Most games have fighting of some kind in them. Whether it’s decision-making in an RPG combat system, combo stacking in an Action game, or blasting monsters in a shooter, violence is conveyed in some way or form. You could even say that Mario jumping on enemies and them poofing out of existence is a… mild form of violence?
I don’t have anything against that. It’s an easy way to setup both story conflict and gameplay progression. Characters get stronger, stakes get higher, and you the player get challenged on the skills you’ve learned.
But it’s only one way to make a game. The social systems we humans have created (as well as Nature itself) can create enough conflict that would make an engaging video game story without being overtly violent. The question for game devs, then, is how to make a skill set that’s satisfying to learn and master, and a progression system that’s rewarding to participate in.
The various answers to that question is how we have a blooming realm of nonviolent video games. In honor of Animal Crossing: New Horizons releasing this week, let’s celebrate all the other things that nonviolent video games bring to the table.
Probably the first genre to emerge that didn’t require violence. From the simplistic yet addictive Tetris to the complex puzzle environments of Rime, to the bizarre perspective-changing of Fez, puzzle games give plenty of satisfying gameplay loops. After learning the rules of the puzzle, it is just as satisfying mastering the rules as it is solving the puzzle itself. Portal still feels unique in 2020 because of its subversion of FPS games — the gun makes wall holes, not bullet holes. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a dark story to go along with it, but it does mean that the player has to get a bit more creative in how to overcome obstacles.
I played my first farming sim, Harvest Moon 64, at a friend’s house. And within minutes I clicked with its gameplay loop. The skill mastery here is time management, in planning your day and managing your resources. Day by day, you earn more money, buy more animals, grow more crops, and become better friends with the town’s citizens. Nowadays Stardew Valley fills the same void (although Stardew technically has combat in the mines). Having my own place to manage and control is part of why I’ll always be playing these kinds of games.
While some use this term as an insult, I consider it a compliment. Sometimes just existing in a world and exploring every corner of it is rewarding. The appeal is a bit more difficult to describe, but the skill here isn’t exactly a skill that’s being “tested” or “challenged” like in other games; you mostly observe and experience. By giving your mind the freedom to just be in a place, it frees you up to come to further insights about what you’re experiencing. For example: on the surface, The Stanley Parable is just simple parody of other games, but after the 4th or 5th playthrough you start having an inner dialogue about the nature of free will and what your decisions mean to you. There’s a time when you don’t want a challenge, and you don’t want to worry about progression systems, you just want to simulate… walking.
In a way, Life Sims fall between the control and planning of a Farming Sim, and the freedom of a Walking Sim. Animal Crossing, which I got on the GameCube, is a perfect example of this. You still progress from a shack to a larger house, building a community along the way. But there are no deadlines in a Life Sim. You can meander as you please, doing this or doing that, taking in the relaxing elements of a Walking Sim. The Sims is another good example of this. In the end, your satisfaction comes from having built the community yourself — you raised those people, you filled out that museum, you made those friends.
There are so many others I didn’t even get to touch on — Minecraft is basically its own subgenre now; Mario Paint is an early ’90s version of both Photoshop and GarageBand rolled into one. The game industry is all the better because these different kinds of games exist. For example: my mother never understood the appeal of video games when we were kids. But then when I was 12 she tried Animal Crossing, and soon we all had to take turns sharing the GameCube. She understood. Put in the right story, or the right system, and I believe there is a game that every single person will enjoy.