GDC 2018: Depictions of violence and war in video games and Destiny’s Sword

I love stories. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I love stories not just for their raw entertainment value, but for their ability to teach. It’s not heavy-handed like being in class, but stories teach culture, customs, and character. We visit the past, the present, the future. We experience things through stories we might never get to experience for ourselves. War, I hope, is one of those things.

Andrew Barron, Director of Design at Bohemia Interactive Simulations, has seen war. And war stories. He’s also been in the game industry for awhile, both before and after his time as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan. He knows war, but he also knows war simulators. It’s actually his job to help build them. So when he says our games our violent, he knows what he’s saying, but the context for that may not be easily understood. However, once it is, you’ll see that not only do we have some games getting war “right,” but that there’s room for us to grow, and some people are already working on that in a way that sounds, well, fun.

Make war, not porn

Barron and I share the idea that stories educate. He says game developers are a kind of teacher but that modern media has become far removed from the reality it often misrepresents. As Barron notes, a story about relationships that only concentrates on sex is simply porn. War is much, much more than killing your fellow human being.

Barron uses Game of Thrones as an example of media that gets war right. It’s one war with many conflicts. Imagine a pyramid of conflict. At the top, there’s the one war. Below that are the regional wars among different nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. Propping those up are local wars, between families, former friends, people just angry at other people… again, Game of Thrones.

Barron uses GoT, not only because it’s proven popular and profitable but because of its narrative loop of discovery and surprise. As you get deeper into the world, you find more factions, deeper connections, more personal relationships that make the supposed singular war a huge mess. Sort of like that World War I as a bar fight story.

It’s not just the relationships, though, but moral complexity. Barron argues that “moral ambiguity is not moral complexity.” To a degree, he’s right. If we take the textbook approach, moral ambiguity is simply not knowing whether something is right or wrong. Think back on some of your Star Wars: The Old Republic quests. Often, you’re given options like “Kill opponent” or “Take prisoners.” Maybe you get one asking for a bribe. You are dealing with an enemy combatant, clearly marked and often monologuing about their team’s dastardly plan. You have a few options, but most of them are pretty simple, and let’s be honest, only one is really humane, so the other two options barely make it a question of morality.

Instead, Barron sets up a scenario I’ll try to simplify. Imagine being in a war-torn country and driving military vehicles on the street. You see two people on the bridge but can’t make out their faces. As one of your team’s vehicles goes under the bridge, the person looking over the bridge makes a signal. The second person drops a bomb, blowing up members of your team. The people on the bridge escape in the confusion.

A month later, you return to the bridge with some new people. Once again, you’re all driving military vehicles on a civilian street. As you approach the bridge, you see two people. Again, you can’t see their faces. Do you shoot and risk hurting a civilian? Do you send someone to approach them and hope they don’t use lethal force on your teammates? Do you shout at them and risk giving them a chance to flee? Can you just change your caravan’s path?

Clearly the second scenario is more complex. There are far more unknowns. While the SWTOR scenarios may give you options, rarely do they carry much weight, especially since the “morality” system largely rewards pure good and pure evil, making the rest of the spectrum simply another bar to grind.

With the bridge scenario, you don’t know whom you’re dealing with. You don’t know if the other people are actually an enemy combatant. It’s not picking points or having player freedom. You are facing a clear and present danger. There are so many more “next stage” scenarios that can go down – riots if you killed a civilian, people questioning whether you shot first to pursue revenge, the possibility of pushing the civilians towards the enemy faction, putting your own people in danger through a scenario that’s previously been a trap.

That is more complexity, and while in the real world it’s horrible, in games, it’s kind of fun. Barron brings up TellTale games as a good example of games that use this. You have multiple “right” answers but may have no way of knowing which is “good.” Not only that, but much as in real life, you have only so much time to reach a decision (when we’re not cheating by hitting “pause”).

Morality is key, not just because it can arguably be more fun, but because, as Barron puts it, “in general, video games are much, much more violent than military operations or military simulations.” When invading an enemy bunker, he says, the military generally wants three times as many invaders as there are defenders. That means each soldier is killing one-third of a human. Compare that to FPS games that make you the lone shooter against tens of targets on screen at a time. That is hyper-violent compared to actually killing people on the field.

And this is important because, as most of us know, many civilians will (hopefully) never see real war. The problem is that kids grow up as civilians, enter the military, and like another marine Barron met, are genuinely surprised that military spend a lot of time just talking to locals about the situation, winning hearts so the enemy has less potential eyes (and arms), and just following orders because, in reality, going rogue means sudden death – snipers, landmines, booby-trapped cover.

Barron’s fellow marine said, “This isn’t what I expected. I thought I’d be doing hero shit, like in Call of Duty.” That is absolutely ridiculous, but also shows how damaging and life-threatening a warped sense of fantasy war can be – for both the soldier and those they meet.

War games get a lot wrong. It’s not just the super soldier aspect; it’s small details. Convoys have to use their signals so everyone knows that the path is seen and understood. You build bonds with teammates who can die at any minute. You’re walking single file so you (hopefully) don’t step on a rogue landmine. Positioning matters because bullets and explosives kill faster than an FPS may lead you to believe and you won’t be respawning. When acting as a peacekeeper, holding your gun in your hand around an enemy means they’re free to shoot you, but having it on your back means you’re to be left alone.

War is less generic shooter and more RPG in that you have so many tasks and reputations to work on. Yes, shooting is involved, but it’s more tactical. Perhaps battle royales illustrate the cost of death a bit better, but the story surrounding them is inane.

Last, but not least, is the fact that civilians pay the highest price in war. Turn that moral complexity up to 11 now, developers, we’re getting grim. Think about it. Mines laid for soldiers kill kids. If the soldiers aren’t there, the mines aren’t there. Civilians who don’t pick a side have to deal with both sides to survive, and picking a side clearly makes them a target. Barron mentions that This War of Mine depicts the cost of war on the civilian population quite well. While you may be running around playing hero, the people nearby are living miserable lives that will generally improve once you and the other guys are gone.

The mental toll

All of this ignores what war does to the soldier. As Barron notes, there are a lot of soldiers who return from war who have a big disconnect from society. While there are some people who just focus on things like “How many people did you kill?”, the larger issue is that most people don’t need to consider avoiding a violent death for themselves or the people they care about on a day-to-day basis. American media celebrates the rebel and the rogue without considering how, in combat, that’s the guy who gets blow up for stepping off the safe path.

Such a person, who’s had a lot of structure, clearly defined goals, and actual survival skills, might return home and be told that they don’t have enough experience for a job. The industry has storytellers recycling mass media myths, adding hyper-violence to far-out war stories that do not prepare potential soldiers for war or the civilian population for what that person might have experienced. Much like someone going through a break-up isn’t just sad because they’re no longer “getting some,” there is so much more to a soldier’s life than killing, and this can really affect their mental health.

Ken Hall, the Art Director from APB, says he hopes to illustrate this on a game he’s working on, Destiny’s Sword. It’s a war game, but one where psychology matters. Positioning matters. Death matters. It’s in a very early stage of development, but Hall still shared a vision of the game with me. Destiny’s Sword focuses a lot on the mental strain of war, but in ways I think players can enjoy. Think Fire Emblem with a more adult theme.

The player is a commander in a two-faction war, but civilians play a part, especially in the story, as the fight clearly affects them. You control squads of units, each with its own stories, personalities, and desires. They can get jealous if you promote other units above them, suffer from depression if someone close to them dies, get angry if a friend is attacked, or become paranoid and refuse to interact with you or their squad mates.

Between battles, Hall wants the player to interact with his or her squad, to help the soldiers with their issues, not just in training skills, but through relationships, moral issues, and threats to their mental health. They may lose limbs when they’re defeated, and being defeated too many times means perma-death. This isn’t just to add a “hard mode,” but to make you diversify your group and share the load, much as a squad would have to do on the field.

Even drug use may come in down the line, with units potentially taking your drugs without you telling them to, or even stealing your resources to get it themselves. Again, this is very early in development, and the demo I saw reflected nothing more than simple combat and a few emotional states (like offense rising and defense decreasing from rage when seeing a partner get shot).

Don’t worry too much about losing those units, though. If you’re able to keep them safe and max them out, you can retire them, giving you not only bonuses but their continued companionship as they train new units.

Addressing war in MMOs

Socialization is important in war. You need a team. Not just your units, but other players. From day one, you’ll be in a guild, as guilds have their own stations that provide quests. Quests act as social glue. For example, the guild may have a quest where they can’t take more than 100 damage during a mission. For a max-level player, that’s impossible, but if they’re helping a lowbie, it’ll be easier.

Direct combat, sadly, is 1v1. Think of Team Chess: Everyone is playing by himself, but the whole team is acting together. If you finish first, you can watch your teammates and give them advice. Not only is Destiny’s Sword aiming to create bonds between players and units, but players and players.

While auto-joining guilds may sound problematic and zergy, Hall says that the guild system is designed to encourage splitting off, which is why there’ll be a member cap. Having limited space in the guild means you want a roster of various levels to tackle quests. The level variety helps spread out player coaching. Having an allied guild makes the game’s persistent map PvP (a la PlanetSide 2fill up with complex relationships, which then shape the game’s emergent story, similar to what Barron talked about. It’s some rather elegant sounding game design, if it can be pulled off.

Hall also explicitly wants the game to be ethical. The game is aiming for a free to play model, and has teamed up with Ramin Shokrizade, an Economy/Monetization/Ethics/Consumer Behavior expert we’ve mentioned here on MOP in the past. The aim is to ask players to pay for skins, additional story DLC, and for comics (which might come with something you can use in-game, like additional “lives” for your units). As part of that emphasis on being ethical, the team has already created characters and systems to make the game more inclusive, saying that the sci-fi setting allows for some social/racial/gender themes while trying to make male/female assignment to units visually based only – a character could be transitioning or ambiguous even.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in San Francisco for GDC 2018, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Game Developers Conference!
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11 Comments on "GDC 2018: Depictions of violence and war in video games and Destiny’s Sword"

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Grave Knight
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Grave Knight

Why does it have to be a PVP based online game? Feel like the concept would work better and easier in a single player PVE game.

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AngryPacifist

Instead of inanimate objects, I blame video game violence , Hollywood degenerate violence and psycho drugs. Whoops, guess that doesn’t fit into the globalist corporate media narrative… shame on me 🙄

Leontes
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Leontes

Genuinely enjoyed reading that article – thanks!

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Byórðæįr

It is always good to know the perspective of the guy drive a duce and half but when he claims to represent the US Marine corp mindset he fails. Seriously any marine can tell you if you don’t know what the two people the top of the bridge the first time you drive up you point them out and corporal will jog over and have look see.

War games fall into two categories silly like modern warfare which was not intended to be gritty or scary but silly and battle sims. Battle sims are used to improve performance in the field. They have zero win situations that you are supposed to understand to stop playing the scenario if you can not win or at least achieve a level of success with minimal loss of life.

If you can say complete a mission with zero loss of life you hit what is considered the acceptable base line. In a video game usually you hit no win situation that you get lucky getting through. In actual combat situations you follow a present goal with no hard and fast rules other than the rules of engagement to get to the goal.

So an actual mission that was declassifed about 2014 was a mission that the goal was to find Intel on eastern European drug cartel. Military Intelligence flagged it as a suicide mission, and the rules on suicide missions are you only get to go one. period. no exceptions. So basically they said with with two hundred thousand dollars of support it would be impossible to even get into the country without looking both like American military or cia and drawling the attention of both the kgb/rsb and half of the intel community preventing any of the intel to be useful. It was completed by four people, and we achieved two hundred percent completion factor. We were each given twenty thousand dollars, a plane flight to Avinao Air Base and the rules of engagement no looting, minimal causalities, in actual military parlance that actually means on both sides. What we did was to toss the normal process of sneaking into the country. I remember John complaining he did not get to wear face paint and Clare offered her compact with grease paint and he was trying to decide if he wanted to put grease paint on after the mission was complete but before the pentagon debrief when he turned to me and said isn’t this your stop? I blinked and said I think I have to finish the debrief but I was still a bit out of it from the debrief that was conducted in avino air base.

The point was we looked at what the task was get into a country with the country’s support and find out information on a drug cartel. So we gambled made money and draw the wrong kinds of attention but we were wearing civilian clothing and throwing around the money we made and no one cared if we were American Russian or what ever the good was good. I had kind of an edge because I started with the twenty thousand at one of the casinos in Atlantic city and racked up 124,00 shooting the river and basically taking advantage of the number of low cards in a six deck shoe. The odds of running the river or getting less than twenty one with five cards or shooting the river getting exactly twenty one with five cards was often enough that I won more money than I lost. If I had started with less than twenty thousand it might not have worked but it worked out. I actually won more chips but after being cashed out the first night they did not have enough money to actually cash me out the second day so I kept what was up the room they comped and laughed and left with that as changed the appearance so that it did not look like we all had twenty thousand to spend to create chaos.

The purpose was to gain information and we simply gambled and drew trouble to us without appearing to be a military action. There were jokes from some people along the way that knew the us state department had cleared a military action against terrorism through their countries and they made jokes about the us being unable to pay it bills that we were sending cheaters or gamblers to rook the money out of our allies and other less nice things. Mostly we snickered and said it is money on the table if you can not afford to play don’t put your money on the table. At which point people would snicker at the comments and we would go on gambling. The point that we got to the country and got intel was not obvious because we created a circular track like the le mans race and by the fifth or sixth country the jokes about a bunch of wealthy american racers scouting a new le mans race path was the assumed reason we were there. I remember clare and john saying at different points they did not get to keep the money they made gambling. Clare in 1999 when we again in a weather forecasting class and john when he was trying to figure out who was actually there since he had written our names between his toes. A couple things we said and did helped trigger memories messed up by the stupid shock line of an ekg machine modified to take polygraphs when answering questions about after action reports.

The point is the path that the truck driver and the amount of time between stops would not have been up the truck driver but up to the mission commander. Driving through the arch way without taking time to check it out might have been to avoid ambush from the side and lack of screening element due them being some where else. The lack of a single rifle scope not seeing the people on the bridge is just stupid and has to be for exzurating a point that never happens in actual field work. Good field work is mostly making sure you are not in a situation where you have no idea what the outcome of the task is.

Siphaed
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Siphaed

One of the big issues with MMOs surrounding grouping is that the goals and rewards are solo minded. Even World of Warcraft had this issue with its initial dungeons that really never got taken care of. Instead as Dungeon Finder and Dungeon Teleportation became prolific additions, the problem exacerbated itself.

One sword and 40 people after slaying a boss. What to do? In an anonymous, multi-server Group Finder system, someone just rolls “Need”, ninjas the item then drops group to teleport out and vendor it. Not cool. In a guild system, the newbie who just joined 3 weeks ago is the least geared and would be best to obtain it; although that alienates those that have been in for months/years and have been doing the dungeon since it opened.

~~”Rewards are only rewarding to those that obtain them. To make the effort towards a reward and not share in the treasures is itself a catalyst for negative emotions.”~~

Soul Binding needs to be nixed out completely. GUILD BINDING should be a thing that happens in future MMOs. Why should an item be locked to a single individual of a massive group, when instead the group itself can Guild Bind the item to any of those who are of classification to use the item under their specific banner. Guild Banners would serve more as an inscription of magical power to use artifact items that the guild in particular obtained.

In relation, items of power should destroy. Rolling back to the age where a Sword of Thunderstruck had 100 charges in it. Afterwards, the item breaks and becomes pieces of magical remnants that may or may not be used to craft a newer weapon when infused with other things.

The biggest problem is alienating the rest of a player base. MMO cannot change their foundation without rocking the boat of the players already onboard. The key aspects of the game, the features that the developers want have to be clearly stated before a player joins the game. Once those are there, the hallowed siren whines of those that dislike a certain feature can go ignored. Boxes -if sold- can do a feature scroll on the back; the game itself would need to do a slow moving, 5minute read across the screen (think Star Wars in every movie they do) were at the end it would have a place for the player to create their account name or “Re-Read” the entirety again if they so choose.

It is something similar to TOS, but a mission statement of facts surrounding the game so that they know exactly what they’re getting into. “You want PvE loot, sorry this game isn’t for you.” “Dungeons at level 55 or greater are Guild Claim Only and you must be a member of a guild to participate in one.” “Killing a member of the other faction, while viable, will have the guards of every major city attempting to arrest or kill you.” “Your armor does take damage when you die and costs to repair. Fight wisely.”

I’ve still got supplementing books for old CD-ROM games (thank goodness I’m not nerdy enough to hold onto my floppies) that were 30+ pages long. Now days ….no so much. They don’t include the in’s and out’s of the games that are being played. Instead of spending 5-person hours on writing a pre-guide for players, developers will spend MONTHS of hours building an elaborate tutorial in-game that makes the player feel less like a Hero-to-be and more like a child in-game. “Here’s how to fire a gun.” “And how you aim.”

TL:DR version: Wanting easier systems in MMOs has completely alienated the social aspects of those games. Dungeons are ruined by finders, anonymous server connections, and the like. Tutorials instead of guides throw players into a game of hand holding and guided play without involving themselves in a read up of the game before starting to play. Reward distribution is basically a giant candy give without much distinction as to what it took to obtain it or any negatives to said loot.

Developers aren’t sinking much into group based systems as they are in rewarding individual based system because that is how they feel that the major part of their game base wants. They listen to the masses in directing their story, their game mechanics, and their mission to present a digital world on a certain scale. The epicness of it all is watered down to nothing more than a “I’m the game’s hero and don’t need a group, guild, or friends. I can do it all!”….but we’re playing an MMORPG, right? Not a Duke Nukem video game, right?

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Ken Hall

Hey Siphaed,

That’s exactly what we’re trying to do with our design in Destiny’s Sword – to make group play and coordination more important.

We have a range of social mechanics planned out, and we’re looking to redefine success away from personal glory and make it more about how much you can contribute to the group and elevate those around you.

It’s also one of the reasons we want to stay independent as a studio, so we can’t be pressured by investors or publishers into doing it ‘the way it’s always been done’.

Feel free to come over to the Facebook page and drop us a post – tell us what you’d like to see in a team-based mmorpg! This is a great opportunity to get involved in the development discussion.

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Sally Bowls

One sword and 40 people after slaying a boss. What to do? In an anonymous, multi-server Group Finder system, someone just rolls “Need”, ninjas the item then drops group to teleport out and vendor it. Not cool. In a guild system, the newbie who just joined 3 weeks ago is the least geared and would be best to obtain it; although that alienates those that have been in for months/years and have been doing the dungeon since it opened.

That is why Blizzard has been going to Personal Loot and even getting rid of ML in BfA for non-anonymous raids. So 1-30 (no longer 40, fixed 20 in mythic) kill a boss. You have a chance at gear per boss kill. The number of other people and their loot do not change your probabilities.

Siphaed
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Siphaed

Perhaps you stopped reading there instead of continuing on. The issue isn’t just the individual loot itself, but the overall focus on the individual . As a wishful possible solution, I went on to mention Guild inscriptions on loot to make it Guild Bound instead of Soul/Character bound. Further incentivizing guild grouping as well as freeing up loot locked to single tanks, single healers, or single DPS. A guild could have a war room filled with artifact items ready to dole out to the selective raiders who are participating on a single night; be they the ones that original found the artifact or not.

And with loot never breaking or never losing a charge, the issue is that they always have to go vertical instead of horizontal. Even GW2 has a slight upward vertical trickle with it’s PvE (at least in the Fractals) because there is no breaking of items. A system of items being recycled and/or destroyed allows for a constant need to obtain items, be they of the same power level or not. A backup needed for a backup because of the worry of the backup becoming a primary due to the primary at less than 50% sustainability. That concept also heavily promotes crafting professions, assuming that a game doesn’t allow for a single player to be proficient at all crafts.

And yes, it is kind of why I’m also looking at Camelot Unchained with retrained, yet rose-colored classes. The loot system of crafting materials only, the heavy promotion of guild/realm grouping, and the overall item trade necessity due to faulting decay are things that will further invest in the digital world. An emphasis on needing a Crafting class to make their weapons instead of a Red Cap making their own daggers. Positively giddy.

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kgptzac

I get real wars are more complex than video games simulating wars. But while sane people don’t join military and go to wars for fun, sane people play video games for fun. It is paramount that realism (the simulation) serves the purpose of making a game fun, and not be the end rather than means to achieve an end.

So let’s keep the Telltale’s “have no way of knowing which choice is the ‘good’ one” in Telltale’s games–there’s a reason why I don’t play those games. Choices must matter, but they can’t constantly lead to unpredictable outcomes. This War of Mine, Life is Strange, and some other games do this well, and the last thing I want a war game to be is a morality simulator.

Siphaed
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Siphaed

The problem is that with the internet/video games, loose morality pours over into reality. The actions one does online subconsciously imprints itself onto the persona of the individual. This is also why you see the rise of hate groups and even despicable actions does by individuals in public that seem neither rational nor logical.

This is worse when you’ll see fake stories of such and such doing something or another. Common sense says that it is incorrect and that isn’t the way things are done. However “common sense” wouldn’t be labeled as such if there was no contrary to it. Someone, somewhere is bound to believe the story and repeat the actions, however illogical they may seem, in reality in the public.

So I say let us keep rise to the games with unchanging consequences. Have an avatar completely die on death, lose all items, must be reborn anew like reincarnation. Splash screens at log out that says “Hope you had fun playing this game, come back again.” as well as log in that mentions the game being nothing more than that. As humans dive deeper and deeper into the virtual at a growing rate, it is necessary to invite 4th-wall breaks that reflect on them the separation of reality and virtual.

gelfred
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gelfred

Many fresh ideas, its hard to see how it will come together as an MMO, but thats probably just because most things ‘Massive’ have been the same old ideas.

I liked games where you manage groups like GW1, and this seems like it may be in some ways similar to a role-play heavy Atlantica Online with its turn based combat.

Will be keeping an eye on it.