The Human Condition (2): Public versus Private

The Market Value of Violence

Theimpactofviolentvideogames2 Videogames are perpetually linked to violence - yet in terms of the highest sales figures ever achieved, violence is not enormously in evidence. Have we overestimated the importance of violence to the games industry?

Before proceeding, it is necessary to be clear what we mean by "violence", since this could mean a great many different things. Super Mario Bros., the best selling game of all time (with some 40 million units sold, albeit on the back of bundling with the NES) contains a form of violence, in so much that one can prevail against opponents by attacking them, but this cartoon violence is very distinct from the violence of, say, a Grand Theft Auto game. For the purposes of this discussion, therefore, let us consider "realistic" (or film-like) violence to be separate from "Cartoon violence" of the kind found in a Mario or Pokémon game.

As a means of exploring the issue of the market value of violence, let us sum the unit sales of the best selling games according to whether they are based around violence, cartoon violence or non-violence. This is a coarse yardstick, and hugely open to interpretation, but nonetheless... The results are as follows:

  • 54% (172 million units) belong to games featuring cartoon violence - principally various Mario games and various Pokémon games.
  • 31% (98 million uints) belong to non-violent games - namely, The Sims and its sequel (16 and 13 million units respectively, Nintendogs (which may yet overtake The Sims as it is rapidly approaching 15 million units), plus two Gran Turismo games (about 11 million each).
  • Just 15% (50 million units) of the unit sales from the Top 20 belong to games featuring violence. The games in question are the last three major Grand Theft Auto titles, and World or Warcraft (which by itself is responsible for about 4%).

It transpires upon analysis that although violent games are a staple purchase of the gamer hobbyist and dedicated FPS player, they are something of a niche in the context of the industry as a whole. Although the most successful first person shooter titles (Goldeneye 007, Half-Life and Halo 2 have all sold 8 million units) do make a stir, the reach of this kind of game in general is still quite weak. Doom 3, for instance, only managed 3.5 million units. Now that's perfectly healthy, but it's also quite small compared to the size of the market as a whole - certainly compared to the coverage the game received in the specialist press. Quake appears to have sold only 1.7 million units.

Is the games industry crazy? Despite the relatively modest success of FPS titles (which are dominated by the mega-hits which can muster the greatest marketing), a great deal of money is invested every year into more and more first person shooter titles (or third person shooter titles, which are fundamentally similar). My suspicion is the popularity of the FPS title with game developers is the reason for their ubiquity.

Of course, the success of non-violent titles such as The Sims and Nintendogs doubtless owe their enormous sales figures in part to the scarcity of non-violent titles to compete with them. Publishers then and now are reluctant to pursue a title similar to The Sims in any shape or form as a result of a quite sensible desire to avoid going head-to-head with EA. Excessive caution thus strangles a viable market.

And what of cartoon violence, which seems to have been even more successful? The staple of this kind of violence is the platform game, which has become something of a dead genre perhaps in part as a result of the flagship platform titles being gradually geared towards gun violence. Both Jak and Daxter and Ratchet & Clank gradually emphasised guns and de-emphasised traditional platforming, perhaps in an attempt to regain the support of the core gaming market. It does not seem that this attempt was particularly successful, but it has effectively destroyed publishers faith in the market value of platform games, which now seem to be off the menu. It's certainly going to be interesting to see whether Mario Galaxy has got what it takes to reverse this trend.

With many publishers following the lead of EA and restructuring to consider how they can get a slice of the highly lucrative "casual" market, will we see more of an effort to design games with non-violent content? I'm somewhat doubtful. For a start, designing for non-violence often involves genuinely difficult design problems. It is simply easier to make games with guns and violence by following proven design patterns than it is to innovate new approaches. Nonetheless, as the Wii and DS open the games market up to a new and wider audience the potential for market-successful non-violent games has never been more promising, not to mention the remarkable impact of non-violent massively multiplayer games such as Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin.

It is dangerous to draw conclusions from a brief and crude analysis such as this one, yet it seems certain that there is market value in non-violence, and in cartoon violence. Yet violence - conventional blood and guts, guns and ammo violence - remains inextricably linked to videogames, and investment in games of this kind remains high. It is my suspicion that this reflects the playing habits of the people who work in the games industry more than a fair assessment of the market as a whole.

The opening image is taken from IGN, and is used without permission. No copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.


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Interesting. You say:
"My suspicion is the popularity of the FPS title with game developers is the reason for their ubiquity"

Are you talking about game publishers as well? If not, wouldn´t it be curious that game developers can trick publishers into backing up violent games? Or do you think publishers themselves are more into violent games?

It could be my imagination, but I get the impression that more and more non-violent games are being released - in fact, in a much bigger number than violent games.

A second (and cliche, but maybe true) thought: perhaps violent games are just made more visible by the media. And, of course, attract much more attention and controversy.

Anyway, it´s somehow interesting to see that game designers can follow their artistic beliefs in spite of market trends :)

You've commented on this before Chris, and it bears reinforcing: I'm working on an FPS right now, actually, and while it's good fun and I enjoy the genre enormously, there have been discussions around the office about how FPS seem more popular than they actually are. The big hits and products of certain superstar developers (a la id Software) tend to be very high profile, but as a whole it's a relatively small market segment.

Chico: "Are you talking about game publishers as well?"

Yes; by game developers I meant to include publishers by implication. ;)

And while I'm certain that the media does draw more attention to violent games, an examination of the specialist press shows that this trend occurs inside the game world as well as outside.

Jack: I have mentioned this before, I'm sure. I have no idea how this came up as a topic today... I think, most likely, I was going to have a poke at Halo 3 - but I had little or nothing to say beyond "Aren't Microsoft's Marketing Department amazing?" :-D (I have no comment on the game - I haven't seen it. But I have certainly seen the hype!)

I suspect one of the reasons for the FPS' popularity is that there are very few if any design decisions to be made - it's an established form, and one of few established forms to still be commercially viable. The platform game, as I mention, has fallen into disrepute, and older forms like the RTS are no longer popular in the West (although still in Korea, of course!)

Perhaps what the industry needs right now is not a revolution, but some new "standard game designs" that are commercially viable. In the absence of this, "better the devil you know." :)

Best wishes!

"let us consider "realistic" (or film-like) violence to be separate from "Cartoon violence" of the kind found in a Mario or Pokémon game."

Couldn't we rather say 'manipulation of gameplay mechanic tokens', or some such over-complicated term? The label 'violence' seems less than appropriate to describe Mario-style harmless platforming action. 'Violence' shouldn't be applied so easily, I think, or the reality of violence may be diminished in seriousness. Anyone who's ever been in a fistfight (one of the most 'harmless' forms of real violence), knows what a shocking, damaging and possibly life-changing affair it is. Anyone who hasn't experienced real violence, could find it all too easy to 'cartoonify' rael violence in their minds.

Meanwhile, back on topic, it seems to me that most of the media stories on games recently (that didn't feature Jack Thompson), have been about non-violent aspects, like the massive social impact of MMO's and the family fun of the Wii.

"older forms like the RTS are no longer popular in the West"

Really?! I thought Dawn of War and the Total War series were big sellers! An uninformed thought, albeit.

Thanks for the interesting analysis. I wonder how the three categories match up against gamer age statistics. For example, would more gamers be buying the violent games if they were old enough to have the choice? Or, perhaps, would the relative percentage of the violent game sales be even smaller if the other categories offered content that was more appealing to older gamers?

zenBen: is this a friendly accusal of "failure to be topical"? ;) The issue was current to me personally because of things brewing in the background, and I just write about what comes to mind most days.

I agree with your critique on the term "cartoon violence", but still favour it over the alternatives.

Oh, and since you asked (sort of!) the Total War franchise sold 3 million units in total, that's summed across all three titles. Now I don't want to make that sound bad - 3 million for a company who doesn't have to pay Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo a cut - they can be justifiably proud. But at the same time, it doesn't look like RTS games have a big audience to investors any more. The money has moved on (to Korea, in this case).


Evan: you ask a great question! If I had good enough market data, I'd answer it for you accurately. :) As it is, I'll have to read between the lines and guess...

"would more gamers be buying the violent games if they were old enough to have the choice?"

The success of the Grand Theft Auto games across all age groups regardless of its certification is demonstration that many younger players do get whatever games they want, although I'm sure there are many who do not - there has to be *some* parents who enforce the certification, I would think. ;)

As for appealing to older gamers, this is a brave frontier at the moment. The barrier for so long has been the complexity of the interface. The Wii is a positive step in this regard (and the DS for that matter) but there is still more that could be done. BrainAge racked up some 9 million units or so targeting an older audience, which is more than any FPS that's ever been made thus far.

Thanks for the question!

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt with a statement like "very few if any design decisions to be made" with regard to FPS games--the project we're on is trying valiantly to step a little outside the established box (or, in this case, corridor) for FPSes, and we're already in danger of dying the death of a thousand cuts.
True, most FPS games follow a very traditional form and depend on very minor accretions/flavor boosts in the form of various mission styles; but pull out one of the foundational elements of the genre (running through a linear series of corridors) and suddenly you realize just how much weight was resting on it :) Ah, but for another time.

I would argue that the draw of violence, in any format, is catharsis; furthermore, that most players of "violent" games are "casual" gamers. Making the distinction of types of violence seems unnecessary to me, and this assumes also that the argument of "casual" versus "hardcore" gamers boils down to issues of completionist values or obsession.

While I consider myself at least adept with nearly any game I touch, I find myself consistently playing BF2142 over Dawn of War (despite my admiration for the 40K universe, being a long-time tabletop player - where are my Tyranids?!) or City of Heroes (despite my wish for flying around, wearing tights and a cape, as a viable career choice). The draw of the "headshot" for me has always been the adrenaline rush of combat.

This is mostly in response to zenBen's commentary on "real" violence: I think that's WHY I play violent games. I had to fight all through middle and high school (and then some). It is actually something I MISS, if you can believe that.

Fighting (especially when it's something at which you dramatically succeed) is a major rush. Knowing that you risk so much for so little gain can empower you to take more calculated risks that have potential for improving your life. It also helps you understand your opponent like nothing else can, in my experience (bare-handed fighting, anyway). I will say that I've a somewhat skewed perspective on this: I've never "lost" a "real" fight in my life. Fortunately, I have very few experiences where my opponent left with more than a few bruises and a hurt ego.

While I certainly don't advocate going out and starting fights with people for that reason, it makes me understand books like Fight Club on a different level than some, I think.

Jack: when I say very few design decisions have to be made on FPS projects, it is important to realise that I mean this to be taken on the assumption that one does not mess with the established format. If your team is attempting to go back and fix the open environment problem, you almost aren't making a conventional FPS at all; it is as if you are going back to the nascent form of (say) Turok 2 and fix the problems that caused that form to lose out to "tunnel shooters". Your team has taken a big bite of the apple here - I hope it is not more than you can chew! :) Good luck!

zanbowswer: while I will not disagree that catharsis is a key element in the enjoyment of game violence, there is research to show a particular draw of violent games that mark them out in distinction to those using cartoon violence et al.

When a game places the player for fear of their own life (through the imaginary threat attacking them), this sets up an intense emotional space that increases the addictive properties of the gameplay and gives the player more of a reason (even a craving) to return to it. Cartoon violence rarely if ever has this effect, because the illusion of danger is reduced. (Of course, cartoon violence games can still be addictive for other reasons...)

Making a game that draws upon this effect means you are expressly targeting a male 15-25 (ish) audience, as these are the players who best respond to such an approach. (Compare the demographics of the games industry itself...)

Regarding your claim that most players of violent games are "Casual"... I use the terms Hardcore and Casual (albeit reluctantly these days) in the context of game literacy. While it is true that the draw of the FPS lies away from the highest peaks of game literacy, and indeed that in terms of the 1990s market the FPS players were indeed "casual" (compared to the "hardcore" players of that time), the market has moved on. Those casual players of the 1990s are quite game literate now (although this does not make them the same as the classic "hardcore" players), and a new "casual" market - with markedly less game literacy - has come into play, one that is much closer to the genuine mass market. This wider market does not seem to have an especial draw to game violence - in fact, their buying decisions seem to make it clear that this is something they would prefer to avoid on the whole.

Thanks for the candor of your comment - as a non-violent person myself, I don't have much experience of fighting to draw upon (and indeed did not identify with Fight Club in the way that many men I know did). I find it fascinating that you are able to meet these psychological needs in a game space - that is a compelling argument in favour of violent games. It also happens to be the argument that the Japanese regulatory body for videogames makes as justification for the violent content of games - that these agreesive instincts need to be expressed somewhere, and games are a safe outlet. :)

Best wishes!

Regarding the "compelling argument in favour of violent games"; I was in debate throughout my high school years, and I *have* used that as premium mobile to some success. I think that, in a "democratic" space, there is little room for the argument that "violence solves problems"; consequently, my success was generally void in the face of debate judges at that level.

I would often argue that specific direction of the violence in a game could facilitate dramatic change in people with aggression-related psychological problems. If nothing else, it could, perhaps, assist researchers and clinicians make strides in diagnosis and treatment via directed "play."

In the end, it was a lot like trying to make a case that Hitler was an effective leader or that Communism is the best system of government: arguments that may carry some circumstantial weight, but have far too many glaringly obvious flaws to take seriously. Perhaps in a different venue...

It *is* good to know that people are thinking in that direction (in reference to your comment about the regulatory body in Japan). As I'm relatively uneducated in that area, I would greatly appreciate any resources you could forward along.

Be it known: I very much enjoy reading your posts, and look forward to your continued pedagogy, Sir! Best wishes to you, as well!

Better a pedagogue than a demagogue, I suppose. ;)

"I think that, in a 'democratic' space, there is little room for the argument that 'violence solves problems'"

Perhaps not violence directed towards real people, but violence directed into the world of play can certainly have positive effects - or do we ignore the social and other benefits inherent in our tradition of professional sports? I think there *is* room for violence in democracy - but it must be consensual violence or, in the case of videogames, safely hidden away inside the "magic circle" of play which renders all excesses as merely games.

I don't have any resources to forward on this topic, really, other than mentioning the Japanese report. I can't find the copy of this that I was given when I went to Tokyo, alas, as I would love to quote it directly.

Thanks for the kind words!

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