Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 09:21 am
I've been paying more attention to video game criticism lately, and it feels like there's this growing backlash against the ubiquity of violence in video games. And to some extent I entirely agree: the idea that "real gamers play RPSs at the hardest difficulty"/"real games are FPSs with the latest graphics" is really restrictive and exclusionary, both of the variety of people who play games, and the variety of kinds of games we could be playing. One of the reasons violence is used so frequently as a core mechanic is that it's relatively easy to code and design, and that warps the narratives of games: Someone at Pax was talking about how if the only problem solving tool you have is "the protagonist kills someone" that really limits the kinds of stories you can tell, and warps the stories you do tell.

But there's a difference between 'we shouldn't default unthinkingly to using violence in video games" and "we should stop using violence in video games" and sometimes it feels like people are leaning towards the latter. I'm not some paranoid Gamergater thinking anyone's going to take my FPSs away, but I think dismissing genres like FPS out of hand lessens our ability to discuss and make games better.

The main reason violence got so ubiquitous in games that many people genuinely enjoy killing things in games. And not just because we've been brainwashed by the military industrial complex or whatever, but because getting into pretend fights and pretending to kill things is satisfying on a core lizard brain level. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

I'm a pacifist who avoids conflict in real life, and one of my favourite kinds of games is the RPG which combines wandering around exploring, stories with plots and character arcs etc, roleplaying decisions, and a bunch of combat. Remove any one of those aspects and the genre becomes less enjoyable: I avoided FFXIII because I heard it had no exploration, I find Torchlight less engaging because it lacks much story, I prefer Bioware games to Final Fantasy because they allow for more roleplaying, and while I do enjoy adventure games the lack of combat means I don't find them much use when I want to turn my brain off and just wander around killing things.

I do sometimes enjoy combatless (or less combat heavy) versions of games, and think game makers could stand to include them more. I like games with a mindless advancement mechanic I can grind at, but exploration and gathering can fill that niche as well as combat, and don't like being interrupted by random encounters when I'm doing them. I play Minecraft on peaceful and miss the combatless MMO Glitch. What both of those lack is plot: are there are any plotty combatless RPG style games?

There's also fighting games where you defeat your opponent but don't kill them. I have never found any in genres I'm interested in, though. Pokemon probably comes the closest, but I never got into it.

Anyway. My personal tastes aside, a lot of people enjoy games which are just about shooting things, and I think that's ok. I find pure FPSs dull, but that doesn't mean the genre lacks merit, it just means it's not for me.

This post was set off by Hard in the Hinterlands which I found rather irritating: combat is not equivalent to sex. For a start, I may enjoy sex more than violence in real life, but I vastly prefer roleplaying violence to sex in games. I can enjoy sex in video games when it makes sense for the plot, but the idea of having sexual encounters as a gameplay mechanic grosses me the heck out. I'm not saying a game using it would be objectively bad, but I would not enjoy it at all. And this "sex is fun and violence is awful so all fiction should have more sex and less violence" attitude is incredibly annoying to me as someone who often finds depictions of sex in fiction squicky or even triggering. Not everyone reacts to fiction the same way! And you can argue for less violence in fiction without saying we have to replace it with sex of all things. Maybe we should replace it with maths puzzles. Everyone likes maths puzzles, right?

The writer says he'd prefer games which put "sex, friendship and trust" to the foreground. Those games exist, they're called dating sims. And I really like them, as well as other kinds of Visual Novels, Adventure Games etc. But they are not a replacement for RPGs. That "core loop" of combat has a purpose beyond marketing, it actually does make the game more fun for a lot of people, myself included. I will agree that Dragon Age Inquisition did need a better combat:plot ratio. But that ratio needn't be 0.

Also I think there are two issues here: a plot which revolves violence, and a core mechanic which revolves around violence. Obviously if your core mechanic is that your PC goes around killing people as their job then this is going to affect the plot. If you remove the "killing people" core mechanic that frees you to write stories which don't ever involve killing people. It's certainly never come up in any of the dating sims I've played. And those kinds of stories should probably be less rare than they are in games, especially big budget games with cool graphics and voice actors etc. I think it would be really interesting to have a plotty Bioware-eque RPG where the core mechanic was something different (...you're a farmer who gathers things?) so that your PC got to be non violent.

But that core mechanic isn't the only reason video game plots involve violence. Look at the plot of Dragon Age, and how often you have the choice to kill somone outside combat. Personally, I find those choices really interesting and have, for example, specifically created a character who I knew would romance and then kill Anders in Dragon Age 2 because I thought it would make for a good and satisfying story. I haven't played any Telltale games yet but I get the impression they are visual novels revolving around complex moral choices with no combat, and sometimes people end up dead as a result of your choices. I'm currently writing a visual novel where you have the choice to become the minion of an evil vampire and help her find victims (you also have the choice to fight against her and try and save as many lives as possible). Violence is compelling, and a valid part of fiction. There are valid questions about how that violence is written and framed, but that's a general problem with fiction as a whole, and I don't think we can have that conversation without starting from the assumption that there's nothing inherently wrong with violent stories, or violent games.

Miscellaneous extra thoughts:

  • I haven't gone into it but there are issues with the portrayal of violence in media, specifically video games, and the way it's used as the default mechanic definitely plays into that.
  • A lot of people hold up Journey as the platonic ideal of a non violent high quality video game. I love Journey, but I could only play it in short bursts because it replaced violence with jumping and I hate jumping.
  • I wouldn't actually want all the violence in games replaced with maths puzzles. I like them more than jumping, but they are a sometimes food. There is no game mechanic which works for everyone all the time.
  • Ironically, given my rant about people holding up sex as a universally appealing mechanic, the prim "nobody really likes this or if they do they shouldn't" dissapproval of violence in video games reminds me a lot of the way people dismiss romance plots or fictional kinks. Depictions of healthy friendship are great, but sometimes that's not what people feel like.
  • This is all separate to the negativity towards "violent video games" from conservatives who blame it for real world violence. I may not agree with the critics I'm arguing against in this post, but their argument is a lot more subtle and based on having actually played games.
  • I would find that article a lot less annoying if he had talked about dating sims/other games which do focus on "sex, friendship and trust". It's easier to argue that such games would be universally better if you ignore that real examples exist and have their own flaws and unappealing aspects.

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