Games are primarily a form of entertainment to most people; a unique way to pass the time. However they can sometimes do a bit more than that. Depending on the game and at which point you’re in, games can teach us important things about society and empathy. Heck, they could even be considered character building in a sense.
Consider a small child, a child who has yet to experience the misfortune of loss in their life. They’re playing a game like Final Fantasy for example. And they reach a point where one of the characters dies and cannot come back for the rest of the game. The child may try all sorts of tricks to reverse this outcome, but at the end of the day, they have to realise they must move on and look to the future. In that moment, the child would have a brief understanding of loss and could probably relate to their peers who have experienced it. Now I’m not saying that losing a virtual character is the same as losing a loved one in real life, but at least there can be a small degree of understanding from the video game, which can ultimately be the first step in empathy.
In a more contemporary and mature example, let’s have a look at the game This War of Mine. In this game, you control different civilians during a war. The characters have no experience with fighting or combat, their only goal is to survive. At one point in the game, you’re gathering supplies and pondering your next move when you hear a conversation next door, although saying “conversation” would be being polite. A soldier is being aggressive with a woman and threatening to rape her. The character you’re controlling is only armed with a shovel; the character also has three people who are dependent on him. If you’re able to leave safely, then those people will be able to survive for longer. What do you do? It’s an intense and gruelling decision and this game is just full of these complex choices. While playing a game like this can emotionally wreck you, they can highlight things like the harsh realities of war and the plight of those unfortunate individuals who are trapped in difficult circumstances where they can’t see an easy way out.
Games can not just help us emphasize with particular situations but also make us ask questions about society. Science fiction, in particular, is an interesting concept to play around with in media because of the way technology is becoming more prominent in our daily lives. Compared to other forms of media, you’re able to play a persona by yourself in a video game. You step into the shoes of a multitude of characters (literally if you’re playing a VR game) and you get to experience how you’re treated, what impacts your choices have, and much more. It can get you thinking on what kind of person you are and how different things can affect your lives.
Detroit: Become Human attacks the current status quo and makes gamers recognise the faults within society, and even within themselves. It has only been out for a few weeks but it’s already been gaining a massive following. I’ll try not to go into too many spoilery details but, essentially, the game makes a statement on what technology does to us and what it means to be human. It features a society that has become so dependent on societal approval that CEOs are regarded more as celebrities than business owners, where a single step out of turn can break up the company. It’s a bit of an extension of current society, where there’s a focus on a form of hedonism as opposed to personal growth or sustainability. What’s the point of taking pictures of food? Just to show off and have others look at our achievements, right?
Games can speculate over developments that are yet to come and shape the future; they make us introspect about hard, real life questions. By having the events of a game in an alternate world or a near-distant future, we can draw parallels with our world. Deus Ex: Human Revolution in particular deals with transhumanism and the disparity of wealth in society. The main character is someone who goes beyond what it means to be a regular human with augmentations and body upgrades. Throughout the game, we also get glimpses of the underclasses who are left behind and complaining simply because they cannot afford augmentation. We see how this disparity affects society, the good and the ugly, with the rich rising to the top ranks. Human Revolution puts us smack in the middle of the situation and makes us examine the effects of this particular technology first hand.
Ultimately games are more than just a storytelling device and an entertainment medium. The fun and awesome gameplay can be juxtaposed with societal themes and character questions. They provide a canvas to explore questions about our world and teach us more about different situations people experience. Sure, there will be people who won’t be able to take home the important message, but it will reach a lot of people – including you, if you remember to look for it.