(Computer): “Program complete. You may enter when ready.” This series primarily focuses on film and television. But every once in a while, I like to check in on the world of video games. And there’s no better place to get a sense of what’s happening in gaming than the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3 for short. Every summer, the entire video game industry descends on the convention center in downtown Los Angeles for an extravagant week of video game announcements and demonstrations.
The highlight of the expo are the press conferences, which are put on by each of the major video game publishers, during which they showcase all their latest and greatest titles. Dozens of fantastically rendered, breathtaking worlds are on display. And yet somehow, I always walk away from E3 with a profound sense of disappointment.
And that’s because for all the talented developers, all the hardware innovation, all the technological advancements, and all the new games, E3 can still feel remarkably uncreative. Year after year, the gaming industry seems to fall back on one underlying theme: kill or be killed. After a few dozen trailers that all seem to feature essentially the same style of game play, the whole event can turn into a blur of flying bullets, swinging swords, and fiery explosions.
And that makes it hard not to feel a little like Captain Picard on the holodeck. (Picard): “What are you here to do. Ask for a refund?” (Slade): “Nah, I’m here to kill you!”
(Picard): “Computer, freeze program. Computer, this isn’t what I wanted at all.” (Picard): “It’s much too violent.
I’m here to relax, not to dodge bullets. Reconfigure.” Gaming is now a 100 billion dollar a year industry. And that’s billion with a B. And in many ways, E3 represents the face that industry shows to the public. As such, the event provides an ideal setting to analyze overarching patterns in the gaming world. More about patterns and gaming here: https://casinoslots.sg/
So this year, I did a quick statistical breakdown of all the games featured at the major E3 press conferences. “Let’s see what we’ve got.” A total of 133 games were shown during these events.
Only 20 of those games didn’t include combat mechanics. And 10 of those were sports or racing games. A detailed breakdown looks like this: 82% combat, 3% minimal or incidental combat, 5% sports, 3% racing, 1% for dancing, with just 7% left over for all other non-combat games. The fact that 82% of the games featured at E3 are combat-focused illustrates a pretty serious lack of imagination. To see if that ratio holds up over time, I went back and compared these stats to the numbers from previous E3 events, and I found similar results.
Initially, I had intended to include separate stats for narrative games, adventure games, puzzle games, city building games, and exploration games. But there just weren’t enough titles in any of these genres to justify their own category. A couple quick notes about these numbers. For these calculations, I focused on combat rather than on the presence of violence. So games in the non-combat category aren’t necessarily non-violent.
In fact, three of the ten games in that category are rather violent survival horror experiences. I make the distinction between combat and violence because with combat, the player is the one doing the violence. Violence is unfortunately part of our shared human history. And so it makes sense that some games would include it.
However, when combat is the game’s central focus, it tends to celebrate that violence rather than frame it as a tragic last resort. (Narrator): “One such perk will award the player with a tactical nuke following a 25 player kill streak.” (Narrator): “This match will get red-hot. It’s on!”
Of course, not all forms of combat are equal. So just out of curiosity, I further broke the stats down by type. Of the 108 games focusing on combat in 2017, 20 of them could be classified as cartoon violence.
For these titles, it’s less ‘kill or be killed’ and more ‘squish or be squashed.’ The violence may be cute, sometimes downright adorable, but the focus on combat mechanics still sets up a hostile game environment in which players are forced into an antagonistic relationship with the game world. The interactions may be a lot less bloody, but the gameplay is still largely restricted to some form of ‘get them before they get you.’ In many ways, the gaming industry has backed itself into this corner. For decades, game studios have focused on combat to such a degree that for many gamers, developers, and even publishers, combat has now become synonymous with game play itself. The president of Nintendo of America echoed this sentiment at E3 this year.
(Reggie Fils-Aime): “The game is fun. The game is a battle.” (Reggie Fils-Aime): “If it’s not fun, why bother.
If it’s not a battle, where’s the fun?” That’s an extremely narrow definition of what constitutes a game and frankly, an even narrower definition of fun. I’d argue that this obsession with violent combat mechanics is holding the gaming industry back. Let me quickly explain why I say that.
Game play mechanics are the underlying rules and methods for engagement within a game. Think of mechanics as a set of tools that players are given with which to interact with the game world, its characters, and other players. In many of the games we’ve been talking about, combat is the only way to solve problems, to resolve conflict, or to overcome obstacles. That old saying that ‘If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ is apropos. Except video games are made so that nearly everything in your path is specifically designed to actually BE a nail. And if you’re given a machine gun as your primary tool for engagement, that’s going to determine how you approach the world and practically everything in it.
(Cayde-6) This one dude is all “Rah!” so I shot him PEW and then I shot this other one PEW. (Cayde-6) Shot a couple extra guys just to be safe.
PEW DUSH DUSH. (Cayde-6) I did a lot of shooting if I’m being totally honest. When games focus so heavily on combat mechanics, it severely restricts the options for both emotional interaction and creative conflict resolution. Don’t get me wrong, conflict is, of course, an important part of story telling. But there are many forms of conflict, from the interpersonal to the intergalactic. Likewise, there are many forms of conflict resolution.
And most of them don’t leave behind a pile of bodies. I should mention that there do exist a small handful of games that include diplomatic tactics. Players can talk their way out of every situation in the retro-indie game Undertale.
But that’s a rare exception to the rule. Some genres like role playing games have players doing more than just fighting. But most of the other forms of interaction exist to support the combat.
You might talk to other characters who will give you quests: quests which inevitably involve killing stuff. You might buy, sell, or craft new items: items that will help you in killing stuff. (Narrator): “A few days out in the wasteland, and it’s time to kick back at home. My home.” You might even be able to build a house: a house which you’ll have to defend by killing even more stuff. (Todd Howard): “Cuz you do want to build defenses, uh, because your settlements can and will get attacked, uh, by raiders.”
All the other options available to players still ultimately revolve around that core combat mechanic. This topic is of special concern to me because my work primarily focuses on the representations of men and masculinity in entertainment. Everywhere we look in pop culture, we see models of manhood that are linked to confrontation, aggression, and violence.
And that’s especially true in video games where male characters are rarely depicted solving problems based on deescalation or compassion. (Kratos): “To be effective in combat, a warrior must not feel for his enemy.” Things like diplomacy, deescalation, negotiation, and compromise all take a back seat to blunt force trauma. And that in turn dramatically limits the kinds of stories that can be told.
Now whenever I make these kinds of observations on social media, someone will inevitably respond with a snarky quip about defeating monsters with hugs or dancing or by serving tea and cupcakes. They no doubt think these are devastating burns, but actually those are pretty good ideas for innovative mechanics. I’d play those games. And I’m willing to bet that a whole hell of a lot of other people would too. Interactive media has an incredible, almost unlimited, potential to deliver a wide range of emotional, deeply human experiences that deal with love and connection and empathy. Imagine an open world game where you take on the role of an EMT, or a firefighter, or a field medic, or a climate activist, or an intergalactic veterinarian.
Or how about a farmer who grows food on an intergenerational space ship. Or imagine a game in a post-apocalyptic future… (because every other game I saw at E3 was set in a post-apocalyptic future) …but instead of fighting over the scraps, players cooperate to rebuild a better society. Imagine all the stories we’re missing out on because game developers insist on building virtual worlds that we experience from behind the barrel of a gun or the blade of a sword.
Remember that 7% of non-combat focused games? Well, every year E3 does play host to a few small games that break the mold and give us a glimpse into the medium’s potential. TACOMA is one such example. You play as an investigator using augmented reality to solve a mystery of a missing crew aboard a space station. It’s these small innovative titles that are blazing a path forward for interactive storytelling. We just need a whole lot more of them.