The Role of Death

Why is it that death plays such a prominent role in computer games? In a typical skill and action game, the player will kill dozens of enemies per minute. Consider, for example, the global virtual body count arising from a single game, Doom II. Let’s assume that one million copies of this game have been played to completion. That constitutes some 30 levels, each populated with, say, 50 monsters. That means that playing the game through to its completion involves the deaths of 1,500 creatures. If this has been done a million times, then the grand body count adds up to more than a billion. This exceeds the total number of deaths in all the wars in all of human history. What dark forces have we unleashed?

There are some who would dismiss this as limp-wristed pap; after all, nobody really gets killed in a computer game; it’s just fantasy, and nobody really thinks of it as killing. My response to this is a recent full-page ad for a computer game. The primary ad copy says, "You’re only doing this for the cause of freedom and justice... OF COURSE, BURNING THE FLESH OFF THEIR BONES IS A BIG PLUS!" Underneath are appended favorable reviewers’ comments, including "The best death scenes ever seen in a game!"

Nor can we dismiss this as a temporary anomaly. From the very outset of their history, computer games have attracted criticism for their violence and nihilist style, but I have the strong impression that this nihilist tone has grown stronger over the years. In the early 80s, there was at least an attempt to whitewash the issue. The victims of our mayhem were vehicles, machines, and things. We avoided the direct depiction of human death. We tried to use euphemistic terminology; terms like "stop", "repel", "throw back", and "resist" were preferred over terms like "kill", "destroy", and "annihilate".

Nintendo formalized this attitude with outright bans on the depiction of killing in games for their system. It was a marketing decision rather than an ethical one, and in fact it failed. Sega, with no such ban, put the policy to the acid test of market performance and a lucid result emerged: killing sells.

At first the approach towards killing was tentative. Wolfenstein 3D, for example, took a tongue-in-cheek approach, slyly acknowledging the reprehensible aspect of our fantasy while making fun of it and allowing us to indulge in it. Doom took things a step further, ratcheting up the nihilistic style and verbiage. With Doom II, any pretense of satirical intent was dropped; the violence was now offered unapologetically. Lately, as demonstrated by the aforementioned ad, the satirical style has been reversed. Now it is the pretense of noble intent that is satirized. Nihilism triumphs.

What is particularly odd about this fascination with death is its historical newness. People have been playing games for centuries, but the concept of death has not been a major factor in game-playing until now. The emphasis has always been on winning and losing, and frequently losing is a euphemistic substitute for death, but the game goes to great lengths to avoid direct references to death and killing. We seem to have created a historical anomaly.