We don’t know much about the earliest humans, but we can be certain that people have been playing games as long as there have been people. Even animals play games in their youth to learn lessons about survival–and we’re no different.
Games are, and always have been, a way in which we safely encapsulate the realities of our world so that we can interact with them in a given context. We play so that we can learn without feeling every tooth-and-claw, without worrying about the price at which the lesson might otherwise be taught. Enjoyment of games is part of our nature, as central to human behavior as a taste for sugar or our desire to know what lies beyond the next peak.
Over time, of course, we’ve come to enjoy games in a more intellectual sense, and our games have become more abstract. It’s hard, for example, to find a one-to-one analogy in the real world for the rules of Tetris, but anyone who has ever packed the luggage of four travelers in a car trunk will understand that they’ve acquired some transferable skills. After all, every game is a degree of abstraction, a degree of separation from reality, or the game wouldn’t be a game at all. Ultimately, as most of us know, games are fun.
But is that all they are? Is fun the beginning and end of gaming? Do games exist solely as a means of stimulating our animal instincts?
There are many who say, “Yes.” We see it in internet comments as a response to critics who bring to light the deeper messages and meanings within our games. We see it in the opprobrium against video games as an artistic medium. We see it even in the perspective of game developers. And that’s often OK.
Nintendo, as represented in the late Satoru Iwata’s comment (see right), has traded largely on making games with fun as their primary, and sometimes sole, focus. And there’s nothing wrong with making games solely for fun, or for playing them solely for fun, in the same way there’s nothing wrong with people who see movies and television and books as nothing more than frivolous entertainment, a way of fending off boredom on a rainy afternoon.
But there are a lot of people who see video games as more, and their opinions aren’t wrong because some people just want to have fun. We’ve come to a unique point in our history, one in which we are privileged enough to be serious about our entertainment. And this seriousness isn’t simply aimed at the economic and financial impact of the entertainment industries, as large as they may be, but one that looks simultaneously both at what our entertainment says about our society and how our entertainment affects society.
Games, like other forms of entertainment, do not merely reflect our world, they can shape it. They do this in ways both subtle and obvious.
Of the latter, we know, for example, that the Madden NFL has affected how football is played. A small thing, perhaps, but it shows that people do extrapolate the lessons of video gaming into other pursuits. After all, who can look urban planning the same way after having played Sim City? We know it’s been hugely influential within the urban planning profession and there are even courses that use it as a teaching tool.
There are countless other ways video games obviously educate us, or shape our thoughts. As a teenager, I learned a great deal of history from the Age of Empires and Total War series of games, and I often think of history in terms shaped by Civilization‘s technology trees. But the ways games shape us can also be more subtle, by relaying the world-views of their creators, intentionally or unintentionally.
For example, the Civilization technology tree suggests a viewpoint of history as one of progress, of inventions and technology continuously leading to a better world. That viewpoint, while one I happen to share, isn’t necessarily correct. Nor is the assumption inherent in Sim City games that higher taxes lead to civic unrest, or its view that larger roads lead to higher densities. These are design choices, ones shaped by a certain worldview, and one that’s likely to be picked up, consciously or unconsciously by players. Those more familiar with the subject matter may reject it, but those that aren’t are likely to internalize these as accurate depictions of the world.
Fortunately, in the case of Civilization‘s view of history or Sim City‘s view of city planning, these are academic subjects, largely divorced from the decisions and actions the average person takes on a daily basis. But, like other media, games can reinforce certain societal views that do affect how we live, and how we treat each other.
There’s been no shortage of criticism of video games’ portrayals of women and minorities, and no shortage of flack dumped upon those who do the criticizing. Games, they often say, are just supposed to be fun. Gamers know that dead soldiers don’t respawn, that people don’t have rapidly regenerating health, and that you won’t get away with murder by repainting your car. Games don’t influence gamers. So who cares if the damsel is always in distress?
In this view, video games don’t matter. They neither reflect our society, nor have the power to shape it. They’re just a bunch of lights and sounds that briefly entertain, then fade into the ether.
But we know games are more powerful than that, just like the other forms of media we know have influenced things such as how we view sex, how we view our bodies, and how we view minorities. These don’t necessarily have to be negative influences, either. Media has the power not only to reinforce negative stereotypes, but also to foster new, more inclusive world-views.
It would be hard to argue that changing media hasn’t played a role in bringing greater acceptance for the LGBT community and better understanding of the issues facing them over the past couple of decades. This is why it’s important that Mass Effect has same-sex relationships and that Dragon Age: Inquisition features a transgender character. Media can take what, for many people, is a strange and outsider concept, and make it real and relateable. It can close the gap between one’s conception of the self and the other.
It’s also why it’s understandable that people might be miffed that the Witcher 3 doesn’t have any non-Whites, despite its Polish historical influences. It’s not just a game; as a piece of media, it’s inherently a reflection of our values and world-views, and sometimes what we hope that worldview might become. And it might feel a bit alienating when those worldviews don’t include anyone like you, especially when it includes wyverns, cockatrices and mutants. That’s not to say that every game needs a cast of thousands to represent everyone, but when a game already has a cast of thousands, it makes sense to mix it up a bit.
It’s not just social issues, either. Games can have an impact on our views of science, of the economy, of politics, of religion and so on. The messages are there. One need only look.
So yes, lots of video games are fun, and its OK to make or enjoy video games as instruments of fun. But not all games are fun, or have to be. And when one looks deeper at a game, whether it’s fun or not, they’re not missing the point of the game to talk about its internal messages or contradictions. They’re simply engaging with their entertainment in a way that helps everyone understand why we are the way we are, what we believe, and how we might change it.