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Let's Try No Violence
by Nathan Fouts on 10/19/12 11:59:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Thought experiment:

What could we end up as an industry if for the next 5 years, no games with physical violence were made?

What would you make, if your next game could have no physical violence in it?


Defined as: Physical violence you can hear or see. There can still be implied violence. There can still games about revenge, war, crime, you just can't have physical violence shown/heard. Yes, that cuts out the core of most shooter games, but that's sort of the point.


The Witness


Also: The game would ideally be in a new franchise. I suppose it could use an existing franchise (though things like Gears of War and Halo would be tough, but again--could be something interesting from them).


The Unfinished Swan


There are already a lot of independent developers making games with no or limited violence and they've created some very original games. I'd really like all the AAA studios to think about it as well. There are so many hugely-talented people on these massive teams with giant marketing budgets. What could they produce that would then reach the world as the next thing they have to play? Hopefully something different from Farmville?

No Assassin's Creed III, Halo 4, Dishonored, or Call of Duty Black Ops 2. What would those companies make instead? What TV ads would we see?


Dance Central

Now, I realize the irony in me asking this as Mommy's Best is finishing an XBLA game in which you stack guns on top of guns on top of guns. (I like guns.) I really like fighting and shooting in games. I like it a lot. But I see games like The Unfinished Swan and I think, what would a whole industry look like if we did that for a while? What if we all pushed in that direction? Sure, we can make violent games again after that--but maybe we'd hit on something so good, we'd keep going?


Super Hexagon

I think I'd do something with expanded social interaction, story-manipulation and very responsive NPCs. I liked where LA Noire was heading in the interrogation sections... I'd probably look at interesting AI for characters interacting and responding to situational changes. A short game, but with lots of breadth to support more interaction options along the way, and additional replays.

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Alex Leighton
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I'm definitely one of those fairy people who doesn't like violent games, so I would love to see this. Deeper social interaction is definitely the way to go. I've always wanted to see a game based around assembling a small group of very different people to go on a deep space mission or underwater or something, where there would be isolation, cabin fever, people's tempers flaring, etc, and as mission leader you have to try and keep the situation under control. A game like this wouldn't necessarily have to have no violence at all, but I would want whatever violent interactions there were in the game to be meaningful and have serious consequences.

Maybe as an example, your navigator finds out his wife has been having an affair while he's gone, and this puts him on edge, and then an off color remark from one of your crew members sets him off.. And maybe that's when you find out that he's smuggled a gun on board, and he's threatening to put a hole in the hull. You think you could possibly disarm him, but he may be injured in the process, and you'll be left without navigation. Or you can attempt to talk him down, or just call his bluff and see what happens. I dunno, something along those lines.

Jeremy Reaban
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Well, $20 will get you a box of 500 or so .22 rounds, which is several hours of entertainment (and you can get a .22 pistol for around the cost of a console).

Granted, most people can't just walk into their yard and shoot like I can. But it is a viable alternative to gaming.

Daniel Cook
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One of my personal design challenges is designing games without shooting. So far I've managed to get Fishing Girl, Bunni, Triple Town and Panda Poet out. Some have cartoon violence in the form of bombs and evil deer, but none are what most players would consider viscerally violent.

It isn't a iron clad constraint since I've worked on games that involve heavy shooting (Steambirds, Realm of the Mad God, Tyrian) but I do try to balance those out.

I see this challenge as essential training in my goal to become a more well rounded designer. Violence is an easy system to design. There are well defined tropes and rote solutions to common problems. Like making rote platforming games or rote racing games, making rote shooting games fails to stretch your abilities. It can very easily be a creative rut that limits personal growth.

take care,

Stephen Dick
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I completely agree, it takes a lot more work designing a game without relying on violence as a crutch. Conflict and challenge can come in so many flavors, but most games tend to appeal to the lowest common denominator and resort to violence and shooting to create it rather than more creative game designs.

Personal morals and philosophy aside, it is a creative rut, akin to those who resort to the same 4-6 swear words to describe everything rather than expanding their vocabulary with more appropriate and descriptive adjectives.

I think you've been very very successful in proving it can be done, especially in a casual setting. Thanks for leading the way and setting the example! Be assured that others are following in your footsteps.

Steve Fulton
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Extreme Car Washer. It's a tower defense style game, but instead of shooting things you wash the dirt off cars. If a dirty car makes it through, the prestige of your Car Wash goes down. Lose too much prestige and you are done. Instead of buying guns, you buy hoses, sprayers, soapers, etc. and strategically place them. Sue me, I think the idea of cleaning stuff is just as much fun as blowing stuff up.

Daniel Accardi
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Before we have too many comments in either direction, I'll settle the status quo opinion as that of classical storytelling. Sure, it doesn't necessarily cover all cases, but simply put, we have violent games because violent stories are the most gripping. They're the ones that have to deal with the rawest components of the human condition, things that we care about so much we're willing to kill or die over them. You can definitely deal with some those themes and issues without violence, but it's simply shorthand - "I'd rather die than X" will always trump "I'd rather wash your car [EXTREMELY] than X."

That said, I think you're quite right that more developers should consider severe limitations on violent gameplay, and there is a clear correlation between design creativity and nonviolent play. But at the moment, you might get farther with more of a Shadow of the Colossus model; violence more as puzzle than as battle, and even then, a sore questioning of whether that violence is appropriate or not.

Here's my nonviolent game: Rebuilder. You're the civic leader of a city - say, Athens, which has just been burnt down by the Persian army. They've been repelled for now, but you know they'll come back. Your goal is to bury the dead, gather the living, and rebuild the city, while forming diplomatic alliances with other cities for mutual protection. Best case scenario - you make peace with Persia. Worst case scenario - they invade again, you're too weak to withstand them, and your city is ruined again. Reload from save...


Wendelin Reich
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It's not so much that violent stories are the most gripping (many, many women gamers would disagree), but that violence is the one kind of social interaction that we have figured out to do well (in the sense of realistic, believable). Thats why its so central to modern 3D, AAA games which try to be simulations as much as games (CoD etc.).

Nathan's closing remarks alluded to it: if we took out violence, we would need *much* more sophisticated and interesting NPCs. If you meet an NPC and your goal is not to kill them, your interaction with them is not going to be 2-10 seconds long but potentially much longer. Just think about the complexity of the interaction and the social relationship that this might involve...

Simon Ludgate
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I don't think it's just that violence is something we know how to do well, so much as violence is the most direct means of resolving conflict.

More importantly, violence is an unwilling means of conflict resolution. When two people are in conflict and one kills the other, the conflict is resolved in favour of the killer and the victim did not have to agree to this particular resolution.

Violence is basically denying another person their free will. You can do so physically (killing, imprisoning, etc.) or non-physically (stealing, kidnapping). Altering the state of the world in a way they do not want it altered without their consent.

This makes conflict resolution through violence very easy to simulate in a game: if you kill the other person, you win the conflict; if they kill you, you lose the conflict. If you successfully sneak past the guards and steal the gem, you win; if they see you, you lose.

Thus, there are basically two forms of games: conflict resolution games that rely on some form of violence no matter how abstracted (chess isn't gory violence, but you still kill or eliminate your opponents' pieces), or games of skill. Note that games of skill can still be competitive (eg: racing) but they are not, strictly speaking, conflict resolution games (I would argue that determining who is the faster person is not a conflict; or more specifically that actually racing does not resolve it).

A conflict is when two goals or objectives are mutually incompatible. I want to save the princess, you want to keep the princess prisoner. We can't both get our way. A non-violent negotiation would involve finding out what each person would be willing to take in order to abandon their objective: what I be given to give up trying to save the princess? As Daniel rightly points out, saying "I'd rather die than X" is shorthand for saying "there is nothing you can give me to make me change my mind." When both parties in a conflict hold this view, then violent conflict (either through overt violence or subvert violence) is the only possible way to resolve the conflict (in this example, sneaking in, getting the princess, and sneaking out again is a kind of subvert violence).

Still, not all games have to rely on violence; just games based on conflict. Non-conflict skill-based games don't need violence at all. Playing Tetris to get a high score doesn't need violence because there is no conflict to be resolved. The downside is that games of skill generally don't have anything else to offer beyond the skill challenge: it's hard to tie in story, character development, or anything else really into a game of skill... with the sole exception of using that game of skill as a means of resolving a rather contrived conflict.

Imagine if everyone in some weird world would defer their goals to anyone with a higher Tetris score than they had. Sure, you could write a game where you go around and save princesses by beating the boss at Tetris. It's non-violent because you've weakened their resolve to their objective and done so in a wholly unbelievable manner. But you could do it. And people don't, because it's stupid.

That's why we have so many violent games: nothing is more believable than killing when it comes to resolving irreconcilable conflict.

TL;DR: Any skill-based game can be a non-violent game, which gives you unlimited potential for finding existing non-violent games and creating new non-violent games. Just invent a new skill challenge.

Emppu Nurminen
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Is there some sort of studies that confirm violence being so complicated and philosophical experience while gamers play the game? Because I really have hard times believing people playing violent games because of the plot or the emotional investment by just looking how these games are often including level designs to create heat and intensive concentration to game itself.

Luis Guimaraes
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Even games that are violent by default still have community game modes exploring other mechanics besides the violent ones. Shooter for example on movement tricks, map exploration, racing, vehicle tricks, hide'n'seek, etc...

Emppu Nurminen
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I worded that out badly, sorry. Sure the violence can be just one part of the game, but I really do wonder then why so many FPS games gears all the resources to make more and more realistic interpretation about real life environments, physics and even assets. Mostly catering what gamers actually want that sort of games. All I'm saying that isn't it bit over-thinking that people who like violence in their games, do like the violence because of the philosophical and emotional issues it unravels with using the violence as away to resolve impossible conflicts? I mean, come on, violence is fun and illegal in real world, isn't that the most obvious solution why there is steady demand on these games rather than emotional and philosophical aspects?

Daniel Accardi
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Emppu, I think we're just coming at it from two different angles, actually. Your approach was very player-centric; I was thinking in design terms, since Nathan's post was directed toward designers in a general way. I think you're quite right! Most companies probably make violent games because players find violence, in its various serious-or-less incarnations, fun. My point was more that as a designer, if you want to make a "serious" game, or a game with "serious" themes, human beings generally understand that as entailing violence, or a threat of violence (Simon had some nice stuff to say about that). You can certainly make a great game without violence, one that's fun and serious, but that's quite rare. Most non-violent games are abstract or kind of cyclically uninteresting (Tetris or Farmville, if I may be so bold).

Jay Bedeau
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@Dan -- Tetris?

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miguel rivero
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@Emppu Nurminen Well, take me for example. I play Mass Effect mostly because of the story and because I want to feel part of that world. The violence is just like the cherry on top for me. The multiplayer aspect bores me to death, because I don't feel involved in the game at all. I'm just some exo-suit faceless thing shooting other people. I pass on that one.
It's the same issue I have with movies that are just all action and not substance. Children of Men, one of my favorite movies; is intense and the violence is gut-wrenching. It doesn't inspire anybody to create violence. It puts an ugly face on it. And the movie is not about the violence. So, in the same way, the FPS's that you mention are not appealing to me at all, because as you say; they are catered to please a macho, womanizer section of the psyche.

Daniel Accardi
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@ Jay: Tetris is abstract, Farmville is uninteresting - meant those as respective, exclusive adjectives.

k s
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I'd make some kind of city building game about running a cult. I've thought a little about such an idea but I've not really fleshed out the idea nor have I implemented anything for it.

Maurício Gomes
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I made a adventure game about a ET taking photos of animals in Amazonia :)

Jacek Wesolowski
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A game about a parkouring delivery boy trying to deliver lawsuits in a city ruled solely by lawyers. Imagine a surreal environment where the shape and layout of buildings seems absurd at first, but is actually governed by an extremely elaborate set of legal loopholes and catches.

A game about a lonely dissident in a totalitarian regime, conspiring against the government. Countrary to initial impression, this is a stricly non-violent game: when they come knocking on your door, it's already too late, so the real challenge is to not raise any suspicions in the first place. Also, trust no one.

A game about an NGO trying to activise a local community.

A game about a young girl who covertly does good deeds, in order to convince her untrusting, nihilist and paranoid neighbours that life is good after all.

A game about a robot whose creators built it so that it would help them investigate a large scale accident in a remote science facility. What they don't know is that they have accidentally made it sentient. The idea scares them, so the robot cannot let them know, while trying to complete its mission and learn as much as possible about the world.

A game about protecting a town from flooding.

A game about a uniquely gifted gardener living in a sleepy vilage at the edge of civilisation. Her garden has the strangest and most magical plants in it. She tries to solve her friends' problems using her gardening skills.

Two siblings: little brother and big sister. She's fit, sensible, and proactive. He's anything but, but he's also gifted: he always hears what people actually mean instead of what they're actually saying. The town they live in is being hostile, because they're strange and don't fit. Now their borderline insane mother has gone missing, and the neighbours may or may not have had something to do with it. The gameplay revolves around the sister using her fitness to help the brother get somewhere he can listen to people talking.

A game about damage control. Inevitable disaster is approaching. Use your very limited resources to get as any people as possible to safety.

A game about an interpreter. Two civilisations meet, and each of them communicates using a different system of visual cues (a simple language of icons, essentially). Learn both. Learn to translate one system into the other so that both civilisations may interact meaningfully.

A game about a kid whose parents are giving him (or her) impossible tasks that he (or she) has no hope of fulfilling. Every time he (or she) almost manages to succeed, the parents change the rules or find an excuse to turn success into failure. The goal of the game is to learn about the nature of non-pshysical domestic abuse. The kid needs to learn how not to get involved in his (or her) parent's unfair games. This idea tends to freak people out, so here goes a disclaimer: it's autobiographical.

Another game about damage control. The disaster has already happened (I was thinking about a coastal town being flooded by a rising sea). Your job is to keep others safe and well until they're ready to leave. This is going to take a lot of improvisation, since all the usual ways to get resources (food, energy, transportation) are gone.

A monochromatic game about a city in the dark. The darkness is... wrong. Things that stop being visible literally disappear, forever. You need to keep your town illuminated -- but the neighbours don't believe you, of course. They may actively try to extinguish the lights so they can go to sleep, for example.

Curtiss Murphy
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Fantastic brain storming! Kudos!

David Klingler
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Designing games without violence is something that I think is important for the industry for it to achieve a better image with the non-gaming public that only thinks of video games as violent (sadly, this is still a large number of people). Another thing that should be kept in mind when thinking about violence in games is what some of those non-gaming people view as violent. There was a U.S. court case in the 80s in which footage of Super Mario Bros. for NES was called violent. I heard a parent say a few months ago that Donkey Kong Country Returns was too violent. If you're designing games without violence for the purpose of avoiding comments like that (I know, there are many other purposes to designing games without violence), you must me sensitive to those kinds of opinions.

One thing I'd be really interested in seeing is more horror games without violence. This is something I've wanted for a long time. Some of the greatest games I've ever played have been horror, but it seems difficult for some people to understand what makes the difference between tastefully done violence in games and that which is not tastefully done. Sometimes the violence in a game is really just there to be there and add a quick thrill, not to serve a higher purpose, and I find this sometimes can even detract from gameplay.

miguel rivero
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I really don't think that designing games to help "clean" the image of video-games among the general public you talk about is a good idea at all. No one should design, create, build anything just to please a public that doesn't even understand the craft. Why do we as video-game designers feel so responsible to please those minds? It's like the whole booth-babe thing. Even though I'm not for it, the auto-industry has exploited and used models for their shows since day one and will do forever, and no one seems to care. Why do video-games get so much flak for it?
I for one as an artist, don't care what the general public thinks of my craft. I will keep doing what I'm doing, and whoever gets it, good for them. If someone doesn't get it, oh well. You need to do what you believe in, what comes out of you naturally, explore why you are here as a designer/artist and pursue that goal. Don't let the mediocrity of those that don't understand bring you down.

Bart Stewart
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I suspect a lot of developers would just shift to other forms of violence for rules-based simulated conflict resolution: emotional violence and abstract forms like chess.

Even so, some would take up the challenge. We might see a kind of Cambrian explosion of new forms of exploration games, puzzle games, adventure games, world simulations, interpersonal dialogs, racing games, flying games, dating sims, economic/trading games, sports contests, historical simulations, tycoon games, knowledge games, perception games, story games, manipulation games, collecting games, and oh, did I mention exploration games?

That's just a quick high-level mention of some categories; there are others. For that matter, we might see different combinations of these that might not otherwise be tried for a long time, if ever.

I don't see it happening, other than as one part of a large-scale social rebellion against a perception of cultural coarseness. (So not at all, then.) But it would be interesting to see.

James Yee
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Well why not a War game set in David Weber's "Honorverse?" All of the "Violence" would be little dots disappearing and such no actual "on camera" violence. The rest of the game would be a story and could be quite interesting in telling the story of your crew on the frontier or something. 50% of that game could be pure adventure storytelling while the "combat" would be the kind of "push button/remote control" combat of the future.

Then afterwards you'd see the results of your crew "down below" which still gives you the emotional and human tragedy of war without seeing it "on screen." Or would that not fit your criteria?

Ron Dippold
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I like the idea of completely non-violent games (and have enjoyed a few... they're definitely a minority).

But just to be Devil's Advocate, being able to kill everyone in Dishonored (it will let you) makes the path of not killing anyone at all (nobody will even know you were there) much more satisfying. But it's certainly an outlier.

Roger Tober
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Exploration and finding/combining things comes to mind for 3d games, with social interaction to give goals, quests, etc. I believe implied violence would still be necessary for drama. If we don't find such and such before this time, something terrible will happen. Contests. Trading. Diplomacy. Puzzles.
I wonder what would have happened to adventure games if they would have been able to evolve instead of being swept away by shooters.

miguel rivero
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Interesting concept. But there's something that I feel is a trend among a lot of fellow gamers... Are we trying too hard to become too PC or "consicous"? Let's start by admitting that most veterans here probably grew up playing Doom 2, Wolfenstein, Quake, and so on. Even games like Legend of Zelda feature a ton of "sword to monster" action. Now, let's try to imagine our favorite movies... Personally, I find Aliens, Children of Men, Apocalypse Now, Star Wars and many other Kurosawa movies to be mine. All feature guns, swords and there are a tons of casualties in each movie.
My concern is that the debate is extremely polarized. It's either an all out gung-ho military shooter and another hack-and-slash fest, or a totally neutral Puzzle, Car-Wash, Pong or Minecraft type game. Are we missing something here? Let's think for a second about the issues that are dealt in relation to violence in movies such as Star Wars and Kurosawa's Samurai movies. They are not action movies - They are more or less like dramas, and in Kurosawa's flicks the samurai duels last only but a couple slashes. Can there be a Samurai game that doesn't feature ridiculous amounts of hacking and slashing? I think so. There could be plenty of stuff happening in that game. Think about how we "translate" a Star Wars movie into a Video-Game - They become shooter-fests or another hack and slash drone. That is the problem!
I am a big fan of Mass-Effect and the only reason I can stand the game is because of the story, and dialog driven progress. If I all I had to do was shoot through hallways I would be bored as hell just as a movie that is only explosions and gunfire bores me to death. What we need is content around the issue of violence. Maybe there is a lack of maturity and wisdom on how we deal with violence. Maybe we haven't found ways to package the violence so that it doesn't come across as senseless or too one-sided. Let's take for instance these words by famous filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky:

"What is violence? A galaxy exploding is violent. A comet falling down on Jupiter provoking craters on it is violent. The birth of a child is violent. Life is violent, the circulation of the blood, even our heartbeats are violent. But there are two kinds of violence: The creative and the destructive".

I also feel that this idea to rid games off violence comes off as a reaction to the destructive culture of violence in the US. And that itself is the problem. In most video-games there is not a "Why?" to the violence. It's just shoot-shoot-shoot. I personally despise modern military shooter games, first because they bore me to death, 2nd I can't stand the constant gunfire sound effects, 3rd I prefer to keep my head clear of military propaganda.
But I do think that there still is potential on how we deal with the issue. I recall adventure games like Monkey Island or Indiana Jones. People hit each other, but that wasn't the point.