Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Virtue in Virtual Worlds

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

When I read last week that Jason Rohrer was making a game for the DS based on the trading of conflict diamonds, I could hardly believe it. I found this shocking because game developers tend to shy away from subjects charged with social and political controversy. The gaming market usually greets socially relevant games with either public outcry or near-total disinterest. Hence, it is no surprise when developers scurry away from controversial subjects. But just like well-done documentaries and films on difficult topics are valuable and important parts of the world of cinema, well-made games that are not afraid to tackle complex issues should have a place in the world of video games.

When Six Days in Fallujah was announced, the controversy over depicting war in a documentary-like, realistic manner was so intense that the project was dropped by its publisher, Konami. After losing that support, the developers were forced to lay off employees, and may now face complete financial failure. All this was the result of trying to portray war in a realistic way, while franchises like Call of Duty continue to make unrealistic, over-simplified war games at incredible profits.

Other games that attempt to confront real social issues are greeted with little to no attention. Games for Change is a group devoted to making socially relevant games with an activist bent, but it is a struggle to find an audience for their kind of material. This is partly because most of the games made with a specific activist goal in mind are overly focused on the message, allowing the gameplay to fall by the wayside. The other problem facing Games for Change and similar endeavors is the mentality of the video gaming audience: many gamers say that they just want their games to be fun. Video games are an escapist pastime for many, and social messages are not something they wish to grapple with in their leisure time. It is clear that games with social messages need to offer more than a moral imperative. The gameplay, controls, visuals and so on are as important in these games as they are in any other, if not more so due to the potentially smaller audience and the desire to express a particular point.

Flower is an example of a game that is beautiful to behold and fun to play, while managing to successfully pack a social message into the mix. It works because the actual playing of the game does not force the player to confront any social or political issues. Even if the conflict between nature and technology holds no interest to you, and replacing dirty energy sources like coal and oil with wind power strikes no chords, Flower’s controls and level design are simple, fun and intuitive. And if those other things do interest you, if you want more relevance and thought from your games, then Flower delivers an experience almost unheard of in the world of interactive entertainment. This additional level to Flower is so well integrated into the concept and gameplay that it enhances the experience instead of distracting from it.

A game that successfully balances gameplay and social relevance offers something more than entertainment; it improves the artistic medium as a whole. It is by no means necessary that every game published tackles complex and controversial issues, but when they do so successfully it has the potential to make video games more relevant and important than they have been in the past. More than that, a well-done game with a positive social message could improve the world: if just a few people have decided to support wind power initiatives as a result of playing Flower, that is a testament to the social power of video games. If just a few people become more discerning in their jewelry purchases as a result of Jason Rohrer’s upcoming game about conflict diamonds, that will be a great success for the game and for the medium.

This raises a larger question, frequently recurring in the realm of artistic creation: does the artist have a social responsibility in what he creates? Does the creation of art that appeals to prurient or violent interests harm society and the artist? Is difficult, morally challenging art essentially more valuable and important?

There is certainly great value in making art that can change minds and educate people on the troubles and triumphs of the world around them. And every time the world of video games expands in new directions, it becomes a more legitimate and exciting form of art.


  1. Daniel,

    I think artists do have a social responsibility. If 100% of games only focused on mindless, time wasting violence (which is not true) then there are no opportunities to explore complex ideas and learn.

    I feel easily accessible media on TV lacks social responsibility and can create a society that is misinformed on important issues or even completely apathetic. Then it's possible to have a society that thinks torture is OK.

    Oh wait, we already have that.

  2. I sure don't want social responsibility. If I want to make a mindlessly violent game, let me make that game to appeal to the people who want that.

    I don't need people telling me that my game isn't necessary because it doesn't contribute to the "culture" of games. I couldn't care less.

  3. Rohit,

    Thank you for joining the discussion. Alternative views of what games mean to different people are always welcome here at Press Pause to Reflect, but I would like to pose you a brief hypothetical in response to your comment. When you are producing a game you do your best to emulate the better parts of games that have come before and always to add something new and better, correct? I am sure that you can also agree that there will come a time when our knowledge of computer graphics and artificial physics is so great that videogames will become nearly indistinguishable from live action, if and when the developers so choose. When that day comes, when there are no more technical improvements that can be made, progress in the gaming medium will have to be made through improving the quality of characters and story. It’s the last frontier. Games which are starting to focus on that aspect of the experience now may not necessarily be the best in terms of playability and graphics, but they are looking forward. They are pushing the boundaries of what the medium is and what it could become and that is why we hold them in such high esteem. By all means, make the games that matter to you, each new innovation brings something to the medium as a whole. However, when the dust settles on this generation don’t be surprised if people have long forgotten to violence and action but hold onto the memory of the games that actually meant something to them. Art and history remember pioneers. You know the name Michelangelo, but I bet you couldn’t tell me the name of the quarrymen who mined the marble for David.

  4. I don't think that anything is "necessary" for the culture of video games. There are necessary steps that need to be taken if we want our video games to have more social and artistic value, but no artistic movement in history was strictly necessary. There will always be a place in the market for the huge summer blockbuster and the ridiculous action game.

    That being said, I do hope that not everyone shies away from confronting complex topics and social issues. The world of film would be uninteresting if all we had was summer blockbusters, and the world of video games gets similarly dull and uninspired after the umpteenth shooter or action game.

    That's all about the question of necessity, though. The question of moral responsibility is a whole different can of worms. If morally relevant art that improves the world and the lives of the people in it is particularly valuable, what does that say about art that serves no social purpose or even supports negative stereotypes and ideas? Is it irrelevant or actively harmful?

    Of course every game designer/writer/artist/film maker has the right to make whatever they please. But when we create, I think that we should at least question what we are creating. Will it sit well with me? Will it do harm? When I look back on my life and what I have created, will I be happy with what I have put out into the world?

  5. Rohit, if you make game for people who want your game, then you have social responsibility for them.

  6. Reid,

    Thanks for joining us and sharing your thoughts.

    For those who are interested, I just now discovered that Reid has a great article up on his personal blog about adding a moral premise to a game. Check that out here: Infusing Games with a Moral Premise

  7. I didn't follow the development of Six Days in Fallujah very closely, but the primary negative thing I remember hearing about it was how UNrealistic the actual game was. The concern was that they were presenting the game as a serious documentary-like product, but it was really just a typical Call of Duty inspired shooter. It had features that would be great in any other game, like fully destructible buildings, but when a game is trying to show war for what it really is it can't reasonably just let the player walk around blowing up every building in sight (not without realistic consequences). It wasn't so realistic that it bothered people, it was the almost insulting juxtaposition of documentary-like presentation and mindless juvenile violence..

  8. Six Days in Fallujah was interesting because the complaints came from every side of the issue: War veterans and their families complained either that it was too unrealistic or that it hit too close to home and it was too soon, anti-war protesters claimed that it was promoting war and glorifying it unrealistically. The funny thing is that probably very few people know what the game was like. It was still in early development when it was all but shut down.

    All in all, I'd say the game got shut down more over the idea of the game than the content of the game itself. Though I suppose we may never know.


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