When I first started dating my girlfriend in college, she told me that she didn’t really play video games. This didn’t bother me at all; though I’ve loved games ever since I figured out how to run Doom on a DOS prompt at the age of 5, over the years, I’ve developed other hobbies that are equally important to me. Besides, like most young adults, I had already learned from experience that physical chemistry and complementary personality types are more fundamental to the success of a relationship than the Venn diagram of your mutual interests forming a perfect circle.
Over the past few years of our relationship, however, I’ve noticed that she actually plays mobile megahits like Ballz and Two Dots on her phone fairly frequently, even moreso than a lot of self-identified “gamers” that we know. When I asked her about this, her response was simple: “I didn’t realize that those counted,” she said, laughing. Her enjoyment of these games stood in stark contrast to her view on the games that I often play for my job. Even the relatively bloodless beast-slaying of Monster Hunter World gives her pause; when I fly into the air and bring my comically large fang-sword down on the monster’s steaming mandibles, she just shakes her head in mild disgust.
We could chalk up our differing perspectives to inequities built into the false “gamer” identity — a label that generally favors stereotypically-masculine games. But to my girlfriend, the real divide isn’t “serious” vs. “casual.” Rather, it’s the sheer volume of realistic violence endemic to console and PC gaming that drives her away, and she’s not alone. Increasingly, on the shores of social media, a small but vocal contingent of players who prefer non-violent experiences has begun to emerge. And when they look at the current crop of triple-A megagames, they find it lacking.
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To be fair, this concept is more of a gradual spectrum than a bright line, and different players slot into different positions along it, since the very definition of “violence” varies from person to person. On the less-sensitive side of the spectrum, you have Nathan Blades, a 28-year-old queer cyberpunk fan and podcast producer living in England. Though Blades says he’s experienced a lifelong discomfort with the ubiquitous shooting and swordplay that define mass-market video games, he’s learned to suppress his feelings in order to experience what he terms the “full spectrum” of games — especially in the presence of his gamer friends.
Growing up in the late ‘90s with a Nintendo 64, he recalls spending hours upon hours playing games like Mario Kart 64 and Super Mario 64. It was only when he would hang out over at a friend’s place that he would experience the more “mature” titles in the N64 catalog, including the classic shooters Goldeneye 007 and its spiritual successor Perfect Dark. While he enjoyed lazing around with his friends on these summer afternoons, he found the games themselves to be tiresome and mindlessly cruel.
“I just really never had a good time with them,” he says. “I’d spend most of the time staring at the floor or the ceiling, getting shot by my friends. I would prefer to play something different, but I was always outvoted.
“If there was a sleepover in 2002, we all bring over our GameCubes, I would want to play Super Smash Bros. Melee, they would want to play 007: Nightfire. Eventually, it just got to the point where I’d say, ‘guys, I’m good, I’m just going to play Pokemon over here for a bit.’ It just wasn’t my thing.”
Despite his aversion to most multiplayer shooters, which continues to this day, Blades says he’s more than comfortable with gameplay that many would consider fairly violent, including the balletic angel-hunting of Bayonetta, the stylized robot-dismantling of Nier: Automata, and the precision bone-crunching of fighting games like Tekken. But while these games all feature combat as a core element, for Blades, it’s the context and identity of the opposition that makes the difference.
“In Bayonetta, you’re blowing up the patriarchy from Heaven,” he says. “In Nier, you’re just killing some seemingly-mindless robots. Maybe you break somebody’s arm when you’re Nina in Tekken, but the bones magically re-knit, there are no lasting damage. Compare that to the highly-abstract pixel violence of Hotline Miami. I thought I could stand it, but then the game hits me with that first line, ‘do you like hurting other people?’ I was like, ‘no, I don’t.’ And I turned it off, and I’ve never gone back.”
Playing Around Violence
Lisa Chan is a fairly typical example of what we might term a more middle-of-the-spectrum player. Her favorite game growing up was The Sims, where death usually comes from a swimming pool mishap or faulty oven. However, it wasn’t until she played the Mass Effect trilogy that she realized just how much she enjoyed video games. Even though the vast majority of player action in those sci-fi RPGs comes down the barrel of a shiny space-gun, Chan says that for her, the narrative elements (like romancing your crewmates) are so appealing that she’s willing to stomach the constant alien-blasting. Since then, however, her preferences have shifted to such an extent that she’s had to turn to indie titles to suit her needs.
To Chan, a game is non-violent insofar that she can personally choose to avoid directly harming fellow humans, even at great cost. She cites Dishonored as a sterling example of this — while the game grants you a whole armory of bizarre and creative weapons, you can choose to play as a pacifistic assassin, sneaking around rather than cleaving your way through hordes of guards and concocting schemes that bring about the demise of your targets without your personal involvement.
“Graphics and presentation contribute quite heavily to my definition — a bloody, gory game is immediately a no from me,” she says. “So, for example, something like Stardew Valley, despite the combat in it, I’d consider to be non-violent, as I can skip it.”
Still, while Chan says she’s enjoyed a variety of indie games over the past few years, including Gorogoa, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Tacoma, she still sometimes feels the urge to dive into what she terms the “grand, polished experience” of a triple-A game, but the market just doesn’t have much to offer her in that vein.
Bored by Bloodshed
While each person I talked to has their own personal line for the kinds of games they try to avoid, they were unanimous in their distate for “realistic” first-person shooters, especially the arguably-jingoistic militarism of the Call of Duty series. Blades objects to it on two fronts: though he admits that he never wants to shoot another human (even in a warzone) in a game that strives for verisimilitude, he especially dislikes that series’ subtext, which he deems racist and colonialist.
“It’s like there’s this whole world of games out there that asks you to be the oppressor, to play as a white guy from a rich country who shoots at people in poverty,” he says. “I’m just never going to want to play that, ever.”
For my girlfriend, however, the visceral violence that comes part and parcel with so many modern games isn’t so much offensive; it’s just boring.
“I don’t know how to explain this to people, really, but I just don’t think the mechanics of combat are that interesting, and video games are just obsessed with that,” she says.
“I deal with the consequences of real-world violence at my job all the time, and the last thing I want from a game is to have to think about that, even in a fantasy setting… I would love to see some big games that deal more with other aspects of the human experience. Until then, I think I’m just going to stick with Two Dots.”