One of my favorite talks from PAX 2009 was the "Murder, Sex & Drugs" panel that asked the question: "Do video games have a cultural imperative to present serious topics seriously?" The basic consensus on the panel was a definitive "yes," but there was some worry that the largest mainstream games often blunder into social issues naively or halfheartedly. Additionally, folks agreed that a system of dual responsibility was required for games to address serious issues: Developers needed to take responsibility for fostering serious topics while also making the games engaging, and players needed to take responsibility to then seek out these games, purchase them, and partake in the discussion.
Throughout the discussion, I felt as though most folks were resigned to the idea that we are probably years away from realizing a widespread social commentary in games. While I definitely think that game development and analysis will become increasingly sophisticated in the years to come, I believe there is another movement underway that is already laying the groundwork for the way we examine how even the most popular games interact with complex social issues.
First, it is important to think realistically when forming expectations for how games should tackle serious social and cultural issues. Simply put, it is difficult to create a work of art that is both commercially successful and thematically challenging; take a look at the 2008 top grossing films in the U.S. versus the ones that won Oscars. The point here is not to damn video games to the trajectories of other mediums, but to temper our expectations for mass acceptance of difficult games.
That being said, I believe we are in the midst of an exciting trend within the critical game analysis community. A group of dedicated writers is taking the initiative to extract socially meaningful content from games that were not necessarily designed to convey any specific social message. Instead of waiting for developers to create "message" games, a growing number of folks are mining some of the most popular games for commentary on many of the issues raised in thePAX panel:
- Justin Keverne and Travis Megill have engaged in a cross-site conversation about the portrayal of mentally ill people in the recently-released "Batman: Arkham Asylum." Both authors raise valid points about the ways in which the game taps into the often-sordid history of mental health care.
- Sparky Clarkson reviews Red Faction: Guerrilla, and finds that it does little to mimic the ways in which an actual insurgency functions.
- Simon Ferrari examines the stereotypical portrayals of gender roles and racial constructs in the Gears of War universe.
- Duncan Fyfe writes about the "entertainment wars" found in Call of Duty 4 and Far Cry 2. Without any real consequences, these games are absurd idealizations of what happens on the battlefield.
These are only a few of the many folks actively expanding the discussion of some of the most high-profile games. Most striking is the fact that the conversations are sparked by the games' omissions or deficiencies, and what these oversights imply on a societal level. in the games leading to broader societal implications. It is the lack of humane mental health treatment, the sterilization of warfare, and the lack of progressive gender and racial portrayals that has catalyzed these writers to explore the serious content these games posses.
Similarly, I recently spent several weeks simply analyzing what was "Missing In Action" in Call of Duty 4: the absence of civilians, the messy aftermath of battle, and the consequences of individual sacrifices acted to convey extremely powerful, if not optimistic, societal messages. CoD 4 ended up being a surprisingly meaningful game: The game's missing pieces allowed me to look outward for historical and cultural material to fill those gaps.
Again, it is not realistic to expect a drastic shift in the way major developers integrate societal issues into mainstream games. As is the case in every other medium, making something that is challenging to the audience is often at odds with making something profitable. The preponderance of innovative, thought-provoking games will still come from smaller companies that are both willing and able to take risks on something that would not get past the shareholders of a larger company. However, the video game community is lucky to have a growing number of critics dedicated to preserving their casual enjoyment of a game while simultaneously challenging its content and pulling it towards the serious end of the gaming spectrum.
Gamers have shown that they are more than willing to meet developers halfway along the path of serious, engaging games. Up until this point, the movement of analyzing serious issues in contemporary mainstream games has focused on looking at the issues games gloss over, or the topics they deal with unsatisfactorily. Clearly, there is a large group of people interested in games with thematic challenges: instead of letting the absence of serious topics stymie their analysis, they instead utilized the absence to their advantage.
These folks are doing more than waiting for developers to meet them in the middle: they are actively calling out to them.