I love violent games. Let’s be clear about that. This is not a judgemental soapbox tirade written to shame you out of playing shooters.
Rather, this is my attempt to shine a spotlight on the emotional reactions felt during violent games, and ask: how can we reach those same exact levels of dopamine and satisfaction in a game without any violence whatsoever?
There are two big problems here. Let’s look at them before we look at how to solve them.
Problem #1: We Connect Through Adversity
Let’s take a good look at why people play violent games. I’m not a psychologist and this is not academically-proven content, it’s merely an educated guess supported by solid experience from someone in the trenches.
Life is complicated, messy, stressful and painful. Our problems take so many forms, and our chosen entertainment takes those problems, distills them into a single entity and puts a Foe badge on them. Whether it’s medieval peasants sitting in the “red” section and thus cheering against the blue knight in a joust, reading a story and praying your favourite character will make it out of the current scuffle alive, cheering on your favourite football team or, of course, shooting baddies with your trusty AK-47, it’s almost as if gamers are quicker to align themselves against an enemy than they are to align themselves with the hero they’re playing. Nobody is taking the time to think about what Master Chief’s favourite kind of tea is, or if Geralt ever fancied learning the mandolin as a child. No, it’s the Foes that unite us with our protagonist.
It doesn’t matter why they’re your Foe. What matters is that they're threatening you, and you’re now living an experience (albeit simulated) where your problems are right in front of you, and with one well-aimed click? You can ELIMINATE THEM! That is a stone’s throw away from magic, in my opinion. There’s extraordinary power here.
It’s hard not to get romantic about games sometimes.
The dopamine hit we get doesn’t come from blood. It doesn’t come from the notion that we just ended life. No one is taking a quiet, existential moment while playing Halo and pondering the bigger questions, wondering if Joe P. Remnant had a wife and kids and little alien dog, and how they’re going to manage now that he’s been killed. Nobody is thinking about what his weird, alien funeral is going to look like and hoping his family doesn’t go for the cheaper casket options. No, the feeling of enjoyment and pleasure is that we just eliminated our problems. No problems in sight for me! Take THAT Tony Robbins!
The issue here is, in nonviolent games, we don’t have access to that power in the same way. Our games are structured so that the challenge and progression does not revolve around literally destroying your problems with weapons. We have to find other ways to get there.
Problem #2: How do we create an intrinsic reward system?
When people play a shooter or combat RPG, the game world will give them progression options that make them more powerful. New guns, new abilities, vehicles, more passive bonuses like HP, this is all tried and true, classic progression stuff. This progression only reaffirms what you’re already feeling: I am great at eliminating my problems and things are only getting better.
When making a nonviolent game, it’s like suddenly we don’t have access to the breadth of feelings related to growing power or value. If a nonviolent game has puzzle elements, making the puzzle easier in any way is actually disenfranchising to puzzle fans that are here to be challenged, but that’s the main source of power progression in combat games; more damage and more survivability means happier gamers. Designing a game to encourage those same levels of dopamine-fueled pleasure in our audience somehow seems an insurmountable task when compared to the design of an FPS, right?
You have to be sneaky. They have to care about the task they’re performing and feel the weight of loss if they fail. They have to long for good results, deep down in their marrow.
You know all of that, so let’s get more specific with it. The world is awful right now. Global warming is causing catastrophic fires in the US and Australia, the pandemic is horrific in itself and is now causing incredible economic hardships and recessions worldwide, and they’re remaking the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air into a dark drama.
Things are horrible. Use it. Hope, explicit encouragement, emotional warmth, these are now the most powerful tools in your toolbox because they’re what people need right now.
This is an up-and-coming genre of literature called Hopepunk. It often deals with moving the world towards a better future politically or climate change, but also can be utilised in much smaller avenues as well. Hopepunk is weaponised positivity.
Here’s how I do it, and as hinted before, here’s the sneaky part: where can we get other sources of dopamine to give them when they succeed?
I use music and voice acting to get there. The script for my game contains a LOT of encouragement and appreciation. People need to hear that they’re valued right now, they need to hear that the world needs them. They need to feel like they belong and they’re bringing more good into the world. (UX protip: you have to make it optional. Don't ever lock controls and *make* the audience listen to your lovely message of hope. Just offer positivity. The ones that need it will gladly take it, and those that don't connect with your game that way are free to move around and explore.)
A great game that fails spectacularly at this notion is Skyrim. (Spoiler alert) You essentially spend your time saving the world not only from dragons that slaughter people mercilessly, but from a dragon trying to end the world itself and destroy everything. How many thank-yous do you get? How many explicit exclamations of “YOU SAVED MY LIFE” do you hear in game? If you save an NPCs life, they just run away. Very rarely, and by that I mean one single NPC actually, will thank you for saving them - the traveling bard you see from time to time - and he does it in a kind of offhanded way - “Things got hairy back there.”
Tell your players how much you love them. Take all the pain and suffering you’ve experienced on your dev journey and literally communicate to your audience, through the game of course, how much you appreciate them supporting you, because that’s what they’re doing. They’re telling YOU that your time was worth their money, and they’re putting food on your table for your efforts. TELL THEM HOW YOU FEEL. This is so basic, but NOBODY DOES IT and it blows my mind.
And a bit of a reality check: if you don’t feel any of these feelings for your audience? Maybe gamedev isn’t for you.
That was heavy and I don’t have a segue. Let’s just move on like I said something witty and poignant okay?
Dynamic music is another huge missed opportunity in almost all nonviolent games that I’ve played. In my game, the music begins thin but cheery and peppy, it speaks of adventure. The closer you get to your goal in each mission, though, the more the lower layers of the music fill in and get richer. It starts with a single mandolin melody, as heard below, and as you get one third of the way through the trail you’re following, another mandolin joins in on upbeat chop chords (a bluegrass staple that really just means hard-struck yet very shortly sustained chords). Soon after that enters a cello. When you get two thirds down the trail, a guitar enters playing some rhythmic chords. When you get to the end, the main piece goes silent for a moment and a new and lively piece fades up beginning with a triumphant cymbal roll. You can see and hear the entire progression below. The music volume has been heightened considerably so you can hear my point.
It's subtle, it's small, and it's everything. Music is the brain hack that achieves an instant dopamine rush. Use it as such, or miss out on a massive opportunity to mitigate the dip in satisfaction we resign ourselves to when we don’t use violence.
Solution to E v e r y t h i n g:
Going back to Problem #1, what if our Foe was Suffering itself?
What if we’re here to help, to save, to bring good? What if our sole mission as a gamer playing your game were to eliminate the suffering we see in everyone we meet? I mean sure, canonically a lot of the FPS games eliminate suffering through thrilling heroics but they still use death to do it, and indirectly at that. They aren’t literally clothing and feeding people, usually not saving their lives through direct action. What if your game was a place where things only got better due to your actions?
In our modern world and aforementioned terrible times, what could be more powerful than a place people can go to be a force for good, to bring light into the dark places through direct action and influence? What could be more meaningful than a safe haven set apart from the current not-so-great reality?
Warmth. Comfort. Safety. Belonging. Purpose. Is your player a catalyst for Good Change? If not, how could they be?
In my games, the focus is on fighting suffering. In Lost and Hound, you find yourself in missions where you’re the only one around for miles that can help, that can save a life that’s in danger or find a person lost. It’s you, and it’s only you. I use voice acting to convey anxiety and pleas for assistance, and as massive emotional payoffs when the task is complete.
What are your emotional payoffs? Music as we mentioned can be one, voice acting can be another, what else can you put into your game to substitute the satisfaction that killing gives most gamers? You have to "think around corners" here. We can't reward our player with more powerful guns or phat lewts, so what, in your game world, can make a player feel more powerful, more valued?
In the game Unpacking, by Witch Beam Studios, the game mechanic is unpacking boxes from a recent move, and that in itself is soothing and addictive. To put it another way, the emotional payoff is the gameplay loop.
I have moderate anxiety, and organisation quiets my anxiety a bit. Playing this game is incredibly cathartic to the point that when I take a break and play the game I feel like I’m not actually on break or “wasting time” as non-gamers make us feel, I feel like I’m partaking in self care. To an anxious mind, relief is everything and this game gets me there. This game takes it a step further than the simple, bland content you'll find in most "relaxing game genre" games: the time you spend in-game tackles and solves a problem you feel both in-game and sometimes in real life. It spends time helping us move from chaos to order. What can your game do to achieve similar results?
It can happen in small ways, such as an npc child saying “thank you” and giving you their favourite toy - which has no value in game but potentially massive emotional value for the player. Such a small thing, but en masse it can completely revolutionise the tone of a game. Think about it, how often do you feel genuine gratitude from the game world when you're playing a game?
I think what it all comes down to is that we need to be better caretakers for our players’ emotions, and we need to work a lot harder than those who can provide satisfaction with violence.
Don’t just seek comfort in your nonviolent gaming experience. Seek deep satisfaction, as if your player feels that their presence is filling a deep need within the game world, and get there using thorough praise and emotionally charged moments of gratitude. Remind your player of their humanity, and their place and participation within it.