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When Violence Meets Honor in History and Games

June 21, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next
 

[Consultant Christoph Kaindel takes a look at the real reasons and methods behind fights in history, offering up a few ideas for how everyday life in a late medieval city might be taken as inspiration for building believable game worlds for RPGs or sandbox-style action adventures.]

"In sandbox storytelling, the idea is to give the player a big open world populated with opportunities for interesting interactions. The player isn't constrained to a rail-like linear plot, but can interact with the world in any order that he chooses. If the world is constructed correctly, a story-like experience should emerge."

This quote from a column by Ernest Adams sums up a concept that might be the next step in the evolution of open world adventure games and role playing games. To make sandbox storytelling work, Adams suggests a combination of player-dependent and player-independent events. In other words, things should keep moving and changing in the game world without the player's intervention, as long as they are not critically important for the plot.

As a player, I immensely enjoy playing open world games. I love the sense of freedom, of discovery, of unexpected things happening; as a historian, however, I can't help comparing game worlds to real societies. Even though I realize that game worlds need to be simplified, I feel that many games could benefit from a little extra complexity, inspired by the structure of real societies.

Here are a few ideas how everyday life in a late medieval city might be taken as inspiration for building believable game worlds for RPGs or sandbox-style action adventures. As my main research subject was everyday violence in the middle ages, I will focus on that: the fight for fame and honor, following strict unwritten rules -- and in most cases non-lethal.

Kill or Be Killed

The essence of violence in games has, in my opinion, not changed a lot since the days of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. In most games, "doing violence" can still be summed up as: "The guys over there are your enemies. Point your gun at them and kill them before they kill you." Game violence usually means combat among players or between players and AI-controlled opponents; in both cases, enemies are just obstacles to be removed in order to progress in the game.

This has very little to do with real world violence. In real life, people use violence for many different reasons, to reach many different goals, to fulfill many different needs. People are motivated by greed, by fear, by lust, by hate, by sheer boredom, and there are many ways of acting violently, most of which are not fit to be used in games. Still, I believe if game designers took a little more time to consider the many meanings and uses of real-world violence instead of just making killing more and more visually spectacular, game violence and its consequences might be shown in more varied and interesting ways.

Ironically, game advertisements as well as critics of excessive game violence place a lot of emphasis on the purportedly "realistic" depiction of violence in games. While on the purely visual level, this may hold true for some games, combat in the majority of games follows action movie conventions, and while medpacks and regenerating health allow for more aggressive play, neither, of course, is "realistic".

Player motivation in most games is quite simple. The player character often is a soldier just doing her duty fighting hordes of single-mindedly aggressive opponents. Therefore, violence in video games is usually lethal, as enemies need to be removed on the way to completion of a mission. They never retreat; they never surrender. Once a fight has started, the only possible outcome is usually death for either enemy or player character -- ending the game and forcing the player to load a recent save.

This is a pattern that works reasonably well in linear shooter games; after all, a soldier would not be expected to argue with enemy soldiers or alien abominations. But open world games strive to give the impression of a "living, breathing" environment that is close to the real world -- and in such a setting I expect to have a wider range of combat options.

Until a few decades ago -- in some places and societies even nowadays -- the fight for honor was a non-lethal way of dealing with an opponent. Even though it has fallen out of use in real life, I think it might be well suited as a model of game violence to be used at least in historical or fantasy settings.


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Comments


E McNeill
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Interesting ideas here, and a valuable historical perspective.

I wonder if there's also opportunity to address violence as something often lethal yet (accordingly) rare and exceptional. One thing that I liked about Sergio Leone's westerns was the fact that, despite their reputation for violence, they often focused more on the motivations and rituals that precede a duel than the duel itself. They center on violence, but they're still *about* people. I think that a game could make good use of this focus as well.

Joshua Darlington
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Nice details!

"Jousting, as far as I know, only appeared as a mini-game in 1987's Defender of the Crown and its remakes, and the somewhat similar Conqueror A.D. 1086."

There is an awesome classic arcade game called Joust.

Keep in mind that in fictional drama, some realism is set dressing to allow for suspension of disbelief. So one has to take into consderation the entertainment value of the dynamics you propose. Complexity can cascade and there is a reason that character development/task selection and societal structuration has been side stepped.

Jerry Springer may be a model worth considering for social honor brawls. His narrative and theatrical mechanisms are very engaging.

Justin Speer
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Jousting in Joust is pretty deadly stuff (when struck the riders burst into a cloud of dust), so it's not really relevant to a non-lethal combat discussion...

The Way of the Samurai series may be worth looking at, as you're able to bow and apologize to people you've attacked/offended (sometimes). This is definitely a rare and underexplored mechanic, though.

"Complexity can cascade and there is a reason that character development/task selection and societal structuration has been side stepped."

That doesn't mean it's not worth looking at, obviously. Anyway, I really enjoyed this article.

Joshua Darlington
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I suppose if he said "non lethal" jousting only appears in xyz, I wouldn't have bothered to bring up one of the best arcade games of all time. Perhaps I'm trying to meme seed a revisit to Joust. Everything old is new.

Popular fiction accounts of jousting like in the Orlando epics tended to emphasize the deadly qualities of the sport and how it could escalate into deadly feuds and intrigue. Again, it's worth looking at precedent when appealing to popular markets.

I'm not familiar with "The Way of the Samurai" but I used to enjoy the Bushido pen and paper RPG. Thanks for the tip.

Personally I would love for some progress on expressive NPC tech tools and engines that support a couple layers of player independent social simulation. There are layers of pride, honor, guilt, shame, humiliation and other powerful narrative mechanics that can be exposed and worked with. But some times you have to work with the tools you are given.

Jacob Germany
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"Complexity can cascade and there is a reason that character development/task selection and societal structuration has been side stepped."

I think that reason is that such complexity is more difficult to design than "hit to kill" or "hit to lower health to kill" than the reason is any sort of lack of entertainment. In fact, I think social structures and emotions have been so foreign of territory in games that I don't think anyone really knows how entertaining it can be.

I for one welcome any attempts to move away from "See NPC, NPC runs at you, you kill NPC". We see very tiny glimmers of progression in, say, two groups fighting each other and too distracted to fight the player, which is always fun to run into in any game.

Christoph Kaindel
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Thanks, Joshua, for reminding me of the "Bushido" RPG. I think I still have a copy somewhere ... among the dozens of pen-and-paper systems I hardly ever found time to play...
I tried two of the "Way of the Samurai" games, but finished neither. I found the concept interesting, but combat was rather clunky and there were many load times between very small areas. A pity.

Joshua Darlington
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"I think that reason is that such complexity is more difficult to design than "hit to kill" or "hit to lower health to kill" than the reason is any sort of lack of entertainment."

It's true that pro wrestling, boxing, UFC, football and etc. are widely popular.

Re complex injury: There is a huge range of entertaining character animation that is missing in RPGs (pantomime, acrobatics, physical comedy, various schools of puppetry, dance etc), so I dont see various limps and physical handicaps being a priority. I'm not sure realistic sports injuries have broad appeal.

"In fact, I think social structures and emotions have been so foreign of territory in games that I don't think anyone really knows how entertaining it can be."

Have you checked this book? It's awesome!

http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=1187
2

Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies
Noah Wardrip-Fruin

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Christoph Kaindel
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Glad you liked it, Joshua. Yes, morality certainly played an important role in medieval society, mainly because the fear of Hell was very real. But it seems in everyday life other rules and norms were often more important, and people hoped they would have time to atone for their sins before they died. For instance, the church declared tournaments as immoral, because Christian warriors should not fight each other, but for a knight victory in a tournament meant great increase in his honor (and wealth, too, because he would win the armour and horses of the knights he defeated. William Marshal became rich that way). The concepts of honor were different for knights, merchants, priests, women, even vagrants. The basic concept I described above was like a common denominator all men had to adhere to, except monks, maybe.
The "old west", in fact, has been compared to medieval Europe, as there were some basic similarities: both were societies with relatively weak central authorities and independent communities, and people literally had to "fight for their rights". And there was a strong concept of personal honor, especially in the South.

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TC Weidner
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honor, a game fueled by honor? have you ever even been in a mmo forum or general chat? LOL

How can a society which doesnt value such concepts in everyday life, suddenly value them in their gaming leisure time?

Joe Cooper
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A game fueled by honor would have its -own- forum and its -own- general chat with -different- people, just like how Sim City and Civilization have a different crowd around it than Halo or Poker or Football.

Our society has more to offer than teenagers with Halo and keyboards.

Aaron Haaf
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In many MMOs, word gets out of a "Insanely Geared Fighter" who can beat the very final boss solo with this class. Player X is a renowned player of Charecter Y. Someone becomes a common forum presence and people expect his commentary on discussions. More than once I have been in a thread where someone goes, "Well, Let's see what Player X has to say about that.".

Escalating this personal, "virtual" status is probably a great part of the fantasy of playing such games. It allows you to abandon your real life status (however perceived) and get a new one.

After some reflection, I've noticed that a good portion of on-line chat interaction is trying save face, or escalate your own status against another's through (hopefully witty) insults and banter.

EDIT: Darned thing doesn't like the >< signs.

TC Weidner
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@Joe, disagree, its not just teenagers, our society as a whole does not teach, nor value honor at all. Take a look around what is happening in this world. Honor, is almost considered a weakness, it makes you vulnerable as to be something exploited.

Fear, self preservation, greed, ego, those are the values of our current society.

TC Weidner
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@aaron, what you describe has nothing to do with honor, thats ego, and in the game world it is referred to as e-peen.

Ramin Shokrizade
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This article resonated with me on many levels. In my work developing virtual economic models, I went back through historical writings to understand what caused early economies to form, and how the first economists (like Adam Smith) explained all of the interactions that were occurring. I found modern economic theory to be of little help, mostly finding that the errors in modern economic theories increased as you got further from the observations made by the pioneers.

The problems with both virtual economies and combat systems in today's games are very similar: they are unrealistic and have little meaning. Giving a virtual environment meaning takes a lot of work, and I would propose requires understanding the real world, which is not always a priority for today's developers.

This was not always the case, in fact I appreciate Joshua Darlington's mention of the old pen and paper RPG "Bushido" as this was an excellent example of a game made by someone that had done a lot of historical research in order to give meaning to their game world. I found that I learned a lot about history just by playing that game.

Honor combat in games is often a result of players willing it into existence despite contrary game mechanics introduced by developers. When I was the top WoW player on my server, more than once an impromptu battle with a rival ended by the other player emoting a bow during the fight to recognize my superiority. To have continued to strike down said opponent would have brought substantial dishonor to me. The developers would have rewarded me for striking down said player, and thus were attempting to encourage dishonorable play styles (which abounded in that game).

In Nexon's 2001 Shattered Galaxy (disclaimer: I was a designer on that title), it often happened that opponents in one round (rounds between reincarnation events last 3 months in that game) would learn to respect their best opponents and would look forward to fighting alongside them in future rounds. In that game I again found it dishonorable to fight less experienced players one on one (much like a noble would not have fought a commoner in days of old) so if I was forced into such a situation I would lock out reinforcements from my side until the battle exceeded 10 players vs. me. What is the point of fighting a battle with an assured outcome, especially if there is no option to yield?

I think games that reward dishonorable action (the norm) just make things worse by training a whole generation of gamers that this type of behavior is both normal and desirable. This is something very new for civilization from what I can tell. Granted, given the propensity of studios copying others, I can imagine it is especially difficult to come up with designs that break this trend. The "pay to win" monetization models that I often rail against just aggravate the situation by promoting and monetizing dishonorable play styles.

Christoph Kaindel
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"When I was the top WoW player on my server, more than once an impromptu battle with a rival ended by the other player emoting a bow during the fight to recognize my superiority." Ramin, thanks for this great example for honorable behavior, also about Shattered Galaxy! I'm not an MMO player, but it's interesting how honor concepts seem to evolve naturally among players.
Yes, even in games that have "honor" ratings, honorable behavior is in fact punished. I am never allowed to spare a weaker opponent, as I would receive neither experience nor loot, and anyway the guy would continue to attack me anyway. Even as a holy paladin I usually have to massacre every lowly bandit that comes my way.

Jason Carter
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Haha, there is a sort of respect among the PvP players on WoW servers. I was never the best player, but I was just under all the best pvpers on my server in skill and rank, sitting about 1800-1900ish in arena during season 4,6 and 9/10 i think.

But I would duel them outside the cities and practice combos and counters and ask advice from the top tier players. Most of the time those players were very respectful and helpful. And there certainly was some sort of honor code among the PvP crowd. Those who weren't friendly or were jerks were usually shunned by the others and left out of the fun stuff ^_^.

I haven't really found a good pvp mmo since then, and keep my competitive gaming to LoL but I thought that comment was pretty interesting.

Despite all the trolls... there are some honorable people (at least somewhat ^_^)

Stephen Chin
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As another reference, there was an old Dragonlance game (Warriors of the Lance or some such) where combat involved riding your dragon flight sim style but using lances (you used the num pad to control the point of the joust). It's been a while so I don't recall if combat was always purely lethal but the entire game basically focused around fantasy jousting.

David Grinton
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I believe in at least one of the Gothic games you could begin fights in towns which would be considered "duels" - nobody would intervene. If you subdued an opponent and then killed them the guards would then attack you. I think conversation options changed after defeating someone in this manner.

Adam Romney
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This was a great and inspiring read!

I really hope Tale World Entertainment gets a chance to read this as it would vastly improve on their Mount & Blade series (which is already a great game). It does contain some non lethal combat in it's tournaments, which are held in the cities, but the honor rating isn't related, nor is it really that relevant. It was probably one of my favorite games of the past year or two.

Christoph Kaindel
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Thanks! I have just started to play "Mount and Blade: Fire and Sword" and it sure looks promising...

Alex Gochenour
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Eye-opening article.

Game designers would also do well to read the chapter on blood feuds in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." I can see how this kind of thinking could be easily incorporated into MMO games' lore and gameplay. If you quantify a player's notoriety based on his or her performance in public violence, it can affect how NPCs react to that player: At the start of the game your player is abused by extortionists. You become a better fighter and they are less likely to give you trouble. Weeks later they flee in terror when you remove sword from scabbard. It'd be even better if this could somehow affect otherwise lame missions/quests where you have to pursue or escort an NPC. I agree with some of the other posters that the honor of yesteryear might be difficult to work into games because it's so foreign to contemporary players, but real notoriety and the threat of violence (rather than violence itself) are definitely worth exploring.

These are small details that would go a long way in improving game immersion. It would also give players more incentive to pay attention to NPC characters and give more resonance to the plots. Or are there games that already do this?

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Luciano Lombardi
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Thanks for posting this article, I found it both interesting and educational.
Many comments have been really helpful too, and many original ideas emerge from this topic that would really improve many games out there if some of the concepts explained here were to be applied, or at least explored.


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