A few days ago, I reblogged a post that had been circulating Tumblr on the centrality of combat in video games. I’ll link it here, but the gist of the post is a single rhetorical question: isn’t it absurd how many games there are where violence is the only problem-solving mechanism a player has?
There’s no shortage of conversations about violence in video games. Back in 2007, the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” came into vogue specifically to critique narrative-focused games with violence as their only core mechanic (think BioShock Infinite and the Tomb Raider reboot). Critics have long since challenged violence in video games, especially when games are banned or censored, as well as in the wake of mass shootings. Whether or not violence in video games incites violence in the real world seems up for constant discussion and debate. (Before you get too excited, long-term studies have found no links between the two. Marilyn Manson wasn’t to blame for Columbine, either. Go figure.)
Recently, gamers have also begun to question the necessity of violence in games—not because of perceived real-world consequences, but because with improved graphics, interesting storytelling, and detailed world-building, combat seems like a tedious afterthought. “I feel like ‘nerd culture’ wanting to keep combat in games is heavily related to wanting to maintain their vicarious brand of masculinity,” wrote user stochasticprocesses in the post linked above.
“I want Fallout and Skyrim and Dragon Age and all the rest without the combat,” added user homieomorphism. “Why can’t I use magic to explore a beautiful world? Why can’t I use diplomacy to unite and pacify warring factions? I’m so sick of it, honestly. It’s to the point where I just [try to] minimize time spent in fights [so I can] enjoy the dialogue and art that much more.”
That particular conversation intrigued me, so I joined in. I added that I thought much of this discontent was founded in a fundamental inability to choose violence or non-violence. I want a choice in how to act in a video game. I want to be able to CHOOSE to be violent, but I also want to be able to choose NOT to be violent. I want both of those choices to be perfectly viable and nuanced. I want to be able to change my mind and my play style at any time. This is a part of true character customization, which should have as much to do with how you interact with NPCs as it should with customizing your avatar’s physical appearance. As one user wrote, “#we have barely scraped the surface of what video games are capable of.”
As the post continued to circulare, one well-meaning user reblogged my commentary and added, “Well, good news! In Far Cry 4, you can sneak and talk your way out of combat with humans.” Now, fundamentally, this comment seemed benign. But it bothered me for some reason. Eventually, I realized that the solution of negotiating conflict bothered me because I wasn’t picturing a game where I could deal with conflict by stealthing around it or by using diplomacy. I was talking about a game where, depending on my play style, I could opt in or out of violence as a game mechanic. I wasn’t talking about a game where you, as a player, can react to violence in one of three predetermined ways—I want a game where you may not ever have to react to violence, depending on your play style.
And that brought me back to the original post. Is stochasticprocesses right? Is masculine fragility limiting innovation in video games?
Needless to say, reactions to the assertion that violence in video games is preventing the medium from reaching its full potential have been mixed. People get defensive about violence in video games. Amid the standard insults and gendered slurs hurled in the direction of the original poster, the loudest members of the opposition argue that without violence, Fallout, Skyrim, and Dragon Age “wouldn’t be games.”
This is something at the heart of ‘what classifies games as games’ debate. There is a growing multitude of games that don’t utilize violence as a central mechanic. Many of these are in the independent sector—The Stanley Parable, Papers, Please, and Never Alone are a few of my personal favorites. Telltale Games’ entire catalogue since the release of season one of The Walking Dead has had conversation and social maneuvering as the central game mechanic. Animal Crossing, The Sims, and Minecraft are all worldwide sensations made by what one would now consider to be AAA companies, and yet, since not one of these games has violence as a core mechanic, each and every one of them has been criticized as not being ‘game-y’ enough.
The fact that the same criticism is levied at so-called “casual games” and “casual gamers” reveals a link between the two: games that don’t include violence as a core mechanic are perceived by the community as being fundamentally more feminine than games that do. Games with women-majority audiences, women-majority casts, and women-majority dev teams are frequently lumped in with this kind of critique. Violence, goes the logic, is what makes a game masculine—and, by extension, being masculine is what makes a video game a video game.
In video games, violence—that is, being good at enacting violence more effectively than, say, NPCs or other players—is a often key mechanic. Violence is often seen as the most effective method for engaging players. It sets the stakes and gives players a sense of momentum and urgency by giving them a clear, tangible, immediate goal: hurt the thing that’s hurting you. The consequences of losing are telegraphed to you by your very real instincts of fight-or-flight rather than by the digitized, fictional language of the game.
Furthermore, giving you an enemy to fight and a clear way to fight it presents you with a powerful incentive to succeed. There’s a visceral, instinctual quality to violence—even fictional violence—and that can make it a crucial tool when creating interactive media. But when violence becomes a requirement for making a game “count” as a game, its limitations become incredibly clear.
For one thing, violence is a tired mechanic. There are entire genres of video games dedicated to different varieties of violence: first-person shooters are separate from Rogue-like games; action-adventure games like the Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted franchises are separate from survival-horror games like Alien: Isolation and Dead Space; fighting games are separate from all of the above. Yet in each of these genres, the player is threatened with violence and asked to react with violence or stealth. The market is supersaturated with games that utilize violence as their only core mechanic.
This supersaturation lends itself to illustrating the greater problem: violence lacks nuance. It’s hard to tell a wide variety of stories by utilizing violence as the only way by which the audience can interact with the narrative. In real life, people have a variety of mechanisms they use in response to the actions of others. But in video games, the solution is often singular: shoot/punch/kick/kill the obstacle. It’s hard to tell an emotionally evocative story when violence is a player’s only option to progress.
Furthermore, placing players in a reactionary position forces them to view game worlds in terms of black or white by making them sort all NPCs as friends or foes. It breeds enmity between a player and the world they live in, and naturally so—when even so much as exploring a world places you in mortal peril, you, as the player, begin to regard that world with equal hostility. In games like Tomb Raider, almost everything you meet tries to kill you—other people, wolves, bears, airplanes, rivers, cliffs, ancient goddesses, etc. It’s exhausting and, more importantly, it renders it impossible to interact with the world in a non-violent way.
That isn’t to say that violent games don’t have avenues for non-violent interaction with the world. Item collection and world exploration are often rewarded—at least in the superficial “game trophy” sense—and are often separate from a game’s violence-heavy action segments. But these avenues are housed inside a violent world. It’s impossible to find all the things and explore the world of Tomb Raider—or even Skyrim—without first killing everyone (and everything) you meet along the way.
All this goes entirely without mentioning just how intrinsic violence is to most game-making tools and technology. Game devs are resistant to removing violence as a central mechanic for a variety of ideological reasons, but their resistance is also founded in practical reality—violence is a core mechanic in most game engines exactly the way it is in most games. Most engines struggle to do anything else, which is why, almost 60 years after the invention of video games, we’re still trying to figure out how to use modern game engines to animate a believable hug.
So, what is the solution? How do we address the limitations “necessary” violence places on game innovation? The independent and casual game markets are beginning to, in their own way. Games like Fez, Journey, and Minecraft partially enjoyed success because they provided content to an incredibly underutilized market. The recent resurgence of adventure games and collect-a-thons are tied to this, too—players with alternative playing styles are starved for content, and will buy anything that promises them an experience that doesn’t demand violence in order to facilitate progress.
I think, too, as a community, we need to begin to discuss how misogyny finds its way into the conversation about the necessity of violence in video games. Refusing to classify non-violent video games as video games is an act founded in masculine insecurity, and it not only discourages innovation in the medium, but also disqualifies innovative new games from inclusion in the medium.
Players deserve to be able to fully customize their experience and to explore new and different play styles. They deserve to be able to spend time exploring the gigantic worlds developers work so hard to craft without the threat of violence, if that’s what they want—and they deserve to be able to opt into that violence, too, if their desires change.
Video games could do so much to facilitate change in the world. They could do so much to enrich player experience and to diversify as an art form. And that change, that diversity, will come from acknowledging a need for different narratives and different mechanics, and from a rejection of the violence-as-masculinity-as-video-game qualifier ideology.
I, for one, am ready.