Monday, May 16, 2005

Lights, Camera, ACTION!

Lots of high-brow, ivory-tower, blue-sky theorists (very much like myself, but deluded) like saying that violence in games is just 'the easy route'. They dislike the fact that games contain violence - or, at least, wish there were more games that don't. They lament the fact that millions of other things could be substituted in as a primary game mechanic, but the designers are just to LAZY and ILL-MANNERED to do so.

I call bullshit.

Games are about POWER. As I noted earlier, in gameplay every action the player takes is about having and excersizing power over the game universe. Power to make things go your way. Power to make obstacles disappear.

Look, violence isn't any 'easier' than any other kind of game mechanic. Out of all the game mechanics, RACING is probably the easiest. Even in relatively straight-forward Street-Fighter Beat-Em-Ups, the combat has a delicious and delicate depth to it. Because players like a little complexity. In a MMORPG, the dance of violence and pre-violence puts the complexities of international politics to shame.

Games are about GETTING power and USING power. Power is not power if it can't be used. And using power is about eradicating obstacles. What is your definition of violence? The dictionary says:

n 1: an act of aggression (as one against a person who resists); 2: the property of being wild or turbulent; 3: a turbulent state resulting in injuries and destruction etc.

So, now, let's review. "Nonviolent" games. Tetris: It's about DESTROYING BLOCKS. Making the obstructions vanish. Scrabble: It's about getting somewhere first, BEATING your enemy, and BLOCKING him. Racing games: Again, DEFEATING your enemy. Avoiding the obstacles which will HARM you.

The basic idea in ALL games is that some things hurt you and that some things help you - and you want to minimize the first and maximize the second. It's not a difficult concept: competition. In our minds, power - whether for us or against us - is based in the ability to make obstacles go away.

That's violence, at its core. It is COMPETITION and ATTACK and DEFENSE and HARM and FEAR and VICTORY DANCES. I can't think of any game which doesn't have this kind of mechanic at its core. Sometimes, it is you who are violent. Always, the enemy is violent. In the Sims, the enemy wasn't a person: it was time itself, destroying your resource bars.

It's simple. Games are violent. If they are not bloody and brutal, they are still violent. THAT IS WHAT FEEDBACK LOOPS DO. They get BETTER or they get WORSE. Are you whining about GORE? That's a totally different subject! VIOLENCE is ACTS OF AGGRESSION, especially against those who resist. Sound familiar? As in, EVERY GAME EVER MADE?

Now, on the other hand, a TOY doesn't have to be violent. Telling the story of your family in the Sims isn't a violent act. I think.

But do games have to be violent? What about alternate reality games, which feature hundreds or thousands of players working to uncover a mystery?

If there's no feedback loop, it's a puzzle, not a game, because there's no power involved anywhere. They'll work on it, uncover interesting mysteries, undoubtedly reach the end - but it's all a puzzle, not a game. If there's a feedback loop, and the actions the players take have consequences, then suddenly the players are struggling against forces within the game. Even if all the players are cooperating, they are still suppressing their enemies and trying to make obstacles vanish. That's what power is.

Power which can't be used isn't power. Power which is used is violence. That's just all there is to it.

I think.

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