An Artistic Device Unique To Digital Games: Conflict Displacement

flood v 2 elites

[~2200 words]

So, I wanted to talk about a type of gameplay that I’ve been thinking about lately, one in which the player can set things up so that the game continues, progress is made, but the player can choose to sit back and watch things unfold. It creates a very specific feeling, or sensation, of being in control, but also not in control; it feels both powerful and relaxing.

I first talked about it in my Fun Gun Award for the Resistance series, specifically when I was talking about the Mutator gun. Then in my post about Diablo 2’s Necromancer, I talked about it again regarding the Necromancers AI altering skills. And it was at this point (during the Necromancer post) that I realized that this specific type of gameplay/gamedesign/mechanic is actually a unique artistic device that you don’t normally see outside of digital games. And it’s a very specific and unique experience that I don’t think I’ve seen anyone explicitly describe before.

doom berserk


I mentioned a couple examples earlier. The Mutator gun in Resistance 3 infects enemies so that they fight each other. The Necromancer’s AI altering skills also make the enemies fight each other. In each case, the player triggers events that shift the conflict away from himself, and shifts the conflict to some other part of the game (in both these examples, it shifts the conflict to enemy characters).

Another quick, generic example would be when the player is being attacked by monsters, but then another faction of monsters show up, and all the monsters start fighting each other instead of the player. In other words, a new group of monsters aggros the first group of monsters and the conflict is shifted away from the player.

Basically, with Conflict Displacement the game plays itself while the player can take a breather. In a way, progress becomes automated. It’s like an in-game cinematic that the player can (usually) choose to trigger and can choose to become a part of.

Crucial to this is that the player still has agency; this isn’t an actual cinematic. The players can choose to become part of the conflict again, if they want, otherwise the sensation of Conflict Displacement doesn’t occur.

So, Conflict Displacement is:
– When the player is the focus of some conflict, but then this conflict is displaced to another part of the game; the player is no longer in conflict with the game, although the player may choose to become a part of the conflict again. You can view this as the game playing itself, or as progress becoming automated.

antlion pheropod


So, as I was writing examples I realized that there’s actually two types of Conflict Displacement, which you may have intuited in my above examples.

1) Player Directed Conflict Displacement:

This is when the player’s input is required for Conflict Displacement to occur. The most frequent example is summoning some creature to fight for you.

Examples: Mutator gun in Resistance 3, summoning skills of Necromancer in Diablo 2, the antlion pheropod in Half-life 2, the Engineer’s turrets in Team Fortress 2, mind controlling enemies to turn on each other, etc.

2) Naturally Occurring Conflict Displacement:

This is when the player’s input is NOT required for Conflict Displacement to occur. The player can be involved in initiating the Conflict Displacement, but he doesn’t have to be. The most frequent example is when there are pre-existing factions in a game that will fight each other if they cross paths. Often this is a product of emergent game design.

Examples: Flood v. Covenant in Halo, Combine v. Antlions v. Zombies in Half-life 2, monsters going berserk in Doom and Marathon, bot players fighting each other in a “multiplayer” match of any FPS or RTS, wildlife or creeps attacking other enemies, etc.

Basically, in all the above examples, whether the player initiates what is happening or just stumbles onto it, the player can sit back, disengage from the game, and enjoy the show. Importantly, the player can always choose to become a part of the action if they want to.

flight sim fancy


I’ve talked about this in my previous posts (Resistance funs and Diablo 2’s Necromancer), but Conflict Displacement is a lot of fun.

I mean, if the game just played itself the whole time then it would just be boring; it would just be a movie. But, every now and then, it’s nice to not have to be in 100% control; it’s nice not to be the center of the game’s attention; it’s nice to watch the world continue turning without you.

Used sparingly, in certain situations, Conflict Displacement can be empowering and relaxing at the same time; it can feel rewarding and makes the world feel more alive and dynamic.

With Player Directed Conflict Displacement you feel empowered because you feel like you have control beyond just your character. By turning enemies into allies, you are using their power against themselves, and this subversion feels really great to pull off.

It’s also calming because, as I’ve mentioned before, you can just sit back and relax, at least for a moment. You don’t have to stress out since the focus of the game isn’t on you anymore. You don’t have to be an active participant, and you can be a passive observer.

And with Naturally Occurring Conflict Displacement it makes the world feel more real. The player isn’t the only important thing in the game. The non-player characters have internal rivalries and hatreds that have nothing to do with the player, and this adds verisimilitude.

There’s also a sense of satisfaction when you have to think a little outside the box to achieve Conflict Displacement (such as when you lure monsters into shooting each other to make them go berserk in old 2.5D shooters like Doom and Marathon). You’re doing something unconventional, and you’re engaging with some of the deeper systems in the game to get some fun results.

I remember in Halo 1, one of my favorite things to do would be to lead groups of Covenant into groups of Flood and get them to fight while I just watched, or ran past, or took out the leftovers. I liked this experience so much that I once thought about making a mod in the Marathon engine that revolved around leading groups of monsters into each other in order to get through the level (you didn’t have any weapons and it kind of had a Portal vibe, but I never got past a few prototype maps).

factorio train


All my previous examples of C. D. involve violent conflict between characters in the game. This is the easiest example to grasp, but it isn’t the only way to look at things. Conflict Displacement does not JUST refer to violence (which I’ll elaborate on in the next section).

So, let’s just start asking some questions about other types of games and how Conflict Displacement applies to them.

What about flight simulators? Would Conflict Displacement in a flight simulator just be an autopilot that you can activate when you’re having trouble? The new MarioKart has a partial autopilot feature. Would that be an example of Conflict Displacement?

How about god games, or city builders like SimCity? Would Conflict Displacement involve having underlings running parts of the city for you through a set of automatic instructions? I think there are some 4X games (Galactic Civilizations, Civilization, etc.) that do something like this, where you have governors or satraps who govern provinces/planets for you, but where you can still take direct control if you want. Could that be considered Conflict Displacement?

What about puzzle games like Myst? What would be an example of Conflict Displacement there? Resolving the conflict of the game involves solving the puzzles to progress to the next bit of content. So, something that solves the puzzles for you? That doesn’t feel right. I feel with games like Myst that the puzzles are too unique to have Conflict Displacement applied to them, but I’m not sure. I’ll need to think more about it.

What about a game like Factorio? The conflict in that game doesn’t come from violence, it comes from grinding. The thing preventing the player’s progress is the collecting of materials and the construction of contraptions. However, Factorio let’s players automate all this. In fact, that’s the core of the gameplay. You’re basically shifting the conflict from yourself and displacing it onto these automated assembly lines that do everything for you. In my opinion, the entire premise of Factorio is to use Conflict Displacement to achieve your goals, and the fun comes from this sense of empowerment.

marathon infighting


So, I didn’t realize what conflict displacement was really about until I finished the first draft of this article and was editing it. As I explored the concept, especially with how it applies to non-violent games, I started to realize what’s really going on with conflict displacement, deep down.

The magic of Conflict Displacement comes from the fact that the “conflict” that’s happening isn’t really between the player and the monsters, nor between different NPCs. The actual “conflict” taking place is the conflict between the player and the game itself.

Let me slide over into this tangent to begin my explanation. One of the things that’s unique to digital games which isn’t present in other mediums (not even analog games) is that the game restricts the audience’s ability to make progress. If you want to go to Level 2, but you haven’t completed Level 1’s objectives then the game simply will not allow you to go to Level 2. Completely not true for a book where, for example, if you want to go to Chapter 2 then you can just flip to those pages without even glancing at Chapter 1. In a movie, if you want to go to a particular scene you can either skip to it (if you’re watching a DVD) or you can just wait it out and the movie will get there eventually anyway; but you’re not prevented from seeing that scene. In a board game, if you want to setup the board “mid-game” then there’s nothing stopping you from doing that. But, in video games, you can’t skip to Chapter 2 just because you want to, you can’t just wait for the game to “get to” the next level, and you can’t just start the game “mid-game” just because you feel like it.

And this is what forms the basis of the conflict between the game and the player: the player wants to move forward, but the game will not let him unless he has completed a set of pre-determined objectives (unless of course the developer incorporated tools that let the player skip levels and what have you). If you think about it, this is a really antagonistic relationship between medium and audience, which really makes digital games the most restrictive medium and the one that provides the least agency for the audience.

So, there you go. The player is actually in conflict with the game itself, and the conflict stems from the player wanting to make progress and the game not letting him.

That’s why Conflict Displacement often involves “automated progress” or having the game “playing against itself”. With Conflict Displacement the developer has given the player tools for setting things in motion wherein the player no longer has to actively struggle against the game to move forward. The game struggles against itself. The game becomes more user friendly, essentially.

This is also why Conflict Displacement is unique to digital games. First of all, other mediums don’t have this kind of antagonistic relationship with their audience (I mean, live theater could, but that’s a different discussion; and digital books/films could, but that’s also for a different discussion). Second of all, most other mediums can’t do the automated progress part of Conflict Displacement. Books can’t turn their own pages nor can they read themselves for you (although, actually, that’s what an audiobook does, so maybe…). Board games can’t move their own pieces for you; the players have to constantly physically engage with the game, they can’t just sit back and watch things unfold. Movies are nothing but automated progress, so the audience is constantly sitting back and watching things unfold.

In this last section there has been a lot that can be unpacked. Maybe I will do that some day in the future. Maybe you will do that some day.

galciv governor 2


As I’ve said before, I really like it whenever conflict displacement is used in a game. Initiating conflict displacement is involved in some of my favorite moments in games.

Used with discipline and skill it can create really interesting ebbs and flows in the pacing of the game. I think more developers should be aware of it and use it with deliberateness in their games. Undoubtedly game designers already know about it intuitively, but I haven’t seen any explicit concrete discussions of the concept before.


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