Standing on a Soap Box
By Karl Castaneda
Often, in times of social unrest, variations of media are used to siphon opinions on particular issues to the masses. Parodies, often cynical in nature, have been around for ages, poking fun at what's usually a very serious issue in the hopes of rattling a few feathers; getting a few things done. In the modern age, we've seen it travel from the silver screen and radio to television and the internet; novels, newspaper, and even comics have been known to snub the sword for the pen. The question is, are games the next step?
First we must ask ourselves if gaming is really meant for such a thing. It's a storytelling medium yes, but the principles it was founded on meant it to be an entertainment medium. If there's time for catharsis, it's always welcome, but can social and moral commentary be used as a focal point in video games? Well, I could tell you now, but what's the fun in that? Let's explore first.
Are They Ready?
Every gamer out there has heard of Jack Thompson in some way or another, or his "partnership" with family associations and with Senator Hilary Clinton. In case you've been living under a rock, though, here's the skinny; Thompson's adopted the very sane and logical cause of assuring that mature-rated titles can't be bought by minors without the consent of their parents (something I'm in full agreement with) into something of a crusade against the controversial publishers of the day. Simply put, he's an ambulance chaser, and a crazy one at that.
So what do you think his reaction would be if a game were to be released that centered around putting the player on the antagonistic side of the Rwandan Genocide? It'd be used to show the Western world just how horrible it was, and alert them to how much African regions still need our help, sure, but for a so-called "family advocate," it's just another atrocious and distasteful temptation of the video game devil.
Conservative members of the older generation don't understand the medium, and as such, they don't believe in its potential to affect us, not just through how to sneak past guards and snap their necks, but through education as well. And I'm not talking about Brain Age. Truly, the most mature and opinionated game of the last few years has been Killer 7, and that'll bring us to our next topic...
Are We Ready?
Killer 7 told the tale of seven deadly assassins dwelling within a wheelchair bound elderly man, and its story was certainly original and gripping, but what struck me as being the most poignant was its stiff and rigid social commentary on Japanese and American governmental structures and relations. It showed the relative impotence of the former and its unwillingness to take control of today's opportunities, and the latter's focus on forcing its control over the world, through any means necessary. Allusions are made quite often to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This branch statement ends on the notion that either side, in continuing with this outlook, will be covered in the blood of both their enemies and of their kinsman. And people ask why I like Grasshopper Manufacture...
While the press certainly lauded its rich and vibrant themes, the biggest complaint brought up was its lack of gameplay, as the entire game was essentially 20 hours of on-rails target-practice, with minimal puzzle-solving, with some entry-level RPG elements thrown in for good measure. And this takes us back to an earlier question; does a game need to have great gameplay to make an impact on you and sustain importance?
The gaming populace might have a predisposition or bias against controversial topics due to their relative juvenile nature in past examples. The John F. Kennedy Assassination Simulator, the 2D Columbine Massacre game, and others of this ilk are generally seen as exploitations rather than translations meant for valid reasons. And unless games like Killer 7 become more common, can you blame anyone for having doubts about the medium's commentary potential?
Moral Oral Cavity
You can make the argument that, because other media devices aren't directly interactive, including themes like that into a game makes it foul and ugly. However, is that statement not counter-productive? If you support a documentary or movie for showing a situation exactly as it is without any sugar-coating, how can you detest a game for taking it another step further? Doing so is only covering yourself in a self-protective shell of ignorance.
Do I blame anyone for not wanting to kill or harm people or see such things in a real event? Well, Call of Duty's a pretty big franchise, and it takes place during World War II, if I'm not mistaken. Gore and blood are not mutual to Battlefield 1941 and Mortal Kombat; it happens to civilians every day in places all over the world, and if a developer takes in upon themselves to show gamers an atrocity for the sake of education, I'm behind them 100%.
He with the strongest morals is he who does not hide from the weak and the ugly and the oppressive. Raise your hand and speak your mind and you shall inherit knowledge beyond your previous understanding. Do not fear what's underneath.
So are video games the next big step? No; probably not, but it's not because of a lack of potential, it's just that publishers aren't willing to take on controversy at the expense of possible revenue loss. It takes an independent developer to do something like that, and they usually don't have the funds to take on the project properly.
We play games because we want to experience something that isn't necessarily available to us in real life, but what happens when what we see on screen is more real than what we go through every day? I wouldn't call it "entertaining," but it's certainly compelling, and it's definitely worth becoming interested in. Had Killer 7 showcased the gameplay of Resident Evil 4, it could've changed the world, but instead, CEOs want their money back, so we play Madden and toss pigskin around.
Jonathan Swift called. He wants to know when we're going to start eating babies.