Gewalt im Computerspiel: Facetten eines Vergnügens

(Violence in Computer Games: Aspects of a Pleasure)

By Christoph Bareither

transcript, 2016. ISBN: 978-3837635591

Christoph Bareither’s book is an investigation into the nature of the pleasure offered by the violent aspects of computer games. The approach is neither psychological nor pedagogical, but ethnographic, and there is a deliberate avoidance of the question as to why people like violence in computer games. Given that they do, it investigates instead the nature of that pleasure. The research is based on three main bodies of evidence: an historical survey of computer games magazines covering the period from 1983 until 2014; a selection of “Let’s Play” YouTube videos; and, finally, direct comments from gamers themselves obtained through interviews and through participating in multiplayer games with them. This evidence is used by Bareither to discover the emotional experiences that players have when interacting with computer-mediated representations of physical violence.

Bareither’s core selection of games for his study is based on four criteria: (1) they must be mainstream; (2) multiplayer games; (3) available for PC / Xbox / PS; (4) with a first or third person avatar for the player to control. The application of these criteria results in the following pool of games that the author returns to again and again in his book: The Elder Scrolls Online, Battlefield 3+4, Counter-Strike, and DayZ. Bareither uses a participant observation approach to collect the data, and he emphasises that this participation is strictly limited to the online world without any physical proximity (although he does attend at least one LAN party with other players). For a study such as this one, that looks at the emotions involved in the gaming experience, Bareither’s focus is on the relationship between a player’s actions on screen and their associated comments in in-game chat. Inevitably, it is the articulation of emotions through outbursts, responses, taunts, justifications, threats, etc. that provides the core of this study.

The discussion is not restricted to moments in games when players carry out acts of virtual violence, there is also extensive coverage of situations in which a player’s avatar is exposed to violence or the threat of violence. This is illustrated very well in the coverage devoted to the “Let’s Play” videos of survival horror games that incorporate a facecam of the players, allowing viewers to see the facial expressions of the players at the moments of greatest danger. Some of these videos have more than 10,000 comments on YouTube, and much of this commentary is directed at the emotional responses of the players to violence or threats of violence to their avatars. Indeed, Bareither provides a very interesting linguistic review of the relationship between a player and their avatar. At times, players will address their avatar directly in the second person (“you”), include them in first person plural (“we”), as well as erasing any distinction by using first person singular (“I”).

In the field of multiplayer games, Bareither looks at how various elements can lead to an intensification of emotional responses. Many of these games offer players the opportunity of creating clans or guilds, which means that these players will play together regularly and may well become online or even real-life friends. On top of this, there is frequently a narrative layer, most clearly in online Role-Playing Games, and Bareither concludes that players will experience emotional elements more intensely when they are embedded in compelling narratives. However, even when the game itself does not provide an explicit narrative dimension (such as in many shooter games), the nature of the group or guild experience will frequently lead to the construction of self-generated narratives that can encompass tales of revenge or ongoing vendettas against rival factions, leading in turn to a heightened emotional involvement in the playing of these games.

Overall, the book covers broad ground in a very comprehensive and detailed manner. Its primary readership will be an academic one, I suspect. Bareither takes great care to embed his work in a very extensive theoretical framework that will contribute little to a lay reader. For the committed reader, there is much to recommend here. One of the later chapters on how some games are able to provoke mixed responses to violent elements, such as torture or civilian casualties, is particularly strong, and – given the ever increasing ability of computer games to simulate reality – will gain in relevance over the coming years, I predict. The book is not without its faults. The decision to cope without a glossary is frankly baffling, and leads to constant explanations of emoticons and gamer slang that run the risk of being at best, intrusive, and at worst, risible. Finally, I would recommend that potential readers consider the benefits of having this book as an e-text. In this way they will have ready access to the plethora of links.

Review by Chris Jones