Sunday, 13 May 2012

Video Games as Social Fora

Over the course of human history, a myriad of different art forms have provided impetus for discussion of social issues. In the early 20th century, a new canvas arrived: Film. Developed in the late 19th century, it took some time for film to be accepted as a medium that could stand alongside accepted forms, such as painting, music, and still photography.

From curiosity to poignant medium of discourse.
In the late 20th century, another new art form arrived: Video games. Initially, their technical limitations left a barrier between them and broad acceptance in society. To an outside observer, a game appeared a pixelated, childish, simplistic mess.

Immersion began as a concept not enamoured to graphical quality

"It's the sum total of every expressive medium of all times, made interactive. Like how is that not... It's awesome!"

- Phil Fish, creator of Fez

Phil hits the nail on the head. Video games combine innumerable art forms in interactive form. If music, art, and film can seed debate about social issues, then it does not necessarily follow that combining them strips them of their power to challenge.

Pick up that can.
Take the seminal, sublime first-person-shooter Half Life 2. Freedom of the individual, resistance to oppression, serfdom, and even Vichy are all explored. Are these themes any less relevant, any less worthy of discussion, just because the protagonist is controlled by the player?

Recently, the development of Natural Selection 2 provided a real-time example of a game dealing with relevant social issues.

Not a controversy at first glance.
Any game forum can be a raucous place - But when one Natural Selection 2 community member made a post offering Unknown Worlds Entertainment (UWE) their service as a female voice actor, they got more than they bargained for. UWE had previously pledged to bring players the ability to choose between playing as a male or female.

The argument that flared from the initial posting was so fast and furious that the thread had to be shut-down, due to some users expressing blatantly sexist views.

This argument entered the virtual domain. Others will.
The timing of this particular discussion was poignant, as it closely followed the announcement by the Australian Defence Force that every single frontline combat role in the Australian military, bar none, would henceforth be open to the females.

As an Australian citizen, I felt intense pride that such equality, so often mooted the world over, would finally come to be in my homeland. So imagine my surprise and anger to see posts like these, as a humble video game developer.

"This is past the end, entering uncharted territory where
 no useless feature has gone before."

"Sign my petition to keep women off the frontlines."

"Now they need a map with a kitchen in it."

- Qoutes from the NS2 forums

Happily, the swarm of posts strongly advocating the inclusion of female marine models in the game, as a matter of principle, strongly outnumbered posts such as those above. UWE remains committed to that inclusion.

The whole incident did however serve as an interesting lesson. Video games are not waiting for acceptance to become fora for social issues. They already are.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece Hugh. found the NS quotes quite disturbing but not unexpected from the trolls that lurk online these days.

    I agree with you that games have very much become fora for social issues. However, whilst there are those who still believe games are created and marketed solely for children (despite the average gamer age being 37 now), I believe there is also another reason why people are inclined to think that games lack the ability to provide social or political discourse.

    Just like any artform (of which I certainly consider video games to be one), it is more to do with social, age and generational relevance; that is, how can a given person relate to the ideas or commentary in an artform that is foreign to them ? Unlike the visual arts, film or music, games rely on interactivity in order to experience the work in full, which is great because it forces the player to think about the consequences of his/her choices and makes for an even stronger medium to present ideas through. However, this interactivity can be somewhat limiting in terms of who may get to experience the commentary or ideas presented in a given game.

    I don't think you would find many Gen Y or Gen X aged people arguing that games dont have the capacity for this kind of discourse (besides those who believe games are childish). Baby boomers and older would definately struggle, simply because many of them don't play games, nor see them as tools for social fora -- it's most likely due to the way they were educated, the technological barriers they'd have to overcome to play the game and the marketing stigma of the industry from the 1980's.

    Nonetheless, it's an interesting social landscape we now live in.