Do We Already Have Enough Non-Violent Variety In Video Games?

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Every once in a while an article or video will pop up asking why such an apparently high percentage of video games are about violence, or why violence is so pervasive in the medium. A couple years ago I think people were complaining that the major games shown off at E3 contained nothing but guns and cars. I’ve probably even gone on about it a couple times here. The more I think about the problem though the more I think it’s only limited to certain segments of video games.

I won’t post them, but if you’re reading this I think you’ve probably heard or read discussions about why so many of the biggest video games have players kill hundreds of people, or why violence seems to be the main tool of interaction in them. A specific issue is how that violence often doesn’t fit the tone of the story, or isn’t really important to the story at all. I still think the storylines for games like UnchartedTomb Raider, and Bioshock Infinite were ill-suited for shooters. Actually, I think Wolfenstein: The New Order nails what is probably the correct tone for a standard first person shooter — essentially a gritty comic book. That’s what DOOM and Duke Nukem were in their time when you think about it. Today games like Uncharted instead try to present realistic dramas while hand-waving all the murder they depict.

The argument I’ve brought up is, I’ve played a lot of games that may have been just as good or better with less or no combat — games where the combat is the least interesting part of the experience. I’ve felt this way about a lot of RPGs like BioWare games. I think Ubisoft should give up trying to make melee combat systems in its games. A big example of the general issue is how Watch_Dogs — a game supposedly about hacking, turned into a vanilla sandbox action game where you mostly just shoot things and then press a button to “hack” every once in a while. Recently a lot of people have made this point about the Witcher games — that they love the story, world, and quests but automatically think the games are bad because of their combat mechanics.

Most importantly, I don’t think the answer is to have fewer violent games. I just think we should have more games that are less violent. Basically all other media have their share of violence, but also support a spectrum of genres and subject matter to balance things out. Right now we have this idea that video games don’t have spectrum. I think they do, if you take a minute to look outside the sector of big retail console games. Everything I mentioned in the previous paragraphs was pretty much just about big retail console games.

I’m starting to think that recent changes to PC gaming as well as the rise of mobile gaming are precisely that wave of non-violent games to balance out the violence people have been looking for. Every time I go through the daily que of new games on Steam I see a lot more than just action games. I see visual novels, point-n-click adventure games, puzzle games, and all kinds of simulators.

Today some of the games that get the most word-of-mouth are non-violent simulators like Football ManagerCities: SkylinesKerbal Space Program, and Spintires. Looking at all that reminds me of PC gaming as I saw it back in the 90’s, which in addition to action games and RPGs was also a landscape filled with simulators and adventure games. Alongside this though we have mobile gaming, which is pretty much what the mass market is into right now. Look at the top games on iOS and you’ll mostly see puzzle games, simulators, and strategy games along with a few action games.

If you look at it this way, the only sector of the market that might have this violence problem is consoles. You’ve pretty much got two main kinds of games on consoles the big publishers will greenlight: action games and sports games (which includes racing games). I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I’d wager simulators, strategy games, and pure adventure games have always been comparatively rare on consoles (except in Japan, but more on that below). I think this does severely limit the kinds of stories big-budget games can tell. However, it might not be that dissimilar from the film industry for instance. We have plenty of drama films, comedies, documentaries, and what have you, but the top grossing movies are action flicks like Furious 7Avengers Age of Ultron, and Mad Max Fury Road. People recognize all those different kinds of movies have their place where they get recognized. The non-action movies still occupy a very big part of the public conversation even if they don’t make as much money. The same thing is basically happening in video games now, just mostly outside of consoles.

Maybe the retail console market is just becoming the video game market’s version of action blockbuster Hollywood, with all that money necessitating safe formulas. Maybe that’s the problem Sony and Microsoft need to solve: the lack of room for lower budget games on consoles. It’s well-known now that middle-budget games have disappeared from consoles, but even the digital-only indie games you see on the PS4 are just a sliver of what get’s regularly released on PC.

Another source of the problem might be control interfaces. Starting with Mario, console game pads over the years have been mostly geared towards controlling a single character at a time in a fast, action-based scenario. Console games are descended from arcade games which are about the visceral feedback of pressing buttons. That connects readily to the act of violence. Navigating menus has always been secondary, and never handles as well as a touch screen or mouse. This is why a lot of PC strategy games and adventure games still don’t make it to consoles. Meanwhile on mobile and PC you have a touch screen and a keyboard respectively — interfaces made for general purposes first and video games second. This makes me think the Wii Remote could have brought meaningful change had developers done anything with it beyond Wii Sports. Could someone have sold a highly-developed adventure game or simulation game to the Wii Fit audience after people got familiar with the Wii Remote?

There might also be a cultural factor in play. The action and sports games that dominate consoles appeal specifically to young adult males living in North America and Western Europe. Look at Japanese console gaming from now all the way back to the 80’s and you’ll see a lot more visual novels like Gyakuten Saiban or Tantei Club. You’ll see a lot more simulation games as well as strategy games like Nobunaga’s Ambition or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. These are the kinds of games that mainly only appear on PC in western markets. Again, that might be do to a certain rigidity to the western console game market.

Ultimately I think that’s where the problem lies if you want to talk about a high proportion of video games being violent. In not only subject matter but also sales growth, consoles are being outmaneuvered by the more nimble PC and mobile markets, but they still get a big share of the attention.

BULLETS:

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