Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 23, 2012
I take a pretty firm stance that video games should be entertaining. Even if a game is supposed to be educational – or rather, especially if it is supposed to be educational – it is only successful at its job if the player finds himself enjoying the exercise. Otherwise, you may as well just be doing plain ol’ rote drills, watching an instructional video, or reading a manual. (I feel the same way about movies – including documentaries. Anything you’d go to a theater or rent a disc to see.)
But even for games where entertainment is the primary focus – a game intended for the masses (or for the hundreds or thousands, for many indie games): Should games have a message? Should games contain controversial themes? If I’m playing a game for entertainment, am I going to be angry if the game also tries to drive home a politically-charged message to me?
For me – the answer is maybe.
A case in point for me is Craig Stern’s Telepath RPG: Servants of God. Now, I’m a religious guy, and I did feel a little bit of concern about the setting and main enemy group of the game, a theocracy (“The Cult”) with some parallels to Christianity. Now, I’ve not finished the game, so it’s still possible I could come up against some parts that really piss me off. But from what I’ve played, Stern has done a reasonable enough job of leaving the theme open enough to interpretation that I’ve not had a problem with it. As it so happens, I’d be pretty dang terrified of a theocracy, myself – a medieval history class in High School left me thoroughly disgusted with what has been done in the name of Christianity. I feel I have room in my mind to view the Cult as a broader metaphor, this hasn’t bugged me too much. But I could see how mileage may vary for others.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate did kind of the same thing, and remains my favorite CRPG. It’s predecessor, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, broke entirely new ground in its time by rolling in a system of virtues into the RPG formula which made players accountable for not only their results, but the manner in which they acquired them. Again, the beauty of Ultima IV wasn’t in that it was submitting a defined philosophy that the player must subscribe to outside the confines of the game, but rather in that it made players have to think about these kinds of things at all, and balance out their actions and decisions accordingly.
There have been some games with a much stronger message or theme that I really liked. Airport Security, by Persuasive Games, is one that stands out. Passage, by Jason Rohrer, was a game that I felt was fairly moving, and it made me think about the subject matter a little bit in a different light (mainly thinking, “how would I do this differently?”). These games weren’t in any way revelatory or opinion-changing or anything – but simply made me reflect a little about their subject matter beyond just “beating” a level.
I felt a six-hour session of the board game Supremacy back in college taught me more about international politics and diplomacy than half a semester of any political science class. While the game didn’t have a specific message, the rules were structured in such a way that it truly encouraged exactly the kind of bluffing, promises, backroom-dealing, suspicions, arms-buildup, tension, and everything else between national powers that I’d read about in the news for years. Especially when someone in the game threatened to invest in the discovery of anti-nuclear satellites … I finally understood why that could cause such a major international stir between nations.
I guess my feeling is that if a game has a message, it should still be enjoyable even if the message is rejected. Perhaps it’s a less critical subplot (I have one of those in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, actually). Perhaps it’s simply something that’s left open to interpretation. Or perhaps its just something really subtle. Maybe it’s just a tiny little dig at current events. Or better yet, it broadens its metaphorical view to bigger concepts and philosophies.
I think that games can provide a pretty fascinating canvas in which to draw some metaphors that might encourage gamers to not only think about them, but also to interact with them. I just feel that, for me, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. I know that when I’m playing a game, I don’t want to be preached to – even if I happen to agree with what’s being said. I don’t want to be hit over the head with the author’s pet doctrines. I’m not interested in that at all. But give me a game with the ability to explore real-world ideas in a “safe” environment – where it is still “only a game” but may have some additional meaning to spice an entertaining, quality experience – and I’ll be happy.
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