My first video game system was a Nintendo 64. I was six years old, my dad just left the year before. While my mom worked like crazy going back to school and working a part-time job, my brother and I spent most of our evenings bonding over our love of jumping into virtual worlds. A couple years later my family got a desktop computer and then a couple years after that we got a PlayStation2. Then after that we got an Xbox 360. Sprinkled throughout all those years was every single version of a Game Boy that exists, a PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS Lite.
Earlier this year the UN was talking about possibly using games to help people be more empathetic. The goal was to develop games and encourage more development of games primarily focused on engaging people’s understanding.
All of that sounds really fine and dandy until you realize making games without fun being the priority paves a path for failure. And I don’t mean we shouldn’t have games that evoke emotion, empathy, understanding and those tingly stomach butterflies or lumps in your throat. I just mean none of those things happen or matter unless your game is fun and engaging in the first place.
Fun first, everything else later. Or else you get something like a movie that tries too hard to get their message across. This isn’t to say the UN couldn’t make a fun game but, it is less likely if their focus is directed more towards sending a message.
Now I play PC primarily, so I love video games. And I love the lessons they’ve taught me over the years. Whether I realized it at the time, or not, video games were teaching me things every time I turned on the system. Sometimes those lessons are intentional, sometimes they are discovered later in a random play through – but they were always valuable.
On the PlayStation, Jak and Daxter taught me how and when to be properly sarcastic. Ratchet and Clank taught me never to take anything too seriously and to take challenges with enthusiasm. On the Nintendo, Mario taught me no obstacle is impossible to clear when you have the guts to try. Maybe the developers never intended on teaching me any of those things, maybe they just wanted me to have fun. They did both anyway.
Now we have indie game developers and a massive range of resources for them to use to their advantage. Now trust me when I say that these developers are doing a better job with emotionally impactful games than the UN could ever do.
Take a game like LISA for example. It’s a post-apocalyptic side scrolling party-based RPG developed by a small group of people known as Dingaling. They made a game about some dude, Brad, with depression living in a world where women no longer exist who finds a baby that miraculously happens to be a girl. He raises her with his friends who are just barely surviving in the wasteland but, being the valuable last female on earth, she gets kidnapped. The entire game follows Brad as he traverses the dank, dirty and depraved landscape to save the little girl.
Throughout the game you’re forced to make hard decisions like whether you get to a companion or all of your items. Sometimes you’ll have to decide to save someone or let them perish just to steal their stuff and prolong your own life. Spoilers: the game ends with the little girl not even wanting to be saved by Brad because he slowly turned into a monster along the way.
The ending teaches the cliché “be careful fighting monsters lest you become one yourself.” But the game, with its choices and gruesome storyline, showed me a little something more. Every choice you made had some sort of negative effect on someone else. No matter how you chose to play you begin to realize that all of your choices have consequences for others, and more often even for yourself.
It begs the question if it is worth it to diminish your own morals for the safety of those you love and, if you do, would they even recognize you at the end of it all? This game develops a sense of empathy in that no matter what choice you make the outcome is always unknown – even if you’ve thought long and hard about it. It teaches you to be a little more aware of yourself and the actions you make every day.
What made this game so successful is the fact that it had a compelling narrative and intuitive, exciting gameplay. Dingaling developed a story concept and then developed gameplay that would help foster it. The morale and the lessons that came from the marriage of those two things are simply by-products, not an intended response. The difference between Dingaling and whatever the UN may produce, is that Dingaling made the message and the fun coexist as equals during development; whereas the UN has put the message above all else.
Then we have games made specifically to solicit such a reaction and learning experience. Games that, instead of being made for fun, have been made to teach you a lesson. A lesson the developers will desperately assert you need to learn.
Depression Quest is a good example of a game like this. It’s a game that follows an unnamed character (you) through a life of depression. The game is meant to give players a sense of what mental illness is like so as to encourage people to be more empathetic with those who actually suffer through such things.
The problem with this? It’s not really game. It’s more like a visual novel, or rather just a digital novel. All you do is read and click stuff. Like one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. You read through a series of situations in a full narrative written in the second-person. As you read through you can click certain words that put you on a certain path which changes with each click. And that’s it.
Don’t get me wrong, the concept of showing people what depression can feel and look like is really quite honorable and interesting. But the game was only about that. It wasn’t fun and because of that simple fact the game did really poorly in sales and even worse in community reviews. You could pick up a book on depression in any library but, to take the book and make it into a videogame… meh.
Besides, all art (which is what videogames are), is open to interpretation. So as soon as you try to force your own interpretation down the player/viewer/reader’s throat, you’ve lost your ability to teach it to them meaningfully or at all.
My brother and I beat a lot of games together but, most recently I beat Portal 2 with my cousin who lives in Texas. The game has no dialogue other than a robot lady voice who tells you to complete puzzles for her. It’s a puzzle game. But damn when we beat that game there was such sense of accomplishment and this feeling that cooperation is easier and more rewarding than you could ever think. The UN could never manufacture something like that, and I don’t want them to waste time trying.