Do video games require violence to be successful?

20/02/2023

Tasha Acres (she/her) unpacks the current design formula for video games

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Image by Infinity Ward Presskit

By Tasha Acres

In 2017, Pop Culture Detective on Youtube performed a statistical breakdown of the types of games presented at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, otherwise known as E3, that year. If you’re unaware, E3 is any gamer’s source of information for new game releases on every platform. His data revealed that out of 133 games, only 20 did not include combat mechanics. When did violence and combat become so integral to the creation of video games? More specifically, when did it become essential for the player to inflict harm upon people or animals to drive the plot forwards? It is so prevalent that this isn’t limited to graphic depictions of violence either – Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Multiversus, for example, utilise cartoonish combat to make themselves more appropriate to younger audiences.

There are so many successful games that centre their narratives around violence: like Call of Duty, The Last of Us, or that use violence to support the main plot, such as the Red Dead Redemption series, the Assassin’s Creed series, Pokémon, and many more. In fact, I challenge you to recall one of your favourite games that doesn’t include any sort of punch-up – that isn’t Animal Crossing, of course. Within these games, the playable protagonist often does not even have a choice between diplomacy and brutality; they are forced to retaliate to the antagonist’s “shoot first, ask questions later” approach. Undertale is a notable exception, allowing the player to adopt a diplomatic path throughout the game, however typical fighting mechanics are still included as other options. Of course, games set in a post-apocalyptic future would find it difficult to avoid using combat against enemies that will otherwise kill the protagonists. But why are people always hostile towards each other, rather than focusing on rebuilding a better society?

It also seems that games which choose to forego a violent story are separately categorised: they are ‘cosy games’, and don’t often turn up in mainstream recommendations. Are they not exciting enough? Even the beloved Minecraft, renowned for its relaxing atmosphere and endless possibilities, includes the ability for the player to attack not only monsters, but also animals and innocent villagers. The lack of attention on games without combat perpetuates the idea that these ‘cosy’ sorts of games are not mainstream, as if violence is a necessity for the player to have a purpose within the world. Why can’t we have mainstream games that choose to focus on the dialogue we have with other human beings? Narratives that focus on love, and connections with other people, or any other trait that doesn’t reduce humans to their seemingly bloodthirsty and angry roots?

When the only tool provided for you is a firearm, it will undoubtedly shape the way that you interact with the world around you. At the same time, this limits the types of narratives that developers are able to create: what if developers instead wanted to exhibit more positive traits of humanity, such as empathy? My favourite example of something like this would be Life is Strange: True Colours. The tool in question is the protagonist’s powerful sense of empathy, which you are able to use to interact with the characters around you, including background NPC’s – there’s even a hidden achievement where your actions facilitate the beginning of a romantic relationship between two of them. In this game, there are no guns, no knives, no swords. Only a demonstration of the range of emotions people can have, which allow the player to literally choose how to empathise with the characters, and these decisions come from a compassionate understanding of each individual’s experience, and the consequences of your actions. It’s an example of an acclaimed game that not only facilitates conflict without combat, but conflict with resolutions that encourage compassion and kindness. The only instance where there is ‘combat’, it is a game of pretend, a game that is organised in the first place to boost the mood of a grieving child, not to cause real harm to anybody.

It’s impossible to write an article about games that don’t encourage violence without mentioning beloved gems such as Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. These imaginative games help the player to engage with the environment through other means, such as farming and decorating your island, instead of shooting the first living creature they see. Although some players will find violence anywhere; specifically those of you who use your nets to attack your villagers – shame on you! – the overall premise of these games is to nurture your environment, rather than to destroy it.

The relationships that the player develops with these games, their environments, and their characters, are no less valuable than those formed within one of graphic violence. Games without violence are still able to maintain their emotional punch, despite their slower pace. The satisfaction of having played through a story upon completion still appears. Unpacking thoughtfully guides the player through the life story of a woman, from girlhood to owning her own house. While the format of the game is quite different to an FPS, it is still notable that no violence at all is used as a plot device. Throughout the years and different living spaces, we see which of her childhood interests she grows out of, and which ones remain with her for her whole life. We watch her develop new interests, and then new relationships, some of which we see collapse, all while simultaneously becoming emotionally invested in the developments of her life and the aesthetic of her bedroom. It’s an effective mode of storytelling, and one that is not hindered by its lack of violence, but enhanced by it.

I would argue that games that choose to omit combat from their mechanics are far more thoughtful, having broken out of the mould that so many games in the market attempt to fit into. They must consider diplomacy, and interrogate the human condition as they realistically ask: how would a person really act if they were to uphold their moral principles? There is the argument for escapism, and why someone would desire a game to emulate real life, but I, for one, would be extremely interested in a game that prioritises diplomacy before violence that isn’t a puzzle game, or mundane simulator (this is directly aimed at Farming Simulator), where the openness of the world leaves you without an obvious purpose. Here is my call for more empathetic games that, like some novels, wish to shine a different light on the human condition within video games.