Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Games With Messages

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.

Filed Under: General - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • Noumenon said,

    Perhaps it’s a less critical subplot (I have one of those in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, actually).

    Don’t worry, your “Product testing on gummy bears is dangerous” message came through loud and clear.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Cool, I was afraid I was a little too subtle on that one. So at least some people got it!

  • DGM said,

    Yeah, Jay’s got the right message there. That’s why he tested his game on me instead. 😛

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    Should games have a message?

    Well, should they not? To me, that question sounds like yet another attempt to pigeonhole things. There’s plenty of room for games as entertainment, games as art, games as education, games as message… But trying to shoehorn OMG MEANING into everything is pretentious and snobbish.

  • Albert1 said,

    A huge part of messages in various media exist only in the mind of critics – after all, they should waste their time on something, shouldn’t they? Critics are able to find social themes even in b-movies, where the authors just wanted to give fun with zombies, and nothing more!

  • Anon said,

    Games *can* have a message, but sometimes people shouldn’t read too much into them.
    If I were to believe that the Call of Duty series is a serious approach to understanding world politics then I’d probably be in trouble (getting paranoid etc.).

    On the other hand games can be a way to stimulate interest in certain topics. Example: I recently read about a game about a former Persian prime minister who was overthrown in 1953 with the help of the CIA and the MI6: “The Cat and the Coup”

    The game is rather abstract and I downloaded it to try it out but it crashed to the desktop. Therefore I can’t say how good it is (it’s probably more message than game) but I read about an hour about what happened at the time and it was quite an interesting history lesson and I feel that it somehow “enriched” my knowledge a bit.

  • Adorna said,

    hmm .. I think everything you do should have meaning, why else would you do it at all – and the difference between meaning and a message tends to be how blatant it is. Every simple love film has its message (be true to yourself, don’t underestimate the plain ones, find your own way)

    I guess what you mean here is rather – should games force you into a set philosophy? And to that, my answer would be close to yours: only if you can not buy into it and still like the game.

    as for education – I’d love to seem more games use that in a non blatant way. The sheer amount of data you memorize – especially for some oldschool games (bard song style magic sytem anyone?) would be so cool, if you could do anything with besides playing…
    I’d love to see an online game that allows you to use non-gaming skills … like a bards class that supports reading notes or playing guitar hero like sequences, a scholar using latin phrases, even quiz style tests on level up or something like that – only it would need to be diverse and universal enough to be useful and integrated well enough you can just absorb it as background lore.

  • EHamilton said,

    I admit, this is one reason I’ve stayed away from certain games, including Telepath. I don’t mind messages, as long as they don’t feel anachronistic. A pseudo-medieval fantasy world shouldn’t contain too many obvious analogues to debates that only exist in the modern world, or it feels artificial and forced. A revolt against a bad king or a corrupt religious organization are probably appropriate, but an abstract revolt against the very idea of monarchy, or the idea of religion, wouldn’t fit naturally within something pretending to be a pre-modern world. It would feel too much like I was listening to a lecture by the game designer, and wouldn’t seem to originate from within the characters of the game. I think science fiction games can get away with quite a bit more.

    It’s also vital to remember that the point of games is to provide a context to bring people together into a shared experience, not create divisions between different portions of the player base. We already have plenty of opportunities to antagonize those who disagree with us, too many really, and there’s something a little cruel about selling someone a product and then letting them discover that they’ve paid to sit through an argument that they could get for free in a thousand internet forums, when all they really wanted was to bash some orcs.

  • Craig Stern said,

    There is a healthy middle ground between “I want to mindlessly bash orcs” and “this week, on a very special Telepath RPG, Jay learns that theocracy is bad.” To be intellectually interesting, a game should have layers of theme, some subtler than others. Every story says something, whether the author intends it or not. If you write something, it behooves you to pay at least some attention to what you’re saying.

  • Greg said,

    Alpha Protocol and most BioWare games tend to have overt political messages. I strongly dislike this. I also dislike when what I consider the reasonable and rational path being the “evil” one. I think Mass Effect 1 did a somewhat decent job of presenting reasonable choices in almost half the situations, two and three lost focus on this in my opinion. Regardless, I tend to save and reload and pick the outcome I think has the best reward (like companion influence giving dialogue choices in SWTOR). If I cannot play the character I want to I might as well min-max rewards, thus bypassing BioWare’s attempts of trying me to believe and confirm in their extremely narrow and irrational views on good and evil.

    Also, like E Hamilton, I dislike when games have anachronisms, which most games do. Speaking of theology, I extremely dislike when games with a polytheistic religion have a solidly monotheistic moral and value system. This isn’t just a video game problem, but is also prevalent in fiction. I’m sure D&D’s alignment system can probably be blaimed for a good amount of this nonsense.

  • Barry B said,

    Just a thought: most games in my experience have a message of some sort, and because the message is transparent to the filters in our own culture, they don’t impinge on our awareness. Someone wants to kill you…? You kill them, first. I’m not suggesting this is necessarily bad, but it’s there.