Pacifist gaming: Super Mario Bros, Civilization, and Mortal Kombat

Pacifism is the opposition to war and violence. It’s a stance taken by ethical peace-keepers, fearless revolutionaries, and cowards. It also has a huge entry on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that I tried to read for this article.

Basically some geniuses have decided that violence isn’t always the answer, and I’ve taken their claim and tested it using video games.

Super Mario Bros.

First up, let’s look at Super Mario Bros. As a classic platformer where you can easily avoid combat, it seems like a great example of how pacifism can work. Can you imagine a world without conflict and needless suffering, where the only thing that motivates us is a simple desire to run in one direction until reaching the end of the stage? Sure you may call me a dreamer, and so on.

I was happy to discover there’s already a pacifist movement in this game’s community, but horrified when, after an admirable run in which he avoided stomping innocent goombas, Mario still pulled the lever to plummet Bowser to his death. Some might argue that Mario just “did what needed to be done” and that Bowser sealed his own fate the minute he kidnapped Princess Peach.

But this ignores the fact that people can change. Bowser isn’t a person, I guess, so let’s say: this ignores the fact that monsters can change. Not to mention the issues of sovereignty which arise from extra-judiciously executing a foreign head of state. And morally, does Mario have any right to serve as judge, jury and executioner? I think not.

Pacifism rating: 6 out of 10

Civilization

Sid Meier's Civilization is a turn-based strategy game where you start with a tiny dirt-farming hamlet and, under the supernatural guise of a famous real-life historical figure, guide it towards becoming a futuristic global superpower. This is a game about economy, war, and diplomacy, and requires managing conflict on a limited-size map which will quickly be covered by your rivals. In other words, this game has slightly more resemblance to the real world than say, Mario.

However, in this game you can actually play and win as a pacifist. You can still bulldoze your enemies with military might, but you can also win them over with friendship or seduce them with your glorious culture or just plain old win the space race. The many paths to victory actually favor a somewhat non-violent approach, and it’s great fun conquering the world as an alternate universe peaceful Genghis Khan.

My one bone to pick with this game is that there isn’t a “Moral Victory” path. In real life you don’t become a superpower by being pacifist, and often you get totally crushed. You should win some points in the history books by refusing to fight back while they destroy you, is all I’m saying.

Pacifism rating: 9 out of 10

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat is known for being the bloodiest fighting series around. It’s a shameless celebration of violence and gore, every pacifist’s nightmare.

Before looking at the gameplay I attempted to parse out the storyline, just in case there was a reasonable justification for why a bunch of ninjas and demons have to uppercut each other onto beds of spikes. No such luck. The lore is impenetrable and I made even less progress here than on the Stanford Encyclopedia article. I’ll just have to trust these mutants have a good reason to fight to the death.

There’s no way to play this game as a pacifist. It’s a fighting game, so obviously you can’t even get past your first match if you’re just standing there all peaceful-like while a guy with metal arms tears you apart. Here is my simple plea for Mortal Kombat and all fighting games: we have a button for punch, and a button for kick, but why do we not have a button for talking out our problems? It's something to think about.

It’s worth noting that for a minute there Mortal Kombat included Friendship as way to end a match, which is a great option for gentle souls such as myself. Unfortunately they haven’t included this feature since the 90s, so it’s unlikely to make a return in the upcoming Mortal Kombat 11, which features fatalities so bloody I almost didn’t finish the bowl of piping hot menudo I was eating while watching them.

Pacifism rating: 1 out of 10

The struggle of the gaming pacificst

So pacifism isn’t the greatest way to play video games. That’s not pacifism’s fault -- it’s the very nature of games to be about conflict. As William S. Burroughs said: “This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers.”.

The structure of games force our hand. We must either respond with aggression or face defeat. But isn’t there another option? Couldn’t we redirect this competitive energy towards nurturing each other’s differences? Couldn’t we just walk away, and stop playing games altogether?

Just kidding.