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From Education to Cinema and Entertainment, Where Does Gaming Stand?
Earlier this week, the Russian government announced plans release video games it deems more educational and patriotic. Apparently, the Kremlin feels the market is flooded with uneducational filth that also happens to cast Russian soldiers (and therefore the Motherland) in a pejorative light. I will not attempt to dissect the political implications of this choice or use it as a platform to spout democratic propaganda—this is not the medium for that and I have no desire to do so anyway—but I do think it poses an interesting, non-political question: what are games aiming to do?
As is typically the case with questions like this one, the answer varies based on both the consumer and the developers. Some developers, like David Cage, are more interested in creating what are most aptly called interactive movies, while others, like Ken Levine, strive to create characters who breathe their own life and craft a story rooted deeply in political philosophies (Objectivism and American Exceptionalism being the two prime examples). But what do we, as consumers, expect from games?
Again, everyone will have his or her own answer. To me, Russia’s accusation that games are not educational enough is a very interesting one, primarily because education is something I thoroughly enjoy when gaming. Take Assassin’s Creed. While it is obviously a work of fiction, there are plenty of historical figures many gamers likely have never heard of who play roles in the franchise. While maybe not inherently educational, it can inspire the curious and knowledge-hungry to conduct personal research. One of my favorite things in the second game (that’s as far as I made it into the series) was reading up on the different buildings and characters and later looking it up on the Internet. (Some of the history, by the way, is pretty accurate.)
The original BioShock I also found to have an educational value. Objectivism is a fairly important philosophy to understand in today’s political climate (at least in the United States), and I still assert that game is one of the most relevant pieces of art in today’s culture. Andrew Ryan’s free-market ideals are not obscure or shared by few; there is a sizable population who would agree with him, to a certain extent. The game, while used primarily as a means of entertaining, did a great job if illustrating Ayn Rand’s philosophies and some of the benefits and pitfalls (whether that was Ken Levine’s intention, I have no idea).
There are surely those reading who are thinking, “Okay, games are entertainment, pure and simple.” I won’t argue that, but let’s be honest: books, movies, and music are all forms of entertainment. Is that all they are? No. Is that what games should be? I certainly don’t think so. Something else I don’t feel games should strive to be are movies. When assessing the recent accusations against gaming, I can’t help but also think of the friction between gaming and cinema.
Perhaps there is no better time to discuss this than now, with the recent release of Beyond: Two Souls, starring big Hollywood names such as Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. The fact that I even use the word “starring” in reference to a game kind of sets a bitter pill in my stomach. I’m not one to tell a game developer they are wrong for making a game a certain way, but there is an obvious distinction between gaming and Hollywood, and it perturbs me to see so few, especially industry leaders, understand that. Metal Gear works perfectly as a game series for its stealthy gameplay mechanics. We don’t need a film to illustrate it, nor do we need subsequent games to feature 45-minute cut-scenes.
There is a stigma in the industry right now where people take every new game released and say, “If this were a movie…” If it were a movie, chances are it wouldn’t make a successful video game. It would also have to be packed into two to three hours and there would be zero interaction. Personally, the stories I’ve been most moved by have been games. I couldn’t imagine how different my connection with Ellie from The Last of Us would feel if I were merely watching her on a screen, and I don’t want to think about it. Playing her protector and, eventually, closest friend was about as rewarding an emotional experience you can find in gaming, and something I opine can never be replicated in Hollywood.
Ultimately, yes, games are entertainment…but they are so much more, aren’t they? If you’re so inclined, please share what games are to you and what you think they should be. Those comments aren’t going to post themselves!