Why is killing such a central concept in video games?

On the PBS series "Game/Show," host Jamin Warren discusses why the act of killing is such a fundamental game mechanic in video games from Mario Bros. to Grand Theft Auto.

Anthony Domanico
CNET freelancer Anthony Domanico is passionate about all kinds of gadgets and apps. When not making words for the Internet, he can be found watching Star Wars or "Doctor Who" for like the zillionth time. His other car is a Tardis.
Anthony Domanico
2 min read

Killing, as you've probably noticed, is central to many video games. Protagonists in everything from Nintendo's games starring Mario, Kirby and Link to the notorious Grand Theft Auto series to military-themed games like Call of Duty have in common the need to dispose of those who stand in their way.

In a new PBS "Game/Show" video, host Jamin Warren takes on the old question of why killing is so prevalent in gaming. Warren starts by pointing out that killing is, obviously, pretty central to entertainment far beyond video games, being found in abundance in movies, TV shows and Shakespearean plays. Conflict drives plot, making the story about life and death is an easy way to raise the stakes, and video games tend to go for visceral impact, he argues.

Warren cites a professor who traces the concept of lives in video games back to, of all things, pinball, where players have a limited number of balls they can lose before losing the game. From losing lives to taking lives was a natural step, as seen in arcade games like Space Invaders, where players had to kill off descending aliens before they destroyed the player's ship, and it became a central concept for game designers.

Check out the 10-minute "Game/Show" video in full at the top of this post to hear Warren dig more into the oft-discussed topic of violence in video games, looking at psychological research into the satisfaction of shooting games, the deeper meaning of "Game Over" and possible future directions for gaming.