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  • Writer's pictureNathan Savant

Rewarding Nonviolence

People talk a lot about nonviolent games. Indie devs of all kinds take it on themselves to rebel against the status quo and make the world a better place by reducing the total violence in it. The idea is that if we are exposed to violence less, that we will emulate violence less often. Studies have shown that playing violent games increases short-term violence in observed participants, and thus the idea is that this short-term increase must therefore translate into a long-term increase as well. However, there have been other studies done which show no long-term increase in violence among people who play games regularly. This suggests that while participating in violent action does prime you to participate in further violent action immediately, that this is more of a mode your brain can be in, or a mood perhaps, but is not a permanent change in your mind. Indeed, aggression begets aggression in daily life as well, but with the same caveat. If you yell at someone, they’re likely to get mad at you for it, but it won’t make them permanently more violent for the rest of their life. When phrased this way the entire idea seems somewhat absurd, I hope you’ll agree.

What we’re seeing here is pointing out an underlying set of incentives. In video games we reward the player for participating in violence, and as a result players are primed for more violence. However, upon reentering the real world, they quickly run into all the ways real life disincentivizes violence. The real world tries to avoid violence at every opportunity, and playing games won’t counteract that effect. No matter how much your brain gets used to shooting virtual bad guys and yelling at your team, if you enter normal society and resume that yelling, you’ll quickly run into strong social resistance. Still, there might be some truth to the altruistic goal of reducing overall violence, but clearly the waters here are murky. To combat this lack of clarity, we must set specific goals for our efforts. What is it that we should change about our violent games? Do we need to remove violence from them entirely and find other mechanics that are fun? Can we leave the violence in and just make it a background element? What is the design goal that achieves what we’re looking for here?

I propose that it is not the existence of violence that we should change, but its purpose. Why do we need violence? What is anger for? Rather than trying to prevent and deny our natural instinct, I promote an understanding of it instead.

So, socially, what is the purpose of violence? The low-hanging-fruit answer to this question is that it’s to abuse people into getting what you want. Violence is a cheap way to achieve a short-term power gain. If you threaten someone, they’ll often back down and let you achieve whatever your goal happens to be. Bullying is something we all learn as children, and which many of us eventually grow beyond. However, despite this being an easy solution to grasp onto, that’s not its only use. All across the earth animals participate in violence. It is a natural part of our world, but what is its function? Psychologist Antonio Damasio suggests in his book “The Strange Order of Things” that violence is primarily a means to an end. Biologically we are just trying to achieve homeostasis (in simpler terms: We want to be healthy and well fed and stable). Violence is but one way to achieve that goal. If someone attacks us and tries to take our food, we can attack them to keep that food. It’s very simple. Violence in the real world is a tool to achieve homeostasis, not something that is itself rewarded. Indeed society tends to punish violence at every turn, which is why the violent habits we form while playing a game almost never translate into the real world in a long-term way. As I mentioned earlier, if you yell at your team online, no one will stop you. If you yell at your friends in real life, you’ll begin to have social problems.

As a result, I have a suggestion: What if we kept violence in our games, but we just didn’t reward it?

If you look at the great stories, how often is violence what achieves a reward? Does Frodo Baggins get sick loot by killing a hundred orcs? No. He very rarely participates in combat, he’s not a fighter. In fact, in that same novel Legolas and Gimli participate in a violent competition and they walk away with nothing to show for it. The violence didn’t reward them in any way, they only participated in it as a necessary function of achieving their goal. The competition was only to keep up their morale through an unpleasant task; to defend the city from orc invasion. Violence, in these stories, is almost never rewarded directly, it’s a means to an end.

On the other hand, in games we often give players a reward for every enemy they kill. We’re implicitly telling them that violence is the answer, and rewarding them for it. What if, instead, we copied the approach of making violence nothing more than a tool? Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a world full of enemies, but killing them isn’t generally demanded. Sure, this game locks some chests behind killing the enemy camp, but is that necessary to the game’s core loop? Imagine if we just removed the kind of chest which requires you to kill enemies, and replaced it with one which required you to kill only a single guardian enemy (less, more purposeful violence), or to solve a puzzle of some other kind instead (no violence). Imagine if there were no lock on that chest at all, and getting its content became a matter of planning a heist instead of frivolous murder. The game systems involved wouldn’t even need to change, that loop already exists. You can already find ways to get loot out from under an enemy’s nose, the giant Hinox in that game even incentivizes this behavior.

In fact, violence in many games is pointless even now. Designers often have to force the player into it by locking a door until they’ve destroyed the enemies present. Stealth games, for example, often reward the player for never bothering to kill a single enemy. This is, in fact, a major part of the gameplay loop in this genre. With the advent of open world games, incentivizing violence becomes even more difficult. The most praised aspect of 2022’s Elden Ring is that the player can bypass a fight and continue on with their desired gameplay. The greatest complaints I’ve heard about this game are those few areas where you must kill some particular boss. This is not to say that FromSoftware should give up their violent gameplay, of course, but clearly not every open world game needs to demand that violence. Even Elden Ring could include other ways of achieving their assigned goals. Not once in the story does that game even imply that violence is a necessary answer to any of the problems faced, unless I’ve misunderstood one of the more oblique plot points.

So why do we incentivize violence in our gameplay loops? The answer, it seems to me, is simplicity. Violence is one of the first instincts an animal gains. It is a simple, direct means of defending ones self from those who would, intentionally or not, cause harm. We learn to defend our food by fighting those who get to close to it. We protect our families in much the same way, attacking those who get within our territory. This is all easy for a brain to do, you don’t need to be an advanced thinker to swing an arm with some sharp claws on the end. Because it’s such a simple road to victory, it’s become embedded in us from a very long time before we ever had swords or even pointed sticks. In terms of gameplay, violence is just a simple shorthand for something we don’t usually participate in. It’s not that humans are demanding violence, it’s just that there’s little chance to be violent in our day to day lives, and that our brains are wired to feel good when we dominate an enemy. That combination makes it an easy way to reward those actions when designing a game. It’s not that the violence itself is what we find fun, just that it’s something everyone understands because it’s simple.

In fact, I think all the focus we put on violence is itself an error. Violence is a means to an end. We use it when it is convenient to achieving our goals, but it is never the goal itself. You can see the evidence of this in how much game designers have to go out of our way to prevent progress unless the player is violent. If none of the doors in Zelda were locked behind killing the monsters, do you think anyone would bother? Probably not. In fact it’s considered bad game design to not demand that kind of lock and key, because then there’s no incentive for the player to engage with the combat system at all. So I can pretty definitively say, as a result, that violence isn’t something we’re inherently predisposed towards. We’ll do it if it seems useful, but we’d rather do other things. It is, after all, our most primitive instinct, and we are a species who likes to move forward, not back.

If you observe the people around you in real life, you’ll easily find examples of people acting nonviolently within the world. Even if you wander into the woods, you’re far more likely to see nonviolence in action, unless you happen to walk within the territory of a predator. Even if you do intrude, you’ll usually be warned away first. Even violent, territorial animals tend to give you a chance. So how do we make games with these things in mind? If we aren’t predisposed to violence, how do we make games that cater to what we ARE predisposed to?

Well pretty easily, to be honest. Most action games right now include nonviolent mechanics within them. Mario’s Jump might be used to crush enemies, but it’s also used to reach new places and explore exciting puzzles. Most multiplayer shooters give you non-violent goals such as “Escort the Payload” or “Capture the flag”. There are tons of First Person Shooter games that have been turned into puzzle games, often while using a nonviolent kind of “gun” like in Portal.

So if we acknowledge all of the above, where do we go next? Let’s say that we want to make a violent action game, but do so with nonviolence in mind. What’s important there and how do we change our design ethos to not require violence, even if our game still features it?

Last year, I compared quest design in Mario and Armored Core as a way of understanding two very different approaches. To revisit that breakdown briefly, I discovered that both Mario and Armored Core feature the following quest types:

  • Go To A Location

  • Collect An Item

  • Kill A Monster

  • Win A Race

  • Defend A Target

And those quests could have the following modifiers:

  • While Taking Less Than X Damage

  • Within A Time Limit

  • Complete Task X Number of Times

You may notice that only the “Kill a Monster” quest and the “While taking less than X damage” modifier here feature any sort of requirement towards combat, and the modifier itself is actually compelling you to avoid combat. In Armored Core, the quests are only violent because the level designers fill the world with unavoidable enemies as a way of creating player engagement. However, all we have to do is look at Mario for a counter-example, where enemies are obstacles and killing is not required to complete a goal. Mario’s recent foray into open world, Bowser’s Fury, shares very comparable level design to the semi-open-world Armored Core. Mario shows us a clear road towards not requiring violence in our games, and I want to break down the specifics of what Mario is teaching us in that regard. I’ll then use it to reconstruct the same quest concepts in a game like Armored Core, since we’ve already got those two game types on our minds.

First, let’s look at the anatomy of a Mario quest in Bowser’s Fury.

In this video, at the 22:21 mark, we see a Cat Shine called “Spin, Scramble, Shine”. The Shine is placed floating over the ground and a nearby switch is placed that will cause a stone tower to lift out of the ground, which Mario can climb as long as he’s in a cat suit.

To break that down more generically, we have a goal which is physically out of reach. We have an interactable object nearby which extends a bridge to that goal, temporarily. We must then navigate that bridge while avoiding enemies and within the allotted time to reach our goal. We receive our reward as long as we physically touch our goal location.

Notice how there are fish enemies in the water beneath the platforms Mario must use to access the Shine. These enemies are not hostile towards Mario, they do not actively seek to hurt him. Even if they were to jump into the air like a fish would do, this would create an advanced obstacle, but in a way that remains nonviolent. These fish don’t want to hurt you, they just want to be fish, and maybe they might like to jump when they’re nervous.

If this were Armored Core, we might make our goal be to retrieve a stolen item which is on the other side of a ravine. We must lower a bridge by interacting with a nearby comms tower and hijacking their signal, but we know that the enemy will reset the bridge hack after 15 seconds. This is functionally the same quest, and is pretty inarguably an interesting task to give a player, one which doesn’t actually require violence even if you do decide that putting enemies nearby will ultimately be more entertaining. If you do place enemies, you could have them be somewhat stationary, avoiding pursuit while defending their territory like a bear in the wilds. If you want to emulate the Mario fish, you could have electrified drones on a set patrol route which punish ill-considered movement. The major benefit of this is that in these situations, your protagonist isn’t seeking out violence. Your narrative design can now still claim that you’re a hero doing what you can to avoid destruction, even if your enemies are pressuring you into impossible situations.

In the same video as above, but at the 6:23 second mark, we see another Cat Shine, this one called “Lost Kittens Near the Ruins”. The shine is invisible, but we see an NPC crying and see a 0/3 marker appear above her head if we approach, showing an icon of a kitten. This indicates that this cat NPC needs kittens to no longer be sad (something true for us all, really). If we look around the area we can find kittens in various hiding places, and if we return them to their mother, we are rewarded with a Shine.

To break that one down, we have a lock in need of a key. We must first find the key object(s) and bring it (or them) to the lock, at which point we are given our reward. As with the last quest, our goal is to enter a location, but this time we must be carrying a specific kind of item when we do.

If you look at the design of the Lost Kittens Near The Ruins shine, you’ll see there are only 2 enemies directly involved in this quest, and they’re fish to be jumped over along your way. One of the kittens is placed near a bob-omb and other enemies, but not in a position which demands you kill them. Even if the kitten is placed nearer to enemies, however, the enemies only ever need be avoided, because they are not your goal, nor involved at all with that goal.

If this were Armored Core, we could wrap this in about a thousand different narratives. Imagine you have to bring a coded key to a unlock a door, or that you need to find fuel to get a caravan moving before the enemy arrives. There are many many different ways to justify this type of quest, but all of them essentially boil down to “Bring an item to a location”. Enemies for this type of mission are once again stationary turrets which defend their territory, or electric shock drones as mentioned before. You might imagine mines in the ground along the way, or other kinds of traps which hazard your attempts to move through space.

At the 2:20 second of the Bowser’s Fury video, we see a Cat Shine called “Hurry! Swim and Slide!” which is a race Shine. We have to reach a particular location before a competitor does the same thing.

This one maps cleanly into Armored Core and indeed Armored Core features a number of race quests. Sometimes these quests are about tuning your mech to reach a top speed, while other times it’s about navigating complex spaces efficiently. You can easily imagine being asked to bring medical supplies to a hospital before a timer runs out due to a medical emergency, a way of doing the same type of quest without need for an NPC. As with the lock and key quest before, this one can be put into any number of narrative wrappers.

Enemies aren’t even required for this type of quest at all, but you could consider those same traps we’ve used in our previous examples, or even the sort of Pod Racing style of hazard where gunners are taking potshots from a plateau, as in Star Wars Episode 1.

The last one I want to address is at the 42:10 mark. There we see an extremely violent mission given to Mario. There is a hidden island at the top of a tower which only reveals itself while Bowser is present, shooting fiery lasers at anything that moves. Shines are on that hidden island, and all Mario must do is reach them, but given the world context, that’s a tough prospect.

To be more generic, you have a mission to reach a location, but you’re under heavy fire the entire time. Your mission doesn’t involve defending yourself, your mission doesn’t involve any interaction with the enemy at all, but surviving the onslaught is itself enough of an impediment as to be extremely difficult.

For Armored Core, you can imagine being under constant sniper fire from unseen enemies, or even a more direct 1:1 where there’s some giant robot mech you cannot possibly fight, but which is firing lasers at you. The struggle here comes steeped in violence, but at no point are you required to engage in it yourself. In fact, your goal is to avoid it. There’s no point in being violent, its your enemy which is violent, and it’s your job to find a way to get around them.

The vast majority of even the most intense action movies only ever assign the heroes a quest to do nonviolent acts, because heroes don’t engage in violence intentionally. When we later see those action movies show us a scene of violence, it’s always with the framing that the hero stumbled into a situation where the enemy forced this upon them. Film heroes never intend violence, and violence is never imposed upon them except by their enemy. When we turn those movies into games, we try desperately to copy the pacing and structures of film, and so we say to ourselves “First you’ll arrive at the enemy base, and then you’ll blast through the front door and the alarm will go off, then you’ll have to fight tons of dudes, then you’ll find the secret bunker entrance just before reinforcements arrive, you’ll seal the door and then you’ll be safe to start part two of this mission”. When constructing a story like that, however, you’re doing something that screen writers almost never do: Imposing violence. Screen writers are writing for a linear piece of media where the sequence of events is important. They are responsible for every element of the story directly because there is no interaction involved. As a game writer, you are not doing that. As a game writer, you have to write with a player in mind, a player which must make choices. Your job is to create a scenario in which the protagonist can be heroic, not to spell out exactly how that heroism must be achieved. Because of the interactive nature of games, you are taking a situation that should involve choice and imposing a story on top of it. If you demand violence, then of course your players will be violent. Movie writers aren’t forcing their viewers to participate in violence, but you as a game writer are. If you want your hero to be able to avoid violence, as a hero should, you must allow that.

Obviously this approach to storytelling is very different from what you might be used to, but I’ve spent the last decade of my life trying to understand it, and so I can give you quite a few links that might help.

Nonviolence in games is not something that we must address by removing violence entirely from our worlds. The world we live in contains violence, anger is a natural thing. What we must address is our incentive structure. The real world does not promote violence, and a real hero must not participate in violence except as a last resort. We as game designers have been breaking that rule of good writing because we don’t understand how to tell a story without dictating its linear beats and pacing. If we are to learn to reward nonviolence, it starts in the writing room. It starts in the quest design meetings. Your hero can carry a gun and still be heroic. What matters is when they remove it from their holster. If they’ll point that gun at anyone, if indeed they walk around with it drawn at all times just in case, they are not a hero.

That’s it for me today. Thanks for taking your time to read this. Feel free to drop comments and questions below!

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