NOTE: This post is my own musings on game design, and it should not be taken as fact or the opinion of anyone except myself.

For my last achievement/ trophy in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, I needed to be naughty enough to call attention to myself from five bounty hunters. There’s a system in the game, and in Origins for that matter, that highlights when you do bad things like steal or murder1. For someone like me, who prefers to knock my enemies out rather than kill them, this was a very difficult achievement to get, even when I went to Sparta for the first time and had an automatic three bounty hunter level.

I started by stealing. Stealing takes forever, though and sooner or later the townspeople will start whacking me over the head with brooms. I turned to murdering military personnel. I don’t like that either, at least not in Odyssey, and because of that I’ve had a steady stream of lieutenants and captains coming aboard the Adrestia and then leaving again. I feel like I steal them from their respective armies, but at least they’re “alive”.

For me, killing in Odyssey does not come easy.

Other games, such as Mass Effect are blatant in their way of dehumanising enemies. There’s Vorcha, Krogan, Turian, Salarian and Asari. All of them are non-human races and some are just unsympathetic to start, like the Vorcha. The Geth – the robot AI enemies of the first game – are even more inhuman, because they’re machines, not to mention the reaper created husks, zombies that have very little in common with the humans they once were. I can go on and list the Thorian clones, the Thorian husks etc, but I think the overall tendency is clear.

I’m going to try and get to the point now. At a workshop a long time ago, the teacher of the workshop pointed out that you could have human looking enemies and have them die in outrageous ways or you could have unrealistic enemies dying in realistic ways, but you could not have humans dying realistically because our human sensibilities rebel against it. So we – as game developers – either develop a strong non-human metaphor to help our players or we desensitise our player by dehumanising the enemy.

Going back to Assassin’s Creed, the underlying metaphor is that this happened centuries ago, and we’re only visiting the past through a machine called the animus. Everything we do in the animus hinges on that the enemy is actually already dead, and our interference (or not) in their “lives” is artificial and non-consequential. These people are already dead.

To be honest – and actually not in any way trying to freak either politicians or gamers out – dehumanising the enemy is to reduce empathy for them and make it easier to view them as objects. This happens in real life, just about every time there’s a genocide or a political movement that denies human rights to people brewing. Kind of like now, when right wing extremists are on the rise. The narrative if you listen closely, is to dehumanise the people who “are not like us”. That’s what racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc is all about. Make the enemy a part of a group, and make the group less human. With the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, it’s what the nazis did to the jews, and it’s what happened in Rwanda. There are many more examples.

Again, I’m not writing this to freak anyone out. It’s the way humans learn to cope with killing (and with committing other atrocities against each other, but let’s leave that for now). The other mechanism, which I’m afraid can also be found in games, is to give the player permission, orders to kill that removes the responsibility from the player to the game. In other words, we as game developers give players permission to kill by creating mechanics that won’t work unless the player does what we ask them to. We absolve them from responsibility.

Now, I’m not a psychologist and I’m definitely not saying that what we teach in games punch through to everyday behaviour. There are no studies showing you get violent from playing video games, as far as I know, so I don’t think we need to bring out the ban hammer just yet. I’ve only read a lot of books, maybe too many for my own good, so I may be completely wrong. It’s like using rats to study gendered behaviours in humans. Rats are not humans. What I read in these books is not applicable from one area to the other. But it does get me thinking, and that’s pretty much what I’m doing in this post. Thinking out loud on paper, if that’s even a thing.

The point I wanted to get across before going all grimdark with nazis and genocide, which is by the way how you can tell a blog post has seriously derailed, was that in order for players to feel moderately good about “killing” humans likenesses on screen there has to be a reason. Preferably that reason is that they’re no longer human. Also they should die in unrealistic ways.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am in no way equating violence in a computer game with real world violence. No matter how realistic the portrayal on screen, I’m pretty well aware that a character in a game is not real.

What I’m saying is that for me to feel comfortable as a thinking, living human being, game developers need to come up with convincing reasons why it’s okay to kill in their games. In Assassin’s Creed the excuse is the Animus. In Death Stranding it’s the… actually I have no idea what’s going on in Death Stranding. In Jedi Fallen Order it’s the Sith, the evil empire. In Dragon Age it’s the blight and in Mass Effect it’s the Reapers. The more non-human the better.

  1. This is in itself so incongruous and causes so much cognitive dissonance with me that I’m kind of flabbergasted. In the game, I’m asked to repeatedly kill characters, over and over again and I’m also encouraged to loot, but apparently the rules of civilised society are only applicable outside of military camps and fortresses. I’m confused. It’s part of the ludo-narrative dissonance I’ve been talking about previously.