One thing that has sat on my bucket list for a while is to give a TED Talk. If I were to do one, it would be on video games and how awesome they are and why everyone should at least care about them.
I think that after the casual revolution that came around 2006, video games have infiltrated the public consciousness and stayed there. Add the proliferation of iOS and Facebook games, then everybody’s a gamer. I don’t want to get into the whole “Are Games Art?” argument here, since that argument was already settled decades ago, and any further attempts at justification in this day amounts to nothing more than self-aggrandization Instead, I just want to say that I love games.
Games give us empathy, they allow us to share the experience of another individual by simulating their identities and lives. By actually experiencing the struggles of another person through interactivity, we can comprehend how other people experience the world more intimately than in any other medium. For one, Darfur is Dying allowed players to understand the crises facing those affected by the Darfur genocide, tasking them with protecting their family from insurgents and managing the limited resources of a refugee camp, risking their own lives to get something as simple as water. Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia shared the experience of being a transgendered person in contemporary society with its players, a kind of life that I, a young, straight, privileged, male, cannot naturally relate to. Yet, through interactivity, this alien experience can become relatable and understandable, and as a result, we can empathize with people whose lives are radically different from our own.
When teaching about the Holocaust, most schools go to Elie Wiesel’s Night or Anne Frank’s diary to allow students to observe the dehumanizing effects of oppression. If we were to take students out of the role of a passive observer of someone else’s story, and instead place them in the shoes of a Holocaust survivor in a simulated reality, imagine how much closer to home the messages of these stories would hit. Games have aspired to become more emotionally involving in recent years by asking players to make increasingly difficult ethical decisions in their virtual worlds. Perhaps asking players to sympathize with the victims of unimaginable oppression would be a step in a bold new direction for such a movement. If anything, such a game, if done artfully and tastefully, could instill understanding and sympathy within its players.
Games become even more interesting when we consider them as an interactive storytelling medium. By letting our own identities bleed into those of our in-game avatars, as in Mass Effect and Skyrim, we become more intimately attached to the stories that we can create through our participation in a game’s world. Already, games such as Half Life and Bioshock have exploited the perks of an interactive, explorable, medium by using virtual environments to tell immersive stories with rich, imaginative, universes. Things get even more interesting when you approach more experimental games, Spec Ops: The Line self-reflexively questions our enjoyment of violent video games through its subversion of gaming tropes. Journey abstractly touches hearts using a subtle, unspoken language transcendent of cultural boundaries. As a narrative and artistic medium, gaming becomes increasingly hard to ignore.
Looking beyond the potential of games to let us empathize with others, games most importantly serve as a social framework through which relationship can be made. Over a decade ago, Pokemon served as a social framework that united us all, and despite our diverse backgrounds and peripheral interests, most kids in my third grade class had a common interest in Pokemon. We would discuss the teams that we had assembled during recess, surreptitiously sneak our Game Boys to school to make trades, and be envious of the one kid who had that Shiny Zigzagoon. Ask any gamer you may meet, and s/he will recall fond memories of elementary school and the friends that they made playing it. Games unite disparate people, their play serves as a common language through which we bond with each other. Chess leagues, FPS clans, DnD groups, ARG communities, nerdy fandoms, MMO guilds, athletic teams, political parties, games have done an immense social good by allowing us to form authentic relationships with each other and become part of a larger community. If to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human need, then games serve this purpose admirably.
Which is why the reignited controversy over violent video games perturbs me. While I welcome an impartial study on the effects of violent games, the inflammatory accusations that I see from pundits are disturbing. I owe myself to games: they were my childhood and their play served as a fundamental building block to my character. In the brief time that I have spent on the side of the developer, my affinity for the medium has only grown. Being part of the USC Interactive Media Division, I stand at the very edge of a rapidly expanding universe, and the future for the medium that I see being constructed by my friends, mentors, and colleagues thrills and inspires me.
I see that future in Reality Ends Here, a pervasive alternate-reality game that has facilitated collaboration and creativity in the students at the School of Cinematic Arts. I see that future in Project Holodeck, a experimental, motion-controlled, virtual-reality interface for playing games. I saw a lot of that future at IndieCade, a festival to celebrate the creativity of independent games. We stand at the dawn of an incredible new age for games, and a vast uncharted future stands in front of us, to step towards a broader, richer, world of games is both thrilling and terrifying, to step back out of unfounded fear of the unknown would be a disservice to the world.