I’ve been thinking a lot about violence in gaming lately, about conflict and the tools we use to resolve it, violent or otherwise. I was recently in St. Louis, Missouri for a game convention called PixelPop, an event that centers around games, game development, and music creation. While I was there, I talked with Carol Mertz, a developer for Happy Badgers Studios who also happens to be a friend of mine. She was demoing her new card game, Pass the Buck: A Game of Corporate Responsibility. Players act as scummy office types who gain success by forcing tasks on to other players; imagine a game of Go Fish or BS that feels all-too-real if you’ve worked in IT in the last 15 years (the words “ping,” “follow-up,” “ownership,” and “deliverable” are almost inevitable in each game). It’s fresh, it’s funny, and it’s fun to play with friends or strangers. When I asked Carol about how she’d come up with the game, she said that she was going through a really frustrating work experience and that this was her outlet to vent. Then she told me about how she really prefers non-violent games in general, that those were the ones that she got excited about. I’ve been thinking about non-violence in gaming ever since, and it’s why I bought Undertale today.
Today is an interesting day to think about violence in America. 10 people were murdered, and another 7 were injured by a shooter on a college campus in southern Oregon. We seem to not understand how to prevent these situations here since they keep happening time and time again. Shootings happen so frequently now that they blur together; my Facebook page didn’t even show the event as a trending topic until almost 10 hours after the event occurred. Though I know it seems a little presumptuous to assume that my Facebook trending topics can be used as an example for America-at-large, I think there are probably quite a few other people who don’t watch the news; maybe they won’t find out until tomorrow. President Obama addressed the country this morning and talked about the shooting, how we’ve failed to act as a nation to prevent these incidents from taking place. We’re the only advanced country with this problem, after all.
Inevitably, the media will move from shock about the shooting itself to the hunt for the “cause:” was he mentally unstable? Was he not hugged enough as a child? Was he raised in a household that hated Christians? Is this the fault of the media?
For those that remember the wake of the Columbine shootings, some of the media was quick to pick out video games (specifically Doom) as a key player in what caused the shootings, that they were using the game as a “murder simulator.” People were quick to say that the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre was an avid Counter-Strike player, and that the shooter who killed over 70 people at a summer camp in Oslo used Call of Duty to “train.” Never mind that those were each the most popular shooters of those time-frames, and being cited for playing them would be akin to being cited for breathing air at the time of the crime. I’m sure the media is about to transition from “shock and sorrow” to “finger-pointing” at any moment, looking for any specific circumstance to call out so that we don’t feel like we need to change society as a whole.
With that said, there’s something to be about surrounding yourself with violence.
This isn’t a post condemning violence in video games, nor am I suggesting anyone else do so, either. Multiple studies (here, here, and kinda here) state that video games don’t incite violent behavior in kids, and I can’t help but believe that a mind has to make a very, very large jump to go from killing virtual enemies to killing real people. More often than not, though, violence seems to be the primary interaction that we have with the world around us when we play video games. In Pokemon we catch animals and make them fight each other, in Call of Duty and Battlefield and League of Legends we kill anything that’s not on our team without a second thought, and those are games with concrete, defeat-the-other-team objectives. In open-world sandboxes like Farcry and The Witcher, it’s generally the player vs. the world in a blaze of fight-fueled, open-world glory. In those sandboxes, sometimes the most fun or memorable moments come from completely non-violent interactions: mini-games where you’re collecting special items, romantic cutscenes with love interests, or the simple pleasure of traveling across a city or plain and watching a virtual sunrise. I think sometimes we just use violence in gaming because it’s our default experience, it’s quick and we’re used to it, not because it’s the most fulfilling experience.
With that said, violence is a part of our world, a way that we interact with each other, and ignoring it only serves to prevent us from understanding it or the people who use it. One of my most vivid memories is the controversial airport scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where I was sitting when I was playing it, and the gut-wrenching sickness that went through my body as I played. In fact, I think some of our best learning experiences in games come from scenes of war, games with backdrops of violence: Valiant Hearts: The Great War conveys so much emotion and experience that it’s hard to remember that it’s basically a puzzle game that looks like a cartoon. But in the light of today’s events, I just felt like I needed to talk about something different. I think it’s valuable to recognize that we don’t always need violence, and more often than not there’s another way to handle the situation.
I think we’re reaching a point where we realize as gamers that we want to feel successful without killing our way to victory. The Metal Gear Solid franchise has always incentivized stealthy, kill-free infiltrations, and other stealth action titles like Splinter Cell and Dishonored both reward players for minimizing body counts. RPG’s generally haven’t given the option to avoid combat, though: you typically grow stronger by killing/defeating enemies to gain experience and level up, but even that is changing. Toby Fox’s Undertale is an indie PC game that’s made huge waves in the industry over the past couple of weeks because you can go through the entire game without killing anything. It hearkens back to old-school Final Fantasy and Earthbound, and from the video on the website, it’s…really bizarre. But, aside from the critical acclaim it’s received across the board, I have to applaud a game that takes something that we assume we need in a game, and then shows us we don’t really NEED it after all, that there are other ways for us to solve our problems.
I’ll be writing about Undertale after I’ve spent some time with it. In the meantime, my wishes and thoughts to all those affected by the consequences of gun violence, particularly those in the shooting today in Oregon, and the shootings that take place nearly every day in Chicago. I hope we can learn that there are better ways than violence to solve our problems.