In search of positive, responsible games

Zzap!64 magazine, cover of issue 41

Zzap!64, issue 41. My childhood in a picture.

I spoke at an event (hosted by Pelitaito) yesterday with the above topic. Some of this is stuff I’ve been talking and writing about for years, but it went down well so I decided to just rewrite it in English.

SOCIAL, RESPONSIBLE CULTURE

I reacted negatively to the topic given to me. Yes, you should expect responsibility from any form of publicly distributed media. But positivity? My aggravation tendrils quivered.

Games have a unique relationship with the playing masses – consumers, if you must – in that most of the audience does not think of them as culture, nor give them a status as influencers. When a musician writes lyrics or melodies to affect emotions in their audience, or when a movie director frames a scene in a given manner, it’s understood that it’s done for a reason. The artist has a motivation to evoke a feeling and line of thinking.

With video games it’s different. Many of their creators are not out to make an effect. This is (very) (slowly) changing, but as of 2013, most game makers say they’re making “just entertainment”. Something fun and harmless. The same attitude is evident in the production of many Hollywood movies and chart pop and crappy literature. These works make you question what should still be considered art. Surely when you don’t even think your audience remembers the work the next day, a line has been crossed.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Someone out to make entertainment does not need to sport any higher goals or aspirations. What is wrong is thinking that you can create entertainment in a vacuum where media does not have any sort of effect on its audience and thus no accountability for the message it’s conveying.

LIFE LESSONS FROM THE CHURCH OF CRT AND TAC-2

All media carries a message. The maker cannot control the way the recipient handles the message or how they consume the piece of entertainment. Let’s say you’re making an annual update to a by the numbers military shooter with a dodgy world view. For tens of thousands of kids it’s going to be the first game of its kind they play. They may play it for months, and it’s going to be very powerful, important to them. They’re going to eat up every word you put in that game.

I believe I can recall every game I ever played as a child. It’s both naive and dangerous to think that those games didn’t have an effect on me. (They most certainly did, and in many ways made me who I am today.)

GAMES THAT HAD A POSITIVE INFLUENCE OF SOME KIND ON ME

So the “positivity” in the header rubbed me the wrong way. The reason is that positivity shouldn’t be seen as a goal for game content. Quite the opposite, in fact, as games have huge and largely untapped potential to explore not-fun, difficult situations and contexts in very powerful ways, making players question their world views in a fashion that just doesn’t come easily in any other medium. If you’re wondering, that’s because it’s interactive and creative (self-expression) on the part of the player. I do agree that games need to be a positive, participatory, constructive part of culture. You need to claim your place and stand on it.

Games must not be in a vacuum. A game cannot and must not be forgiven for anything “because it’s a game”. On the contrary: games have a heavy responsibility about what they say and do precisely because they’re games. They’re powerful, and it’s about time we acknowledged that.

NO, SERIOUSLY, GUYS

Talking about this within the game industry – or scene, if you’re a sworn indie developer, I guess – is rather frustrating. There is a large contingent of developers saying blankly, stubbornly and unemotionally “it’s just a game” to any and all forms of accountability, critique and questioning.

It’s all just games growing up. First you spend years claiming how games are grand, important, effective experiences, and then you’re shouting how there’s no way they could have an effect on anything to the extent that the content would matter anything. How no developer is accountible for anything. You’re not responsible. I’m not responsible.

A good example would be last week’s God Of War: Ascension discussion. The game reviewer Adam Sessler took the exemplary measure of bringing up something he found  objectionable in the game content – in this case (and in his opinion), misogynous. The gaming audience’s reaction was not surprising in its stunned rage: you can’t take this as hostile, it’s just a laugh, but there’s stuff like this in some other media somewhere, how come you didn’t notice this in another game with similar content, and my favorite: you can’t lower a game’s subjective score just because you find its message disgusting. (Of course you can. You should.)

As an industry, we need a lot more of this.

At the same time, The Walking Dead game has been talked about. The non-playing audience is saying it’s a game in which you murder children. The Walking Dead is exemplary entertainment: it’s mature, it’s restricted from children as it should be, it’s a huge leap into moral, dramatic stories in game. It’s accomplishments are monumental and flaws very few. Yet it’s crucified by the ignorant masses who don’t bother to find out the first thing about the game or listen to its many fans – who have now cried for the first time with a video game and are moved in a major way by it.

It feels like even when you do everything correctly, you just can’t win.

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

When you’re getting these childish, knee-jerk reactions from both within and outside of your field, it’s very hard to stand proudly next to your chosen medium. Especially when you know that it is in many parts unacceptable to you – yourself, as a person.

Where I see a chance to grow and reach out to an ever wider audience in more meaningful ways, a great many only see a threat and an ugly, merciless, uncovering searchlight.

Standing in that searchlight is not nice. Games have so many problems with their content that nobody wants to publicly take responsibility for them – or even discuss them out of fear of association. But that dialogue must take place if we are to advance as a medium. I am going to make game well past retirement, and I am going to continue to be proud of them, both in dinner tables and in the media.

Appendix 1: SHIT I FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE ABOUT

  • Pretty much all fighting games, much as I love them. Yes, the boobs.
  • Pretty much every modern FPS. We’ve come a long way from Doom, and in a weird direction. I’m not sure how many more digital foreigners I want to kill.
  • The world view of every modern military themed game that’s not Spec Ops: The Line. It’s scary to say the least. Airborne Ranger had nothing on this.

Appendix 2: GAMES I WANT TO SHINE A SEARCHLIGHT ON

  • Spec Ops: The Line. The only game that actually acknowledges the mass murder taking place within, and deals with it in a human way.
  • The Walking Dead. Human drama, conflict, growth and – yes – responsibility over another. (And all the tears.)
  • Hotline Miami. A great example of making a superficially simple game that’s all about its mechanics but doesn’t shy away from owning its message.

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