Let me preface this by saying that there’s a lot going on in my head right now. I just finished reading Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds and made a lateral jump into Second Person, edited by Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin.
Because Second Person is from 2007, the ludo-narrative war is ongoing, even in these pages. The interesting part about it, is that the question pretty much everyone should have asked themselves is missing.
I know at some point someone in academia brought up the cognitive dissonance between story and character development and the action a a player would perform, but as far as I remember that was years later.
Academia and the discussion aside, I believe one of the reasons why we’re not really getting anywhere new in any kind of game design is this – we’re still reliant on violence as a conflict resolution mechanic.
Playing God of War this became painfully obvious and to be honest, most of the TTRPGs I’ve read have the same issues.
Yes, there are occasional breakouts here and there, Journey and Apocalypse World comes to mind but they’re fairly alone in the overwhelming quagmire of “kill it and take its money and loot and on to the next one.
One of the things I’ve been trying to do now that I’m no longer limited by the draconian restrictions on personal projects that EA imposes on all their employees is to try to create a few TTRPGs that focus on mechanics as part of the narrative and driving the narrative, and not just as conflict resolution number one “ knock ‘em over the head”.
Trail of Cthulhu keeps the legacy of Call of Cthulhu with the intent of telling good investigative stories and there are a few Swedish games that are moving in the same direction, such as Kutulu by Mikael Bergström.
The thing Cthulhu versions have in common, though, is the concepts of Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium as an origin. Call of Cthulhu was unique, way back when, because it took a step aside from the mechanical slaughter that most TTRPGs used as a motivation. D&D is definitely more along the lines of “kill stuff, take loot, gain XP.” 1, while CoC is “investigate mystery, read a book you technically shouldn’t read, go a little crazy, get put in a psychiatric hospital, regain temporary sanity, go out and do it again.”.
There is a marked difference, I think, in what motivates players of D&D and players of CoC. Primarily, there’s a difference in power fantasies, or maybe players of CoC and similar TTRPGs aren’t really looking for power. They’re looking for something else. A mystery, a riddle, a look behind the curtains of the world.
To be entirely honest, I think violence as a conflict resolution in order to progress a game severely limits the stories we can and will tell because at some point the cognitive dissonance between what the game tells me is going on and what is actually going on becomes too great and the constructed narrative no longer makes sense. From what I’ve read, this cognitive dissonance is one of the aspects brought up as a defence for the ludologist stance. Games shouldn’t have a story, because the story interferes with the gameplay.
What if it didn’t though? What if mechanics supported narrative and helped tell the story in such a way that the mechanics even progressed the narrative?
I believe that for us to be able to do that, we have to look beyond violence as the only tool at the player character’s disposal. The issue with that is of course that it will require quite a lot of work. It is easy to spot and judge a bruised body, less easy to discover a bruised soul.
I’m also going to do one of those things I frequently do, and pull patriarchy into it, as well as misogyny.
We view physical strength and physical damage as just and powerful and right. How many have heard admiration expressed through the “he can really take a punch” sentiment? Getting beaten up, especially if the odds are not in your favour, can sometimes even be seen as noble and positive. To take one for the team is a common enough expression.
Violence is a consequence of anger or conquest, both aspects are pursuits that are deemed manly, and thus totally fine to pursue. Anger – if expressed by a man – is a “rational” feeling and violence is a “rational” response to that emotion.
Any other emotion, though, is feminine in nature. Irrational, not really worthy of a power fantasy. Who has ever heard of righteous sadness or justified grief or holy happiness?
We actually raise anger above all other emotions so long as a man is feeling it. A woman, you see, is never angry. She is irrational or hysterical.
I’m off on a bit of a tangent, but to me it is all related. Violence as a conflict resolution method is connected to the fact that most men aren’t allowed to express other emotions than anger, and feeling in general is considered a female trait. To me it makes sense that game development hasn’t come as far, because it is male dominated, and of course that will restrict both viewpoints and ideas, which in turn will restrict gameplay and the innovation within the medium, because – honestly – if you only see the world from one perspective, nothing else is allowed to take up space – or it’s simply not even on the map.
We already know – from a scientifically proven perspective – that men don’t care much about designing for others than themselves. Cars, tools, vehicles – you name it – use a median man as the starting point.
For a while there was a trend in game development around making girl games. They failed, most of them. Why? Probably because making games pink won’t change that the devs were 80% male.
So to conclude, I don’t think we’ll get anywhere until we make changes in this industry, including hiring more women in leadership roles on the design side.
So what was the question?
Why do we still use violence as a conflict resolution method?
- And to be honest, I think OSR is a conservative throwback to the earliest versions of D&D and the simplicity of divorcing story from mechanics. If you don’t have to worry about creatures being “good” or “evil”, you don’t have to feel guilty either. Guilt is not part of a player fantasy, but it may be part of a good story.