Games are a big part of my life.

Tabletop Games, Board Games, and Video Games are all very important to me, both in the past and the present. (I can, of course, only assume they will become more so in the future.) But something occurred to me the other day that made me reconsider just what I spend so much of my time doing. A simple question, while working on a new tabletop campaign:

Conflict, as a rule, is vital to modern games- and for good reason! Conflict is the interesting part of life; if there were no conflicts, there would be no story to tell, no challenge to surmount, and no real point to anything. Games use conflict as the meat and the bones of gameplay, oftentimes at the expense of anything- or everything- else.

And that is not a bad thing. Like I said, it makes things interesting and worthwhile.

But why do we focus so much on violent conflict? What is it specifically about violence, combat, and the like that make those more inherent to gaming than, say, emotional conflict? Intellectual conflict? Moral conflict? Why do so many games involve mass murder as a main focal point, and just brush over that?

(N.B. I am not saying games are “too violent“ or anything. Violent games can be and are a lot of fun! But I am wondering why they are basically the only major type of game, when You get down to the brass tacks.)

My first instinct is to blame the forerunners: Things like Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fantasy, Street Fighter. Heck, even Space War and Space Invaders were all about killing things. But I quickly brush this idea aside, and for two main reasons:

  1. Just because those games were violent in the 1970‘s and 1980‘s does not mean we are forced to only make games about violence.

  2. Blaming those who are successful for something You think is wrong with a culture is, at its core, an excuse not to think.

Some of my favorite kinds of video games (Visual Novels and Dialogue Based RPGs) have very little combat in them. They are able to get on fine without it, but they are also seen to largely be like choose Your own adventure novels: Fun, but without a lot of player control. They are also so few and far between the fighting games, jRPGs, and such that not very many people make or play them.

In the board game world, finding a game without some kind of combat mechanic or bloody attack roll in more common: Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan are three such games. But for each of those, there is a Summoner Wars, or a Dominion, or a Risk. And, the ones without combat are (at least to my eyes) more abstract than the ones with physical conflict.

As for the TTRPG world, I believe this post on Stack Exchange said it the best (subbing ‘mainstream’ for ‘traditional’):

“As a rule, you’ll find that traditional RPGs work in the way you suggest: extended combat mechanics, single rolls for social challenges. Indie RPGs are much more varied in the way they handle social conflicts.”

All of the big names (DND, GURPS, Shadowrun, Pathfinder) have a big focus on combat- In fact, whole chapters in their rulebooks are devoted to it! Whereas the smaller ones (Dread, Capes, and Dogs in the Vineyard) are more focused on the idea of conflict, as opposed to simply combat.

This is already one of my longer posts here, so I’ll end with this: I can conceive of many kinds of conflict between people. But it takes me a lot of time to do so… And it is hard to make it look good. Perhaps, the reason combat is so common can be boiled down to one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Non-Combat conflict is harder to write.

    Nuance plays a big role in many more internal conflicts. Smaller actions have wider effects, and it is sometimes difficult to accept that the tides have turned against You if You don’t have a dagger in Your back. Violence is simply the simplest way to solve problems, because “Might Makes Right“ leaves little room for argument.

  2. There are no established giants without combat as a focus.

    All of the main rulesets that people base their games on have a big focus on combat: Dungeons and Dragons, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, GURPS, Galaga, Double Dragon, Megaman, Mario, Sonic. When people are starting out with an idea, it is very tempting and easy to crib rules from other games… And most of those games focused heavily on physical conflict. Smaller games, like Dogs in the Vineyard or Dread or Always Sometimes Monsters, get overlooked a lot.

  3. Explosions and Bloody Wounds look cool.

    Violence has its place, especially in the realms of fantasy and gameplay. Explosions look awesome, Duels and Wars are amazing to look at, and few things are as unsettling as unexpected violence. I am not trying to downplay any of that. But there are other ways to evoke those emotions in people, and those are the ones which are under-represented in games at the moment… Probably because there is no real set way to make them feel as cool as the violent alternative.