Games are all about conflict. Whether it is conflict between separate players, or between players and the game’s rules, there is a tension of desires. Someone wants what they do not have. Often, it is something that someone else has (see all zero sum games). Without conflict of some sort, there is no game. Even the most peaceful and creative of games embody this axiom.
A conflict is all about understanding yourself and your opponent, using your strengths against the opponent’s weakness, and maintaining the will to win even after sustaining injuries. Lest this description sound too martial, allow me to give a “peaceful” example. Building a block tower is a conflict. It is the player (the builder) against the game (physics and gravity). The player must understand their own body and ability to position blocks in space. The player must also understand the physics of blocks, how they balance, and the force of gravity. Using this knowledge, the player will play their strength (literally) against the weakness of physics (low potential energy states and activation energies of stable block configurations) to build a block tower. Finally, the player must continue to struggle to build, even after their construction falls down time and time again.
These principles are very useful in designing games. A game usually revolves around a single central conflict. Games with too many conflicts (or even worse conflicts that only peripherally affect one another) will feel lost or disjointed. The best games keep the player focused on the primary conflict, and drive all of their mechanics toward aiding or hindering the player’s progress.
Even cooperative games are a conflict of the group to obtain some outside objective. In fact, cooperative games are often doubly conflictuous (And now the lexiphiles and I will have a conflict) because the team often experiences conflict over what corporate action they should take. Coordination, too, is often a conflict of methods and approaches.
Real conflicts are rarely violent ones; They rarely come to blows. Violent conflict is the most visible and sensational form of conflict, so it is often seen as the most common. However, this is (not yet) the case. Political maneuvering, gardening, and the knock-down drag-out brawl are all, at a certain level of abstraction, the same game. They are even played in roughly the same way. The contextual overlay is what I call the “conflict metaphor.” Most games overlay the central conflict (such as, “make your numbers go up, and the opponent’s numbers go down”) with a conflict metaphor (such as, “Keep your health high and kill the enemies”) to make the conflict more relate-able and easy to grasp. Just remember that the conflict metaphor often has little to do with the conflict itself, but everything to do with how squarely the message of the game lands.
Conflict metaphors are often interchangeable. Violent conflict of enemies, bloodshed, and toughness is only the last resort in real life, and it’s a shame that we see it so often in video games. It is only one of many conflict metaphors which can be applied to any game system. On the other hand, most “peaceful” and “nonviolent” games use identical conflict engines to those of the most bloody and violent. The window dressing changes (and definitely has an affect on the game experience) but the core mechanics of the conflict are unchanged by these frills.
Remember when you are designing or playing games to look past the conflict metaphor to the conflict itself. It may surprise you to find out what you’re really asking the player to fight for.