Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Can Gaming Get Serious About Subject Matters?

Is the Industry Ready To Tackle Hard Hitting Issues Yet?

 I was taking a stroll down the electronics section of a certain devil-worshipping, foreign-labor exploiting big box store recently, when I saw something that positively blew my mind.

Right there, next to copies of Madden and Halo, was an Xbox 360 game called “Blackwater.” As in, Blackwater, the privatized mercenary organization used by contractors in Iraq. Now, exploiting ongoing military conflicts is nothing new in the world of video games - ever hear of a little game called Contra? - but this right here is downright ridiculous. Note that this isn’t a game that simply borrows the namesake of an proxy army and drapes it over a fantastical science fiction backdrop, it’s a game that allows players to simulate what it would be like as a gun for hire in the Green Zone. And to make things worse? It’s Kinect-enabled, so gamers can use a motion-sensing bar to literally flail about in front of the TV like some sort of semi-automatic weapon toting defender of Halliburton’s interests.

A couple of years back, noted film critic/cheeseburger enthusiast Roger Ebert said that video games would never be “art” because they didn’t provide profound commentary on society or the human condition. Although that statement rankled the drawers of many a basement-dwelling PlayStation owner, when you see offerings like this lining the shelves, it’s kind of hard to argue against Ebert’s assertion. Surely, there has to be a better use for the medium than insta-thrills and vicarious bloodletting via dubiously endorsed shovel ware, right?

Many, many years ago, I recall playing a criminally under heralded game on the Xbox called “Men of Valor.” At first glance, “Men of Valor” appeared to be just another, run-of-the-mill first person shooter. . .that is, until you realized that this was a game that was actually trying to make a poignant statement about the inhumanity of warfare instead of glorifying it or sensationalizing like a certain Activision holding that rewards players by ingesting junk food in their off hours.

I guess my first indication that this game was trying to actually say something was when I realized that I could actually talk to other characters and not just fill them with hot lead. At one point, I commandeered my character into a mess tent, where I had a lengthy chat about the inherent racism of Vietnam War policies with an African American NPC (non-playable character). At that juncture, I sort of realized that I wasn’t exactly in store for yet another half-hearted “Doom” variation here.

The moment that really floored me, however, was when I engaged in battle for the first time. As soon as the bullets started flying, everybody in my platoon went bananas. In most shooting games, when the artillery starts landing, it’s sort of a fun experience, but here? I was actually horrified to move my character. When I finally decided to start navigating the terrain, I stumbled across two NPCS - one of them was laying half dead in the grass, while another soldier sobbed while trying to give him CPR. It was something that I had never seen - and to this day, have yet to see again - in a video game; the point of the game wasn’t to just go out there and have a blast, but to survive, and hopefully, learn a little about the horrors of war so that I could ensure that nobody else would make the same mistake I did. And just then, my character got a bullet in the skull. The screen faded to black, and then. . .the game started playing the condolence letter that was sent to my virtual wife and children.

If I would have had $50 on me, I would have bought the game right then and there. Here, finally, was a video game that showed war as what it really is, a video game that was intended to stir emotions and spur on thought and not just provide players with something to waste their time on. Unfortunately, that evening was the first - and only - time I got an opportunity to play “Men of Valor,” a title I have tried effortlessly to find over the last two or three years as proof that modern gaming can aspire for something more than cheap thrills and instant gratification.

As it turns out, there’s actually a pretty thriving market for so-called “serious games” - video games intended to make points about cultural issues, like Darfur, the fast food industry, and even media sensationalism instead of delivering simple motor-skill tests - for today’s gamers. The problem is, very, very few of these games are given console releases, and most of them are relegated to the remote recesses of the Internet.

Although mass-marketed, console-released “serious games” are incredibly rare, there is some hope that the console games of tomorrow may at least attempt to tackle and comment on serious cultural issues in addition to giving players something to waste their time on. “Papa Y Yo“, an upcoming PS3 game, tackles the issue of cultural oppression, globalization and alcoholism, while the next installment in the “Bioshock” series appears to comment on the ills of jingoism and the negative ramifications of industrialization. Even the universally decried “Grand Theft Auto” series seems to be getting in on the act, as the next game in the franchise deals with, among other things, the recession, environmentalism, and the dangers of materialism.

Of course, with games like “Blackwater” outnumbering games like “Men of Valor” by extraordinary proportions, I still think we’re a long ways off from being able to call video games insightful, meaningful and profound works of art the same way we view certain books and motion pictures. Even so, we’re at least seeing the proliferation of such efforts in both indy-developed and mainstream gaming - which can only be construed as a positive for the fledgling medium, and in many regards, American culture as a whole.


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