Dividing Violence and Video Games

When I had originally planned on writing this post we were a little ways into November, with Remembrance Day having just passed. Walking through the subway stations here in Toronto it was impossible not to spot a bright red poppy pinned to a stranger’s lapel that inevitably forced me to, well, remember the war that lends them their importance.

thrallflandersJust before the day on which Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth of Nations pay tribute to those who have fallen in the line of duty was Blizzcon, the annual convention put on by my favourite video game developer. With World War I on one hand and a company that holds the title of creating the highest grossing game of all time in World of WarCraft on the other the connection was clear.

Asking whether or not it’s possible to have a split between violence and one of the quickest growing forms of both entertainment and narrative device, for mainstream audiences, is a difficult enough question as it is, and I felt it all the more pressing as the longer I put off writing this post the more [extreme] acts of violence I could see reported on the news. I don’t even need to drop any news links for you to think back on an incident that occurred just this past week.

Now before I go any further I want to state plainly that this is not an indictment of violence in video games. As my co-writer Gordon related a few years back being exposed to such can actually be beneficial to the way we perceive and navigate the world. Former Culture War Reporter Stew, who assisted me in writing this, also mentioned that it can be “interesting because the interactivity of videogames presents us with a unique way to actually explore our violent tendencies, or our instinct for survival.” I don’t particularly believe that this aspect of the medium is harmful by any means. Instead what I’d like to explore is what video games could be with its absence.

With so much violence present in the world around us is it really necessary for it to be so present in one of our primary means of escape?

To both gamers and non-gamers alike the fact that World of Warcraft, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, is no surprise. In fact, of the top 20 highest rated video games on Metacritic only a single one [Journey] boasts no form of active combat [Mario Kart 8 disqualified due to shells/other offensive pickups]. In fact, the longer I thought about games that had achieved massive popularity the more difficult it became to think of one that didn’t focus on violence [or destruction, to broaden things just a little bit].

One of the most popular games for both children and adults alike, Minecraft is particularly well known for the ability to gather resources and build structures both simple and extravagant. While that’s certainly the crux of gameplay there exist a number of units within the game that are intent on ending your life-

The hissing sound of the creature on the far left still gives some of us nightmares. [Source]

-and while it’s not necessary to kill any of them, doing so can in fact make gameplay easier [slaying spiders, for example, will yield silk which is important for crafting].

In Amnesia: The Dark Descent the player is actually unable to fight back against the monsters stalking them, and while this means that combat is impossible on their part it the fact is that one of their primary purposes is to avoid violence being enacted upon them.

This player is bad at hiding. [Source]

As mentioned up above, even games like Mario Kart add an extra dimension to racing by allowing you to attack other contestants’ vehicles with various weapons. Rocket League, which I played for the first time just last month, is a racing/soccer game hybrid and even gives you the ability to briefly destroy cars in your way when you’ve achieved maximum boost.

The list of [popular, non-mobile/puzzle] games that actually don’t have violence or destruction as a focal point is fairly short, and a number of them were created by the video game developers at Maxis who are responsible for the Sims games. Another is the Harvest Moon series which allow the player to simulate what it’s like running a farm.

One of the issues I’ve found is that many of these games, while good, had narratives which left much to be desired. The Sims, which was one of the first non-education computer games I ever played, had no actual end goal. You created your family and had them live their lives however you saw fit, but where they ended was entirely up to you as a player.

Who can forget moves like these?

Sometimes Sharon had to make her own fun. [Source]

As a whole the mainstream video game industry has crafted the majority of its narratives through violence. Personally I don’t see that as so much a problem as it is an enormous hindrance for the medium as a whole. As the aforementioned Journey proves it can be possible to create a commercially successful game that eschews any kind of combat or fear of harm.

In thinking about this the possibilities were, to me, endless. Like a Tomb Raider game that, all respect to the dead, actually devoted all of its gameplay towards actually raiding tombs instead of-

Arrows: They’re not just for shooting anymore! [Source]

Or a detective game that focused on foiling elaborate heists instead of murders [sorry Phoenix Wright and not sorry whatsoever, Arkham Asylum games]. I dream of nonviolent video games that truly delve into escapism instead of confining themselves to mere simulations, whether they be of nuclear families or agricultural centres.

Luckily for me I don’t have to simply let my dreams be dreams. While No Man’s Sky [dropping next year] does allows you to kill [or be killed by] various entities it appears to be far more preoccupied with the exploration of unique alien worlds.

Throughout this entire post I’ve kept the focus on popular, mainstream games, and the truth is that independent developers have been able to take risks on “what doesn’t sell”. Undertale, an RPG that can be bought on Steam, actually bills itself as “a game where you don’t have to destroy anyone,” and from what I’ve read really explores the consequences of choosing to kill those who get in your way.

In his comic strip Foxtrot Bill Amend, an avid gamer himself, introduced the fictional group MAGG, or Mothers Against Gory Gaming. I can vividly remember the comic strip in which the organization listed off a number of approved games, of which “Resident Good” amused me in particular.

The very idea of World of PeaceCraft and other such spoof video games have long been poked fun at for both sounding ridiculous and being a virtual [pun intended] impossibility. While I’m all for comedy, what I really want to know is why we can’t have these alternatives? In a world that streams terrorist attacks both domestic and international, day in and day out, why shouldn’t there be a form of entertainment that can tell us a good story without the trappings of violence? And maybe most importantly, why don’t we think there can be?

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