War and Pixels


I saw a link to this article on Tumblr, and it addresses a topic I’ve thought about for years. It’s not that I necessarily dislike fighting in video games. Sometimes it can be cathartic. It’s just that so many games make that the ONLY way to interact with the world. There are certainly many different sorts of violent interaction, with stomping Goombas being a far cry from blowing a demon’s head off with a bazooka, but many games can be summed up with “kill what you see.” (Actually, now that I think about it, being stomped on would probably make for a more painful death.)

Sure, sometimes you can elude the enemies instead, but that often means you miss out on points and/or money. I wrote a post a while back mentioning how a fairly primitive RPG that I used to play on the Texas Instruments 99/4A computer gave you the option of bribing monsters with money so that they’d let you go, and I stated that it’s a step in the right direction, but a minor one. I suppose a lot of it goes back to the early days of video games, when interaction with the game was very limited. Sure, it might have been a better solution in the long run to sit down and work out a trade agreement with the Space Invaders, but how are you going to do that when your joystick has only one button?

Then again, non-video role-playing games have much fewer limits, and those also often focused on chopping enemies into goblinwurst. The article is probably right that this has to do with gaming largely being a boys’ club, although I’m sure plenty of women enjoy games with a focus on fighting as well. The prejudice against The Sims and Animal Crossing (both of which I enjoy) as not Real Games isn’t something I’ve personally come across, but I don’t doubt it exists.

Not that Sims games are ENTIRELY non-violent.
It’s not like these games don’t still have challenges, just not generally life-or-death ones.

It’s an ideology that seems to fit in pretty well with the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration, with violence being the go-to solution to just about everything. And as with international politics, I’m not saying violence should NEVER be an option in games, just that it shouldn’t always be the ONLY one. In a way, it limits the narrative possibilities when every interaction with potential enemies is simply killing them before they kill you. Sure, military games and first-person shooters should probably continue to work that way, but games that focus on exploration could include some more options.

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3 Responses to War and Pixels

  1. I just wrote an essay on this very subject for Sequart Books called: “War and Peace: How the Star Wars Saga Perpetuates and Repudiates the Myth of Redemptive Violence”. It’s based on Walter Wink’s book The Powers That Be, which postulate how this myth, which goes back to the ancient Babylonian Enuma Elish, continues to be–despite variations in names and narratives–the predominant underlying ethos in cartoons, movies, TV shows and video games, and how it serves to legitimize and bolster the Domination System. It’s a fascinating book that I can’t recommend enough.

  2. In my own opinion I would not consider the Sims or Animal Crossing to be games. Not for the lack of violence, but for the lack of an end goal. Greg Costikyan, in his article “I Have No Words And I Must Design” (http://www.costik.com/nowords2002.pdf) quotes SimCity designer Will Wright as calling his creation a “toy.” You can assign yourself goals, but there’s nothing in the game itself to make that goal meaningful.

    As for non-video RPGs, you’re largely right, but it’s a large enough field that there are a bundle of exceptions. Many games that take their cue from D&D reward XP for killing monsters, making combat a strongly rewarded activity. But even within D&D, there are variations. In the early versions of D&D, XP was also awarded for recovering treasure. In fact, acquiring a monster’s treasure hoard was frequently worth more XP than killing the monster itself.

    Other, non-D&D RPGs can have far different reward structures. While Adventures in Oz: Fantasy Roleplaying Beyond the Yellow Brick Road does include a combat system, the primary activity that is rewarded is friendship.

    • Nathan says:

      What about early video games where there was a goal for each level, but not for the game as a whole? I mean, Pac-Man just went on until you died or the game ran out of memory.

      That makes sense about Oz, as the books aren’t totally devoid of fighting, but it’s rarely how a major conflict is resolved. Then again, a lot of conflicts in the books are either solved through bizarre coincidence or running away.

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