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 ('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.
Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 02:32 am (UTC)
This reminds me of my mother banning toy guns from our home as kids. We immediately made our own out of rolled up newspaper, pretended to be Daleks and ran around shooting each other. Violence-as-play is a very normal thing! The problem is when the only play is violence, and I have to admit that "real world" violent games like Grand Theft Auto bother me a lot more than fantasy settings, even though I don't have any logical grounds for that. Maybe it's because elf-human relations can be metaphorical for real-world things at most, but harming sex workers is a real-world crime that is given low importance by society.
Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 03:44 am (UTC)
What I find really fucking disingenuous is the argument that if you're opposed to sexual violence as a game mechanic, you are logically bound to oppose all violent game mechanics. Unless you discount a lot of things as "not violent" (self-defense isn't violence, combat sports aren't violence, the wonderful """anarchist""" claim that property destruction isn't violence) this is fifty kinds of appalling bullshit and just thinking about it pisses me off.

Anyway, as far as plotty RPG without combat, I'm honestly not sure. There are a lot of games where you get to roleplay and don't have to engage in combat, but they probably wouldn't be classified under the "RPG" game genre, according to convention. The closest I can think of is Sunless Sea, which I'm playing right now, but I think it's classified more as a strategy/exporation roguelike(like)... and it's not so much that it has no combat as that you can play it and win without engaging in combat... and I suspect the plottiness is much looser and more distributed than in traditional "plotty RPGs".

Anyway, the subject of violence as a game mechanic is really very interesting and worth discussion. Perhaps guided by that stock parser-IF response "Violence isn't the solution here" (often implemented by default for verbs like kick, hit, break, etc. unless the author overwrites it), I first wonder if the ubiquity of violence-as-interaction is due to its relative simplicity and universality -- barring magic, you can't bribe a lock, debate a wolf, or solve a person -- but then I think of the sheer amount of EFFORT that some developers put into hyperdetailed gore... or the obvious unrealisticness of combat in plenty of games, which is written off as genre/medium convention... or the fact that even in the many fantasy MMORPGs with actual magic, most magical abilities are about killing or increasing killing-potential, and you only get experience points from non-quest PvE interactions by killing the environmental entity in question.

What are other more-or-less universal mechanics?

* Observation and exploration are already done player-side by default, just by loading up the screen/location/object. For this to be engaging, the level of (recursive, complex) detail must be very high -- Sunless Sea uses prose to help achieve this.

* The recent game Elegy for a Dead World has the player engage by writing about the worlds they see -- this is very open-ended and doesn't really return a victory condition for the nice dopamine rush.

* Acquisition, perhaps, a la Katamari? The difficulties one could introduce to complexify this would probably make a stealth game.

* Movement, of course, as with platformers, but also more parkour-style 3D games -- and I'm VERY interested in why there aren't/whether there are games out there based on the "explosive jumping" mechanics of FPSes like CS:GO, Quake, and TF2, considering that this movement mechanic has attracted such a dedicated, creative (even fanatical) following in otherwise combat-focused games.

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 04:11 pm (UTC)
Ah, I don't have time to dig into your post as I'd like, so I'll just drop some tangents that may of interest or relevance:
Why Killing Orcs In Mordor Is More Intimate Than Sex In Mass Effect: Power and Intimacy in videogames.

I also had a short flashback to a game design book (bible?), Rules of Play by Salen/Zimmerman. Definitely recommended - it has some circular logic in the later chapters but it's solid overall. The aspect that came to mind is that all games are designed around conflict, which is basically what you're also saying: different central conflict -> different gameplay or genre entirely. I like it as a concept to explore games; in the first essay's terms, sort of like: the criticism is that the "romance" conflict is played out on a narrative, not gameplay level? Haven't thought too deeply on it though...gotta dash >_>;
Thursday, January 8th, 2015 09:32 am (UTC)
I am kind of sorry I clicked through to that article :-/ So what, he's never played any kind of sim game? Plotty puzzle game? Tiny indie games that do deal with sex as a game mechanic? Crash Bandicoot?

Like, sure, AAA games are mostly very violent, but that's not all of gaming. I get the same sort of feeling from setting tasks in sim games as I do from the combat in Dragon Age. (Maybe not the immediate tactical satisfaction.) Also, some of us do struggle to defeat the bosses in video games :( Nice for him if he never has to replay fights over and over ...

And I agree with you in terms of the defensibility of violence in fiction. I have spent a lot of time thinking about my enjoyment of fictional violence, though more with regards to movies than to games. And, some of that is important-story violence, with big moral implications, and some of that is straight-up action viscerally exciting violence, and I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with either of those things.

Basically I agree with your whole post :P And am weirded out by his.