Are computer games doomed to be violent forever?

Computer games are, it must be said, almost intrinsically linked with simulated violence. With only a very few exceptions, they rely on either violence or other forms of high-testosterone danger (moving fast around a track) to make them work at all.

But will that always be the case? We’ve seen more games like “Dear Esther” in the recent past, which totally eschew violence – and many people believe that as the medium grows up, we’ll be able to get our conflict from more subtle places.

However, Stubborn from Sheep The Diamond has been thinking about this topic recently – and he isn’t so confident that gaming will ever escape violence as a primary conflict

“According to Molyneux, the most immediate problem in game design is a problem of AI. He recounts a story (this is all from The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose) where in an earlier game, Black and White, a God-style game like Populous, his studio created a creature that could be taught how to treat the peasants of the game. However, its prime function was feeding, and they programmed it to eat whatever the closest, most nutritious source of food was. Upon booting the creature up, it began to eat its own legs. This, of course, is a typical AI error, but it gets to the source of the problem: even good AI is stupid.

Since making truly smart AI is so difficult, Molyneux predicts that more and more video game interactions will move towards violence. If you think about it, it makes sense; it’s hard to get realistic interaction in a video game with an AI. Either you present extremely limited choices for interaction with heavily scripted responses, or you simply don’t allow that kind of interaction at all. Consider the top genres in the market at the moment: FPS and MMOs. In an FPS, the only interaction you usually have is shooting the bad guys. There might be some quests pick-ups, like in Borderlands, but for the most part, easily 95% or more of the game, you’re just going to be shooting stuff.

MMOs aren’t much different. Yes, you have more interactions, as in Star Wars, but in the end, most of the conversations are on rails, and a vast majority of the game is solving problems with violence. It’s simply easier, and developers don’t want to struggle to overcome such a challenge when they can just pump out a sequel to Gears of War 2 and make millions with just violence.”

I’ve not heard the “AI is hard” argument for why violent video games are inevitable before, and it’s an interesting one. Certainly it explains why pen-and-paper or live-action roleplaying games have a much easier time escaping the “all violence, all the time” trap – a human GM can simulate complex interactions and give players their adrenaline kick from social interaction.

Nonetheless, I’d argue that it’s already apparent that the AI element isn’t the only way to solve the non-violence puzzle. From stealth games (which don’t rely on very sophisticated AI, as the decade-old Thief proves) to crafting games like Wurm and Minecraft (and even Farmville), to PvP games where the social interaction is provided by other humans (and the upcoming World of Darkness MMO will be interesting there) there are a number of ways to skin the cat without violence, so to speak. As the artform gets older and its players do too, I think we’ll almost inevitably see a larger segment of the gaming world embracing other forms of difficulty and conflict.

Will games always be largely violent, or are other gameplay styles popular enough to take over?