Mark Sample of Play the Past recently asked an interesting and thought provoking question to his readers: “What are the limits of playing the powerless?” Even more specifically, he asked, “What are the limitations of playing the powerless in videogames about the powerless?” (“The Limits of Playing the Powerless and the Doomed in Video Games”, Play the Past, 10 April 2012). Sparked by Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames, Sample goes on to raise and allude to a variety of questions about viewership and participation, player detachment, historical obligations, and developer responsibility. All games can—and more should—address sensitive issues with tact, including emotional topics and historically significant time periods or events marked by troubling power relations. The only limits to playing the “powerless” are the limits we set when we carry our game design assumptions into the development process.
The concept of fun inevitably arises when discussing serious games and powerlessness in particular. Time and again others have exhaustively argued for “engagement” as a more descriptive ideal than “fun,” which fails to capture why we engage with melancholy media at all. So let’s leave that concept behind entirely.