We need more non-violent video games

We need more non-violent video games

Video games are an expressive art media, capable of inspiring empathy in users through an entire canvas of characters and backstories with which player can interact. In that regard, video games are a somewhat unusual medium, as other art forms, such as film and literature, ask for passivity in the viewer, and not much else in return. And while this works very well most of the time for those forms, sometimes there's something missing in the process, that hands-on experience you can only get through a controller or joystick.

And yet, this realm of narrative possibilities is almost entirely lost or vacant within the current industry.

The majority of video games that are made, sold and played revolve around some kind of violence mechanic. Whether it's a gun, a sword or a plumber jumping on mushrooms, the most popular style of gameplay is one of murder. On its own, this is not a bad thing. Digital violence can be enjoyable and quite harmless to most people, and can tell a story when it's not gratuitous. This is true for most of art, such as violent movies or violent books.

But the problem comes in when there's little else being made. This year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, the convention where the latest and greatest video games and consoles are shown off, had very little diversity in terms of genre. Jonathan McIntosh of Youtube series Pop Culture Detective made a chart comparing the number of combat based games versus non-combat. Out of 133 games presented, only 20 of them did not focus on violence.

Digital violence may not turn people into serial killers, but when done improperly and gratuitously, it can desensitize us and make us numb to emotion in stories. A study conducted by Brock University showed that young teenagers who played violent video games for long periods of time without real -life social interaction were less likely to develop empathy for others. Non-violent games, on the other hand, were not shown to have this adverse effect when tossed into the mix.

This is not a condemnation of violent video games, but rather, of the lack of alternatives as presented by a growing and prosperous industry. If we're only given and shown violence, then violence will beget violence in terms of the type of stories being created and emulated by others.

But gaming can be so much more than that.

Gaming is effectively a super-medium, combining elements of art, film, literature, and music together to create a distinct interaction that can be quite effective in creating a sympathetic response from users. This potential is especially potent when the narrative revolves around oppressed groups, such as minorities, women or the poor. Unfortunately, these groups are often absent or have minor roles in these stories. Even worse, sometimes they're the enemy to be disposed of.

"Tacoma" and "Gone Home" are prime examples of non-violent progressive video games. "Tacoma" has you explore a vacant space ship and read the logs of its previous inhabitants to understand their lives and what happened. "Gone Home" is of the same type, but instead, you explore the vacant home of a family, and uncover the story through subtle interactions with your environment. Both of these games also feature LGBTQ+ characters and give you a strong sense of their identity, their strifes and struggles, all without firing a single gun.

Stories like these are touching, and use the element of violence only as a story theme, and not a gameplay mechanic. Instead, it relies on clever presentation, atmosphere, and well-written dialogue to draw the viewer within the folds of its narrative. These games exist and tell their own original stories, but they are becoming far and few. 

Gaming carries a negative connotation for being a toy for angsty kids and teens to carry out their aggression or for being toxic, racist and misogynist. The bulk of these claims are certainly true to some degree, for gaming is often still a 'boy's club' and oppressive towards women and minorities. But we can help to change this perception by creating more games that tell diverse and original stories, and by giving these narratives a chance.

Michael Dawson is a senior majoring in English. His column runs biweekly.

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