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The State of Social Commentary in Gaming

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Text:AAA
Friday, Sep 4, 2009
There is social commentary in games, but it must stay hidden in the fiction or face controversy.

It seems that whenever the subjects of games and social values crossover, it’s always in a negative way. Earlier this year, Resident Evil 5 faced accusations of racism for its portrayal of African natives. There’s no doubt that the game did contain some loaded imagery, but the game itself didn’t have anything to say about racism. Just a couple weeks ago Shadow Complex was caught up in a controversy over its association with Orson Scott Card. Some gamers were reluctant to purchase the game, giving money to Card, an outspoken opponent of gay rights. Yet once again, the game itself didn’t have anything to say on the subject. But that’s not an argument in defense of these games, it’s more of a criticism of the industry. There seems to be a lack of social commentary in games.


This game wasn't supposed to be real and that was OK.

This game wasn’t supposed to be real and that was OK.


In fact, it seems that most games go out of their way to avoid it. As more effort and thought is put into video game narratives, there’s also more effort put into avoiding any social commentary. The games that do have something to say only tackle vague, general themes. Far Cry 2 explores man’s inhumanity to man. Shadow of the Colossus explores love and loneliness. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a powerful war story when certain aspects of its gameplay are taken into account, but it’s also set in a fictional Middle Eastern country. It may say something about war, but it doesn’t say anything about a war. It stays within the safe boundaries of ambiguity. What does it say about the industry when Resident Evil 5 is the closest any game has come to commenting on racism, or that, despite its title, no Call of Duty has actually explored a citizen’s duty to serve in war?


But there is social commentary in games, it’s just hidden in the fiction. Fallout 3 is filled with examples of this: the mission, Oasis, is all about euthanasia, but instead of killing a senior citizen, which would probably have generated controversy, we’re asked to kill a tree mutant. Tenpenny Tower is all about prejudice, but Fallout 3 makes mutant ghouls the discriminated minority instead of a specific race or gender. Then you have the Grand Theft Auto games that take on immigration, gang life, and the pursuit of the American Dream, but they are set in fictional cities. They may be imitations of real cities, but they are still fake. Nothing is really real. 


This game was supposed to be real and that wasn't OK.

This game was supposed to be real and that wasn’t OK.


It makes sense that games would avoid directly addressing such topics immediately after seeing the public reaction to previous games that have tried to do so. Six Days in Fallujah was a war game set during the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, and would have followed a squad of Marines over the course of six days as they fought in the city. The game was widely criticized by gamers and non-gamers alike. Non-gamers criticized the entire medium as inappropriate for such a subject, and gamers criticized certain mechanics in the game as inappropriate. Then there’s the case of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a game that gave players a unique perspective of the events at Columbine (without condoning them) while inviting discussion about them. It was naturally met with hostility by the mainstream press and many gaming outlets, and even after being selected as a finalist for the Slamdance festival’s Guerilla Gamemaker Competition, it was quickly removed from the competition by the event’s organizer. But unlike Six Days in Fallujah, Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was a finished product that anyone could play and judge for themselves, and as such, it had many supporters within the gaming industry who appreciated its attempt at social commentary.


Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!


Considering people’s reactions to these games, it seems that games are free to comment on societal issues as long as the commentary remains allegorical. When games try to portray something real, an actual war or actual violence, there’s a backlash from non-gamers who see this as insulting to the source and from certain gamers who wish to keep games “fun.”


But there’s another angle in all this to consider as well: the impact of player choice. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! was a direct commentary; it was saying something about the events and wasn’t leaving much room for interpretation or at least leaving no more room for interpretation than any other standard narrative, whereas Fallout 3, took on all sides of an issue at once. The latter game didn’t directly comment on euthanasia, whether it’s good or bad, it just gave the player a choice, and through the consequences of that choice, the player was able to form his own opinions. Did you feel bad killing Harold, or did you feel it was noble? Did you feel bad forcing him to live, or did you feel it was for the best despite his wishes?


If you did feel bad about your decision, you could always reload a save and do something different. In this way, games have the innate ability to show both sides of an issue. Of course, this does dilute the significance of our actions since we can always rewind time and make a different decision, but this issue of permanence is another discussion entirely. As it stands now, some gamers are guaranteed to play though a choice-driven game multiple times, and that’s when games can take advantage of their branching paths by imbuing each path with a different message.


Games should not be limited to this kind of diplomatic social commentary. They should be able to offer a direct opinion without being stigmatized for it, but I think the former approach is better for the medium as it takes advantage of the interactivity of games. After all, any medium can preach a message to its audience, but only games can let us experience and analyze both sides of an issue without preaching a single thing.

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