Why are we okay with violence in RPGs?

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I still think you could probably throw the hobgoblin women and children at all of them.
Perhaps. But I would likely *position* it differently. See above - I was not going to run a game in which 13-year-olds end up on the wrong side of the moral argument. If I'm going to present the non-combatants as a challenge to kids, I'd position it clearly as a, "Well, nuts, you have to get around this without hurting anyone."

Heck, in games for my adults, if the PCs choose the wrong side of the moral argument, they are apt to be treated by the world like the monsters they have become - meaning that they have made it moral and ethical for others to kill the PCs and take their stuff!
 

Kaodi

Adventurer
Colonies and colonialism explicitly exist in many RPG settings, but I think the original framing of a "colonialist massacre of women and children" is a complete mischaracterization of what work "colonial" actually does. It does not really do any moral work in most situations. A "colonialist massacre" must necessarily be contrasted to a "non-colonialist massacre" and thinking there is some sort of moral difference between them is as foolish as thinking there is a meaningful difference between a French massacre of women and children and an English massacre of women and children. As well colonialism is not a particularly good description of most violence games like D&D, at least insofar as it does not match up with what "colony" actually means. Territorial violence in D&D tends to be more basic expansionary violence. It can only be described as "colonial" to the extent that "colonial" killed "expansionary" and took its stuff.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Colonies and colonialism explicitly exist in many RPG settings, but I think the original framing of a "colonialist massacre of women and children" is a complete mischaracterization of what work "colonial" actually does. It does not really do any moral work in most situations. A "colonialist massacre" must necessarily be contrasted to a "non-colonialist massacre" and thinking there is some sort of moral difference between them is as foolish as thinking there is a meaningful difference between a French massacre of women and children and an English massacre of women and children. As well colonialism is not a particularly good description of most violence games like D&D, at least insofar as it does not match up with what "colony" actually means. Territorial violence in D&D tends to be more basic expansionary violence. It can only be described as "colonial" to the extent that "colonial" killed "expansionary" and took its stuff.
... is that really the point you felt necessary to make?

That, and not the "possibly mentally ill hermit I need to murder for his stuff[.]"


I know the argument you are trying to make, and the people that ascribe to it- please go make it somewhere else.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I think Riley made a good point: violence is too broad of a term to simply say that using it in RPGs is more or less moral by itself.

What we have to take a look at is both story/setting and context.

First, story and setting. Someone already mentioned John Wick, wich is, in my opinion, a totally enjoyable over-the-top franchise.
At this point, it is necessary to say that John Wick (as a franchise) is not just enjoyable, but the HOLY TRILOGY is the greatest set of movies, ever.

The only thing that could make John Wick 4 even better is the necessary addition of Nic Cage.

I can imagine playing a John Wick RPG and it would be completely violent, as you'd expect from a setting in which assassins are a huge, organized thing. But I guess that a John Wick game would never give you any XP for killing (defenseless) noncombatants and neither would the setting's tone encourage you to do so.
.... a John Wick rpg?

....mmmm.....
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
So in D&D games do people actually encounter and slaughter humanoid tribes that were just living a peaceful existence? I think every orc group I've ran into in D&D over the years was actively raiding the human civilizations around them, pillaging, marauding, or started things off by attacking the party. That's why we went to pacify them. Granted as a DM I've never included a peaceful tribe of hobgoblins, they don't really exist in the game world and I'm not really aiming to examine moral quandaries. Though maybe in a way I am without trying to.

While all the species are fairly expansionist outside of hobbits and gnomes, the orcs and such are quite aggressively and violently so, unwilling to live in co-existence and driven by a will to dominate all life around them.

Despite playing D&D since the early 80's never played B2 for some reason. I probably missed out.
 

Gradine

Archivist
There are two common cultural concepts that I believe are misconceptions, and why I think violence plays such a large role in our culture (western civilization more broadly, USA more specifically).

1. Violence is always bad
If it can be argued that all acts of violence are evil, which I'm not sure about, at worst it can be said to sometimes be a necessary evil. Violence in media (including and probably even especially games) allows us to, among other things, remind ourselves that sometimes we have to fight (literally) for what is right or just. Whether than means roleplaying shooting nazis in Rocket Age, shooting nazis from the comfort of your couch in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, or punching nazis in the face in the streets of D.C, this brand of violence helps remind us that there is evil in the world that will not go away just by us asking really, really, nicely.

Yes, our history is littered with examples of acts of violence, small and large, that had largely deleterious effects on the people it was enacting upon, people who in most cases did nothing to warrant it beyond existing on land somebody else wanted. That said, many of those people fought back.

There's any number of other reasons why violence appeals to us as humans, westerners, Americans, etc., or at least certain segments of our population (clearly violence is celebrated in toxic masculine cultures, for example), but for me, it's about recognizing that standing up for what we believe in requires us getting our hands dirty* from time to time.

*(you know, by punching filthy nazis in the face)

2. Simulated violence desensitizes us to real violence.

I think most of us are familiar with this old saw, how it's been used to attack games and/or gamers in various ways by the media and/or political concern trolls, so I think calling this a misconception would less controversial here than it might be in some of the other circles I run in. What's probably more controversial is my actual belief on the subject: this process actually works in reverse.

Real life anecdote number one: I have a daughter. She's older now, but like all humans of a certain age she was once a toddler. Have you seen a group of toddlers interact with each other? They punch, they kick, they bite, they pull hair, for really no god damned reason whatsoever. Kids start violent. It's, in many ways, one of our most natural instincts. Kids don't stop getting violent until you really drill into them the negative consequences of their behavior.

Real life anecdote number two: I have a partner. She grew up on classic 90's slasher horror. One of her favorite childhood stuffed animals was Freddy Krueger. As she got into her teens, her particular jam became zombie movies. Even into adulthood, her favorite thing was horror movies, and she didn't shy away from gore one bit.

Then she had our kid, and horror became verboten in our household for years.

My point is, I think it's far more common for us to become sensitized to violence (not necessarily through media so much as our life experiences) than it is for us to become de-sensitized to it.

There's been some discussion in the thread about both (a) the ability of rpgs to force us into moral dilemmas and (b) the disconnect between player and character, and I think both of these play into the ways RPGs can sensitize us to violence. The morals dilemmas are easy; they ask us what we would do in those circumstances. Even in those instances where I'm playing a character who would act differently from myself, it's nearly impossible for humans to manage that disconnect in a way that doesn't also force them to consider what they'd do themselves and how they personally feel about their character's actions. That's something no other media, not even really video games, can accomplish as well as tabletop RPGs.

And while we're clearing up misconceptions...

Humans find sex and violence to be interesting, and of those two pursuits violence is the one suitable to group activity, as in a roleplaying game.
iZtBS.jpg
 

pogre

Adventurer
If one is OK with depictions of violence as entertainment - and I very much respect the opinions of those who are not OK with this - then the wargaming hobby largely presumes hostile intentions on both sides and war as a "solution." I believe there really is no difference for the RPG community in general.

***Painting with a broad brush here I know. There are plenty of non-violent RPGS...***
 

Gradine

Archivist
Yeah didn't end well for the last GM that tried that... (too soon?).
Well I mean, not both at the same time. Or if it is, then make sure it's consensual, at the very least. Safe words are key.

(not to dig up a recently closed thread again but while we're talking about misconceptions, rape is about violence and not sex)
 

Jonathan Tweet

Adventurer
Indeed Gradine is right, and I typed too quickly. I would say that violence is generally more suitable than sex, rather than either/or, one being suitable and the other not.
 

Derren

Adventurer
So in D&D games do people actually encounter and slaughter humanoid tribes that were just living a peaceful existence? I think every orc group I've ran into in D&D over the years was actively raiding the human civilizations around them, pillaging, marauding, or started things off by attacking the party. That's why we went to pacify them. Granted as a DM I've never included a peaceful tribe of hobgoblins, they don't really exist in the game world and I'm not really aiming to examine moral quandaries. Though maybe in a way I am without trying to.

While all the species are fairly expansionist outside of hobbits and gnomes, the orcs and such are quite aggressively and violently so, unwilling to live in co-existence and driven by a will to dominate all life around them.

Despite playing D&D since the early 80's never played B2 for some reason. I probably missed out.
(removed the color to make it actually readable)
More often than you think. Basically every time you delve into a dungeon.
And why only limit it to humanoids? D&D is full of nonhumanoid sapient creatures. Yet I doubt many players had a second thought about killing a dragon for just existing and having loot.

Imo, how monsters a treated in an RPG is a interesting example of how "dehumanization" works.
When Players fight a tribe of evil human barbarians they will often try to spare some of them or seek means to drive them off. Make them orc barbarians and they are a lot more willing to kill everyone. And when you instead have a pack of winter wolves or other sapient nonhumans than imo most players never even consider anything else than killing them all.
 
Last edited:

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
2. Simulated violence desensitizes us to real violence.

...
My point is, I think it's far more common for us to become sensitized to violence (not necessarily through media so much as our life experiences) than it is for us to become de-sensitized to it.
Um, be careful there. You started with simulated violence, but then use *real* physical conflicts (minor ones, as toddlers) as your example. Apples and oranges.

De-sensitization to violence *does* happen. If you are 11 years old, and you regularly see real violence in your home, in your school, and in your community, yes, you get de-sensitized (meaning - you have a decreased emotional response to it). And yes, it seems that de-sensitization correlates with violent behavior as a young adult. But this isn't about kids pulling hair when they are two. This is about seeing people getting threatened, beaten, or shot.

What is much less clear is whether realistically simulated violence in a specific context (like videogames, or movies) has anything like the the same impact on a person's behavior as the multi-context exposure to real people getting hurt around you I described above. And, to be clear - the current rollback on the idea of video games having an impact is based mostly on noting how early studies were seriously flawed, not on further studies that show the effect isn't present. In effect, while lots of folks have opinions, the science-jury is still out on that one.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4539292/
 

Satyrn

Visitor
If we were all Americans, here, I could just say "because we're a violent society."

Instead, for my flip, sarcastic, cynical answere I'm going to have to go all ST:tNG, and say " because we are an egregiously violent species."


(And, you don't get to complain about flip, joking answered to serious questions.)
Excellent! Since [MENTION=6799753]lowkey13[/MENTION] doesn't get to complain, that lets me go to the front of the line with my complaint.

My Complaint: you're stealing my schtick! Please Schtop.
 

Gradine

Archivist
Um, be careful there. You started with simulated violence, but then use *real* physical conflicts (minor ones, as toddlers) as your example. Apples and oranges.

De-sensitization to violence *does* happen. If you are 11 years old, and you regularly see real violence in your home, in your school, and in your community, yes, you get de-sensitized (meaning - you have a decreased emotional response to it). And yes, it seems that de-sensitization correlates with violent behavior as a young adult. But this isn't about kids pulling hair when they are two. This is about seeing people getting threatened, beaten, or shot.

What is much less clear is whether realistically simulated violence in a specific context (like videogames, or movies) has anything like the the same impact on a person's behavior as the multi-context exposure to real people getting hurt around you I described above. And, to be clear - the current rollback on the idea of video games having an impact is based mostly on noting how early studies were seriously flawed, not on further studies that show the effect isn't present. In effect, while lots of folks have opinions, the science-jury is still out on that one.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4539292/
I wasn't pretending towards any claims of scientific accuracy. You do make a good point about the prevalence of real-life violence in one's life versus simulated violence. I want to be clear; I agree fully that presence of real-life violence in someone's life will naturally impact their personal inclinations towards violence. I am speaking specifically of simulations of violence and how they, by and large, do not desensitize us to violence, and in fact are much more likely than not to sensitize us away from our natural predilections towards violence than the opposite.

I have zero evidence to back this up beyond my own personal experiences, for what it's worth. As long as the science-jury is out that's about all I've got to rely on.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Real life anecdote number one: I have a daughter. She's older now, but like all humans of a certain age she was once a toddler. Have you seen a group of toddlers interact with each other? They punch, they kick, they bite, they pull hair, for really no god damned reason whatsoever. Kids start violent. It's, in many ways, one of our most natural instincts. Kids don't stop getting violent until you really drill into them the negative consequences of their behavior.
You don't even have to drill negative consequences into them. Kids bite, for example, because they don't yet have the means to express themselves in any other way. As they develop communication skills, toddler violence goes way down.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
How, are you not roleplaying your character? I present you with the trolley car problem is that not an ethical dilemma for you despite the fact there is no real trolley or real people getting hurt?
You have a point: an ethical dilemma is an ethical dilemma even if it is entirely imaginary. But when you discuss the trolley car problem in freshman philosophy you are, I assume, trying to imagine that there are real lives at stake, and that it would be a tragedy for them to be lost. In other words, you are analyzing the problem as if it were real. I don't think you would answer the trolley car problem with, "Can I kill them all, and take their stuff?"

Is that right?

If so, that seems to conflict with the sentiments you express about RPG violence: that since it is make-believe violence it doesn't really matter.

(As an aside, a version of the trolley car problem is now appearing in real life in autonomous car design, in the sense of balancing the life of the occupants of the car versus the lives of others. One company...I think it was Mercedes...got in some hot water for publicly stating how its algorithms would make those decisions.)


Yes, but it is still a moral dilemma. How would your good character react to the hobgoblin women and children encounter?
Honestly, I haven't seen that adventure since the early 80's so I don't remember the specifics. Is it like the trolley car, in that there is no answer that avoids killing innocents? Or can you choose to put your character at risk to save the innocents? If the latter, that's usually what I'd do. To a much greater extent than I fear I would in real life.

I take it you never DM then?
...wtf?

As a regular DM I frequently have to put myself in evil characters shoes. Although like you I don't like playing evil characters as a player, and even in gritty dark settings like Cyberpunk will be the one guy still trying to me good. Even as a GM my evil characters tend to have understandable motives even if there methods are somewhat questionable. Although throwing in the odd Hannibal Lector character or actual demon occasionally is fun.
Again, a fair question to ask. As DM, though, I don't feel that my NPCs "are me" in the sense that a PC is. I have no more trouble portraying evil NPCs (to be slaughtered by the heroes) than I would putting an evil villain in a story I might write. But I can't imagine writing a story in which the protagonist/hero is evil. Struggling with inner conflict, and as a consequence doing not nice things or making unwise decisions? Sure. But slaughtering innocents, no.

So I find your question "are you not roleplaying your character?" odd. It's precisely because I am roleplaying my character that I find in-game violence disturbing.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
You don't even have to drill negative consequences into them. Kids bite, for example, because they don't yet have the means to express themselves in any other way. As they develop communication skills, toddler violence goes way down.
Faulkner's "The Unvanquished" is really about exactly this question.
 

Advertisement

Top