Introduction to Nonviolence and Video Games

by | Feb 24, 2020

Video games have a problem with violence.

When I say “a problem with violence,” I do not mean that video games cause players to become more violent by engaging with them. Rather, I mean video games–as a medium– have trouble not including violence or aggression in their design. Developers use violent conflict as the default way to engage players at a mechanical level, even when doing so results in questionable thematic moments.

I remember playing through Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I was put off by the juxtaposition of the light, breezy tone of the story and the amount of time I spent killing people in the gameplay (this type of conflict between gameplay and story is often called ludo-narrative dissonance). I would have enjoyed my time with Uncharted 2 significantly more if I had been able to approach conflicts in a nonviolent way, if there were less violent moments, or no violent moments throughout the entirety of the game. Uncharted 2 is just one of many games that make me wish for games to stop defaulting to violent gameplay modes.

I should note that so many games contain violence not because they’re demonic pieces of entertainment created to corrupt society but because violent or aggressive situations create easy-to-understand, exciting conflicts for players to overcome. Even cartoonish, simple occurences of violence are exciting for players to engage with. Those who have played Super Mario Bros. know of the life-or-death struggle that occurs whenever they encounter a Hammer Bro. Weaving in between the Bro’s thrown hammers to jump on its head is exciting, challenging, and fun for players, partly because they are in some sort of physical danger if they fail to vanquish the Bro. This silly, cartoonish conflict between plumber and turtle is a prime example of the purpose of violence: to create understandable, engaging conflict. 

This understanding of the purpose violence in video games makes games that rebel against the default of violence all the more interesting. While the number of games that support nonviolent play do not match the volume of violent games, nonviolent games have found high levels of success amongst critics, the market, and fans. Games like Animal Crossing, Journey, and the Professor Layton series have found success in all circles, despite including no violent options in their gameplay. 

In addition to avoiding violence, these games also avoid any form of active, intended confrontation–violent or not—between players and another agent, a phenomena I’m going to call aggression in this project. The difference between aggression and violence might seem small, but it’s quite significant. For example, players of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain may be able to clear missions nonviolently by using tranquilizing darts to sedate enemies, but aggression still flavors the gameplay as players take active action against other agents. Games don’t need aggression or violence, but there is almost always some sort of conflict – characters or players working to obtain something, like items, skills, or something else.

But how exactly do these games, in addition to other nonviolent games, engage players nonviolently?  This project exists to answer that question, as well as many more questions related to nonviolence in video games.

Within this website, I cover topics including, but not limited to:

  • How games with nonviolent gameplay engage players
  • How games teach players about pacifism
  • Unique, nonviolent styles of play

I’m writing this landing page ahead of officially starting research, so I can’t say exactly where the project will go, but I plan to cover these topics and conclude with an overarching examination of nonviolence in video games.

I hope you’ll check out the rest of this project as it’s updated!


Dr. Rebecca Richards (St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota) curates Thoughtful Play.
If you’re interested in creating your own project for Thoughtful play, contact