Kicking Over Sandcastles

Words: 1458 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

Video games appeal to players in various ways. One common way that games provide players with opportunities to express their inner drives is through creation. I use “creation” broadly, not to refer merely to the architectural or the artistic. Games like Minecraft allow players to make buildings or figures that can be truly amazing. But so too can a game like Sim City or Rollercoaster Tycoon allow players to engage in a form of creation.

I present this sense of creation to juxtapose it with its opposite: destruction. Players of various generations may be familiar with the thrill of bringing an end to cities by summoning tornadoes and monsters, or with gathering blocks of TNT to set off massive explosions, or just grabbing a rocket launcher and firing into a busy intersection. To take something massive and reduce it to rubble can provide a sense of power that is not replicated by other means.

Destruction as a drive depends on its scale. There is little fun in breaking something small. It is the size or number that makes destruction feel special. Blowing up a house may be fairly meaningless, but toppling a skyscraper can provide a sense of satisfaction. A single building may accomplish nothing, but bringing down an entire city can scratch this particular itch. So when we talk about the urge for destruction, it is not simply any destruction. It is destruction of a particular form.

In this essay I wanted to explore the destructive tendency and explain how it works, and how games can appeal to this desire to rip things apart. It is, of course, not a requirement that every game satisfy this desire. And sometimes we might find such a drive to be undesirable. So understanding how the drive works and when it is appropriate can help us to better understand what makes destruction a source of fascination.

Wreaking Havoc

So why take such joy in the utter chaos that can be wrought from destruction?

Perhaps the first thing we can point to is the feeling of power that it gives us. In particular, the power over others. When someone else has put a great deal of care and effort into building something, to be able to tear it down gives us a – perhaps perverse – feeling of dominating someone else. Now in the strictest sense the examples we are talking about do not actually allow us to dominate over another human being. The systems are set up in a way that a destructive spree, if we choose to partake in one, is allowed, maybe even encouraged. We are not really harming anyone in this sense. But the illusion that is created through the systems – that there is something provided by someone else that we are tearing down – still fulfills that desire to dominate, even when no real domination occurs.

Of course, such a drive might be rather worrisome. Ideally, the purpose of video games as a tool of escapism is to allow us to explore and let out these drives in spaces where people can’t get hurt. But even then, some of the darker drives for what we do in games can still give us pause.

But there are also less malicious ways in which destruction is appealing. There is also a sort of visceral wonder at the process itself. I mean this in two ways. Firstly, on a visual level, the destruction of something massive can be impressive. To see a tall building be demolished or a mountain exploding is itself a spectacle that people find interesting. Secondly, on an intellectual level, the destruction also reminds us of the discrepancy between creation and destruction: to create is something that takes time and effort, but destruction can often be swift and thoughtless. It is much easier to tear down than to build up. And in witnessing the collapse of something grand, we are reminded of this on a subconscious level.

The appeal of destruction, though, relies on a few things. I’ve already mentioned the issue of scale. Various actions in video games cause destruction, but we often don’t think about them. We might shoot at the wall of a building or strike it with a blade, and that action could even be accompanied by something semi-permanent, with bullet holes or a scratch on the wall. But those little changes don’t really invoke the feelings I was describing before. They are too small, almost inconsequential, to really draw out this drive.

We might think that the problem lies in the impermanence of the action itself. Usually when you cause these little pieces of damage, it is merely cosmetic, and eventually the game “heals” the destruction. But it is not the healing that poses the problem. This destructive drive can be brought forth in games like Grand Theft Auto: the player can go to a busy intersection, pull out explosive weapons, and then destroy various cars and kill various civilians for as long as they wish. And yet, the city ultimately heals from this: the game world is fundamentally unaffected by the action. Eventually going on such a spree becomes boring, but even then the boredom results from the repetition of the task.

But the same example also helps us to think about other ways in which games can (and cannot) appeal to this destructive drive. Associated with the element of scale is the sense of immediacy. Plenty of games such as first-person shooters allow for destruction by killing multiple enemies. A player might kill thousands of enemies within a single playthrough of a single game. And yet, that death does not invoke this drive in any way. Because those deaths are spread across a longer period of time, making each individual one feel disconnected from everything before and after. Which is not to say that therefore the whole process is boring. These games still provide a sense of action and entertainment to the player. I highlight this merely to differentiate between the tension built from action with the joy built from this destructive drive.

So in order to appeal to the desire for destruction, we would instead need to have not just the same scale, but also a short span of time. A skyscraper being pulled apart one brick at a time may result in the same outcome, but does not spark the same emotion as watching it be demolished.

Finally, we should also note the importance of player direction. Part of what makes many of the examples we can provide about destruction so appealing is the way in which they are determined by the player themself. To go on a destructive spree in Grand Theft Auto. To load up a pre-made city in Sim City and plague it with monsters and other disasters. To open up Minecraft, pop a bunch of TNT onto a mountain, and then watch the resulting explosion. All of these things require the player to make a conscious choice about what they wish to do with the control given to them. To make the player do these things robs the player of agency that in turn undermines the destructive tendency. If destruction is in a sense chaotic, to introduce a sense of order into it destroys the tendency itself.

But it’s also worth pointing out here that a game consciously designed around specifically causing destruction can thus end up being self-defeating. While it would still be possible to appeal to this drive, the way in which the destruction becomes a part of the game’s order transforms it from fun to a job to be completed. Any appeal to the drive will be limited, both in scope and time. The value of these occasions for mass destruction come from the ability of the player to set their own course and decide when and how they wish to cause this destruction.

Concluding Remarks

Destruction is something that happens a lot in video games, though often on smaller scales, to the point that we don’t think about it a lot. But every now and then the possibility for large-scale destruction is possible, and those opportunities reveal something about how we play games. Sometimes the opportunity is simply a byproduct of how a game is made and the tools given to players, and sometimes the opportunity is provided consciously.

It is not needed for every game to appeal to this destructive drive. In truth, it would not even really be possible, or even desirable. Instead, what we want to focus on is understanding how and why destruction can be fun and compelling for its own sake. By having this understanding, we can step back to examine games which provide these opportunities – whether consciously or unconsciously – and ask how they could be designed better.

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