The Realities of Video Game Violence by Robert Aldrich

Image © Capcom 

Image © Capcom 

Violence is a cornerstone of video games. Going back to the earliest games, we see war simulations more often than we see sports or any other activity. That trend has continued to this day, where the biggest selling franchises are those telling the stories of soldiers, warriors, and battle.

And, really, that’s fine. Good, even. Violence, or the simulation of violence, has been a part of the arts for about as long as there have been arts. In every genre, in every medium, we see violence as a part of the storytelling tool. Whole psychological careers have been founded on the studying of, and defense of, the cathartic release of violence-in-arts.

And yet, violence isn’t very well simulated in video games (or any medium, really, but we’re talking about video games in this instance). And so, if one’s exposure to violence and violent pursuits is solely games, it seems like that would leave you with a skewed perception of what is and isn’t possible. So, we’re gathered here today to suss through some of the details and the nitty-gritty of what we see in games and what’s actually like.

Street Fighting Isn’t Real

Despite its inexplicable popularity in fiction, street fighting – or rather, unsanctioned combat competitions – have never been popular pretty much anywhere in the world or any time throughout history. Their existence is often the result of national fear-mongering (“I heard in Russia, men fight in back alleys for money”) or racism (“In Africa, the only way to make any money is if you’re willing to fight for it”). One possible exception might be the tales that grew out of the Asian oral tradition, that of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc, legends of wondering martial artists and their misadventures. However, more often than not, these stories have little basis in reality and are more usually closer to the American tall tales of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan than true reality. In that context, tournaments became a means with which to have two folk heroes meet (like Davy Crockett meeting Mike Fink).

That tradition continues to this day, with street fighting becoming a justification inside a film or video game narrative for a bunch of highly skilled combatants to face off against each other with limited to no intercession. The closest thing we have to ‘real’ street fighting is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and similar fighting leagues (Pride, Bellator, the like). These are multi-billion dollar sports leagues that are not just sanctioned by local athletic commissions but big businesses with industry safeguards (IE bureaucratic and governmental oversight).

It is true that you will, on occasion, find illegal fighting in some places, but these are nowhere near the competitions depicted in video games. It’s a far cry from anything remotely lucrative or sustainable, with nothing to say of the international cadre of world-class elite fighters. It’s usually little more than a bunch of drunk friends who pony up a purse of a hundred bucks to see if Jim is tougher than Gary. This real-world illegal fighting is to video game street fighting what holding up a gas station is to an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist. 

It’s Not That Hard To Harm Someone

Most fighting games, and definitely video games in general, seriously downplay just how damaging fighting can be. While it’s true that a one-punch knockout is rare, a knockout isn’t the only damage that can be done to a person. Cuts, bruises, contusions, concussions, sprains, and broken bones are just the tip of the injury iceberg that is downplayed or flat-out ignored in video games.

In most fighting games, an opponent can take dozens of hard, direct strikes before they ‘go down’. In reality, most fights in the UFC (just for example) hinge on a single punch, and are just as often finished by a single barrage of attacks. Rarely do fighters trade blows. In fact, this proved to be a problem for the UFC. When they quickly noticed that most of their fights didn’t go past the first round, they had to begin scheduling more undercard fights just to fill time.

Part of this misconception about damage from strikes is due to boxing, where opponents seemingly trade blows for 12 to 15 rounds, largely with the help of their padded gloves, as well as one-minute breaks between rounds where they are attended to by staff. What isn’t taken into consideration is just how big of a role the gloves play, and the damage that is still done. Things like dislocated and broken jaws, cracked skulls, etc, can all occur and the opponent never ‘go down’ (and all this without even touching on the subject of performance-enhancing drugs).

With opponents sporting little to no safety gear, fights become brutal and ugly affairs, sometimes for the victor. Gloves in the UFC are to protect the attacker throwing the punch, not the defender getting punched. Without that protection, the fragile bones of the hands hitting the skull – one of nature’s toughest surfaces – a broken hand will result. It happens to even the best boxers in the world (just ask Mike Tyson, who broke his hand in a scuffle against Mitch Green). Sprained elbows and torqued shoulders can also impair the winner of an otherwise flawless victory. All this comes back to the simple fact that the body is not impervious to injury, and long-lasting injury at that. With any real intent, harm can and will result.

Fights On The Street Are More Like Muggings

Maybe it’s a holdover to the days when duels were a thing, but many people perceive violence as a one-on-one encounter. There will be an opponent, attacks, defenses, and counters will be traded, and their will be a victor. Evidence suggests this rarely occurs.

Probably the first dubious game reality is the speed with which opponents attack. Not how quickly their punches move but how quickly they join the fight. In street fighting games such as Streets of Rage or Final Fight, opponents approach one or two at a time and often do so in a slow and deliberate manner. Studying real-world violence would suggest it works quite the opposite. Opponents will swarm quickly and often from behind and without warning.

The oddly polite hoodlums of Streets of Rage (Image © Sega) 

The oddly polite hoodlums of Streets of Rage (Image © Sega) 

Another reality is the role and presence of ground fighting. As the UFC has vividly demonstrated from its inception, many fights end up as wrestling matches, something many traditional fighters used to be unprepared for (though that is changing). Games rarely, if ever, simulate this. When a character goes down, be they an opponent or the hero, the fight stalls until they get back to their feet.

Related is how, in many fighting games, opponents are on one level. In games like Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, even modern fighting games like Virtual Fighter or Street Fighter, the mechanic is still based on face-to-face combat. In one-on-one games, that isn’t all that inaccurate, but in street fighting games (Final Fight, Streets of Rage), limiting combat to one side or the other and from no other direction, changes the whole the whole mechanic. The swarm tactic that you see in real-world street violence is reduced to an unrealistically manageable factor.

Who Would Win? 

In the classic Capcom fighting game, Fatal Fury, former-pro-wrestler-turned-mayor-turned-vigilante Mike Haggar sets out to rescue his kidnapped daughter from the evil Mad Gear Gang. He enlists his daughter’s boyfriend, kick boxer Cody, and Guy, a self-trained ninja. Together, these three fight through multiple stages of street vermin. So just who amongst them is the most dangerous?

Image © Capcom 

Image © Capcom 

The answer is Guy. Why?

Let’s look at another game and see if you can spot the trend. In Street Fighter II, possibly one of the most famous video games of all time, players pit one of eight characters against foes in a world-spanning underground tournament. We have two world-class karate fighters, a spy pretending to be a Chinese acrobat, a Russian wrestler, a yogi, an Air Force pilot, and a backwoods manbeast bordering on urban legend. Who wins?

The manbeast, Blanka. Why? For the same reason Guy the self-trained ninja, probably wins: they’re both certifiably crazy. Just like martial arts doesn’t stop bullets, martial arts typically doesn’t stop nuts either, and the man-beast who has been killing with his bare hands for his whole life is likely to have a leg up on the competition when it comes to combat. And the legal and psychological evidence supports this.

Martial arts are ultimately about violence. We can dress it up in self-betterment, protection, and a host of other positive principles as much as we want, but at the end of the day, a punch is meant to do one thing: damage another human being. Most humans are fundamentally resistant against truly harming their neighbors. And let’s be clear, that’s a good thing. Those who can bring harm to others? Not just bullies who can shove or make bleed others, but do real harm to another human being? Those are the ones with rap sheets, parole, and restraining orders, if not desperately awaiting clemency from the governor. This even pans out against professional fighters. There are plenty of verifiable stories of top fighters getting mugged and otherwise getting their asses kicked, and part of that is attributable to martial artists losing against crazy.

Size Matters 

If we discount crazy as a factor (which we can; dangerous as it is, crazy is a wild card that doesn’t always pay off), then who would win in the above examples? Seems like a locker room debate sort of a question but, again, the answers are actually staggeringly clear.

Going back to Street Fighter II, hands down Zangeif wins, the Russian Sambo fighter. Why? For starters, because he outweighs everybody else in the tournament (who isn’t named E Honda) almost two-to-one. There’s a reason why the UFC implemented weight classes as one of their first rules. Size does matter in fights. There are sneaky tricks and clever things a skilled fighter can do to mitigate the size advantage but size is just that: an advantage. Pitting opponents with a ten-pound weight difference against one another requires special legal clearance above and beyond just getting everybody to agree to it. Pitting opponents with a hundred-pound weight difference against one another? There’s not an athletic commission anywhere in the world that would sign off on that. And don’t forget the smaller-guy-beating-the-bigger-guy scenario requires a pronounced skill differential. If their skills are even remotely matched, the bigger guy wins. All day. Every day. Twice on Sunday

That’s not the only reason Zangeif wins, either. The second reason he wins is his grappling background. When the UFC first started, stand-up fighters and strikers of every variety got a rude awakening when the wrestlers and jiu-jitsu guys were cleared to go against them. While subsequent generations of fighters have rebalanced the scales, there is no doubting grappling’s importance in overall fighting strategy and knowledge. 

Going back to Street Fighter II, Guile probably has some wrestling knowledge but it will likely be passable at best. Ryu and Ken MIGHT have some grappling experience, as skill sets found in karate vary wildly depending on style. E Honda might pose some trouble here, as Sumo is actually a very solid grappling style, but it pales compared to Sambo wrestling (as demonstrated in the early UFC events). And Dhalsim and Chun-Li? No. Just no.

Lastly, the third reason Zangeif wins is because he actually wants to be there. Chun-Li, Guile, Ken, and Ryu are all competing for revenge in one form or another. Dhalsim is competing to raise money to fight poverty. E Honda wants to prove Sumo as a valid style. Blanka is…there for some reason, I’m sure (see, Crazy). Zangeif is the only one there because he wants to be, he has national support in competing (he’s a national hero in the USSR Russia), and because he enjoys it. Actually waking up every day and doing something you enjoy lends a lot towards success.

The Logistics Just Aren’t There

Some of the medical and skill applications aside, there are issues with game violence that just doesn’t make sense. In game logic, its fine (suspension of disbelief and all that) but they’re worth acknowledging. For starters, in Street Fighter II, the character(s) flies all over the world to compete in this tournament. Who is paying for that? If it’s the tournament paying for those flights, that’s a lot of dough to be ponying up, frequent flier miles or no. Are the fighters flying first-class? What happens if the flight is delayed? Does M Bison have a travel agent for them to call? If the fighters are ponying up their own cash, just how big is this purse for them to think it worth it?

Also, how often do these fights take place? In the real world, UFC fighters will have, maybe two or three fights a year. Prepping for a fight involves a complex training camp as they prepare to face off against this one designated opponent. Is that happening here? Is there actually a twelve-week gap from Zangeif fighting Ryu to Zangeif fighting Dhalsim? Even if they don’t get to prepare for these fights, do they at least get a day to sightsee? Is jetlag accounted for?

Who oversees the fights? There aren’t any referees shown in the game. Who designates the winner and the loser? Is the whole tournament just run on the honor system? What if Ken shows up with six or seven of his yuppie buddies and they ‘soften up’ his opponent before the match? Who is there to contest that? In the same vein, who decides where the fights will take place? Guile fights on the Tarmac at a military base. Pretty sure that’s a court martial-able offense.

Switching over to Final Fight, Metro City is gripped with rampant corruption and gang violence, so much so that the mayor has to take matters into his own hands. Did he not consider going the opposite route and calling for federal aid? Pretty sure there are state and federal agencies who exist pretty much solely just to help cities with this problem take care of these matters.

Likewise, what’s the fallout from Haggar going rouge like this? Does he get re-elected or is he hoisted out of office that day? What comes from the multiple felonies for which he commits? What, did you forget beating up a whole street full of at-risk youths was assault and battery? Or that stabbing people with a knife you found lying on the ground is attempted murder…or, you know, just old-fashioned murder? Suddenly, Haggar is sounding less like the city’s savior and more like Rob Ford on a bender.

Weapons Amplify These Matters

Getting away from our two primary examples, Street Fighter II and Final Fight, we should take a moment to consider the rare breed of weapons fighting games like Samurai Showdown, the short-lived Battle Arena Toshinden series, and even Guilty Gear. These games pit not only world-class martial artists against one another, but do so by giving them weaponry. It’s the ultimate test of skill. Skill, not survival because absolutely no one will survive.

The first and most important think to know is that even tiny wounds from a weapon injury require tremendous medical attention. And that’s in the modern era. Given that some of these weapon fighter games are set in history, consider the implications in those settings. Ever gotten cut and needed medical attention? That same injury two or three hundred years ago would be life-threatening. Even more serious injuries, like those seen in modern day knife fights, would be all but a death sentence from a medical-care standpoint. Even if the life didn’t end after such a cut, it sure would be changed. Deep tissue trauma, gangrene, and more afflictions than can be listed easily will change your life in a bad, bad way.

Another factor that’s worth considering is that competitions between weapons masters is likely not going to depend on their weapons so much as their armor. The ability to score a hit is largely nullified if it hits metal, or hardened wood, or even just thick canvas or leather. What an opponent wears to a fight will be a major deciding factor in the outcome, potentially as much as the weapon they face and who wields it. Oh, true, skilled fighters can find their ways around armor but odds are, not against an equally-skilled opponent. So unless the competition has strict rules regarding attire (and one glance at the roster of characters reveals they don’t), then the match is likely to be won by the person in better armor.

Another factor worth discussing is the nature of the weapons themselves. Sharpness does not win the battle, for example. Many a novice will think that a sharp sword or a sharp axe is a sign of a likelier victory. In reality, a sharp blade is only so high on the priority list, because with sharpness comes fragility. A sharp blade is not a sturdy blade. The trade-off results in weapons made of hybrid metals and complicated metal smithing, but at the end of the day, a weapon can and will only be so sharp. Coming to a fight with a razor blade will likely result in a messed-up blade, followed quickly by a loss.

And if not a loss in the first round or the first fight, it’ll mean a loss in subsequent encounters. A damaged sword, marred by cutting through armor or rough clothing or even nicking a bone (yeah, cutting through people will mess up a blade, and quick), will be rendered increasingly useless without adequate time to repair the damage. And when you consider the value of the weapon and its possible personal/cultural importance, sudden risking its very function on a tournament becomes a dubious proposition at best.

It’s also worth noting that, like size in unarmed opponents, range is a huge advantage when fighting with weapons. Yes, swordsman are trained to take down pikemen and similar foes. That still assumes a host of factors, not the least of which is a skill advantage. Pole arm vs sword with equally matched and skilled fighters? The smart money is on the guy with the extra three feet to work with.

Conclusion 

Action is great. Action, as a storytelling tool, is one of the best there is. Action sequences, especially fight scenes, are the very embodiment of non-verbal dialogue. What a character does, and how she or he does it, in the heat of action is every bit as telling about a person in a narrative as it is in real life, perhaps more so.

However, it is worth paying some attention, from time to time, to the distinction between action and violence. Action is a narrative construct, used to provide tension and strife to the lives of our heroes. Violence is a real-world affliction that harms, mars, and destroys lives of everyone it touches. As with all art, it is possible – preferable, even – to enjoy the artistic simulation of violence, which is action, while still deploring the real-world reality of it.


Robert V Aldrich is a writer based out of Asheville North Carolina, and St Andrews Scotland, specializing in novels and serials for otaku, gamers, comic book geeks, and others who overthink entertainment as much as he does. His most recent novel, Rhest for the Wicked, is available now and more of his writings can be found at TeachTheSky.com.