I was browsing Twitter and I saw a post talking about how it's unusual that people are willing to shrug off potentially troubling parts of Shadow of Mordor's game systems involving the subjugation and "branding" of a particular race (in this case orcs) on the basis that "they're just orcs, just fantasy Bad Guys."
Replies to this ranged from the sympathetic to the recurring cry of "why aren't we just allowed to enjoy games anymore?"
This complaint seems to be motivated by two factors:
- People feel like it's a judgement of them, personally, if they weren't bothered by something someone else is bothered by.
- People worry that by discussing games in this sort of way, it'll have a sort of chilling effect on creativity. The thought is that people will be afraid to go near certain ideas because they'll be afraid of how they will be percieved, and games will ultimately be poorer for it.
I don't want to dwell on the first point too much except to say that I think that not seeing something as problematic doesn't make you a terrible person. I don't think anyone's arguing that anyone who doesn't see a problem with that system in Shadow of Mordor is racist or may think about going out tomorrow morning to subjugate a race.
The thinking is more along the lines of "video games are growing up, and it makes sense to think about what their systems are conveying in grown-up ways, and critique individual aspects of it without necessarily condemning it as a whole, or the people who enjoy it."
Alongside that, is the idea that video games don't exist in a vacuum, and that to say "it's only a game" does the medium a disservice. They can be enjoyed on their own merits, but they are also a part of culture. I'm not afraid to say that everything I grew up with - TV, film, games, books, the lot - makes up a little part of who I am today, for better and for worse.
For example, those old adventure games greatly informed my sense of humour (for the better, I hope). But the way homosexuality was portrayed in the media when I was younger made me, if not 'a homophobe,' more homophobic, in small ways, than I would have been if I'd been exposed to broader views. Later in my life I had to confront this about myself because of the inconvenient fact that I myself was gay. I can tell you, nothing brings small, latent prejudices into sharp relief like realising you're the target of your own prejudice.
By which I'm saying none of us are immune to culture. If you believe yourself to be completely above the messages, big and small, intentional or unintentional, sent by the media, then I'm afraid I simply don't believe you, from personal experience.
But what I really want to talk about is this idea of stifling creativity, using one example I have direct experience of.
For context, MASSIVE CHALICE is a Kickstarter title by Double Fine currently coming towards the end of its development. It's come a long way and much of the development process has been discussed in detail over live streams with the development team every two weeks and in forums.
The basic premise of the game is that it's like a fantasy XCOM, but taking place over generations, so your fighters will die of old age if they don't die in battle, and their children will take up the fight, inheriting certain characteristics of their parents.
Early on in the project, I raised the thought that if this is a game which relies on coupling people together to procreate the next generation of fighters, is there any space for same-sex couples?
I suggested that it could be interesting if our heroes could leave behind some legacy other than children, and that might be one way of welcoming more kinds of couples, or even fighters with no spouse, to put their own mark on history as the game tells it.
Of course, I got the same predictable "why can't we just enjoy the game" type responses, eventually, but what I noticed about the discussion is while a certain element was troubled by the idea of having someone else's 'politics' interfere with a game's development, the rest of us were spinning out ideas at record speed:
- Research is a thing in the game - what if there was a whole class of heroes who were researchers?
- If adoption was in the game how would that work? How would it be different to simple procreation?
- What are various ways homosexuality could be in the game. Is it like The Sims - characters are basically all bisexual? Or is it a percentage chance, which limits their choice of partners depending on if they are straight, bi or gay?
What I found very striking about a lot of this discussion is that so much of it was centred around strengthening what was already in the game. So, partially as a result of this discussion, the designers started thinking about research in a whole new way. No longer as an abstracted thing performed by faceless researchers, but rather a profession that fighters become retired into. This presents its own interesting systems challenges and integrates really well with the generational aspect of the game.
That the game does now support same-sex marriages and adoption seems almost beside the point. The game was better because of the discussion we had.
Much later, quite recently, I started thinking about the trait inheritance system of the game, and it went something like this:. "Hmm... so you put people together who have traits that you like in order to breed children that have desirable traits and improve the next generation. Isn't that a bit... well, eugenics-y?"
I brought this up in the forum, and once again, while the "let's not take this too seriously" crowd reared its head, it spawned another very fun and very interesting mechanics oriented discussion. We talked about various scenarios:
- What if traits weren't 'good' or 'bad' but had tradeoff elements?
- What if we re-framed some of these traits to be more about personality than physical characteristics?
- What if the plot addressed, in some way, the morality of all this?
In this case, development was quite far along and there's a limited amount of course-changing that the developers are able and willing to do. The first of the above points was quickly rejected not just because there wasn't time to change but also because they were happy with the kinds of decisions that 'good' and 'bad' traits were leading to in the game and didn't want to lose this, for example.
But as a result of the discussion, they did revisit the script of the game's plot, and change around some elements so that there was less implied advocation of brutal eugenicism, and instead went for a more considered approach to the topic in subtle ways. And they also talked about systems they were already starting to put into place, complicating the inheritence of traits so that becomes much more than a simple 'put the right parents together' game.
In the end, I doubt that I will be entirely comfortable with MASSIVE CHALICE's particular take on eugenics. But because the conversation was had, because the developers didn't just shrug and say "it's only a game," they have a more considered, more thematically consistent, basically a more grown-up game than they otherwise might have had.
Nothing that I or anyone else could have said would have stopped Double Fine from making the decisions that they thought were good for the game. In this case we were fortunate enough to be able to have these discussions while the game was still in development.
So my experience of what happens to video games when they come into contact with what some people might label "politics" is not that they are stifled, but that it begins a discussion that is only to the game's benefit.