I've been talking a little bit about violence in games lately, and there's one question which has been bugging me for the last several months. So much of our time playing games is spent inflicting violence upon other people, often with relatively little justification for doing so - at best, you'll have a villain who has committed horrible atrocities, and at worst, you'll just be punching random bystanders in the face because you felt like it. But is this really the only way that we are able to, or need to, interact with people in games on a consistent basis.
Of course, there are exceptions. Role-playing games are the first to come to mind, since they often revolve around as much talking as they do killing things. They tend to treat their characters as actual people, rather than gameplay mechanics, a means to an end. In Final Fantasy XIII, we don't care about the fighting as much as we do about the overarching narrative, and we usually accept the fact that in these games the violence is justified by the situation. But does it need to be that way?
Think of a first-person shooter, any will do. Your primary mode of interacting with the world is by shooting at it. Your hand in that world is literally represented by a gun, which usually sits suspended in the air in front of you. For all intents and purposes, you'd might as well be a gun. The actual gameplay is, when it comes down to it, mechanically simple. Beyond resource management (conserving health and ammunition), a shooter relies upon the player being able to place a cursor over targets. Adding slight variations (slow-moving projectiles such as missiles, sniper weapons, etc.) can allow for some small gameplay changes, but for the most part it's an extremely simple and repetitive operation.
Now, ask, "why does this extremely simple and neutral, abstract operation of pointing at a target have to be connected to violence?" There really is no good reason why such a mechanic has to be infused with negative meaning, because it's applicable to plenty of other situations. Isn't throwing a ball the same as throwing a grenade? Patching leaks in a pipe the same as quick-draw shooting? It's not as if these sorts of things aren't seen in games. In fact, we can find them all the time. Sports games often use similar play mechanics to action games, but with slightly different rules. I can name probably a dozen games that implement shooting-equivalent elements as mini-games. So why is it that violence is so prominent in games?
Of course, the answer should be fairly obvious. Violence isn't used so much in games because of the fact that it offers up totally unique gameplay mechanics, though it certainly has its strengths, and it makes sense to attach it to certain types of games. There is a certain aesthetic to violence that we find pleasing, and it's the same reason why there are so many films that revolve around it. I won't go into why this is (that's a totally different subject), but suffice is to say that we like to see things go boom.
However, the key difference between violence in games and violence in movies is that the ultimate point of the games is to commit violence, whereas in film, violence is something that comes out of the story. In Halo, my impetus for shooting up aliens isn't the plot, it's because it's fun to do so, while in Star Wars, the fighting exists due to the plot details; our motivation for seeing the film isn't to see Stormtroopers get shot, it's to see the good guys triumph over the villains. Once again, there are exceptions (did anyone who watched Rambo really care about the story?), but by creating games that revolve around mechanics that are so easy to link to violence, not only do we limit the scope of what we're able to accomplish in games, but we're also very much streaming ourselves into accepting violence as normal, if we haven't already done so.
The next question that follows is, predictably, can we really create compelling game experiences with the same play mechanics as violent games, but without the violence? This is where it gets more complicated. We already know that people like violence, and that violence is a good way to justify certain play mechanics. Strictly speaking, it's much easier to simulate gunplay or swordplay than it is to simulate complex interactions between individuals. Even the most complex of role-playing games are limited to relatively few NPCs with totally predetermined behaviours, and while some games have focused on creating dynamic AIs capable of adapting to the player's behaviours and dialogue, their success is limited, and the interface is totally text-based.
In other words, it really sounds as if we are still limited by our technology and our budgets. We don't have the computing power or experience to simulate AI in a way that would allow for complex interaction, and we already have a winning formula in using violence to create compelling, if somewhat unoriginal, experiences. If we did depart from the standard formula, we also have no guarantees that it would be successful on the market - in fact, history indicates it would be totally unsuccessful. Are we going to eventually move beyond the current definition of gaming, or are we going to be limited by technology and market demands until the inevitable next new medium comes along and starts the cycle all over again?