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The Soapbox: A new mode of interaction


Video games are, by definition, an interactive medium. The entire point of playing a video game is that you get to explore the world, talk to the characters, slay the monsters, and reap the rewards. And you do all this with a keyboard and mouse or controller or futuristic headset or whatever. Players are in charge; players create their own experience.

Every video game ever released hinges on player interaction to tell its story. Without the player, a game's inhabitants are meaningless pixels guarding empty checkpoints, staggering through the woods with a groan, or walking in endless circles selling bread.

In order for a game to function, players must be able to interact with it. The only question is how.

Go here, kill this

Video games are theoretically the cutting-edge of entertainment. And gamers are, also theoretically, the most demanding of technological advancements when it comes to enjoying their favorite hobby. Special effects in films are getting prettier and music is evolving, but video games are expected to reinvent themselves and their systems every few years in a way that's demanded of no other medium. Michael Bay doesn't have to add a digital dog to Transformers to keep people packing in the seats.

COD: Dog Edition
Despite this almost unfair demand for advancement, modes of interaction seem to be stuck in the same ruts they've been stuck in since the first home gaming systems started showing up on shelves. In almost every game ever made, the primary mechanism through which player choice is made manifest is by killing the other thing on the screen. Sometimes it's with a gun, sometimes it's with a fireball, and sometimes it's by shouting really loud, but the most common form of expression offered to players of video games is "go here, kill this."

"Isn't there another way players could be experiencing these worlds besides leaving a trail of looted corpses in their wakes?"

Some games tweak this formula a bit by changing the parameters. In a game like Dishonored, for example, players have the option of not killing anyone and relying on stealth. However, the interactivity of the title is still driven by killing -- players just get to decide whether or not to do it. In MMOs, killing is as close to a necessity as possible, since no developer seems to have come up with a better way to gain those oh-so-valuable experience points besides carving a path of death and destruction across huge swaths of local fauna. Current MMO designs are as reliant on experience-by-murder as they are on quest trackers and microtransactions.

Game worlds offer immersive, beautiful universes to explore and discover. Isn't there another way players could be experiencing these worlds besides leaving a trail of looted corpses in their wakes? Doesn't it feel like a cheat to have everything in a game boil down to the same actions players have completed in hundreds of other games, regardless of setting or theme?

The case for alternatives

While killing things in video games is certainly fun (and always will be), recent successes have shown that players are on the hunt for new experiences that hinge less on laying out foes and more on participating in something new and unique. Minecraft is a game in which killing (for food) is just one tiny element of a much bigger game. Journey was almost entirely about exploration, silence, and narrative. Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which is a serious contender for one of the best games of 2013, is about watering flowers and looking adorable (and the dangers of predatory lending).

When these experiences pop up, players flock to them and critics cheer enthusiastically from their computer keyboards. Unfortunately for fans of MMOs, these types of mechanical and design innovations just aren't making their way into the MMO sphere. Maybe it's because MMOs are so expensive to develop, maybe it's because MMO players would rather kill things than not, or maybe it's because developers just haven't found a way to build an MMO that doesn't run almost entirely on bashing things with swords. Whatever the reason, MMOs are way behind the rest of the industry in terms of delivering modes of interaction that extend beyond clearing off a checklist of enemies.

EVE Online
A select few MMOs have progression paths that exist outside of the killing game. EVE Online offers several peaceful ways to progress through the world and experience its mysteries (though the game is steeped in violence). Glitch was a beautiful example of how to shake up the "go here, kill this" formula that plagues almost all new MMO releases (and was sadly shuttered). It's also possible to reach level cap in a number of games through non-violent methods, but these are always rare tales as opposed to true alternatives, grindy chores instead of rewarding decisions.

Moving forward

In an industry that throws the word "innovative" around so frequently, one would hope that actual innovation would be more prevalent. Sadly, the great majority of new games, MMO and otherwise, seek only to innovate on how exactly their players can kill things, or how pretty the environments look before, during, and after said killing. "Oh, in this game, you can kill in slow motion!" "In this game, you can kill with gun-shoes!" "In this game, you can kill with song-spells based on the discography of AC/DC!" "In this game, dog!"

They all sound different, but the core concept remains unchanged: Go here, kill this. Developers could be doing more to find new modes of interaction for players. Players could be demanding more interesting and engaging mechanisms for exploring their fantasy worlds. And it's not like the two concepts are mutually exclusive; an MMO that presents non-killing paths in addition to the normal stuff is likely to be an MMO that players will find just as engaging as one that centers entirely on punching things with a Spelltanium Gauntlet of Suffering.

It's not that I'm against violence. I love killing things in games. But sometimes, every so often, I'd like to move my character forward through non-violent means. Help an in-game charity. Build a sweet castle. Tend a garden. Run an in-game bar or store. Solve some puzzles. Anything that deepens my experience with a game and doesn't depend entirely on collecting body parts or bandanas.

Surely there's more to video game life than killing everything we see?

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 and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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