Part of the inherent struggle for games to be taken seriously stems from the fact that they often don’t discuss anything serious themselves. Much of Call of Duty 4’s success comes from the fact that the topics it discusses are all relevant today: terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, and modern warfare. These are all images and themes that are important to people today, as opposed to escapist fantasy or glorification of wars that ended long ago. Even going all the way back to Missile Command, which invoked the fears of the Cold War and Russia, the idea of making a relevant video game was being explored. People experience a much more profound connection with a game whose subject matter represents something that could spill over into the real world. What places and topics could games go into, particularly given their current FPS trigger happy state, that would be relevant and topical?
Let’s not beat around the bush, I’m talking about using violent video games to raise awareness of horrible real-life situations. So let’s start with the most popular genre: shooters. One of the tricky necessities of an FPS or basic action game is that you need a situation that involves a lot of combatants. Borrowing from action movies for a moment, what about Myanmar? Rambo 4 takes place in this country and also features the highest body count for the entire series by depicting over 260 people being shot or maimed. The radical oppression of the Karen people by the military is certainly a topic that can be addressed in a variety of ways. Indeed, outside of basic principles against violence, few seemed bothered by Rambo using a .50 caliber assault cannon to mow down dozens of soldiers. We’re not looking for an enemy that’s morally justifiable to shoot, we’re looking for one that’s morally repugnant to defend. At the very least we could teach people history by having them participate in wars and learn about atrocities that they otherwise would know little about. The Croatian War would be another interesting subject and indeed many games have begun to take place in Yugoslavia-like countries without making specific reference. Stepping away from the tasteless goal of simply finding excuses to shoot people for a moment, keep in mind that the game design could also involve more humane activities. A game set in Rwanda could be about saving refugees, a game set in Mogadishu could be about acting as a peacekeeper.
Yet setting a videogame in a modern setting is still going to raise the issue of tastelessness. Proper writing, mature mission themes, and engaging in conduct that isn’t wanton destruction are all going to be necessary. If you’re going to talk about mature topics, you have to handle them maturely and hope that resonates with the audience. Another issue raised is simply why bother at all? Why set a video game in a modern global conflict or historical moment that could be a blatant glorification of violence in some atrocious setting? Because raising awareness alone is a laudable goal. Going back to Rambo 4 for a moment, the movie managed to accomplish several amazing things despite its incredible violence. It raised awareness of the Myanmar situation so that aid and care were given to an otherwise ignored problem. Karen rebels received an incredible morale boost from the film and even use one of the quotes as a battle cry. A less action-based example, Hotel Rwanda came out ten years after the event but its success forced people to learn about an atrocity that was otherwise ignored. How many teens, how many potential activists, could be informed and contacted by playing a video game about an event? No matter what they’re doing in the game, how you frame and discuss the events they interact with will still control their impressions. Yes, there is potential for abuse here, but there is also great potential for good.
As always with the indie world, many games have begun to do this with varying results. Super Columbine Massacre RPG handles its subject matter in a very interesting way: it works like a documentary. The first half of the game is just a recreation of those events using actual documents and recordings from the tragedy. It’s disturbing yet it gives you an intense window into the events that whether or not welcome, is definitely insightful. The second half breaks from this and becomes problematic as the two characters fight through zombies in Hell…which is either very clever if you look at from a Divine Comedy perspective or just offensively celebratory. The United Nations have created a flash game about being a refugee fleeing a repressive country and trying to gain citizenship in a new one. It’s fairly basic and mostly dialog, but it’s also very informative and even provides links to other sites for those interested by what they see. Nor do these games even need to involve violence or conflict, I’m just conforming to the popular genres. Countless games explore things such as teaching people how electricity is distributed in a city, economic simulators, or basic philosophy. A great place to find them, along with countless other indie titles, is at Play This Thing!.
There are just so many topics video games could go into. Whether you acquiesce to the popular shooters of today or the RPG formulas of yesterday, the subject matter of these games is always open to change. Why not set a Grand Theft Auto-style game set in New Orleans during Katrina? Players could see the city before and after the hurricane, learn about the FEMA response, and be more politically aware of circumstances when such an event happens again. There is already a flash game on the topic. Perhaps even more compellingly, they may be inspired to go to a disaster zone and volunteer themselves. A child with ADHD who can scarcely pay attention for thirty minutes could learn a great deal about Katrina in 8 hours of game time. There will always be the protests and complaints from the media, whether to jump on the bandwagon of blaming society’s problems on video games or bemoan people profiting off the suffering of others. I would heartily recommend any game about a disaster be willing to donate a significant amount of the proceeds to aiding the cause it represents. Publishers and developers interested in creating such a game will have to be motivated by the hope of improving their public image and the image of video games themselves when creating such a title. Which was, after all, the point in the first place.