Can gaming mean something? I don’t mean telling a story. I mean, can it send a clear message about issues in our real world? There’s no reason it couldn’t. Creators have been using books & film for years to implant a message into our minds, make us think about things in a way we didn’t before. But in comparison to these forms of media, video games are in the childhood of their evolution. Think about the earliest games. They didn’t tell a story. Typically you only had one objective, usually just “survive as long as possible.” Games like Asteroids or Centipede weren’t exactly brimming with philosophical insight.
Over time, games began to develop deeper stories. They started simple, with objectives like “save the princess,” but have become much more complex. One of my favorite game plots in from Jade Empire, which is a bunch of smaller plots building into a rich, life-like world.
But one area where games are still slow to progress is in making us examine our own lives. There haven’t been too many that have made us stop & think about what we just saw & apply these conclusions to our own lives. There have been some instances. For example, a lot of people talk about how hard it was to make a choice between brainwashing or outright killing the Geth in Mass Effect 2, but I was most torn during Mordin’s loyalty mission with what to do with the research data on the Krogan genophage. On the one had you have data that was gathered by horrible, inhumane means. The initial human response is to discard it in contempt for what the doctor did. Then again, the research could end the genophage, the sterility that was killing out an entire species. Something I considered equally as horrible. In the end I decided the sacrifices were worth saving an entire race.
I’ve heard that Spec Ops: The Line does something similar, but I haven’t played it yet (it is in my rental Q, however).
Fewer still are games that make a societal or political stand. And I’m not talking about shooters glorifying war or the military, because most of those are being played by people who already have those views. I mean games that really make us examine ourselves & maybe even realize something we never knew before.
What got me thinking about this was an article I read on a recent Indie game called The Best Amendment. It’s a deceptively simple (& free) Indie game that directly reflects a recent topic in the United States. Specifically, it’s a reaction to a statement from the National Rifle Association that, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” Clearly an attempt to justify having no gun-control laws. The game is essentially a 3rd-person shooter where you have to kill figures for stars. However, with each level, another figure appears that follows the actions you just took. So you basically have to keep killing more of your past selfs. The game ends when you die because there are so many previous yous that you can’t avoid being shot. Here a clip of the game:
The question the game poses is: If only a good person can stop a bad person with a gun, then who stops that person when they become bad? Another person with a gun? How far does this go? At what point do you become the bad guy?
The overall theme is that violence only begets violence. Unlike in superhero comics, killing the bad guy doesn’t stop more bad guys from coming into existence. It’s like treating the symptoms without cutting out the root cause of the problem.
When games do try to send a message, you’ll typically see it in the Indie market. I think major publishers don’t see the mass appeal of activist-games, which I suppose is true. These sorts of games are typically niche, & often called “artsy” or even pretentious by the rest of the community. It’s usually easier for a small group of people to just make the game themselves & get it out however they can. Some good examples of such games that I’ve enjoyed are Colour My World & Freedom – Person Lost, both made by the same creator & found on Newgrounds. And this is what Molleindustria, The Best Amendment’s creator, wants to see more of.
On the site to download the game, Molleindustria is asking for donations towards a series of workshops he’ll be hosting at The Allied Media Conference this year, entitled “Imagining Better Futures Through Play.” His initiative is to encourage people to create games with a message.
Everyone plays games, but why are so many of the most popular games about violence, inequality, and imperialism, and why do they misrepresent our communities for commercial gain? Can’t they reflect the world we want to live in instead? Imagining Better Futures through Play at the Allied Media Conference is about promoting games and creative play as media for telling our own stories, for envisioning systemic change, and for building movements.
I applaud their goal & I hope to see more quality games in the future that make us reflect on the world around us. Don’t get me wrong, not every game needs to have some deeper meaning. Sometimes I just want to have mindless entertainment. But it would be nice to see gaming continue to evolve as a media & an art. After all, some of the most enduring books & films are ones that have taught us about ourselves.