There are several examples of influential works in narrative fiction that swayed public opinion on political issues. Uncle Tom’s Cabin served as a rallying cry against the evils of American slavery. The Jungle shined light on the horrific conditions of early 20th century factories. Dr. Strangelove opened Americans’ eyes to the ridiculousness of Cold Way hysteria. These examples show art as an oft-employed medium to inculcate standpoints in the minds of the populace. Artists realized long ago that people are more willing to embrace ideas if they are presented in an entertaining, non-academic way.
Video games are at a cusp in popular opinion, as consumers gradually begin to regard them at works of art as opposed to complex toys. This evolution of thought has coincided with several trends in the gaming industry. The success of BioShock and Assassin’s Creed show that narrative-driven games are increasingly becoming the standard, while well-known writers like Peter David are often tasked with penning the stories of bestselling games.
Furthermore, the ability to create games is no longer exclusively the domain of a few select companies like Electronic Arts and Nintendo. Anyone who has the will and talent can create a video game, as proven by independent developers releasing unique gems like Braid, World of Goo, and Castle Crashers.
Braid’s narrative was multifaceted. Was one of those facets politics on nuclear weapons?
The day when developers create video games like the politically-minded works above, developed to fit within specific purposes or to convey specific messages, is not only foreseeable, but already on its way. Left Behind: Eternal Forces, for example, conveyed extremist religious messages that were derided by critics as intolerant. Moreover, politics is finding its way into video games. Fans of the Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series will be readily familiar with the creator’s anti-war messages that are instilled in each entry. While Kojima’s message is hardly bold – very few would argue that nuclear weapons are one of mankind’s most beneficial creations – his choice to include such a message serves as an example of what may become increasingly commonplace in games and the gaming industry.
As such, the gaming community must collectively ask whether this augurs well for the medium. Is it the responsibility of video games to be the metaphorical middle man of societal change? Moreover, would doing so provie gamers with thought-provoking commentary or simply trite viewpoints that don’t belong in games?
While the free expression of opinion is extremely important within democracy, not all mediums of opinion are created equal. The original inception behind video games, all the way back to the Magnavox Odyssey, was to entertain. To do anything more than provide escapism – that is, to give a game its higher purpose – is a pitfall I believe the gaming industry should avoid. Doing so would not only dilute any intended message, but also sully the industry as a whole.
One fundamental problem with message-driven gaming is the difficulty in reconciling the message with entertainment value. The nature of video games as an interactive medium limits the conveyance of certain messages. While it’s a nice thought, Kojima’s anti-war message is contradictory; it’s hard to deliver a message about anti-violence when the game itself is ostensibly about killing soldiers left and right. Yet, the game would lose its entertainment value if it weren’t for its combat-based action.
Furthermore, the success of film and television as avenues of societal change is largely illusory. Only a handful of narrative, non-documentary films (Dr. Strangelove among them) can legitimately be said to have changed the way society behaves. All in all, that’s a pretty awful track record. Movies that do espouse a particular viewpoint, especially a political opinion (Runaway Jury, The Contender) are often derided as heavy-handed, even by those who may agree with the films’ politics.
When such message-driven works do drive social change, the effect can often be negative. Take, for example, the silent film The Birth of a Nation. The movie was basically a propaganda piece on the Ku Klux Klan that managed to revitalize that reviled organization in 1920s America. Games producing a similar effect would be an anathema to the industry. Video games have largely gotten over the Congressional debates of the 1990s, the fallout from Columbine, and the crusades led by Jack Thompson and his acolytes. A game that espoused such controversy would put the industry back ten years.
A caveat must be made between themes and messages. A theme is a perfectly acceptable mechanism that serves to enhance a story. Metal Gear Solid’s theme is that one’s destiny is not written in stone. BioShock possesses multiple themes, the most prevalent being the notion that man can take science too far. If players wish to extrapolate upon these themes, then that is their prerogative.
Shadow Complex became the unlikely focus of fierce political debate.
Fundamentally, it’s players’ responsibilities to keep publishers and developers in check. Certain sectors of the online gaming community, most notably a group of NeoGAF members, recently advocated a boycott against the Xbox Live title Shadow Complex. This proposed boycott was meant to protest against science fiction writer Orson Scott Card’s involvement, his Empire series of books serving as the basis for the game’s story. This arose from Card’s outspoken stance against gay marriage, even though Shadow Complex itself does not address this issue.
Needless to say, the boycott didn’t work as the game has enjoyed both critical and commercial success. Nonetheless, this is still a positive sign for the future of gaming. What if Shadow Complex did advocate Card’s viewpoints? The fact that the gaming community can become so impassioned about a cause is comforting. The boycott would be legitimate in this case, not for its particular stance on gay marriage, but because it would have made the game a polemic.
Video games creators would best encourage societal concord by taking a cue from sports. Although sports are hardly without controversy, they do possess the virtue of being largely apolitical. The Olympics, for example, is often seen as a way to bring the world together. Video games should take a similar high road. Revelatory works are best left to documentaries, journalism, and on occasion other types of art. Video games are best left as avenues of escapism. Ironically, the adherence to this founding philosophy may go much farther in promoting harmony than any unwelcome argument, shoe-horned into a game’s narrative.