What Would Video Games Look Like Without War?

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, July 15, 2011 at 10:00 am
You gotta love Google+. Most people on Facebook don't have the energy or inclination to spell out the word "you." But on Google's new social network (at least for now) we're enjoying what can only be described as intelligent conversation. 

A couple of days ago Teddy Pierson from IGN pondered, "I wonder what games would be like if we never had any wars or murder."  Its a pretty good question, really. Because I don't think you can just remove all the violent games and get a good sense of what games would look like without all the bloodshed. Games would evolve differently. Mechanics that we take for granted -- like the point and shoot of the FPS -- would develop in new ways or wither unexplored. 

My quick and easy response to Pierson's question was "First Person Kissers." But I think the question deserves some reflection.  First lets try to imagine a world where we're not so occupied with smiting enemies. It's hard, huh?

There's something in the heart of man that makes us long for power. How great would it feel to be the strongest? Nobody could ever make us do anything we didn't want to do. And, really, we could take anything we wanted. The video games of warlike man give us that. We're always outnumbered and always outgunned and yet we prevail. Everything in game worlds is ours for the taking. We only need the will, strength and skill to take it. And we have all three.


It sounds boring at first, but I think efficiency is the trait that would rise if the fantasy of power wasn't our primary one. On one level it's about being fast. Everybody remembers wishing they could run faster than everybody else. One kid got to be that person. And I imagine it felt pretty good. I can't even hazard a guess how that person was feeling, because I was the one that got lapped or tripped and fell at the starting whistle. 

The cool thing about racing in video games is that the contest really isn't about pure speed at all. Everyone usually has the same tools to work with. Unlike real life we balance our play spaces so that everybody has a chance to win. And winning comes down not to using your god-given speed, but in making and executing good decisions.

European-style board games are the best example of a petri dish where violence and power aren't the first consideration. I like to imagine that they developed out of need among the German people to distance themselves from their past and to find a way to leverage their penchant for order into constructive, positive work.
I love playing these kinds of games because they're about testing your reasoning and instincts. Agricola, for example, puts you in charge of a medieval farm. You're trying to plant food, construct a home and raise livestock so that your family may eat. But as the game progresses your opportunities to do tasks like collecting wood and hiring workers become more and more rare. Winter is coming. And you frequently find yourself with ten things that need doing and only enough time to do three. It's a fascinating dilemma to find yourself in. That's why I try to play board games like this at every opportunity. 

The recent free-to-play iOS game Tiny Tower scratches a few of those itches. The game is a bit underdeveloped compared to a good board game. But the core idea is still the same. You're trying to build a skyscraper, but money, workers and time are scarce. You've got to hire the people who will do the most work for you in the shortest time. And prioritize the staffing and stocking of your shops so that they'll generate you more cash. Sadly, the decisions in Tiny Tower don't feel quite as monumental as they do in a game like Agricola. But I can easily see another video game creating dilemmas that are just as spicy.

I know the idea of being ruthlessly efficient doesn't seem quite so sexy as encrushing your enemies and seeing them driven before you but its a start. Or a world without war might, alternately, see games more like those First Person Kissers I mentioned before. Power is fine. And efficiency is cool. But learning to make somebody else feel good might just be the best way to spend our time.

Pretension +1 is a weekly column that asks what-if questions and provides WTF answers about video games.

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