Gaming Can Change the World Too
The interactivity of video games is one of the reasons why it is most suited to making the world a better place
One of the elements that most clearly separates gaming from other artforms is its interactivity. This is true for all kinds of games. Tabletop RPGs like DnD, playground games like hide-and-seek, and board games like Monopoly, all of these involve direct input from the players for the game to continue. Further, the form the player input takes more or less defines the game. What is interesting about video games, in particular, is the way that this direct player interaction is combined with other artistic mediums like visuals, sound design, music, narrative design, etc. to create an experience that is more than the sum of its parts. What I find interesting is how this cohesive experience works to change people and their connections with others. In other words, how video games can impact the world.
How we socialise
Video games and the interactivity they facilitate have already changed society in a number of ways. Multiplayer gaming, combined with ever-increasing internet speeds, has changed how people socialise, especially among the younger generations. When I was in high school, battling your mates in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was one of the main ways you would hang out after school. This is even more the case for younger children today, with games like Roblox and Fortnite taking the world by storm. While this has its disadvantages (e.g. reduced physical activity, risk of child grooming in online situations, exposure to toxic language and behaviours), there are also many benefits. For one, it gives people more ways to connect across vast distances. Imagine you move to another state and all of your family and childhood friends are now at least a few hours away. Having a skype call or the intermittent physical visit is one thing, but how about playing a raid together in Destiny or battling it out in the latest Call of Duty every other day? A similar argument could be made for accessibility issues. Certain forms of social activity can be difficult for people with physical and cognitive impairments. Your favourite bar may not be wheelchair accessible and the local music gig may be overstimulating to people with certain mental conditions. With the Xbox Adaptive Controller, however, gaming can open up meaningful socialisation to a much greater range of people.
So, for better or for worse, gaming has changed how many of us socialise. However, something interesting about this is that these changes were mostly unintentional. Sure, these game developers made conscious decisions about the game design and online interactivity, but they probably weren’t in service of this grand goal to change social interaction. Rather, the people who work at these companies were probably more motivated by the need to make a profitable product and the want to create something they are proud of. Fulfilling these goals involved creating games that had certain forms of online interaction and, over time and across many different videogames, this gradually resulted in new ways of socialising. Whenever any individual, group, or other force has a large impact on society there will inevitably be unintentional changes. That is simply how society shifts across time and in different places. However, this doesn’t mean that people cannot try and use these processes to make the world a certain way (hopefully for the better).
Changing the world through immersion
Just as socialising online is facilitated by multiplayer experiences, other forms of social change can arise from different kinds of player interaction. One of the most effective, particularly in video gaming, is the ability to immerse players in a world different from their own. In the often discussed Papers, Please by Lucas Pope, players take on the role of an immigration officer in a fictional, authoritarian country. The gameplay loop centres around checking the paperwork of potential travellers and granting or denying them access to the country. Your character is rewarded with money for every correctly processed traveller, money that can be used to pay for the survival of your family back home. While this initially sounds like some kind of boring workplace simulator, things don’t stay that simple for very long. As the game progresses, the player has to make a number of moral choices due to their role as a borders officer. Do you split up a husband and wife just because one of them lacks the proper papers? Do you send a political refugee back to their home country where they will likely be killed, just because one detail is wrong on their passport? These are the kinds of moral decisions the player must make.
Part of why Papers, Please is so effective with these moral choices is because the player is directly making them. In both Last of Us games, we can see the characters go through critical moral dilemmas arising from the post-apocalyptic world they live in. In Papers, Please, we as the player viscerally experience those dilemmas emotionally, cognitively, and physically. We feel empathy for the migrants, we have to choose whether to let them through, we have to press the button that changes their lives forever. It is Pope’s design choices in terms of player input, combined with the fairly unintrusive story elements, that allows us to temporarily become one of those heartless bureaucrats whose complicity has caused so many of humanity’s worst moments. On its own, this obviously isn’t going to change the world. For at least some people, though, the game has created a greater understanding of why people are complicit in horrible things and how easy it is for anyone to do the same.
Can this become commercial?
As I discussed in a previous medium article, one thing that bugged me about The Last of Us: Part II is how it tries so hard to make us see the antagonist Abby as human, yet dehumanises the NPC enemies through its gameplay mechanics. I mostly put this down to the fact that the game still needs to be profitable and the experimental game mechanics of games like Papers, Please just aren’t going to draw the same sales numbers. This raises the question, can commercial games do more to create player experiences that have a positive impact on society?
I have already mentioned the Xbox Adaptive Controller and how it enhances the accessibility of games. While there is still a very long way to go, other accessibility features are becoming more and more prevalent in popular videogames. This is one example of how developers are making choices about their game design that bring about social good. But what about the more critical social and political commentary of games like Papers, Please?
One game genre where I see the most potential is in role-playing games. Fallout, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and a number of other RPGs are undoubtedly successful in a commercial sense. The player freedom afforded in these games and the focus on story provides fertile ground to comment on social issues. For example, maybe rather than assembling allies to battle the Reapers in Mass Effect 2 and 3, the enemy could have been more ambivalent, like one of the other galactic empires. Such a story could have let the player experience the various messy and straight-up destructive actions people take during war.
The series already puts a focus on relationships with crewmates, and this could be a great way of exploring the moral ambiguity of war in further detail. Relationships with crewmates are used to demonstrate the consequences of certain moral choices (mostly with the companion dying or becoming unavailable based on your actions). This could be extended to a main story with a more morally grey enemy. Perhaps one crew member is having second thoughts about the war. Perhaps another is from the society the war is against and takes issue with killing their fellow countrymen. Rather than relegating these social themes to certain story moments, this could be more closely tied to the moment-to-moment gameplay. Perhaps losing the trust of one of the crewmates cuts out a number of gameplay options (maybe they are needed to solve certain puzzles or provide unique combat abilities). Maybe crew member loyalty depends on your actions during the combat. Perhaps these more sympathetic companions will only stay with you if you tend towards stealth, dialogue, and other pacifist options. Maybe these moral choices and your willingness to perform actions that go against your moral values will change the outcome of the war in the overall story. In such a Mass Effect game, the immersion of the player in this world would allow them to experience, albeit in a limited way, some of the moral issues of real wars. This is exactly what I mean when I say the interactive experience provided to the player is one of gaming’s greatest strengths when it comes to contributing to changes in society.
What else can games do?
These are just a few personal musings, and the social changes intended by developers need not necessarily deal with overtly political problems as in my examples. I have already discussed how greater accessibility and connecting people across long distances is one positive social change that can come from gaming, but there is much greater potential beyond that. Gaming experiences that help people deal with mental health issues, that teach people how to effectively handle finances, or enhance cultural exchange are a handful of other examples. These issues can often be addressed more effectively by an experience with direct player input, rather than the often passive ways of engaging with other artforms. Watching a video that teaches you how to avoid debt and save effectively is one thing, but a game where you have to put those financial skills into practice is going to be more likely to achieve positive social change. What I find so interesting about this is that it means games aren’t just some novelty shoe-horned into a space it is not suited to. Rather, there are qualities that gaming has that actually makes it one of the better choices for dealing with certain issues. This has already been shown with games like Papers, Please, but I hope more commercial developers and publishers take the social impacts of their work into greater consideration. After all, it is only through such a widespread and concerted effort that gaming can truly transform our world for the better.