Games are a lot of things. They’re entertaining (usually). Often, they’re feats of technological prowess. Sometimes, they’re art. Ultimately, the form of the game is just a vehicle for human expression. Like writing or painting, games are a medium for their creators to express ideas. These ideas might not always come across the way the creator intended, but I doubt anyone makes games that don’t in some way try to move the player. That could be making a player laugh at a delightful event, cry at a character death, or fling their controller across the room in frustration at a particularly difficult level. Whatever the emotion, it’s part of a game designer’s job to make the player feel. A game which leaves its players stone-faced, feeling nothing, is probably a bad one.
Because games make their players feel things, they can go a step further and make their players think about why they’re feeling that way, form opinions about a subject, and maybe even change their minds. How can we make powerful games that make their players think, even after they put down the controller and step away from the screen? The best way to do this is through what games do best: gameplay.
Gameplay is what makes the medium of games unique, setting it apart from film, literature, and visual art. Games that send the strongest messages, then, use gameplay as the primary way of conveying that message.
In dys4ia, Anna Anthropy retells her experiences with hormone replacement therapy during her transition. The game is a powerful collection of vignettes that place you in her shoes as she attempts to navigate life as a trans woman, supported by interactive, game-like moments that have you attempting to jam an awkwardly-shaped block into a jagged hole or swallow pills by catching them in an open mouth. These frustrating interactions serve as a simplified representation of her uncomfortable reality, and after slogging through these segments, players are rewarded with a freeing moment: controlling a butterfly as it soars through the sky. The gameplay of dys4ia perfectly captures and delivers the story she wants to tell, about the difficulties faced by trans people. Playing dys4ia for the first time in high school was a pivotal moment in me becoming interested in LGBT issues, especially as someone who grew up in a conservative society.
Thoughts & Prayers: The Game is a simple game with a simple premise: tap T (for thoughts) and P (for prayers) in alternating order as many times as you can in 30 seconds to get a high score. The political message here is clear, but gameplay sells the message even more. Tapping T and P is mind-numbingly easy. Hitting the “Ban Assault Weapon Sales” button has no effect, except a message popping up with one of multiple reasons why it can’t be done. The game’s humorous and whimsical tone is cut short when the game finally presents you with your high score, next to a grim number: 0 lives saved. The futility of what you’ve done hits you. Tapping T and P, just like real “thoughts and prayers”, does nothing for the victims of mass shootings in America.
Unlike the previous two examples, any specific political message in Papers, Please is much less overt. The game makes the player do the mundane task of inspecting passports at the border of a fictional Eastern-European country, with restrictions getting more and more complex by the day. These rules start out strict, but not unusual, but become more invasive and unreasonable as the days go by. By the end of the game, the player is demanding permits from civilians who beg to be given the benefit of the doubt, and scrutinizing their bodies through an invasive X-ray machine to check for contraband. The player is forced to be unkind and inhumane, because any infraction on their part results in docked pay, preventing them from supporting their ailing family. The moral dilemmas the game forces you into makes you think long and hard about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
Of course, all of this is fairly subjective, and not at all necessary for a game to be considered a good game. I played Uncharted 4 recently, and mowed down hundreds of evil grunt characters while searching for pirate treasure, making Nathan Drake a bona fide mass-murderer-slash-adventurer. I had a great time playing that game for its cinematic set pieces and well-written story, but I don’t find myself thinking too hard about its message — if there even was one. The game entertained me, for sure, but did it really affect me? The disparity between the sheer violence I dished out as Nathan Drake during the 8 or so hours I spent in his body, and the ending of the game where he’s portrayed as a loving father to a teenage girl, was so irreconcilable that it was much easier for me to just dismiss the entire message and story of the game as that of a mindless action movie. And there are very few mindless action movies that I consciously recall as important experiences in my life.
Maybe the title of this post should be “Games that change you”. But I’m not sure that’s what I’m talking about either. PETA’s brutal parody of Cooking Mama definitely made me think about my meat consumption as I ripped the feathers from a dead cartoon turkey, but didn’t necessarily change the way I behave.
Then again, maybe it did change me. The fact that this example jumped immediately into my mind, is lasting proof that the game affected me.
Games don’t affect everyone in the same way, and some people aren’t affected by games at all. Sometimes the only thing they can do is make people think about their message, even if just for a few seconds. If that’s the case, then gameplay is the best way to achieve that.