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  • Designing Non-Violent Games

    [09.22.20]
    - Brian Fairbanks
  • I love violent games. Let's be clear about that. This is not a judgemental soapbox tirade written to shame you out of playing shooters.

    Rather, this is my attempt to shine a spotlight on the emotional reactions felt during violent games, and ask: how can we reach those same exact levels of dopamine and satisfaction in a game without any violence whatsoever?

    There are two big problems here. Let's look at them before we look at how to solve them.

    Problem #1: We Connect Through Adversity

    Let's take a good look at why people play violent games. I'm not a psychologist and this is not academically-proven content, it's merely an educated guess supported by solid experience from someone in the trenches.

    Life is complicated, messy, stressful and painful. Our problems take so many forms, and our chosen entertainment takes those problems, distills them into a single entity and puts a Foe badge on them. Whether it's medieval peasants sitting in the "red" section and thus cheering against the blue knight in a joust, reading a story and praying your favourite character will make it out of the current scuffle alive, cheering on your favourite football team or, of course, shooting baddies with your trusty AK-47, it's almost as if gamers are quicker to align themselves against an enemy than they are to align themselves with the hero they're playing. Nobody is taking the time to think about what Master Chief's favourite kind of tea is, or if Geralt ever fancied learning the mandolin as a child. No, it's the Foes that unite us with our protagonist.

    It doesn't matter why they're your Foe. What matters is that they're threatening you, and you're now living an experience (albeit simulated) where your problems are right in front of you, and with one well-aimed click? You can ELIMINATE THEM! That is a stone's throw away from magic, in my opinion. There's extraordinary power here.


    It's hard not to get romantic about games sometimes.

    The dopamine hit we get doesn't come from blood. It doesn't come from the notion that we just ended life. No one is taking a quiet, existential moment while playing Halo and pondering the bigger questions, wondering if Joe P. Remnant had a wife and kids and little alien dog, and how they're going to manage now that he's been killed. Nobody is thinking about what his weird, alien funeral is going to look like and hoping his family doesn't go for the cheaper casket options. No, the feeling of enjoyment and pleasure is that we just eliminated our problems. No problems in sight for me! Take THAT Tony Robbins!

    The issue here is, in nonviolent games, we don't have access to that power in the same way. Our games are structured so that the challenge and progression does not revolve around literally destroying your problems with weapons. We have to find other ways to get there.

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