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The Move Towards Violence

April 18, 2012

Dear Reader,

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)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    April 18, 2012 2:58 pm

    I’m not sure that games have gotten more violent. More gratuitous in their violence perhaps, but Mario was stomping goombas way back in ’85 and before that you have space invaders, galaga, shoot shoot shoot everything you see. Molyneux is right in that it is a problem of AI. Modeling the shooting of things is easy, because it is just physics. Same for sports games. A game like chess is easy to model because there are a specific set of moves that are allowed and no others. Human intelligence is another thing entirely, and ala the chinese room can never be truly emulated.

    There’s also the interface issue. If the only way to interact with a game world is a few buttons and a control stick or two, there’s just not a whole lot that can be done in the area of complex interaction. You can make a puzzle that is solved nonviolently, say through a dialogue tree, but all of the difficulty of real world interaction is reduced to getting a skill high enough or just lucking out by picking the right options.

    • April 18, 2012 4:11 pm

      I’d argue there’s a VAST gulf between jumping on the heads of mushroom people and shooting innocent pedestrians in the face, as in GTA or Saint’s Row. I do agree that violence has been the solution to most problems for all along, though, which I think is more your core point. Still, there were plenty of point and click adventures, text based games, and puzzle games that didn’t resort to violence, and many of those has become vastly underfunded genres (at least by production companies, hence the recent kickstarter trend).

      I tend to agree that a lot of games simplify what little dialogue they have, but I’m not sure that’s the only way to proceed. Consider a game like Deus Ex, which I mentioned in the post. There are dialogue options that, if you play attention to what the other person is saying, you can realize are the right choice. In that case, actual attention, empathy, and thought are more important than a non-existent (for that particular game) speech skill or simple luck. More games could take that to heart, I think, that human attention and empathy can be used to defuse situations.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Shalcker permalink
    April 18, 2012 7:16 pm

    But… Deus Ex: HR was EXTREMELY easy for non-combat character against bosses.

    You just shoot them with stun gun into head and they never recover. That’s it. Each boss done in 15 seconds.

    That went against most people expectations though. We’re trained that such overpowered weapons don’t work against bosses – and here they do.

  3. Shalcker permalink
    April 18, 2012 7:51 pm

    Smart AI is difficult, but far from being impossible, and was done many times. There is problem with feedback to show people that AI opponents are smart and not just cheating.
    Another problem is that smart AI will win in many situations, and dumbing him down “just right” for player to get into “flow” is really hard problem – so often game designers just go with “fairly dumb ai” and adjust health/damage numbers and number of monsters up or down until it feels right.

    Violence is not the only option. There are non-violent games around. Looking a few years ago, there was “The Path”. Or more recently, “Dear Esther”. But I guess they are both harder to market and harder to produce.

    • April 19, 2012 5:58 pm

      I’ve heard good things about Dear Esther, but I’ve also heard that really it’s narrative with a bit of gameplay, not really a game. That’s neither here nor their, though.

      I agree that there are nonviolent options, but the genres that have supported them are in many ways on life support. Strategy overall is being constantly reduced in exchange for visceral thrill. Sure, there’s holdouts, and we appreciate and support them with out money, but like sees like, and with developers drooling over profits like Blizzard’s, it’s no wonder we’re not seeing a lot of innovation.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Ben permalink
    April 19, 2012 2:26 pm

    There have been some good non-violent games that I have enjoyed in the past:
    Tetris – all about tesselating blocks, it still required quick reactions and problem solving.
    Portal/Portal 2 – mostly about solving problems based on the interesting physics of the game world. Although it was partially about not dying.

    And there are significant non-violent elements I have enjoyed in otherwise violence based games; the economies in Eve and World of Warcraft, the physical puzzle solving in Half Life. The setlement/planet/colony development in games such as Civilisation, Master of Orion II, Master of Magic.

    I’ve played various racing games in the past, although not for many years.

    And on a different level, board games seem to often do better with non-violent goals. Recently I’ve enjoyed Caylus (castle and town building), Puerto Rico (developing a colony for producing trade goods to ship to the old world), Agricola (developing a farm), Settlers of Catan (building up towns and cities). These games all seem have players sharing the same sorts of goals, but with multiple routes to victory, and they are basically a race. At the end of the game, other players are generally substantially progressed towards the same goals – everyone has built up stuff, rather than the victory being at the expense of ones opponents progress.

    • April 19, 2012 5:53 pm

      Of the computer games you listed, I’ve played them all. They were all excellent in their own right, and Master of Magic stands as one of my top 3 favorite games of all time. However, and I’m not sure you were disputing my point, but if you were, your computer game examples actually prove my point; only the Portal series is new to this century; all the other originated in the 90s. Their ways have vanished into the dust with Bubsy and Ogre Battle.

      I’ve only played some of those board games; I agree that board games are overall less violent. I suspect it’s because there’s little way to get a visceral thrill out of a board game like there is a computer game, so developers are forced to do a better job designing and work towards flow instead of adrenaline.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Ben permalink
      April 20, 2012 1:17 pm

      I’m not sure if my list is mostly oldies because the more modern equivalents don’t exist, or because I have spent the last ten years playing MMO’s that have substantial violence elements, and have not been looking around as much for quantity of other games.
      Maybe the non-violent games are more concentrated on consoles now?
      I’m not the right person to give examples from consoles.

    • April 20, 2012 1:23 pm

      You may be entirely right about consoles; I have no idea, either. I get the impression from consoles that they’re even more violent than the computer platform, but I really don’t have any idea. Good thought, and it bears some looking in to.

  5. Syl permalink
    April 20, 2012 2:02 pm

    I’m not sure that violence itself is so much a driving force in many games, but competitiveness; which “can” be translated with or without violence. some of the most successful genres are in fact sims or farmville type of games, not games about war. some players are drawn to simulations, others play to win. there’s different concept to accomplish winning though and violence has become a traditional one for obvious socio-historical and cultural reasons. whether we like it or not, war is a trait that defines the human race. so is not wanting to share or wanting to be better.

    now, some games satisfy competitiveness via other means; for example puzzles or acrobatics, fast reflexes, mathematical skills etc. there is still winning, but in a different way. still, you “beat” someone else there too. one could argue how much more or less violent a world is where people are beaten by things like knowledge, ‘brains’ or resources vs. a world where the fist rules. IMO they are quite alike (there are always losers), even if our modern society has started to replace physical violence with a different type of cruelty and regards the former behavior as somehow ‘lower’.
    I tend to disagree, I don’t think we have come far from our cavemen ancestors with the club. and hence I also don’t really care if games are about killing/war or not, it’s just another expression of primal wishes to conquer, succeed, win. and maybe the most obvious and honest one at that….something to ponder.

    • April 20, 2012 8:13 pm

      I’m not against competition in games (or, really, violence, for that matter). I just want more diversity in problem solving options. I think there is a vast difference between a world where you only fight to win versus a world where you think and reason to win. Being given the option between the two is really all I’m after; sometimes brains are better than brawn, and in other situations brawn may be necessary. If you think about it, the “option of last resort” is the term for killing someone, yet in games if often the first resort.

      I think we’ve come far from our caveman roots. The skills necessary to survive in that environment are mostly irrelevant now, but games still frequently focus on those skills. I don’t believe games should be simply an outlet for power fantasies. Some can be, sure, but so many of them? Why not have games that are more nuanced and interesting?

      Thanks for the comment.

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