While conflict is an inherent part of any game design that involves violence, competition, or war, for the most part this conflict is presented to the gamer as little more than an intrinsic assumption.
Dungeon Keeper was a remarkable game, not so much because it turned the concept of good guys vs. bad guys on its head, but because for the first time since an intrepid party of well-armed Dungeons & Dragons adventurers entered a dungeon, it offered a potential explanation for precisely why the prototypical Bad Guy was dwelling in the heart of his lair and what occupied him there. This was a brilliant step forward which unfortunately made less of an impression upon game designers than it perhaps should have.
Ironically, the industry has tended to go the other way, taking steps to avoid issues such as sex, religion, and politics despite the fact that these have been some of the primary conflict-generators throughout the history of the human race. For some strange reason, racial conflict has become the de facto accepted standard in gaming, although fictional races such as the Zerg and the Dark Elves are used and racial conflict has not historically been a major source of conflict when compared to the wars over ideology, economic resources, and religious differences over the years.
Religion, in particular, is considered a sensitive topic, which borders on the inexplicable considering that priests of one mythical god or another infest fantasy worlds like rats; especially in light of the way most fantasies take place in a setting that is recognizably based on the religion-dominated society of medieval Europe. But the very reasonable wish to avoid upsetting religious sensitivities should not preclude the use of Man’s religious instincts to generate game conflict altogether; players can be given effective religious incentives that improve the gameplay experience and are no more readily confused with real-world religion than sci-fi ‘credits’ are mistaken for physical pound sterling.
The same is true for politics. Despite the fact that the political process can quite reasonably be described as a game, and a very complicated, involving game at that, the elements of actual partisan politics seldom make an appearance in games, even games that would be well-served by them. As even the most casual reader of Roman or Byzantine history knows, acts of conspiracy against the ruler was not so much the exception as the rule; the plotlines of many games and the supposedly shocking nature of the secret conspiracies they reveal only serves to demonstrate the political naïveté of the game designers responsible.
Sex is perhaps a bit more problematic, given the fact that government authorities tend to be particularly sensitive about the potential nexus of adult entertainment and underage players. Also, it’s not terribly hard to imagine a more realistic treatment of sex crossing the border from game into pornography, but even so, there are sexual elements – such as sexual rivalries – that can be effectively mined for productive game conflict without the need to enter into needlessly provocative and legally dangerous territory.
As the graphics in games have become ever more realistic and sophisticated, it becomes increasingly obvious that other game elements simply have not kept pace. This is not necessarily a bad thing; escapism is an important aspect of entertainment, especially in these financially turbulent times. But is the player’s desire to play a hero more satisfactory or less if the conflict in which he takes part is one that is convincing and emotionally credible? It should be obvious from the success of licensed sports games compared to unlicensed titles that the more realistic the conflict presented, the more satisfactory the game experience is to the player.
As John Romero once pointed out, triggering an emotional reaction from the player is the Holy Grail of game design. Therefore, the ambitious game designer should take pains to seek out every opportunity to trigger those reactions in his game; to assiduously avoid them instead is a foolish and counter-productive mistake.