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The Idealistic World of Video Game Pacifists

Daniel Mullins is a pacifist. And not just philosophically—he practices what he preaches. It wasn’t always so. He used to kill with impunity and even feast on the flesh of his enemies. Daniel was a cannibal. Somewhere along the line of torching anyone who got in his way, he had a change of heart or perhaps he just got bored. Either way, Daniel transformed from a power-hungry cannibal to a cuddly kitten. Technically a cat-man named Felix. Full disclosure—Daniel Mullins is a virtual pacifist in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Felix the Peaceful Monk is his avatar.

Daniel is just one of a growing number of virtual pacifists who are either frustrated or bored with video games’ insistence on violence. Daniel understands that there are people in Skyrim that want him dead but “that doesn’t mean [they] deserve to die.” Certainly the way in which games tend to portray violence is conveniently consequence free and far too productive in terms of solving problems. In the real world, violence lends itself to lasting consequences; it rarely solves problems and more often compounds them. So perhaps the noble course is to traverse the frozen tundra of Skyrim in peace.

“I pondered what I would do if I adopted virtual pacifism in Skyrim.”

I appreciate that video game pacifism exists—it is a sign that video games as a medium are biased toward creating situations where violence is the primary means of solving problems. Pacifism generally works in real life—in some of the most popular games it doesn’t. Certainly games are diversifying and providing players with a plethora of different game experiences, but nonetheless violence still seems to function as the default problem solving mechanic. Does this mean that we should all be video game pacifists? Is violent action ever noble?

As I read about Mullins’ conversion to virtual pacifism, I pondered what I would do if I adopted virtual pacifism in Skyrim. I would have to have develop my skills in restoration magic to avoid being killed by the various enemies that do not share my philosophy. I would need to develop my speech skills so as to be able to talk my way out of conflict and solve problems peacefully. I would develop my light armor skill as well in order to protect myself against enemies who would not see reason. I would also invest in the sneak skill so as to be able to traverse dangerous areas out of sight of violent marauders. I took stock of the many places I would need to avoid if  I intended to live peacefully. I envisioned myself running from bandits, dragons, and assassins for miles. I would save a lot. I would die a lot.

…as the experience unfolded in my mind, playing as a peaceful monk served to further highlight what I was, in actuality, doing.

I also saw the selfishness inherent to Mullins’ pacifism. Playing the game this way would require running from dragons while they ravaged Skyrim’s villages, literally killing hundreds of people. It would involve regularly turning a blind eye to injustice and allowing bandits and ruffians to continue to terrorize the innocent when I could do something about it were it not for my “convictions” against violence.

Playing peacefully sounds interesting. Challenging, even. I can see why such tactics appealed to a committed gamer like Mullins. However, as the experience unfolded in my mind, playing as a peaceful monk served to further highlight what I was, in actuality, doing. If I played this way, I would be constantly reminded that I am merely playing a game. A game that can be exploited and one in which I can do whatever I want free from real life consequences. One that I could even reset if its consequences proved too unpleasant. But who cares if I flee the town when the dragon attacks using the villagers as bait so I can escape unnoticed? It’s just a game; it doesn’t count.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such a realization—Skyrim is, in fact, a game. However, the goal of video game pacifism seems to be driven by a desire to live above games’ general naivety regarding violence. Pacifism in Skyrim, however, contradicts the context of the game—context which requires violence. Refusing to draw your sword in the game will not only severely limit what you can do in the world but also necessarily produces a plethora of awkward moments: for instance, choosing death over any kind of violent retaliation or blatantly disregarding the violence constantly being enacted upon innocent people. Thus the rise of more openly selfish pacifists like Ian Jones who actively lures dragons toward villages so as to get the villagers to kill it for him.

The fact that people play Skyrim or Battlefield 3 as pacifists illustrates the unique nature of games as a medium. Each of these games were essentially designed with player violence in mind—and yet each of their designs leave open the possibility for players to take the game in their own direction. This raises the question: are such games worth playing this way? Does playing these games this way actually deepen one’s experience in them?

Playing a war-themed game like Battlefield 3 as a pacifist presents a whole new level of challenge.

A few years ago when Far Cry 2 was released, game critic Ben Abraham, was inspired to play the game in a unique way. Abraham would attempt to finish the game without dying—if he were to die he was determined to let it be permanent. Far Cry 2, an open world first person shooter set in a nameless African country plagued by two militias embroiled in a deadly conflict, was the perfect setting for such an experiment. Everyone in the game wants you dead. In an interview Abraham said:

I think the initial desire was to impose a new way of playing Far Cry 2 that would lead to more of those fun moments where it feels like something is really hanging in the balance—where the outcome is hinged upon my performance. I thought that perhaps by imposing a limit of a single life, it would add more drama and weight to my actions and performance in the game and ultimately provide me with a more satisfying experience.

Abraham’s dramatized account of his permadeath playthrough of FC2 gained a significant following and resulted in 391 page book narrating the entire experience. Abraham called it the most significant piece of writing he had produced to date. Games have the potential to produce truly unique experiences where the player creates his own narrative within a limited system.

Although Abraham openly admits that the results of his experiment were mixed, the fact that FC2 inspired him to write 391 pages about a video game and that people would actually be drawn to read his account is a testimony to the strange but emotionally resonant experiences that can be had in games. There is, however, a key difference between the experiences of Abraham and Mullins. The former played FC2 in a way that attempted to give weight to the authored narrative of the game. It thus produced a deeply troubling yet memorable experience. Mullins, on the other hand, played Skyrim in a way that constantly highlighted the triviality of what he was doing. There are certainly games in which pacifist runs make sense within the game’s narrative framework, but gaining lasting value from a play experience is dependent upon playing in such a way that make sense within its narrative structure.

“I thought that perhaps by imposing a limit of a single life [in FarCry 2], it would add more drama and weight to my actions.”

I appreciate those who would take the time to play games in unconventional ways—the nature of the medium invites such experimentation. However, these two very different attempts at meaningful play illustrate the importance of game narrative. Pacifism in Skyrim is neither virtuous or immersive.

Video games don’t work like the real world—pacifism often does not make sense and violent action is productive. Pacifist runs through games are commendable, but if they only serve to further highlight how games can be exploited, are they not self-contradictory? While the rise of video game pacifists highlights the medium’s frustrating lack of peaceful solutions, it’s also important to note that such pacifism lends itself other problems. Pacifism generally works in life and generally doesn’t in games. We can hope that games would recognize this and provide more peaceful means of problems solving. However, when games don’t provide such means we neglect to learn anything from them if we completely neglect what they are providing. When we play games this way, we reveal what our motives were all along. It was always all about us.

Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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