Friday, September 11, 2009

Unexpectedly Serious Games

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.


  1. Hey Scott, thanks for the link! I hadn't read about the panels at PAX, mostly because I was jealous I couldn't go. But this one sounds awesome, and it's good to hear that the subject came up at a fan-centric convention like PAX (usually the topic is reserved for the devs at GDC and the academics at Digra).

    I'd say the first people who started talking about this stuff were Chris Crawford and Brenda Laurel, who were around in the early days of videogame creation and were some of the first to leave the mainstream industry to make games that were more meaningful to them. Most recently the discussion has been picked up by Mary Flanagan, Alexander Galloway, Miguel Sicart, and Ian Bogost (who I work with). If you guys are lacking something to read, all of those names have some pretty wonderful books where you can see them start to develop ways to find real-world systems and problems embedded in games that were obviously made primarily for entertainment. Over the summer we wrote a book about journalism and games, and one of the chapters I wrote for it is about journalism literacy embedded in AAA titles. It'll be free on the net when it's published, so I'll send you guys a link (though apparently publishing takes for ass ever).

  2. Nice post!, besides the difficulties of implementing serious subjects into games, there's always a hipersensitive reception of the media that dosen't help at all. Six Days in Fallujah could have taken a serious position into explaining the war in Irak and it's consecuences on the lives of thoes who were involved on it (for saying an example), but media reacted and things went downhill from then. If there were games that seriously treated subjects of social and human problematics, would they be able to see the daylight?, countries such as Germany, China, Australia and soon Venezuela with their complete censuring, seem to make things harder for developers as they probably want to stay on a low profile, rather than take the risk of getting banned.

    I think the blogosphere will continue to play a big role in making a stand for videogames in the furute, but i'm not sure if it could globaly defend videogames, rather than just in a small amount of countries.

  3. Hi Simon,

    Thanks for stopping by! I was very impressed with some of the panels, as they seemed to be taking some inspiration from the topics found at GDC. There is definitely a realization on the part of the PAX folks that being a "fan" isn't just about playing games. There were a respectable number of academically oriented panels.

    Thanks also for the reading suggestions; that book you worked on sounds especially interesting.


    Good point about the media and government's role. Really, I guess the path to "serious" games involves, players, developers, and the non-gaming public.

    The censorship suggests that indie games will be even more important, since it is easier for them to slip under government's radar.

  4. Once again, I feel like a total knob for not giving a shout out to you and Jorge during that panel. It's folks like you guys that are making these important, progressive conversations about games possible. Should the opportunity arise again, there's no way I'm going to miss it twice ;)

  5. @Nels

    Yeah, what happened to you, man? You used to be cool; now all you talk about is having martinis with N'Gai! ;-)

    But seriously, there are so many people (yourself included) talking about games in a serious way, it would be weird to only single a few out. We were just glad to be there.

    But seriously though: How did Ron feel about adding a Utilikilt to Death Spank? Did he love it, or did he LOVE it?

  6. Nice post, and I definitely agree with your overall point.

    However, I would like to take this opportunity to remind my friends in the gaming blogosphere that when we're talking about social issues in games it is important to include writers of color, women, and other marginalized groups.

    All the writers you listed are men. I don't know if they are all white and straight as well, but I'm betting most are.

    There was a heated but ultimately I think very productive conversation over at Critical-Distance at its first inception addressing this very issue. If you want to have intelligent conversations about games, you can't exclude voices of people from marginalized groups. And really, when you're addressing issues of race and gender, it's VITALLY important to go to people of color and women FIRST.

    Some examples: Token Minorities (race), Racialicious (race), The Official Shrub blog (variety), Tera Kirk from GameCritics (disability), Feminist Gamers (mostly gender), the Pensive Harpy (gender). Those are just off the top of my head, and the Iris Network has a whole directory of women who blog about games (though not necessarily about gender and social issues).

    I know these are just a few examples and not a comprehensive list, and I'm not just mad you didn't link to my blog, and I'm certainly not picking on just you. But maybe you should think about why all your go-to examples for social issues (including gender!!) in games are men, and mostly white, straight men at that. Its easy to slip back into that pattern of exclusion and I would hate for that to happen.

  7. I should clarify that, in order to not "exclude voices of people from marginalized groups", you have to ACTIVELY INCLUDE them. This is not something that can be solved without action.

  8. Damn typos...reposting

    Hi Alex,

    If you're still following this thread, thanks for stopping by.

    I'm glad you raised the issue of marginalized groups in the community. It is something that Jorge and I have had many conversations about when discussing the community at large, the content we create for the site, and how we personally interact as a team.

    Also, thanks for the list of sites. Both these topics and these writers deserves the publicity. There were a couple of sites I had never read before, and I'm always happy to add to the ungainly mass that is my RSS reader. :-)