At Paris Games Week, during PlayStation's showcase, we got another look at David Cage's newest game, Detroit: Becoming Human. During the trailer, we got one of the most disturbing depictions of violence towards a child I can remember, in games. In Detroit, you play as an advanced AI brought in to do housework for a family consisting of a single father and a little girl, Alice. The trailer shows a scene where the player is standing at the foot of a flight of stairs as the father runs up screaming at Alice and then, once he's up there, you can hear Alice screaming horribly, and maybe seconds later the AI goes up and Alice is dead. Right after, the screen says, "Things could have been different." The level of brutality the trailer showed was all in service of telling the viewer that in Detroit, you can stop this little girl from dying. It's extremely exploitative and callous. This got me thinking, are video games becoming more okay depicting violence against children?
It probably came to me because, I've been playing with Assassin's Creed Origins, which, pretty early on, includes a heartrending scene where Beyek is tricked into stabbing and killing his own little son. Though I play video games, and violence can't be avoided, I despise depictions of violence towards children. It feels like a line that shouldn't be crossed lightly and I feel as though game developers have traditionally felt the same way. Most violent video games don't include characters, who engage in combat, under the age of 15. Even games which are centered around player choice such as Skyrim, Fable, and Fallout 4, don't allow players to kill children. Yet, it feels as though the culture around children and violence in games is in flux and has been over the last 5 years.
I feel like this cultural shift around the treatment of children started in 2008-2011. In 2008 the Bioshock franchise started and gave you the option to either save or harvest (kill) little sisters. While the game didn't graphically depict the deaths of the little sisters. It did give the player the ability to kill kids. Which is disturbing all by itself. Then, in 2011, Skyrim came out and forum posts about this subject started popping up. People for some reason really wanted to kill kids in Fallout III, Skyrim, and Fable 3, so much so that not long after Skyrim was out, someone made it possible with a mod.
And it didn't get better with time. In 2013, Ellie in the last of us had to engage in and endure a great deal of violence as a core element of the storyline. For sake of brevity, I'm going to skip a lot and jump to 2017. I mentioned the scene in Assassin's Creed Origins and this trailer at Games Week but a few other games stick out to me. Kindergarten is a game about a child trying to avoid being murdered violently by his teacher. This one is especially hard for me to swallow considering the graphic nature of it and the attempts at being humorous on their Steam Page. And finally, Childen of Zodiarcs, which is a "dark" game which has the player take control of a group of child outlaws as they kill, maim, and steal their way through the game.
I think there are a lot of reasons why this trend feels so gross to me. The first level of which is trying to understand why gamers would want to kill children in games. I spent a lot of time on the forums looking for reasons and most of them seemed to amount to, making the game more "realistic" or because kids are annoying. Fuck both reasons. The second is how this brutality is utilized by the narratives as shortcuts to the player's emotions. This is akin to when games writers want to paint a gritty atmosphere and use 101 racist, ableist, or heterosexist epithets as a means of circumventing actual world building. Not only is it offensive, not only is it disturbing, it's also notably lazy.
But maybe, I'm wrong. Perhaps video games have always had depictions of violence against children and I am just now noticing it. Regardless, it's worth it to ask why was it necessary to show Bayek stab his own son or give players the option to kill a child in Bioshock. As people test the boundaries of what ethical lines we draw with video games, I think it will become even more important to ask, what shouldn't we be allowed to do, even in a video game. And how do we avoid making a game of serious problems we face in the real world?