Conflict and gender

Game developers and journalist often stress the importance of conflict as part of a story and (thus?) of a game. I have always questioned this claim. Mostly because they used it as an excuse for throwing more monsters and bigger guns at us. So I figure only men like conflict in their games.

But hearing the (predominantly female) players of The Endless Forest talk, has changed my mind somewhat. I think women like conflict in their entertainment just as much. Not conflict as such but also, just like men, because they get a kick out of resolving the conflict. It’s just that they tend to resolve conflicts in a different way.

I hope readers of this post don’t think I’m sexist for saying this. And please contradict me if I’m wrong. But from what I have seen, women tend to want to keep the peace, above all. They are quicker to apologize, consider other people’s arguments more deeply (or pretend to) and are generally happier when everybody gets along, sometimes even at the expense of their own status or pride.

I used to think that this type of behaviour meant that women (or men with similar tendencies) don’t like conflict in games. But seeing how much they enjoy the “peaceful resolution”, I have changed my mind about this. Perhaps they get as big a kick out of peacefully resolving a conflict as men get out of blasting the monster into oblivion.

Are there any games that cater to this desire?

Peaceful conflict resolution probably doesn’t lend itself well to spectacular visual effects (explosions etc) but it could perhaps introduce a new form of play. And open up a new audience.

21 thoughts on “Conflict and gender”

  1. There’s a strange tendency among people in general to yell “SEXIST!” when anymore comments on a difference between the sexes…but there are biological differences between women and men, as well as differences in skills; there was recently an experiment done, and women could remember food sources much better than men. I’ve also heard that men have better spatial reasoning than women.

    Most questions about this sort of thing can be answered by putting everything in an evolutionary context; how would this skill have benefitted Cave Person?

    Anyway. I like resolving conflicts too; I hate it when my sims argue, for example, and kill all the bad people in Spyro because they’re ugly and terrorise the good people. (Spryo is so stupidly polarised. -.-)

  2. Sorry to trot out this old board game, but…

    I don’t know all that much about chess, but I’m wondering if completing a really good chess game isn’t similar to “peaceful resolution” as you put it? The game uses military imagery, of course, but I have the impression that a lot of the time it’s about the thrill of resolving a problem neatly and elegantly.

    If that’s so, and we consider that most of the famous chess people are men, then it might seem that this sort of play isn’t necessarily “female” or “male”. Then again, people will argue that the sort of abstraction that chess offers is inherently “male”. I think that’s kind of ridiculous, but hey, if someone has STATISTICS to back up the hegemony, I don’t really know what to say… (Kidding there, sort of.)

    When we speak of gender traits, instead of resolution versus oblivion, isn’t it often more like social conflict versus physical conflict? Especially when thinking about how to sell things (like games) to people. What about all those (admittedly stereotypical) mean girls that walk the halls of American high schools? Aren’t they doing the same thing as blasting monsters into oblivion?

  3. “Are there any games that cater to this desire?”

    As much as I hate The Sims (and you do too if I remember), I think it’s liked partially for this reason. The goal of that game is really to maintain order in a domesticity and deal with problems to it that come up.

  4. I think that “wanting to keep the peace” is a personality trait that may be associated more frequently with females, but not necessarily.

    But I like that you bring up the possibility of games focused on peaceful resolution of conflict. I’ll have to think about this more. It definitely sounds like a fruitful path to explore. :)

  5. I disagree that the outcome of chess is a peaceful resolution. Even though the game might not be violent, it is still about one party defeating another. Not that I was talking about chess here (our focus is on computer games). Elegance is not the same as peace. Neither is neatness.

  6. Chris Bateman and I went round and round about story and conflict quite some time back. I feel the idea that story requires conflict is quite valid, but as you suggest I also feel the conflict need not be a violent one. Lazy storytellers will almost always interpret conflict as violence, regardless of their medium. Bateman suggested that ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’ had no conflict and yet was a story. I contend that the struggle to survive and evolve is the most basic of conflicts and that ‘The Hungry Catepillar’ was then entirely about conflict despite it’s charming, simple, non-violent narrative.

    There are many role playing games which allow you to resolve some conflicts in a non-violent manner. Fallout and the various Ultima games leap to mind. It seems to me that Bioware has made a fortune peppering their games with conflicts that can be resolved non-violently. However, none of them have really done so at a core level. Meaning, non-violence is not an option for every encounter. I guess that isn’t terribly out of line though. The fantasy worlds these games are set in tend to be harsher than the modern world’s boardrooms and discount retail chains and it’s hard to reason with an enraged boar or genetically mutated giant scorpion.

  7. Isn’t the “conflict” between Mr. Bateman and you mostly a linguistic one, though? It depends a bit on your outlook on life, I think. You can think of life as antagonistic, a string of challenges that need to be overcome. Or you can think of life as garden filled with opportunities to taste from whenever you please.

    Anyway, I’m not necessarily talking about non-violent resolutions. It’s more about resolutions in which there is no winning and losing but where harmony (or peace) is achieved by finding a way for all elements to thrive as best as possible. This includes settling for smaller gains then a victory would bring, if it makes it possible for your “opponent” to survive that way.
    A resolution that considers the fate of all elements involved in the conflict, and especially of the opponent, where you lose when your opponent loses.

    (why does this make me think of being a Necromancer in Guild Wars and keeping my enemies alive as long as possible just so I can suck their blood… 😉 )

    I don’t like the idea of including non-violent resolution options in what are essentially antagonistic games. The form of the game needs to suit the story you are trying to tell. Defcon would be ridiculous if it included a Diplomacy Mode. That’s not the story they’re trying to tell.
    But I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories (or art and entertainment in general for that matter) about striving for harmony, collaboration and solidarity, rather then the constant stream of opposition and victory/defeat situations. I guess I’m sick of black and white thinking in general (good vs evil, winning or losing, etc). There’s many more colours in the rainbow…

    And if the players of The Endless Forest are anything to go by, there’s a great market opportunity there as well…

  8. It’s true. Most of Chris and my conflicts are semantic in nature. I do take your point about not including non-violent options in antagonistic games. That thought was lurking there under my comment as well, I think. It’s not enough to give a nod to such things, they must be the point, or a major portion of the underlying structure.

    The Grow games are essentially non-antagonistic games, yes? And, given that the goals are to produce interesting environments, I think they probably meet the criteria.

    Most of Ferry Halim’s Orisinal Flash games are non-antagonistic and some (I’m thinking specifically of Cats) the goal is to produce a specific environmental condition (all the cats exhibiting the same behaviors).

    What about Black & White? For all its flaws, it held the potential to build a cooperative and peaceful society through the performance of miraculous good deeds.

    The Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing games have a goal of increasing the bounty of a peaceful environment. It’ll be interesting to see the upcoming Eco Creatures, a Japanese DS game being translated/published by Majesco. It’s a reforestation strategy game.

  9. Michael, you said you don’t know much about martial arts, but I think you’d really like Aikido.

    This idea of a game where “you lose when your opponent loses” is something I have considered. I imagined a game based on the popular, hyper-violent Madness Combat series, but with an optimistic philosophy of balance and growth rather than overwhelming chaos. It would be called Harmony.

    The premise would be similar to a Madness episode, where you are trying to reach this one guy by going through rooms full of faceless minions. But the purpose would not be to kill him and destroy everything that gets in your way. The problem is that this guy somehow made it so that any harm that comes to his body, is instead transferred to yours. So he goes off and does all sorts of bad stuff, and you suffer the ill effects. As a result, you want him to stop, but you can’t just get rid of the problem by killing him, you have to convince him somehow (it wouldn’t be easy – growth takes more effort than decay). Actually, I have no idea how you’d do that. :p

    Instead of shooting and stabbing your way through the guards, you’d do Aikido. You’d redirect the energy of their attacks to ensure the well-being of both parties. Meanwhile, their drive to attack you would decrease as they exhausted themselves, allowing you to continue on your path unhindered. Maybe you get hurt if they get hurt too. The guy you’re ultimately after would be trickier, because he knows what you’re about and wants to keep things as they are, but I imagine Aikido would be involved somehow. He is going in an unhealthy direction, he denies the possibility of change, and so he is off his center – there must be a way for you to take that imbalance and bring it to its conclusion.

    What is funny, is that the color scheme of Aikido is white and black – very minimal, high contrast. The game Harmony would use this same high-contrast, monochromatic style, which is a purposeful contradiction of Madness Combat’s muted gray. The color scheme of Madness both emphasizes the bright red of its frequent blood spatters, and underlines the way in which any possible hesitation or change is repressed in the main character’s relentless, bloody progression. Harmony is about opening up these differences, taking them where they will go, and reconciling them for healing.

    Please let me know if you get what I’m saying, if you like the idea, or if you don’t.

  10. Not exactly what I had in mind. 😉

    But interesting nonetheless. As you point out, these kinds of game goals would probably be much harder to implement than simply shooting and killing. But if I understand it correctly, Harmony could still feel like an action game. Which is probably a commercial advantage.

    It still feels very confrontational (if that is a word). How about making a game that is not about pain and suffering? 😉

  11. Yes, Corvus, Black & White is probably the best game ever made. Its antagonistic aspects are the weakest elements in the game, together with its underlying linear structure. But to call those flaws would imply that most games are bad. Since most games are antagonistic and linear.

    What are Grow games?

  12. It is very confrontational – that’s the intent. And it is an action game. There are always (maybe) going to be people who want to play action games. Why limit them to only violent choices? But I’m curious to hear what you did have in mind.

    Just for the record, Black & White is one of my favorite games. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the best game ever made though.

    Wildbluesun, what do you mean by “Madness games”? Are you referring to Madness Interactive? The violence and mindlessness of Madness is kind of the point – I wouldn’t bother getting upset about it enough to hate it; in fact I quite admire it for what it does. But I wouldn’t advise anyone to play it for long. :p

  13. Yes, I do. The ones you can find on Stickpage.

    Personally, I hate Madness games. It’s not that I’m going to go on a year-long campaign against them or anything; I just despise the experience of playing them. I haven’t intellectualised about it…I don’t know what conclusions I would reach if I did.

  14. I am female. I also enjoy conflict in my games– story conflict, not battle conflict so much. Physical conflict can still be enticing if it’s linked to story, however. Solving conflict through combat isn’t something I despise. I do however love it to death when I can solve things peacefully instead, especially if combat seemed to be the obvious option. Negotiation or bringing understanding. If I must fight, I like it to be flashy and full of action, but I don’t want anyone to die when it’s over. (Even if it would seem otherwise impossible to survive explosions and sword swings. I don’t really care about the realism so much here.) A game where combat is an option but where I can make it through the entire thing without having to kill anyone is great for me.

    Games about exploration are great for me too. It’s nice to have variety.

    But I don’t really enjoy killing so much, even if it’s just a game.

  15. This reminds me of those few occasions in Guild Wars where you fight an NPC who then changes his mind and stops being your enemy because he was impressed by your fighting skills or something. The ability to admit defeat and to choose reconciliation rather than battle is something that is sorely missing in many games, indeed. I remember that experiencing it in Guild Wars really added depth of the narrative for me. Suddenly that character seemed to have more personality, more credibility.

  16. I love axcho’s concept. It may be action oriented, but it get’s right to the point of peaceful conflict resolution and why it can be so intense: empathy. It’s hard to simulate empathy because it’s a higher emotional trait that is innate to some degree, but is mostly developed through social learning. So how better to create an empathic environment for people who have a less developed sense of empathy, than to turn it’s emotional qualities into physiological qualities. And what a relevant topic in todays world. How many mothers, fathers and siblings are working more or less in vain to treat addictive and unstable behaviors in their loved ones? How many teachers and social workers are working without much progress to effect change in the lives of those who come from depressed or rural communities, faced with all kinds of twisted social mechanisms? There’s a whole host of possible devices through which our brother/sister can act out the role of self-abuser. How do we help him or her to stop a behavior that he/she is intentionally choosing to perpetuate?

    I find the ideas of the “guards” with no faces and the “action” feel to be symbolic highlights, serving to “illustrate” what would otherwise be very abstract. The guards could be what we would call in the real world, enablers, or they could be inflicters of low self-esteem and self-loathing, or they could represent those emotions directly. They could be abusive mothers or fathers, or teachers, or husbands, or wives; someone with as close a connection to the self-abuser as we, the protagonist have, but with an entirely different motivation–they go out of their way to promote continuous self-abuse. Or even better, they simply act in the way that they think is appropriate and have inherently discouraging traits which push the self-abuser closer and closer to the edge. They could also be representative of genetic traits and pure emotions like doubt, hatred, fear, envy, loss, and depression.

    And through out the game we feel every physiological effect, possibly including highs and low, and we can even go beyond that and translate the emotional pains into physical pains. And there’s a time limit. We have to save the self-abuser before he/she dies or goes over some irreversible edge.

    I think Axcho’s idea is great. It’s like a game version of Requiem for a Dream. (I’m not advocating an actual game of Requiem for a Dream)

  17. This post (and comments) reminds me of my love/hate relationship with “RTS” games. My favourite was the original Settlers game. Scouting out an area to live in, building the economy, managing the cities, and then always getting disappointed when I realised at some point I had to send my soldiers out to fight the other guys’. I was enjoying managing the city, don’t make me always fight!

  18. And my own comment reminded me of the game Settlers of Catan (surely an inspiration for The Settlers), where you can get resources you need by trading tactically rather than taking by force. I know that’s a game game, but just pointing out such options are present in gaming’s roots. Hmmm, just wondering now if this idea is why I like “Sim” games so much (Theme Park, etc.).

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