Pacifist Video Games

Fallout 4 cover artI just now came across a fascinating story from back in December about Kyle Hinckley who managed to beat the game Fallout 4 without killing a single person. Well, not really. He managed to avoid directly killing anybody, but he did do things like brainwashing non-playable characters into doing it for him.

Kyle said this to Kotaku:

I’d love to ask [the developers] why pacifism is so difficult in this Fallout … I’m a little disappointed in the lack of diplomatic solutions in this game, it’s a lonely departure from the rest of the Fallout series. My version of pacifism isn’t really diplomatic, it’s more exploitative of the game mechanics to achieve a zero-kill record. In other [Fallout] games, you had a lot of alternatives for bypassing the combat, whether it was with sneaking, speech checks, or a back door opened with lock-picking and hacking. In fact, in previous games (at least 3 and NV), your companion kills didn’t count towards your record either.

I don’t know much about the Fallout games at all, but this is a worrying trend in the video game industry in general. I’m not primarily talking about the long-running question of whether we become more violent by playing violent video games. As I understand it, the research suggests no, not in normal circumstances – although some very realistic games that reward violence could be an exception. Nothing I play with violence is terribly realistic, e.g. Destiny has a core shooter mechanic, but you shoot aliens all over the solar system in a distant future with an art style that doesn’t feel very realistic. Others won’t play anything with any violence, which I completely respect.

Violence as Default

From a completely different perspective, it bothers me that violence is so often the default – and sometimes the only – option in games. A few months ago, I remember game developer Brianna Wu tweeting out pictures of her shelf showing the lack of creativity in gaming. One was broken down by the primary mechanic for the game: about 90% were violence-based, probably 9% sports and 1% other. Maybe mine that I’ve actually played – not counting Games with Gold I never tried – is only about 60%.

For a sample, a quick breakdown of the games that are currently installed on my Xbox One:

Rise of the Tomb Raider: Lots more puzzles and exploring than the previous one, so I don’t know if I want violence is the primary mechanic, but it’s still an absolute necessity.

NBA 2K16: My representative in the 9% sports, although what I actually play about 40% of the time.

Destiny: Some good role-playing game elements, but yeah, pretty much anything interesting that happens is because you killed somebody or something.

Life Is Strange: I’m not that far into it, but so far no violence. There are some serious ethical quandaries, though, like whether to report the classmate with a gun in a bathroom, knowing his rich family funds the school and the principal won’t believe you. Some of those may directly lead to others facing violence, but you genuinely can’t know that when you’re making the choice.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Yep, primary mechanic is violence, although the focus is much more on the various RPG elements than Destiny.

Xbox Fitness: I’m not sure this counts as a game, but that’s how it gets categorized on the Xbox. I would say that’s in the 9% sports mechanics.

Kinect Sports Rivals: Ditto. I seem to over-represent sports.

Halo: Master Chief Collection: Yep, main mechanic is violence.

Ori and the Blind Forest: Very cool art style and primarily a platformer puzzle game, but some violence required against the various creatures of the forest.

Trivial Pursuit Live: Trivia game show! No violence.

I could go through some of my older games not currently installed, but you get the point and the ratios would stay about the same. I’m definitely less drawn to violent games than the average “gamer” but it’s still the default – if you want a good game that isn’t sports, it’s pretty much guaranteed to include violence and usually centralizes that violence. And none of this conversation is talking about the violence that often comes out of live chats in games – that some games don’t even allow you to turn off – or scenarios like GamerGate where they carry out real-world violence because they feel their space has been threatened.

The Art of Video Games?

A lot of video game developers want their work to be seen as art. There’s a good case for that. Anybody who does work in graphics can probably be called an artist, in the usual visual sense. Many games have good stories, which takes good writers and good voice actors – both art forms.

But when it comes to game mechanics, it seems like most are more interested in it being a business. They stick with violent mechanics, over and over again. Why? Option 1 is that they don’t have the creativity to try something else. More likely is option 2: they know violence is the best way to sell a game in a violence-soaked North American culture. We love violence so much that we will pay for hours of pretending to be violent even when there is no story, no unique graphical style, no skill it is helping us learn (like trivia).

I’m not suggesting that you need to boycott all violence in games – obviously I haven’t done that. I’m not suggesting that developers can never use violence in a game. Sometimes it can be used in powerful ways to tell a compelling story and I don’t think we should pretend that violence isn’t real. But if it so hard to get through a game that can easily be fun without violence, why do we always have to default back to killing people and things as the only option?

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.