Saturday 24 September 2011

Pacifism and video games

Pacifism, the philosophy of non-violence, has a long and distinguished tradition in human thought. Jesus Christ was a pacifist. Mahatma Ghandi. Compassion for all life, human and nonhuman, is central to Buddism and Jainism. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century gave rise to a number of pacifists sects including the Quakers and the Amish. The Quaker province of Pennsylvania was essentially unarmed and experienced little or no warfare during the 75 years from 1681 to 1756. The nineteenth century saw more articulation of this position, including the thoughts of Russian author Tolstoy. The rise of socialism based on the theories of Marx saw an opposition to war which was seen by many socialists as exploitative of the working class for the benefit of capitalist profiteers.

The First World War featured "conchies", conscientious objectors, who refused to fight. 16 000 men were recorded as conscientious objectors in the UK of whom 6 000 were sent to prison. They were often despised by the general public, with a white feather being handed to them (signifying they were cowards). In World War Two there were 60 000 conscientious objectors of whom 5500 were imprisoned. Many conchies were given work in non-combatant military service such as the Royal Army Medical Corps. 350 of them even volunteered for bomb disposal work.

In real wars pacifism is an important consideration. In politics and diplomacy peace is often sought as a desirable goal. So why are games so bloodthirsty? And do they always have to be?

There are two main reasons that games are bloodthirsty. One is tradition, the other relates to game mechanics.

The traditional accent on war in games goes right back to ancient civilisations and is, I think, influenced by the availability of equipment. There are of course games with free or cheap equipment - any kid can grab a feather and run around tickling the other kids, any kid can find a stick and throw it. Dice are fairly cheap to carve from wood or bone. But more sophisticated games such as chess, go, and draughts required leisure to produce, leisure which was only available to those who could extract the labour surplus - the warlords. While the peasants toiled in the fields the warlords and their knights waited, bored, for a fight and devised ways to pass the time. These pastimes reflected their interest in war and were a way to pass their military wisdom to their heirs.

Computer games directly inherited this theme. The early uses of computer for gaming was a dream of building a computer so sophisticated that it could beat a human at chess, seen as one of the most intellectual of achievements during the 1950s and 1960s. The other big influence on computer gaming was Dungeons and Dragons, a combat game that evolved from tabletop wargaming.

Computers are particularly suited to game mechanics that are based around fighting. In life the alternative to fighting is talking, whether to playground bullies or around the diplomatic table. Talking was particularly difficult for early computers to handle as they were machines built to process numbers not language. I wonder if this is still true. While computers are based on numbers deep down we have so many sophisticated programs for dealing with language that this technological limitation may no longer apply to these tools. Google applies sophisticated algorithms to search phrases that may be linguistically inelegant and still finds relevant results even where the search is clumsily phrased. Virtual worlds are used for language learning with over 200 universities or academic institutions using Second Life.

So is it time for a pacifist game, specifically a pacifist MMO?

Here's a design framework.

The game world is based on modern society. Players start as young people entering the world of work and must develop careers as the main game play mechanism with pacifism as the goal for most players and war as the goal for a small minority. So advancing your career is how you play, completing your career without war is how you win if you're a pacifist, causing a war is how you win if you're a hawk. One possible way of motivating people would be Winners Play Free - if you win you get another go. This of course would mean that the company doesn't make much money when the pacifists win, that doesn't necessarily matter and shouldn't influence game design.

In the pacifist gameplay you have a role that is basically firefighting. So a journalist might need to write an article condemning a military solution to a crisis contrived by the game engine and exacerbated by the hawk players. The article could be tested using metrics software - how many people Like it, how long do people spend reading it? (If people glance at it for 2 seconds then hit Like that's not going to count for much). Hawks have career advantages in that they have dirty tricks options. So they can blackmail, bribe and beat up people to advance their careers.

The gameplay can be extended to real world social networks with the ability to make Youtube videos, to tweet, to create social media pages in game. So for example you could give a speech in game, upload it to Youtube, get a million hits and 100k likes in the real world and that would influence your character's success in game. Speeches and videos would also be matched against a google type algorithmic pattern searching program to see if the speech matches peaceful themes or warlike themes. If a speech is given that is warlike, even if given by a pacifist player then all those hits advance the cause of war.

Career paths that players could choose should reflect influence brokers and power in modern society. Politicians, political lobbyists; businessmen and women, military officers, secret agents, journalists, union leaders. Affiliation would be secret (although players might guess based on someone's actions). Most spots in the game would be doves. This may well not reflect what players want to do so two things would be needed to keep the matches balanced. First players don't have a choice - they pay their money they draw a card, if they get their preference great, if they don't they can pay to draw again if they want or play what they drew. Next activity needs to be monitored. If 40% of your doves are inactive you need to add more doves to the match. This is fine since it means that people in the game will be at different stages of their careers.

Everyone's allegiance is secret but there should be some solid advantages to being overt. A pacifist newspaper might be able to wrack up a lot of Peace Points. A hawk newpaper getting a lot of Likes and Time Spent Reading could be really dangerous.

The timeframe of a game is the length of someone's career. If we says they start at 20 and retire at 65 that gives us 45 years. A reasonable length of time for a match might be 9 months, so we have 5 years of career progression per month.

Working title? How about "Peace in our time?"


  1. The closest MMO I've come across to a pacifist one is Seed:
    Seed on Wikipedia
    There was no combat, and gameplay consisted of maintenance work on machinery. Ultimately there was meant to be a political side to it, but they never got there because the company went bankrupt. I tried it when it when it first came out (they released it way too early to try to raise funds) because I loved the idea of something completely different, but unfortunately the game just wasn't ready for public consumption: the gameplay was monotonous (although I'm not sure it was any more so than killing 200 rats to level up, for example), and the controls were abysmal. It was still sad to see it flounder so pathetically, though.

    What I've always wanted is an MMO (or an offline RPG for that matter) which takes the emphasis off levelling up, but while still having levels; so it wouldn't show you how long you had until the next level, and would have different people require different, random, amounts of xp to get to the next level. I think most people would hate it, but maybe then people might actually find fun things to do in the game rather than just trying to find the most efficient way to level up, which so many MMOs seem to deteriorate to. I know, for some people that's what they find fun - I don't think it would be very popular :)

  2. The problem is marketing. Nobody wants a game like you describe, because the executives and such will look at it and ask where the hook is, where the story comes from. Not to knock pacifism as a concept - that'd be a whole 'nother argument - it's accepted as fact in the entertainment industry as a whole, not just in gaming, that conflict = drama = consumer interest. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is once of if not the most popular entry in the Star Trek franchise, a franchise that one could argue represents an overall positive look at our future, is also one of if not the most violent Star Trek movie.

    The fact of the matter is that human beings, for the most part, are wired for conflict - even our most basic response, fight or flight, represents that. It's part of our psyche, it's part of our religions (most of them), and it's part of our societies. I don't see us getting away from it from something like our escapist fantasies, at least until we change mankind as a whole.

  3. Interesting thought. I wonder if it would be just straight up easier to win as a warmonger, because you know for sure all the griefers would pick that style.

  4. @ Eek Thanks for your comment and for the tip about Seed. I wish I had tried it. There's a game called a Tale in the Desert too which is also non-combat which I keep meaning to have a look at.

    @James Ah but that's the joy of blogging - we can imagine and share virtual games and pretend we're playing them :)

    @ Spinksville yeah, I think the flaw is not so much that hawks will win (that's just balance and one can skew the odds), it's that doves might simply not be fun. Grind teaching for a month then get passed over for a promotion. Oh and your hoodie pupils are looting Currys. It would only be fun if the design were utterly brilliant and you could influence your pupils in ways that are both a fun game and a realistic simulation. That would be hard to implement, damn hard.

  5. There are already a number of MMOs that lack combat. For example, Myst Online URU is utterly free, has very nice graphics, and features core game play that consists entirely of solving puzzles.

    The problem is that no-one plays them. For whatever reason, few players will get invested in a game that doesn't have combat. Does that mean humans are bloodthirsty assholes? Does it mean that as a psychological outlet being able to beat the crap out of virtual beings is more cathartic than solving puzzles? I really have no idea. I think u've raised an important question regardless.

  6. Hmm. I think I'm too distracted by some of the statements/assumptions to comment on the gameplay aspect.

    Jesus who stopped the disciples from fighting to prevent his death (which was his whole purpose for being here) was also the Jesus who told them to buy the swords in the first place, as well as the Jesus who drove the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip. I'm not sure you could classify him as pacifist, particularly when you add in that Joshua's conquest of Canaan was divinely ordered, and Sodom and Gomorrah in the mix and so forth.

    It also bothers me that there is an assumption that dirty tricks are only taken of by hawks. Ther are certainly plenty of pacifists on military matters who will lie, bribe, and steal for power. There have even been people who were militarily pacifist but committed murders for their cause (contradictory, but then humans often are). It also assumes that all people who favor military action do so because military action is their goal. Chamberlain is an apt picture; Churchill favored military action not because he desired war but because he understood, which Chamberlain did not, that Hitler could not be reasoned with and could only be stopped through war.

    As a game, assuming those concepts outlined, I'd tend to think your player population would be almost exclusively hardcore pacifist activists and generic griefers. The acitvists might be drawn to the glorification of pacifism. The griefers would be drawn to the chance to make the pacifists miserable. The normal "hawk" types would be offended by the viewpoint painted of their side, and the casual people would find the whole thing too boring.

  7. I'm not clear why PvE games aren't considered pacifist. Games like WoW are fairly pacifist because PvP doesn't form a large part of the game (from what I gather it's more an afterthought). Aggressive behavior against computer-run opponents is in my view a far cry from aggressive behavior against human opponents.

  8. Killing monsters is hardly peaceful.