In their continued effort to extend their cultural efforts into the games industry, the International Committee of the Red Cross recently weighed in on violence and war crimes in video games. In their words, “games should include virtual consequences for people’s actions and decisions.” They pursue a commendable goal of raising awareness not just about human atrocities but the tools we all have at our disposal to diminish their frequency. Of course, actually seeing this vision implemented in a trigger-happy games industry is dubious. The efficacy of depicting the consequences of violence has as much to do with how games are built as how stories are told.
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It’s been a fair amount of time since I finished Gone Home and I’ve been meaning to write something about it. It’s a coming of age story that’s both poignant and inspiring. Others more talented than I have already written thousands of words about how Gone Home captures a certain type of emotional nostalgia in a broad range of people. I certainly felt this, and I’ve never had to come out of the closet, see my parents’ marriage strained, or had to come home to an empty house.
I have, however, had my fair share of early-life epiphanies. I’ve also played a fair number of video games. More than a month after finishing it, Gone Home has stuck with me as a game full of lessons about how to create mechanical and storytelling experiences that make a lasting impression.
The two fighting game athletes, if you want to call them that, sit uncomfortably close together, close enough to the television to get a warning from their concerned mothers. The crowd in the background make up an omnipresent backdrop that hollers when any player makes a decisive move or kill. The chairs on stage are the same brownish conference chairs all hotels must source from the same location. They look stiff, strangely formal, and terribly uncomfortable. This is EVO, the most important championship event for the fighting game community.
Compare this to the Season 3 World Championship for League of Legends, happening right now. The players sit with their teams at identical desks. They wear branded clothing identifying their team and their sponsors. Riot Games have presumably handed out identical noise-canceling headphones and provided the lavish, branded, cushioned chairs on which the best LoL players in the world sit while duking it out for an enormous trophy and a huge prize package.
Without meaning to, I’ve recently played a string of games that all embrace some sort of “back to basics” philosophy. Some approach it from a visual perspective, others pare down their systems, yet they all distill certain essential qualities of their respective genres. I often feel like many of the games that I play these days are of the “‘X’ meets ‘Y’ meets ‘Z’” variety. Mash-ups and complex systems definitely have their place, but I find stripping away the accoutrements in certain games is a helpful reminder of what makes their genres enjoyable.
It is the go-to argument when arguing for the value of games to those late to the discussion. Games can be more than fun. They can be compelling.
Indeed, some games can actively undermine fun through their very design. Playing them can be unsettling or even boring. The story, we might say, is what drives us onwards. Or, in the case of the board game A Few Acres of Snow, it is the system itself that creates an immensely interesting experience, despite a sense of almost programmed boredom. This masterpiece manages to build a compelling experience by offering a competitive exercise in the creation of a churning and diabolical bureaucracy.