Another one of those opinion pieces I’m apparently writing nowadays. I kinda like it.

In triple-A games, conflict is used more often than not as a conflict resolution tool. It’s a glaring disconnect from reality where violence is often a last resort or the tool of criminals.

In this blog post I’ll discuss why we often use violence and damage as an easy way to gauge how the player is doing. After all, it’s a simple way to understand physical status. Enemies are alive. Enemies are dead. It’s all very binary, and it’s obvious. If an enemy is hurt, they’re bleeding, limping, or as we prefer to measure it in games, their structural integrity, meaning their health, goes down.

I think part of this is because of digital games’s inheritance from table top games. In war gaming with miniatures, the obvious goal of putting one army against the other is to cause damage on the other army, be it physical or structural – part of our origins is after all a war game created by a military man and his son, further developed by H.G. Wells and brought into being by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. “Yes”, you might argue “but games have been around for much longer than that”. This is true, but even chess is very binary. Either the piece is on the board, or it’s not.

Just as with things like work injuries, accidents or intentionally doing harm, violence leaves a physical trace. If I’m beaten up, I will have bruises. If someone’s arm is broken, if they have an injured neck this can all be measured physically. We have a hard time deciding if someone is injured mentally. Can you measure the damage of a cutting remark or bullying? Those kinds of injuries are much harder to measure, and yet they are far more common.

In other words, it’s not a coincidence that work injuries caused by psychological trauma is that much harder to prove than a person getting stuck with their hand in a machine.

This does get me thinking though. Perhaps a good way to illustrate psychological trauma is to make it physical? Bullying brought to life by showing it not only numerically but as physical injuries.

The metaphor is of course somewhat flawed. We can’t see how we hurt each other, which is as previously stated, sort of the problem.

If we are going to continue to make games where trauma is at the centre of conflict resolution, my personal opinion is that we need to expand our definition of trauma to better suit emotions as well. We do know how to make games that are not reliant on lack of health as a metaphor for loss and surviving an onslaught at full or partial health is considered winning.

What we need, really is a clear win/ loss, success/ fail state. That can be a timer, a limited amount of tries etc.We can also abandon the binary success/ fail condition and make the game reliant on something else entirely.

I’d like to think we are more inventive than this, and there are already games out there toying with the idea of psychological trauma as part of an injury pattern, such as Darkest Dungeon where your characters apart from injuries can suffer illness or mental trauma.

To some extent I think we’re shying away from mental injury because it debilitates us in ways physical injuries do not. We’re afraid of losing our consciousness and clarity.

Honestly I have no real idea where I’m going with this except to say that the topics of our games are limited as long as violence is the only tool for conflict resolution. I would also go so far as to say that the conflict between play and story (ludo-narrative conflict) will continue as long as we tell ourselves that it’s perfectly reasonable to still be the good guy and express regret at all the deaths around you while simultaneously being asked to kill without prejudice to advance a story.

Honestly, I think it’s not only part of the gaming culture’s history but also an effect of who’s making the games and for what audiences. For a long time, the majority of developers have been white men, and honestly, they’ve been representing a fairly white, western colonial attitude. I think we need to take a look at our cultural heritage to understand why our games look and play the way they do.

Just as a conquering invader would look on themselves as a force for good – no matter that they brought death and destruction, they saved the savages! – games often won’t let the player feel as if they’ve done anything wrong. Hence the ludo-narrative conflict.

I don’t know. Perhaps violence is just part of a larger problem, and one that can’t be solved through a blogpost and no research. Time to hit the books.