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If You Love It, Change It: Social activism in gaming

8:39 PM on 05.30.2008 // Cowzilla3

[Editor's note: At first, I wasn't going to promote this. The more I got to thinking, though, the more I say that it did actually fit with this month's theme. Give it a look tells us what you think about social activism in gaming. -- CTZ]  
I apologize for the lack of pictures but I didn’t know what could go with what I was saying.

I know the “if you love it, change it post” is supposed to be about  games but I’d like to take a bit of a broader scope with this. If it doesn't qualify I apologize, but it's something I think needs to be brought up.

I’d like to talk about social activism in gaming, or more precisely the lack there of. More after the jump.

First let me explain what I mean by this. In other art forms, and we will be discussing games as an art form here, there is a certain amount of social awareness and activism. Movies, books and art all confront viewers with political or social commentary hoping to educate or influence us in our views. People in these mediums have taken their art and decided to use it to show the world something, to influence people’s minds, to educate us on certain ideas or wrong doings going on. They’re trying to change the world for the better. There is the entertainment side to these art forms but there is also the activist side, the part of the industries that try to help the world by influencing people via their medium. In fact one thing that makes art "Art" is that it confronts the viewer and challenges their thoughts on life and creates a heavy emotional impact. Not to say that games don’t have emotional impacts, many do, but they do it in a world of fantasy that very, very rarely confronts real world issues or prompts for real change.

I’m not sure if I’m explaining this correctly so let me give an example. The film Hotel Rwanda is not made for entertainment’s sake, it is meant to show the world the atrocities that occurred and are still occurring in Rwanda. Elie Wiesel’s Night, one of the most moving pieces of literature ever written on the Holocaust, is written to educate and inform people on the atrocities that occurred in Nazi Germany. What if someone made a game on these subjects? Would that be offensive? Taboo? Inappropriate? Not if we consider games as art. If games are art, and they are, then they should be tackling these subjects and a myriad of other ones. In fact, I would argue that with the increased popularity of gaming, games should not only be broaching subjects pertaining to social change but it has become the videogame’s duty as the leading form of media in the world.

I wonder how game developers and designers can sit back, knowing they have one of the most influential and predominant forms of media in their hands and not use it to open up some eyes. Where are the game designers who are calling for games to approach more real world subjects? Where are the gamers who want to be emotionally affected by a game the same way they are by a movie about Hiroshima or a book about the multiple atrocities committed in Burma. There must be other gamers like me who want gaming to be more than just an escape from reality but also a way to change reality, a way to shape our world for the better. The possibility is there, we just have to change a few things about the world of gaming.

Perceptions of What Videogames Are

Gamers can barely get people to perceive games as even a rudimentary form of art let alone a way to champion a social cause or present an ideal. If you brought up a game about the genocide in Rawanda to a person, their first thought would be of a gamer shooting a group of Tutsi with a machine gun. If people’s notions about gaming changed, though, then the first thought would not run towards a murder simulator but of the great strengths an interactive experience could apply to such a subject. The question becomes can people perceive games in such a manner that they aren’t games anymore but works of art, meant to influence and educate.

I’d argue yes. I think the likes of Passage or Stars Over a Half Moon prove that games can tackle serious subjects in a meaningful and enlightening way but the vast majority of games aren’t going to do this until people’s perceptions about them change. We have to be able to say, “Hey, this isn’t a game, it’s a piece of art, a story, an interactive message", and have people believe it or else any game, like Passage will be seen as nothing more than just a quick diversion. Even worse, if the game deals with a more violent or upsetting subject, without a change or perception on what games are and can be, they will simply be seen as an insult to their subject matter. Good intentions only get one so far.

What and Who the Industry is About

One of the major problems with developing an art culture around gaming is that, unlike other forms of media, gaming grew up around an industry not around experimentation and art. While these two aspects have always been found in gaming, the driving factor behind the development and technology of games has always been money and industry. Unsuccessful games, no matter how great, don’t usually get another chance. The point is that the industry produces games to make money, which is fine, that is what industry is for. The problem arises when that is all the industry is about and thus support for other types of products is almost completely absent.

The gaming industry doesn’t seem too interested in spreading the love. While I’m not saying any other industry in the media is a saint since all of them work towards making money almost every major film studio and publisher puts out films and books that pertain to more than just entertainment. This just does not seem like a goal that gaming companies even have on their radar. Part of this has to do with the public perception of gaming that was discussed before but that won’t change unless game developers change what they’re doing. Game designers need to lead this charge in not only designing games that are fun to play but taking the time to confront cultural and social issues taking place throughout the world. Money can be a driving factor, but it shouldn’t be the only factor.

A general argument about why games can’t really pertain to current events is that great game development takes years in the least. Of course, any gamer knows that this isn’t true. Yes, a high end game can take years to design but gamers know that the budget of a game doesn’t define the impact of the game. Plus, socially aware games do not have to pertain to current events or even real events. They need to confront ideals and challenge the gamer’s perceptions on how they view the world. A socially responsible game leads to action or at least thought from those who are playing it. So as I see it, developers could easily design games around social activism.

What and Who Gamers are About

Developers aren’t going to change much if gamers don’t change themselves. Not to insult this entire site and gamers in general, but we aren’t always the most socially aware group. In fact, often we’re pretty self-centered. Even when we aren’t, we seem to keep our gaming and our ideals (right or wrong) separate. This is unfortunate since we have one of the largest and most popular ways to socially network in the world. Games have the power to unite thousands upon thousands of people and to think that that power could be used to change injustices around the world and isn’t is really depressing.

Please don't misconstrue this as me saying that gamers shouldn’t be having fun or shouldn’t be killing each other with large guns. We as gamers don’t seem to be doing anything else with this fantastic ability and there is a lack of anyone leading a charge to change that. This is even more disturbing since participants in gaming on Live and PSN (and the Wii if the service didn’t suck) are clearly uneducated, throwing insults that are both culturally insulting and terribly offensive out more easily than anyone should be able to. The opportunity for social education and change over online gaming is truly epic and yet gamers don’t seem to want to promote the opportunity.

We as a community need to change our attitude towards gaming, seeing it not just as a pastime but as something that can influence the world around us. If we perceive our games as more than just games, than the rest of the world (developers, non-gamers, politicians) will slowly, most likely really slowly, see it that way too. Magaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." I know gamers are committed and I think the millions of us around the world qualify as more than a small group, we just need to direct this not just towards gaming but towards the betterment of all.

How Games Are Conceived and Designed

Game design has to change in order for this to even be an idea. Right now, the point of most games is to win. No matter what the story is, you move from point A to point B trying to win. This necessitates enemies, challenges and victories. But great stories don’t always have these things in them. Some stories end sadly, some don’t have any true bad guy, some don’t have a good guy. In order for a true social message to appear in a game, it would have to be designed around the message and story and not the gameplay. This isn’t to say that the gameplay shouldn’t be great but getting to a boss should not be about  the driving motivation behind the character’s actions. For games to truly impact life, they have to mirror life far better.

Where does that leave the game side of the work? The same place it was before. You could have fantastic combat or reality based puzzles but the game needs to present them in a realistic manner. Mowing down a group of men needs real world consequences; it shouldn’t be so easy to kill people if you’re confronting the topics of war and murder. However, if a gamer was forced to make a difficult choice in a terrible situation, and the decision never seemed truly right or wrong but just human, how much more powerful would that be? Game design for games like this would have to be based around choices, not challenge. After all, isn’t that what makes gaming (and being human) so great; the ability to choose our actions and perceive the consequences of them?

But these are complex ideas and would have to be executed correctly via money and development, two things that a game designed for social impact and not profit probably wouldn’t have. That doesn’t mean a quick and easy game couldn’t have a social impact. If a simple flash game can pertain to the malnutrition in Africa, then why can’t more games bring forward awareness? Not just games you’d find thrown together on the web but smaller budget titles released over digital distribution. The game doesn’t have to be incredibly deep or intrinsic, though games like that would be amazing. It just needs to raise awareness. If one person helps after that then it did its job.

How We Get Our Games

Social activism in games won’t be costing you 60 bucks at the store. Hell, one of the only reasons we get it from major studios in film anymore is because the academy awards exist (sadly gaming’s highest honor seems to be sponsored by Spike). But the smaller independent filmmakers are developing films despite the lack of profit and smaller publishers print books on every topic under the sun despite the lack of book sales. The problem, and it is changing, is that at the moment independent gaming has no place for their voice to be heard in the world of gaming.

Of course, with the likes of WiiWare, XBLA and PSN, smaller developers are gaining more ground and don’t have to resort to shouting at the Internet to show off their game. These smaller, more indie friendly venues are a great chance for developers of all sizes to release games that may not make a ton of money, but can cause a ton of change. It ties back to the entire industry being based on profit. The methods of game release are based on that too and until things start to really change there won’t be a place for a game confronting subjects beyond rescuing a princess or conquering an alien enemy.

But it isn’t just the means of distribution that blocks socially aware games from coming to fruition. No matter how low budget, games such as this need money. But there’s no funding to push socially aware gaming forward. Film, books, television, art all have private and public sources to fund the creation of pieces that won’t necessarily make a profit but are attempting to change the world. Where are these funds for gaming? They need to exist not only for the sake of developing a different type of game but for developing games as an art form. Of course we’re caught in a catch 22 here. No one is going to develop a fund for a genre of game that doesn’t exist and no one can develop the genre without the funds. Until someone takes one of these steps even farther forward than gaming will be perpetually stuck in art limbo, never making a true impact.


Maybe you don’t want any of this in your games. For many, gaming is simply a pastime, a way to get away from the harsh realities of the world. I know it is for me. But I can see gaming being so much more and while I cherish the fun I have with every game, I want it to actually be more. I want to be able to hold up a game and say it made a difference. It is art because it confronts us, it is not about playing but about doing. I don’t know if I’m alone in this but I hope I’m not. If you’re aware of games like the ones I’m discussing please point them out and spread the word about them.

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