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The Soapbox: A violent scene

Eliot Lefebvre
06.14.11
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Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

When Star Trek Online was first released, it had more than its fair share of critics, and one of the chief complaints was the fact that the game seemed to focus largely upon combat. Sure, Star Trek had always featured combat, but it had also featured negotiation and diplomacy and unknowable phenomena alongside human drama. The idea that the entire universe could be pared down to ships and ground teams firing disruptor beams at one another didn't sit well with a sizable portion of the fanbase.

Of course, Star Trek Online is hardly the only culprit. MMOs have always had a heavy focus on combat as far back as Ultima Online -- the PvP that people look back on with fond memories wasn't a game of cards, after all. Sometimes it can seem as if we have a sea of games with nothing to them except fighting and killing things, without any other meaningful interactions with the world. In a genre that offers us such a wonderful tool for social interaction, why are our games so violent?

As it turns out, for a lot of very good reasons.



Escapism and a big sword

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most of you don't solve your problems with violence. For the few of you who do (soldiers, MMA fighters, residents of Australia), violence is still usually not your go-to solution for day-to-day activities. It's a specific toolset for a very narrow set of problems (you're in an armed conflict, you're in the ring and have to win, you met an American tourist who thinks "that's not a knife" is still funny). Human beings have, by and large, developed our society to the point that people who use violence as a catch-all solution to problems are not exactly welcomed with open arms.

This puts us all at a bit of a disadvantage because as human beings we like being violent. We like having power, we like being in control, and we like the opportunity to smack around whoever has annoyed us on a given day.

For the most part, we also recognize that this isn't a productive impulse. We reward people who are a bit more civic-minded than needlessly destructive. But at the same time, there's nothing wrong with having an out for this impulse. There's a reason summer blockbusters generally feature more bullets than distinct characters -- sometimes it's nice to just drop in to a simpler mindset, to live in a world where your problems can be solved with violent actions and wars of words happen alongside wars of very large weaponry.

MMOs are by no means immune to this. Sure, most of them offer a bit more depth of play than traditional games of mindless violence (I think State of Emergency still wins the award for being the most amorally violent nonsense game possible), but you still get to enjoy that escapist rush. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's a very basic part of human nature, and there's a good reason that older societies generally thought the person who won a trial by combat was right in the eyes of heaven. It's satisfying to think that you can back yourself up with a strong sword arm.

Gardening is a poor substitute for pyromania

Of course, some of the laments about our violent genre has to do with all of the elements of MMOs that wind up getting boiled away in the quest for perfect combat. After all, we've gone from games with abundant player housing and elaborate crafting systems to games with strictly regimented harvesting or gathering, and isn't it sad how simplistic and violent our hobby has become?

Well, assuming by "our hobby" you mean "World of Warcraft." It's not as if crafting is exactly a fading thing (one of Global Agenda's first major updates was the inclusion of a crafting system), and non-combat activities are always high on the list for most non-Blizzard developers. About the only games that continually advertise nothing but combat are free-to-play games that really bank on maximizing the rush and getting you to spend a few dollars in the cash shop, and that has more to do with the simple fact that you don't have much loyalty to the game otherwise.

But non-combat activities are nice -- provided, of course, that you can make them sufficiently interesting and exciting in play. After all, if you're gardening in Final Fantasy XI, odds are good you decided that you didn't want to start gardening in real life, which is pretty easy to do even with a limited amount of space. So it needs to be exciting and preferably something that isn't a regular fixture of your day-to-day existence to begin with. (I don't imagine many carpenters want to use their time off from work to pretend to be a carpenter.)

And here we walk into the simple fact that a lot of players do, in fact, primarily want combat. Combat is exciting. It's not mundane; it's engaging in a way that putting together a bookshelf isn't. I can put together a bookshelf in real life; I can't shoot lightning from my fingertips. It ties back into the elements of escapism that I mentioned in the beginning, that sense of doing something out of the ordinary. The vast majority of MMOs give you options to interact with the world beyond just slaughter, but since the days of Ultima Online onward there's been a strong component of combat as well. Violence is something people like in video games, and MMOs are no exception.

But won't someone think of the children?

The funny thing is that in many cases, the reason combat gets so much attention is that it's the hardest element to make mechanically relevant. And to talk about that, we're going to need to go back to Star Trek Online because in one sense the critics were entirely right. The Star Trek franchise has a fundamental assumption that not every problem needs to be solved with violence.

Of course, that doesn't mean that violence doesn't still have a pretty serious impact in the franchise. After all, out of the 11 feature films in the franchise, only two end up with a problem to be solved that doesn't require the application of violence, and in both of those cases it's largely due to the fact that violence has proven wholly impossible. But even more telling is the fact that more classic Trek elements are still present -- investigation, a sense of wonder, strange dangers, unfamiliar planets, and a sense of going into space because it's there and worthy of exploration. The difference is that many of these things aren't reflected in the mechanics of the game.

And should they be? Are randomly generated social interactions fulfilling in any way? The Sims is an entertaining virtual dollhouse, but it doesn't tend to produce human drama; the real challenge is trying to work within the mechanics of a social system to get your Sim whatever he or she wants. Star Trek Online bypassed a hardcoded interaction system at launch in no small part to facilitate focusing on the human interaction of the game, to create drama through scripted events and interplayer interaction.

You can argue that you want more hardcoded non-combat activities. You can say that violence promotes a negative part of human behavior. But the fact of the matter is that there's a good reason it's such a big focus in MMOs, and there are very good reasons that so many people like it. So enjoy it, because the truth of the matter is it's not going anywhere.

Also, if you try to get in a fight with violence, it'll probably hack your legs off at the kneecap. So that's not fun.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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