What do we need for better conflict?

A Big Daddy from Bioshock

A Big Daddy from Bioshock

I’ve been doing some interesting reading this morning about a few games and how they handled non-violent conflict, and an opinion piece that talked about how game mechanics are often obstacles between the game’s flavor and the player. (Read the article here.)

One of the key examples the author talks about is Bioshock — the game has themes about religion and free society; about free will, and so on, but despite all that, the game focuses mostly around shooting people, because the game is a shooter.

Frankly, he’s right. While Bioshock has a great story and interesting themes, it’s still ultimately a game about killing people. And yes, that’s ok, and sure it’s fun, but that doesn’t mean we should be unable to make a compelling, interesting game that doesn’t focus on violence.

The next insight he offers us is that we are looking to produce better games that are more emotional and have a better impact on the player, and that we are trying to do it paradoxically by refining the techniques we’ve been using for the last two decades.

All valid criticism; all important stuff. So, we can identify that there is a problem — how do we solve it?
First, we need to clarify this problem. We want to emphasize story, and reduce violence to produce something that has more emotional impact — what this ultimately means is that we want more mature conflict. This phrasing might seem a little strange to the average gamer — what’s more mature they shooting violence? Realistically speaking, in civilized life, physical violence is pretty primitive on the scale of conflict. We’ve got things like establishing friends, trying to stay debt free, office politics — and that’s just plebeian conflict. We have all sorts of books and movies that talk about every kind of struggle, but games have yet to really spread out and adopt major conflicts like this.

So why not? Well, the pessimistic reason first: primitive conflicts are popular. The industry is making lots of money off of games that well represent shooting and killing and other physical conflict. The other, more pressing reason is, we don’t know how.

One of the key problems with producing games with mature conflicts is trying to figure out how best to do so.

Conflict is what makes games interesting — it gives players the chance to succeed or fail, and to have an impact on their experience, unlike other media. We can abstract the conflict and conform it to existing mechanics, but that doesn’t always work. (As in the article, Mash ‘O’ to overcome inner emotional conflict)

The other option is to try and represent a literal conflict — but in many cases these conflicts are wrought and resolved by human interaction; by gesture and conversation. Unless we can think of clever mechanisms to represent human interaction, we’ll be stuck with simpler conflicts until artificial intelligence makes a major technological leap.

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