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The Changing Mind of Video Games

Words:

Edd Norval
March 5, 2018

Computer games have always had a considerable influence on culture. Traditionally an experimental platform, computer games are paving the way for contemporary storytelling.

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Tetris, Super Mario and the Super Nintendo are synonymous with a changing tide in technology. If that was before your time, then nearly everyone recognises the sound of the original Playstation's loading screen. Beyond their influence on culture and design though, video games have become more complex and as a result have a powerful real-life influence.


Eminem, Marilyn Manson, Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto. Despite being disparate genre's of music and games, they all have one thing in common - they've been held responsible for real-life murders. The 'satanic' influence of Manson, the rage of Eminem and the gratuitous violence present in Manhunt and GTA have transcended the screen and influenced the psyche of the people playing them. The fantasy life that the players live in-game has been a consistent scapegoat - an easy way out of tackling a more complex issue.


The death of 14 year old Stefan Pakeerah in 2004 was linked to the Rockstar-made Manhunt game being found in his killer's bedroom. The brutal nature of the crime was alleged to have been influenced by the games storyline. The protagonist is paid to kill on film to make a snuff movie for a wealthy man - the more gruesome the kill the more money the character makes. Stefan's parents were outraged and began a crusade to get the game banned, inadvertently giving it a cult-status and, despite many high-profile stores pulling the game, increased sales figures.


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The investigation later revealed that the game hadn't been found in the killer's house, but in Pakeerah's own bedroom. Once this had been revealed, the link between the game and real-life quickly blew over. Rockstar North even went on to make a successful sequel. This controversy was one of the earliest and most prominent examples of the impact or alleged impact that a game can have on real life actions. But if games can impact people negatively, does that mean that games can also be used as a force for good?


Many computer games are 'positive', but not in a realistic enough way as to be linked truthfully to societal behaviours. It was quite some time after the Manhunt debacle that the question of video-games behavioural impact made the news - but this time it was for good reasons.


The Last of Us, released in 2013, was a groundbreaking achievement in game design. The thoroughly cinematic and intricate storylines won great critical acclaim and a legion of hardcore fans emotionally invested in it. The story surrounds a future scenario where a fungal infection outbreak wipes out a huge proportion of the earth's population leaving young Ellie, a seemingly immune young girl, as a potential source of a reverse engineered cure. She is under the care of Joel who is tasked with bringing her to 'The Fireflies', a revolutionary group looking to set the world back to its natural order.


This story gives these two characters a lot of time to bond - it's a rich world and the relationship between characters is often very richly portrayed. Young Ellie is a force to be reckoned with and quickly transitions from naive young survivor to a fearless warrior. This wouldn't make her the first strong female protagonist in a video game, but the players were particularly endeared to her - giving the writers scope to use this relationship between audience and protagonist in a whole new way. In an extension of the game, 'Left Behind', they reveal her backstory, showing her growing up and falling in love with another girl - Riley.


The extension was released several months after the game. By this point, players of the game had the chance to get to know Ellie, to develop a bond with her and to have their own opinions on her relationship with Joel. When 'Left Behind' reveals that Ellie was in love with another girl, it poses an important questions - what difference does it make?


She was who she was before the extension, and she remains so after. This was just her backstory after all. There is no doubt that players would have a different opinion on homosexuality based on this game. It was lauded by critics and commentators from both the gaming and the LGBT community for the intelligently subtle shift of perspective it offered players of the game. By getting to know her, we don't see her as a lesbian - we just see her as the character that had been endeared to us for the force of her personality in the story. Had this been revealed at the start of the game, things might have worked out a little differently.



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Many other games tackle ethical and political questions, but very few were in a game that was as heavily reliant on it's cinematic storytelling. This opens up a whole new level of opportunity for future games. It's clear that the most highly anticipated games this coming year build on the foundation of deeply engaging storytelling, but will they contain any twists like The Last of Us?


Video games have a problem. They are seen, largely, as a way to distract yourself, kill time and have fun. But over the last ten years, a shift has been taking place, making video games a much more important and compelling medium and art form. When films or books are written, regardless of their chronology, the story can only end how it ends. Essentially, it is set in stone. But computer games offer several options for endings that can be influenced by how you play the game. This creates an experience so immersive that it has the power to change and challenge your previously held beliefs.


This multi-layered writing presents many opportunities to dictate how your own in-game life unfolds and the amount of talent in the writing teams of video-game companies is remarkable.


Now that these creators of video games are more inclined to include their own views, whether we agree with them or not, the form can be seen as having the same artistic depth as literature and film. Games challenge us to confront ideas that we might usually avoid altogether - a book we just wouldn't pick up or a film we wouldn't bother going to see. Games have the potential to challenge these people and their beliefs, making people see that things aren't always as clean-cut as we've previously thought - that's something we should all get behind.

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