A Case Study of Violence in Games: Spirit Island and Catan

I was listening to one of Keith's podcasts (Single Player Competition: Strategy Games You Can Live In), and had some thoughts about Keith's assertion that a game like Settlers of Catan offers a good template for games that avoid being socially problematic because they're non-violent (I hope I've framed the assertion correctly!).

I found that I respectfully disagree, and I want to offer up 2 assertions to explore this topic a bit:

1) Games that normalize/abstractify/encourage colonialism are at least as socially detrimental as games that do the same for violence (possibly more).

Let's take Settlers of Catan. Aside from the robber stealing your resources, there are no violent verbs in the game. The worst you can do to your opponents is deny them access to resources. There's a case to be made that winning by stifling your opponent's access to resources is a form of non-physical violence or oppression.

More than that, though, the idea of a fertile, uninhabited land just waiting to be colonized by settlers is far from ethically or politically neutral. Historically, colonization has almost always been oppressive and violent to existing populations (and almost always involved displacing existing populations, rather than settling in empty land). Painting a picture of an empty landscape glosses over the dark history of colonialism.

To the extent that Euro "colonization-themed" games comprise a lot of examples of non-violent games, this suggests to me that we're actually further behind than we thought in the mission of making games that aren't culturally harmful.

This brings up another point for me:

2) There are (arguably) contexts where violence is justified if done out of defense, or to directly resist grave oppression.

Let's look at the board game Spirit Island. Spirit Island is a lot like Settlers in reverse: you play as nature spirits of the island, trying to push out European colonizers as they attempt to settle in your land and displace the indigenous population. The spirits and the indigenous population both enact violence on the settlers, and vice versa. You use offensive powers on settlers, and they are removed from the board.

To me, though, this feels like a way more socially progressive board game than Settlers. I'd argue this is because most audiences have an understanding that violence has a different ethical charge depending on the context and the source: for example, audiences tend to feel the rebel alliance is more justified in their violence than the empire. A expressly physical version of "punching up" vs "punching down".

My aim here isn't to get deeply into an analysis of the history and ethics involved, but simply to point out that reasonable people disagree about this topic, that it exists, and a project of making culturally positive / non-harmful games should definitely incorporate it. Thanks for reading!
Interesting thoughts. I kind of agree in both cases, but also kind of disagree, as you suggested reasonable people do!

Briefly, in the case of Catan, I think your argument reads too much "colonialism" into the setting that isn't explicitly there. Can't we give it the benefit of the doubt and imagine it actually is what it purports to be, i.e. an empty landscape? Some group of humans would have to be the first, and would become the "indigenous" group. I would probably agree with a different example game though, like say Civ, where indigenous people are explicitly displaced. Less clear would be cases where non-humans or alien fauna of as-yet-unknown sentience were exploited. I guess Catan has sheep. That's a slippery-slope of discussion if ever there was one!

On the second point I haven't played Spirit Island so I can't comment directly on that. However in general I'll agree that putting effort into creating a more ethical explanatory context for violence in games is of value, and reversing the colonial narrative as per Spirit Island could be one such. In practice though, theme is quickly forgotten during play, and I think it'd be much more valuable if a game did one or all of: *make violence relatively hard to perform; *offer several non-violent alternative approaches to dealing with problems; *portray consequences in the form of both immediate individual misery and generations-long resentment; *give minimal non-spectacular audoivisual effects to accompany violent acts (in video games - I know you were mainly talking about board games). What's harmful IMO is when violence is the only, best or easiest solution to every problem.


Staff member
Hi @DanielleS thanks for the good post and sorry I took awhile to get back about it.

On your point #1 - I totally agree with this. I don't actually remember citing Settlers of Catan as a good example of... well, anything. But if I did, I definitely take it back.

On point #2, technically, of course, you are correct about self-defense. But the problem is that this is exploited too much. Arguably every action movie ever you could say that 50-90% of the fight sequences could be argued that they're in "self defense" (because Bad Guy is going to destroy the world!!!!). So it's kind of weak. It becomes even weaker in a game that you're supposed to play over and over and over again for fun. Like clearly you really just like fighting if you keep putting yourself in a "justifiable position" of having to defend yourself with violence over and over again.

Anyway I broadly agree with your thing that it's not violence that's the issue, but dehumanization of all forms. Totally agreed.
@keithburgun thanks for the reply! Seems like we're on a similar page; I broadly agree about dehumanization being the metric to use.

What do you make of games that frame violence the way Spirit Island does? Should it be re-themed to something like Pandemic (destroying non-sentient agents like viruses, etc.), or is there cultural value in framing violent yet anti-colonial themes in games? I tend to think violence in games isn't categorically negative, and consider this a relevant edge case.


Staff member
What do you make of games that frame violence the way Spirit Island does? Should it be re-themed to something like Pandemic (destroying non-sentient agents like viruses, etc.), or is there cultural value in framing violent yet anti-colonial themes in games? I tend to think violence in games isn't categorically negative, and consider this a relevant edge case.
I mean yeah if you're killing people in a game, I generally kinda have a problem with that, even if it's like "bad people" like colonizers or Nazis or whatever. Again it might be one thing to do this in a "play-it-once art game" sort of interactive art installation thing. It's another thing to have a game that you might be playing every day and it's just like, you're killing humans all the time. I think that's probably psychologically bad. And the whole premise of there being "bad guys" is also really bad.

I do think violence against humans (and animals) in games is probably categorically bad, especially in games that are supposed to be fun. But not "because it's violence", but because, in order to perform violence a lot and comfortably and have fun with it you have to enter a certain frame of mind for it, and I think that frame of mind is not healthy.

With all that said, I do think an anti-colonial theme would be great, but I can think of a lot of ways that you could do that without it being violent.

With all THAT said, I also totally appreciate how difficult it is to avoid violence in games. I did an indiecade talk about that last year, and my current big game (Escape the Omnochronom) has lots of violence in it.