Games and Conflict

Exploring how games model and portray social conflict

About the Project


November 2012


Cambridge, MA


Eduardo Marisca
Lingyuxiu Zhong

Video games present an especially interesting opportunity to consider issues of identity performance in the context of conflict. In playing the role of digital avatars, we can be virtually confronted with performing the role of an identity different than our own. Not only is it a matter of outside contemplation, but following Erving Goffman’s notion of performative identities [1], we’re actually able to experience the world from a different point of view. Various forms of conflict, either social or interpersonal, often stem from or are radicalized by the fact that positions engaged in conflict are unable to understand the logic and objectives of one another. When one’s own perspective is understood as logical and even necessary, as opposed to historical and contingent, there’s an incapacity to acknowledge the value and legitimacy to the claims on the other side of the table.

This is often the case because the cultural models playing into our assumptions are assumed uncritically [2]. There’s nothing wrong with cultural models per se – they’re simply shared frameworks within which we make decisions – but they exert strong influence on our behavior in ways that often goes unexamined. Furthermore, when confronted with cultural models that directly challenge our own, we will naturally tend to shelter ourselves within our beliefs and assumptions as a protective measure.

In such scenario, attempting to push an individual or a community to acknowledge a different position can even turn out to be counterproductive. This project attempts something different: through a critical performance of one’s own cultural model in the virtual environment of a video game, we seek to confront a player with the contingencies associated with their own position. By bringing up conflicting and contradictory information in the experience of gameplay, we try and explore whether this performative experience can lead a player to critically examine the assumptions the framework of the game is imposing on his or her actions, making the contingency of cultural models explicit and, therefore, a matter of public discussion.


There have been multiple critical examinations of the identity models and underlying assumptions instantiated in game systems. A common element of reference is the analysis of gameplay in Role Playing Games (RPGs), which are specifically focused in portraying a role in a game world and to construct an identity within that world. Over the years, players have been given increasingly higher degrees of agency regarding the avatar they perform as in the game world, allowing them to more closely map their avatars to their physical world personas (or quite the opposite). To some extent, these systems make these choices explicit by making them available, and therefore also lend themselves to critical analysis of the categorical systems they privilege and those they leave out.

Our approach instead focused on video games where this sort of reading was not commonly applied. One example we examined for this project was the machinima series Red vs. Blue [3], built on top of the engine for the game Halo. Being a first-person shooter, the game is not known for its careful exploration of identity conflicts in its characters. The machinima reinterpretation, however, attempts to challenge that by having the same characters performing outside their expected roles. The result is a piece that highlights many of the things the original game leaves out: by providing faceless characters with identities and concerns, it calls attention to how the game assumes its objectives and methods as valid without further analysis.

For our own approach, we decided to focus on the genre of Real-Time Strategy games (RTS). Not only are these games rarely evaluated from a point of view of identity performance, but they’re core mechanic is directly related to our area of interest of conflict mediation. RTS games situate the player in the middle of a fictional conflict they’re to automatically assume as given, and to fight their way out of it. Our design process was then oriented towards exploring whether we could, from within this core mechanic and the logic of the game, provide elements and information that would enable players to notice and examine the cultural model in which they’re situated by the game.

Design and Implementation

As a first-step exploration in this area, we decided the best approach was to experiment with a critical mod of an existing commercial game. We decided to build a custom scenario for the game Starcraft 2 for both conceptual and technical reasons. On the one hand, we wanted to make sure we were able to experiment with a sufficiently abstract conflict scenario that the player’s prior knowledge would not necessarily factor into their gameplay. By dealing with conflict between fictional alien species we were able to bypass the concern that using real-world scenarios might skew player’s appreciation. Starcraft 2 also poses a scenario of seemingly unsolvable conflict between three entirely different species whose worldviews and even biological systems are irreconcilable. These differences are instantiated in the game in varying game mechanics and even user interfaces. Experimenting with a mod was also better for technical reasons: it would allow us to avoid the need to design a full game from scratch, enabling easier prototyping, and Starcraft 2 provided its own set of developer and editor tools and considerable number of online resources to leverage.

Our scenario design first took a close look at the original game mechanics and their underlying cultural assumptions, and mapped them against challenged versions of those same assumptions. The result of this comparison can be found in Table 1.

The resulting scenario has the player controlling a small squad of units with defined identities, building on the familiar “band of brothers” trope found in multiple war movies. By providing a limited number of units and giving them identities, we try to encourage the player towards exploring this character development and work towards preserving the assigned units. In the course of the scenario, the player has a series of scripted encounters with various other groups that provide background information on the mission and reveal details that make the mission’s objectives questionable. The player’s own position in the game is subverted and the framing challenged, and the player is ultimately giving the choice of finishing the scenario under the original objectives, or to pursue new objectives emerging from these interactions.

Conclusions and Next Steps

This mod is a first attempt at exploring conflict mediation and cultural model exploration through video games. While it is framed initially as a critical mod, a natural next step would be to frame it and distribute it as a regular mod and circulate it on the platform. The practice of modding is an especially adequate tool for addressing issues such as those of identity performance in video game systems. It provides direct access to a critical intervention of a widely available system, and by re-contextualizing a practice already familiar to gamers it enables the questioning of existing cultural models. By focusing on a genre of games rarely evaluated in this way, we’ve also attempted to pay closer attention to the way elements of identity can be found in all sorts of game performances, and how there are underlying cultural assumptions that can be evaluated and challenged in all sorts of gaming environments.


[1] Goffman, E. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Penguin Books (1990).
[2] Gee, J.P. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan (2007).
[3] Red vs. Blue, episode 1: Why Are We Here?

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