There are a lot of kinds of video games out there. There are mobile games primarily meant to pleasantly fill the few minutes you stand in lines or wait on hold (but can expand to take over hours every day). There are educational games, hidden object games, moody art games, text adventures. There are word games, racing games, puzzle games, fitness games. The list of subgenres is almost endless.
But for the most part, when we talk about video games, we usually mean AAA games. "AAA game" is the industry term for what Hollywood would call a blockbuster. These are console and PC games that cost millions to make, sell millions of copies, and tend to retail for around $60 at launch. A few examples include Legend of Zelda, Resident Evil, Skyrim, and Final Fantasy.
There's a lot of history around why other games don't always get to count as "games," and we'll get into the specifics of that another day. (The not-so-hidden secret is sexism.)
These AAA video games tend to have a lot in common, if not in play style, then at least in terms of overall structure. Usually, you, the player, are given an avatar to embody your sense of self in the game world. There's a game world to explore "physically." Most of the time your avatar has weapons or other powers. And the mechanics of these games tend to rely upon violence as the key means of conflict resolution.
There's been a long and contentious history of studying violence in video games, with some research indicating that it makes players more aggressive, with other research pointing to a decline in violent crime rates as video games have become more popular. But we're not going to talk about that today, either.
Today, we're going to talk about bad guys, conflict resolution, and moral responsibility.
The Bad Guys Aren't You
In a video games, it's usually pretty clear who the good guys and the bad guys are. Often this distinction comes down to simple geography. In most role-playing games, the good guys are in peaceful towns and camps. The bad guys are in dungeons and the wilderness. You already know in any given situation how to treat the people you encounter.
Or sometimes there are mixed environments, but the good guys wear one kind of uniform, and the bad guys another. Sometimes there are bad guys, and there are civilians to protect. In a lot of games, though, you can't attack the good guys even if you try; often anyone you can murder was bad to begin with, and anyone you can talk to was already on your side—or something close to it.
Sure, there are games that give you compelling moral choices, and sometimes you're betrayed by allies or required to cooperate with an enemy to further a more important goal. Sometimes you can make the choice to attack allies and murder innocent bystanders. But by and large, the division is crystal clear, not just in who the bad guys are, but that the bad guys are irredeemably and inescapably evil.
This is not great.
Story shapes how we see the world, in books, in movies, in commercials, and, yes, in video games. Story reinforces the truths we perceive as the underpinnings of the world, like "love conquers all" and "good triumphs over evil."
The real world and video games are not the same, but the media we consume tends to subtly shape how we react to similar situations in the real world, or at least what our first instincts are. I've driven faster and more aggressively after spending too long playing Crazy Taxi. I've eyed buildings wondering how I might be able to climb up them after playing Witcher. And I'm not alone.
So the idea that the world can be divided into good guys and bad guys—and further, that bad guys are whoever are trying to stop you from doing the thing you want to do—is actively damaging to our personal relationships, our communities, and our global society.
We live in an increasingly polarized time, where politics are treated like a zero-sum game and not a collaboration toward building a better future for everyone. People pick a team and root for the team come what may, never allowing the "other side" to have a victory.
It makes for a great game. But it makes for a really lousy world.
Here's another potentially harmful message common in the video games of today: heroes acting alone (or with a small group of allies) can save the day.
There are compelling reasons for this sweeping and almost universal design choice. One is that video games are required to make the player feel powerful. That's why you're playing, of course: for the chance to be a hero. Nobody's going to plunk down sixty bucks and spend somewhere between 20 and 200 hours on a pastime where you can feel like a bit player consumed by crushing powerlessness. We get enough of that in our real lives, right?
But this narrative undermines the perceived value of the quieter and arguably more vital kinds of heroism that are necessary to maintaining the fabric of a civil society. Even in video games as lauded for providing moral choice as Bioware's Mass Effect series, most conflict is resolved through violence. You can choose to compromise and build consensus eventually, but you've got to shoot your way through a few hundred aliens or sentient robots first.
In the real world, though, compromise and consensus are the basic building blocks of a better future, not all-out warfare. And yet there's no glory in calling your MP or your senator to make your opinion known. There's not much glory in showing up to a town meeting, either.
And there's certainly no glory to be found in listening thoughtfully to your political opposition, taking their deepest feelings into consideration, and moving forward on those grounds. Or at least there isn't right now. But maybe there should be.
The human brain is exquisitely susceptible to the messaging we're exposed to, even if it's not the main point of the thing we're watching or playing. That's why simply not showing smoking in movies cuts down on youth smoking rates, and why flipping through fashion magazines makes young women more likely to suffer from an eating disorder.
Knowing how the brain receives story and knowing how we're affected by the subtext of everything we see and hear, I'm led to the conclusion that finding ways to model and glorify consensus-building is one of the most important and positive things that game designers can be doing right now, not just to further their art, but to make the world we live in better, inch by inch.
It can be done. Take Journey as an example. This indie game turned into a commercial goliath, despite its aggressively breaking from the long tradition of shooting as the core mechanic of a video game. In Journey, the button that you would usually press to shoot something instead shines a light; it's a signal to other players. There was no chat, no microphone. And yet players found ways to help one another, cooperate, share knowledge.
These are the very things we need right now: cooperation. Sharing knowledge. We need to shine our lights at one another to promote peace and harmony.
Games can absolutely be a part of building a better future. Games can create empathy where there was none; games can make understanding complicated systems accessible; games can evoke pride and guilt and the creeping sense of complicity. But games are only as good as we make them—they're only as good as we are.
And there's the rub, because we are what we see. But if we consciously make an effort to model the ways and patterns of being better people and of being a better species, then that's what we will become.
Isn't it worth the shot?