Updated: Dec 4, 2021
Recently, I explained to some students that it took me a while to find pictures of non-human people for my games who weren’t brandishing a weapon. One boy immediately responded: “Yeah, because guns are cool!”
I told him I didn’t agree, explained why, and it led to a productive discussion; this was, however, just one example of a much larger social and cultural phenomenon – not just in tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, as I discussed in a former post, but in video games, books, movies, series – any kind of storytelling you name.
As one journalist explained in a recent article from the New York Times:
“… virtually every story they read, TV show they watch or video game they play is essentially a story with two men (or male-identifying nonhuman creatures) pitted against each other in some form of combat, which inevitably ends with one crowned a hero and the other brutally defeated. This narrative world contains almost zero emotional complexity — no interiority, no negotiating or nurturing or friendship dilemmas or internal conflict. None of the mess of being a real human in constant relationship with other humans.”
I see the effect of these stories all the time in my games. Boys are quick to describe their characters in terms of exaggerated violence – weapons, super-powers, immunity to damage – and struggle to explain how their characters feel, who they value, or why they adventure in the first place. I’ve had students who will gleefully describe killing, but frantically raise their arms in an X to prevent a moment of social awkwardness – accidentally saying something embarrassing or showing up late to class in a game about teen monsters at their first day of school.
When, in designer circles, I say that I’m interested in non-violent games, I often receive immediate pushback: “But how do you prepare kids for when violence is necessary? Isn’t that pandering – you’re not really challenging them!”
In fact, I would argue my students’ responses show the opposite – that, in effect, violence is not a challenge. Rather, violence is the primary and the “easiest” way they’ve been taught, by story after story, to resolve differences. In stories, the “hero” – often male, usually white, almost always immensely powerful – “solves” problems by hurting people. The story ends when the “hero” finds the “bad guys” and punches, shoots, kicks, blows up, or otherwise attacks them until the “problem” is over.
PROBLEM SOLVING FOR THE REAL WORLD
There are many reasons this frightens me, but perhaps the single strongest reason is that in the real world, there are very few simple problems, and hurting people never resolves them: instead, most violence creates a cycle, with survivors re-enacting their trauma, sometimes for generations.
Systemic problems – the ones most critical to resolve for kids to have a future – are not a matter of satisfyingly punchable villains, but complex, nuanced issues requiring careful consensus building and collaborative approaches. You can’t punch climate change, systemic racism, voter rights suppression, wealth inequity, or lack of health care. Even if you can find people who are part of those problems, hurting them won’t solve it.
I’ve come up with various ways to push a more nuanced, emotionally complex approach to designing and running games for kids.
One solid standard is a safety tool I’ve already referenced – the “X Card.” This is a very simple, but nuanced tool for helping kids set and respect each other’s boundaries – any time anyone makes an X (in a direct chat to me, as Teller, with their hands, etc.), we stop, identify what in the fiction was upsetting, and remove it. No one asks questions; the principle is that we’re more important to each other than the game.
In practice, this requires modeling, repetition, and sometimes negotiation. But it’s a way to help kids let each other and the teacher know that something is frustrating, uncomfortable, or difficult – and rallies the community around them to make it right. Though it’s represented as absolute, it’s a strategy for understanding – if a student always X’s failures in the game, other players inevitably move towards gentle encouragement: “It’s my character failing, and I’m okay with it – it’s okay to fail, right? Would it be okay with you to let me fail this time?”
I use the X Card to remove explicit violence, and once kids have played a session, most begin to do the same. Though they're used to stories defaulting to violence, they’re often quite hungry for ones that don’t, and begin to actively curate their own tale to involve emotional complexity, struggle, and friendship. I also access their personal lives - very often, I'll ask a kid who's suggested violence "Have you ever gotten into a physical fight? How did it turn out - did things get better, or worse?" Kids are always quick to respond - if they have been in fights, the evidence of how much trouble it caused shows in their expression (pained!).
Another to guide kids into non-violent solutions is directing actions with Moves – something borrowed from a game system by Meguey and Vincent Baker called Apocalypse World which I referenced in an earlier post. The Moves kids can make in response to danger and dilemmas are things like Empathy, Figure It Out, and Collaborate – in the same way that a game like Dungeons and Dragons implies you solve problems with violence by providing “hit points” and “attack modifiers,” mine suggest cooperation, investigation, and persuasion.
In addition, characters in the game aren’t defined by numbers, but descriptions. Students get to pick “Tags” which include their Bonds with others, personal Traits, and so on. Each is a descriptive phrase: “Gets along with Miko,” or “Avid Reader.” When making a Move, they have to figure out how one or more can aid them in facing the problem: “Well, I’m trying to make this potion, so since I’m an Avid Reader, I should be able to read the directions and figure them out; since Miko is helping and we get along, that should help, too!”
The focus isn’t “swing and hit,” it’s “think through how who you are, who you know, and what you can do to help work through the issue.”
STORIES CHANGE THE WORLD
So does the real world often default to violence?
But does including violence in games challenge kids? I would argue no – rather, violence in most fiction our culture elevates functions almost like a photo-negative reflection of the X Card: a way for us to focus all our frustrations on a single enemy who we can then “remove,” cathartically, with brutality. But that’s not mature, or helpful, or an idea that promotes growth – rather, it’s an escape from the more adult business of thinking through problems, figuring out differences, asking questions, researching, persuading, addressing root causes and immediate concerns.
It’s also, as I’ll argue in an upcoming post, a form of violence itself.
Role-playing games are emotionally deeply engaging, so normalizing – even glorifying – violence can be a form of trauma, just like repeated exposure to violence, weaponry, and rage in stories can be. As a parent and an educator, I like to believe my first job is to do no harm; my second is to help kids learn and grow into happy, healthy people who try to move into the world with the skills and intent to do good.
Most of us can see that the world needs to change. But the process of recognizing when our own upbringing – what we’ve internalized as “normal” – poses a threat to our kids can be difficult. Change always is. But if acceptance, diversity, equity, and emotionally supportive, change-minded people are who we want to raise, it makes sense to ask what kind of cultural influences – stories – will help them grow that way.