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The Cultural Connection: How Games Comment on Society
Call me weird, but I’ve always been fascinated by sociology and psychology. I like studying social trends, how we relate to them, why they start, and how we comment on and build them.
And it’s hard to ignore the fact that our entertainment media plays into these things as well; after all, they are a creative project, and creative minds tend to comment on the things around them in their work. We see it with film, we see it with music, and we see it with literature.
And believe it or not, we see it with games.
Society has a funny way of changing its view every few years; boundaries get pushed, breakthroughs happen, new discoveries emerge, and we as a whole tend to find a new lease on life the more we learn about it. And whenever this happens, we see changes in the media, whether it’s the portrayal of people or groups of people, the acceptance of new ideas, and the increased tolerance of other’s beliefs. Whether you agree with them or not, they happen, and entertainment is often the biggest communicator of these changes through their simple use of changing conventions we’ve all come to know and recognize as “normal”.
Games have done just as much as film or television in this realm as well, be it through blatant depiction of certain subjects to the more subtle compliance with new ideas.
Depictions of Homosexuality
No matter where your opinion lies on it, it’s hard to argue that the issue of gay marriage and gay rights haven’t risen to a sort of prominence in the past several years. State legislators are arguing about it, politicians run on platforms for and against it, and even fast food restaurant chains draw attention from their comments on it.
It’s an issue that is being pushed more an more, not only making headlines from demonstrations and petitions, but also appearing in media such as film, television, and yes, games.
Many went up in arms over the addition of a gay romance option for Shepard in Mass Effect 3 earlier this year, an addition that developers cited as their way of broadening appeal to an ever-increasing diverse population of gamers in our industry. While it was mostly accepted by the general audience, there were still some who felt the inclusion was inappropriate in a game that had previously featured romance options of the opposite gender only for whatever Shepard one might have selected to play as. It’s not only a move forward toward acceptance of alternate views and identities, but also plays into the much larger societal issue of homosexuality and cultural acceptance.
Theories about the end of the world date back years and years ago, but we’ve started to really think and theorize about the possible apocalypse in a broad sense fairly recently. Whether it’s doomsday films, theories about 2012, books like The Road or The Hunger Games, and even television shows like Jericho or the upcoming Revolution, we’re fascinated by what the world could look like after the end of society.
It’s an interesting idea to explore, asking the simple question of what are we, if we aren’t governed by norms and restrictions? Is humanity innate, or is it learned? What is moral?
An apocalyptic setting is a fantastic place for exploring this. When there is no more law, no more structure, and no more polite society, we see what we really are. We see what we’re willing to do to survive, and how far we’re willing to go in order to protect ourselves. It’s us at all costs, and that makes for some damn compelling stories when it’s explored right.
And there’s more than just a handful of games that explore this setting and idea. Consider Fallout 3, one of the generation’s most influential and engrossing games that tasks you with surviving in the post-nuclear wasteland of the Capitol as you help other survivors and try to help your father. In the game, you’ll encounter mutants, raiders, cannibals, and a whole host of other terrifying and threatning enemies that make you question your own humanity and draw you in in a very engrossing and engaging way. Couple that with the constant view of rubble and disaster, and you’re faced with one idea of how derelict and bleak the possible apocalypse could be.
And love them or hate them, zombie games play into this as well. There’s about fifty new zombie games announced each day (not really), and they typically have the same plot; virus makes people morph rapidly into the walking dead, suddenly you have to survive and not get bitten at all costs. Some games achieve greatness with this plot, while others fizzle out in mediocrity with no new or interesting story to tell.
But one of the most interesting and surprising hits of the current generation is the ArmA II mod DayZ, an all-too-realistic game centered around the apocalypse that pits players no only against the undead, but against other survivors as well. It becomes a fascinating experiment very quickly: do you trust others? Do you try to survive alone? Can you hole up in one location and expect to be alive for much longer?
And there’s something to be said for the brilliant storytelling of Telltale’s adventure The Walking Dead, a game that will make you question morality to its very core through decision after grueling decision as you try to keep your party alive in the bleak story the game tells.
The Digital Frontier
The Internet is still a very young part of our society, only rising to the prominence it’s achieved in the past few years. Yet, despite its youth, it’s difficult to imagine life without it. It seems common to do everything online nowadays, whether it’s buying plane tickets to visit your grandma or sharing every part of your life on Facebook or Twitter. Like it or not, a great deal of your information has been stored away thanks to the internet and data collection taking place digitally.
Think of a game like Watch_Dogs for this; a game based around a hacker and using computer chips and personal data to manipulate and control people and the world around you. What makes this so compelling and interesting is the idea that the world might one day look like this, that we might become nothing more than data hubs with differing information in the future. Will it be so? Who knows? But films like Inception or games like Watch_Dogs and even the more recently shown Remember Me comment on the digital future and man’s interaction with it.
Love it or hate it, Call of Duty is arguably one of the most popular games of our generation. And it’s not because players are engaged by the art design or even the basic gameplay necessarily. Rather, it’s the rise of online multiplayer gaming that has given the game the powerful platform it stands on now.
We like being connected, like having the opportunity to test our mettle against other competitors online and the satisfaction we enjoy from taking out other players based on our skill. There’s something different about knowing you defeated an actual person rather than an AI opponent that makes online gaming so addictive, and that’s what has made games like Halo or Call of Duty so popular. It’s more of a social thing than it is an actual game. We like the connection to other humans, the opportunity to link up with worthy competitors, and the challenge it brings us when faced with an enemy we know to be real, in a strange sense.
Even MMOs give us this connection in a similar way. Players link up to complete tasks and aid each other in the progression of a game, compete against each other in certain arenas, and even complete challenges together as they play, interacting with each other through our unique medium that allows us to adopt new and interesting identities outside of our mundane ones in real life.
And even outside of the connection in games, we like being linked up to other people no matter where we go, whether its on the internet or even in everyday life. Social interaction is a super important part of humanity, and online gaming has given us this opportunity.
People don’t like to hear this, but it’s argued that the most popular gaming platform today is the smart phone. It’s really an amazing piece of technology, giving us access to so many different conveniences at the touch of a button and the use of apps. Because of its simplicity, smart phones are used by people in all walks of life, from business people to the elderly.
And because of its wide user base and easy accessibility, it’s no surprise to see that gaming has reached the platform, taking off as one of the most popular parts of the smart phone phenomenon.
Smart phone games vary from the most casual of puzzlers to the most hardcore of RPGs that even rival console games. They can be picked up and played when you’ve got a moment to kill, or they can be games enjoyed while sitting down for long periods of time. No matter what you favor, the options are there, and the games are just as diverse as the people playing them. It’s this sort of widespread appeal that makes the platform so unique and phenomenal. In a society constantly on the go, gaming has found its way to appeal to a world of convenience by appearing on the one device placed in the hands of so many.
The Indie Scene
Whether it’s in music, film, or TV, independent culture tends to rise to the surface in these mediums. It’s no surprise, either; they’re typically different, willing to do daring things to push the medium forward in a way that few larger, more well-funded projects are.
And we’ve seen a resurgence of games take up this same mantle, with some of the best and most unique games of the generation rising from the indie development scene.
Whether it’s a game like Limbo, Braid, Bastion, Journey, or any of the older Indie games as well, we see the culture bleed over into our industry time and time again. And typically, it’s to our benefit, since a lot of our most popular games tend to borrow elements from these games as they try to build something new and unique we haven’t experienced before.
While there are probably multiple other ways that games coincide with and comment on societal trends and ideas, these are some of the most glaring and interesting choices to me. And as our culture and society continues to evolve, we can expect our games and subject matter to change accordingly. After all, we’re only part of a small subculture within the realm of entertainment, and what one area experiences will most certainly bleed over into ours time and time again. And it’s a good thing, too, because with new ideas and changes all around us, we’ll get a chance to experience it firsthand, both in real life and in the amazing interactive medium we all know and love as gaming.