The Move Towards Violence
Apparently I not only got many neat experiences at PAX, but also a nasty cold. I guess throwing 70,000 dirty gamers into one building is bound to carry that kind of consequence. I’m so sick, in fact, I actually took off Monday, and I virtually never take off work. As an example, it’s the first sick day I’ve taken off from work since I started this blog. You’ll note, though, that I did show up for work here.
That’s not what today’s correspondence is about, though. Recently, in response to our discussion of a potential Attachment Theory of games, Shintar wrote,
I do think the common theme here is that I like games that don’t focus on violence (WoW is about the worst I’ve enjoyed) and aren’t twitchy. I’m not sure how much of that was early games affecting my tastes though and how much was simply me picking the games that naturally appealed to me from the start, considering that I was very much spoiled for choice.
As often happens, the timing of this seemingly innocuous comment was sublime. I’d been speaking to my buddy recently on the turn towards violence in video games partially because of our experiences with Star Wars’s supposed “story” system, partially due to a discussion we had about a better style of MMO, and partially due to an interview I’d read with Peter Molyneux of Lionhead studios, who created the Fable series. Whether or not you believe in fate, luck, or God, the synchronicity of such events should give pause.
According to Molyneux, the most immediate problem in game design is a problem of AI. He recounts a story (this is all from The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose) where in an earlier game, Black and White, a God-style game like Populous, his studio created a creature that could be taught how to treat the peasants of the game. However, its prime function was feeding, and they programmed it to eat whatever the closest, most nutritious source of food was. Upon booting the creature up, it began to eat its own legs. This, of course, is a typical AI error, but it gets to the source of the problem: even good AI is stupid.
Since making truly smart AI is so difficult, Molyneux predicts that more and more video game interactions will move towards violence. If you think about it, it makes sense; it’s hard to get realistic interaction in a video game with an AI. Either you present extremely limited choices for interaction with heavily scripted responses, or you simply don’t allow that kind of interaction at all. Consider the top genres in the market at the moment: FPS and MMOs. In an FPS, the only interaction you usually have is shooting the bad guys. There might be some quests pick-ups, like in Borderlands, but for the most part, easily 95% or more of the game, you’re just going to be shooting stuff.
MMOs aren’t much different. Yes, you have more interactions, as in Star Wars, but in the end, most of the conversations are on rails, and a vast majority of the game is solving problems with violence. It’s simply easier, and developers don’t want to struggle to overcome such a challenge when they can just pump out a sequel to Gears of War 2 and make millions with just violence.
A second reason we see this trend has to do with fun. I’m extrapolating a little here from Koster’s A Theroy of Fun for Game Design, but it seems that true fun when playing comes from flow, the point at which your skill is exactly matched by the game’s difficulty. It’s really hard to do this, of course, as humans learn at different rates and come in with different skill sets, so making a game that guarantees flow is virtually impossible.
Instead, what games can guarantee is a visceral response to danger. Games can guarantee to make you adrenaline flow and your autonomic nervous system react as if you were in danger. It’s not particularly hard since your body’s stress response is exactly the same for being stuck in traffic before a job interview and being chased by a tiger. Stress is stress, and game designers can easily throw that at you in the form of harder and faster situations in which you have to react. Still, the relief you feel upon success seems like fun; it’s a similar endorphin release like you get when you learn something. Since it’s easier to get you riled up with violence than it is to get you into a flow state through, say diplomacy, games move towards violence.
We do have one bright spot in all of this, which is modern RPGs. While they’re still extremely violence-heavy, many RPGs allow interactions that might curtail violence or even prevent it. However, while I always max out my speech score in games because I’d vastly prefer to avoid fighting (a more realistic approach, I might add, since avoiding fighting is a very human imperative), I assume many players (my buddy usually included) just max out their armor and weapon skills and bash everyone that gets in their way. Still, at least there’s the option of avoiding violence, an option not frequently presented by other games.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution takes a special spot here, too. In this game, you’re actively rewarded for not using violence to solve problems. Games like this have existed for some time, from Metal Gear Solid to Tenchu: Stealth Assassin (still some violence there, though), but Deus Ex really pushed the envelope for stealth design. Except, of course, for the bosses. There again we find developers believing that the only way to progress a story is to kill bad guys, and as a result, the game got a lot of negative reviews. They had 90% of a good idea – that sometimes non-violence, thinking, and stealth were better than murder – but they just couldn’t commit the last 10%: there must be boss battles.
Of course, a lot of this simply has to do with where the money is. People enjoy shooting one another in Call of Duty and downing bosses in WoW. There’s nothing wrong with these as game-like activities. But someday there will be. As each generation more quickly learns the necessary skills to master these games, we’re going to see less and less interest in them, in the same way that 2-d platformers or space shooting games have largely vanished. The question is what will come to replace them? A leap in AI that makes social interaction realistically interesting and possible in games? Or a more violent style of game? Only time will tell.
Stubborn (and carrying around a box of tissues)