as a defensive attempt to write off the topic altogether - in an act of apologetic arrogance, using theory as a blank check to be able to universally proclaim that violence in games is not an issue, and that anyone concerned with its impact in society and culture, whether parents or regulators, are led astray by a total misconception. In spite of all our expertise and good intentions, this stance is very rarely productive.

Nor is the claim itself correct, in my opinion. Violence is important to the DNA of gaming. The idea that it is simply a matter of visual representation is misleading because it implies a concept of action in games that is cleansed of the violent.

Schott also explicitly states, on theoretical grounds, that game violence is not motivated by aggression; through the filter of gameness, attitudes are never violent, insofar as they are by their very definition competitive, "configurative" and constructive in nature (p. 176). In this way, action is turned into a distinctly dry concept, instrumental and almost abstract in nature - even when labelled "play" or "performance". Hence the meaning of violence in games also dries out, as an aspect that can only be articulated in negative terms. The particular feel of GoldenEye's (Rare, 1997) DD44 Dostovei, the sound of the snapping of an enemy's neck, or the visual impact of a headshot, can at best be thought of as surface experiences, as representational feedbacks to pure gaming actions.

Given this conceptual premise, the field of game studies is precisely there to explicate, as illustrated in this book, the myriad of ways in which seemingly violent actions are not about violence. In spite of its legitimate aims, and its clear scholarly and educational value, this is a strategy that also misrepresents the role and nature of violence in games.



Crawford, C. (1982). The Art of Computer Game Design (Electronic Version). Vancouver: Washington State University.

Schott, G. (2016). Violent games: Rules, realism, and effect. New York: Bloomsbury.

Manovich, L. (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Marczak, R. (2014). Feedback-Based Gameplay Metrics and Gameplay Performance Segmentation: An Audio-visual Approach for Assessing Player Experience PhD University of Waikato), Waikato.

Ryan, M.-L. (2001). Narrative as Virtual Reality. Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.



2K Australia. (2010). Bioshock 2. [PlayStation 3], 2K Games.

Digital Illusions CE. (2011). Battlefield 3. [PlayStation 3], Electronic Arts.

Infinity Ward. (2009). Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. [Xbox 360], Activision.

Rare. (1997). GoldenEye 007. [Nintendo 64], UK: Nintendo.

Remedy. (2001). Max Payne. UK: Rockstar.

Rockstar North. (2003). Manhunt. [Playstation 2], Rockstar Games.

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