Video games are a viscerally vicarious medium. They allow us to step into a new identity with new skills, new personalities, and new histories and we fully accept and embrace the roles we are given –almost without question. Over the course of the game, we walk miles upon miles in the shoes of someone else and the more invested we become, the more real they appear to us. Their struggles are our struggles and each victory is cause for our own celebration. In short, we fiercely defend our characters and their actions and we actively seek to see the world through their eyes. We willingly engage with the NPCs (non-player characters) around us and have our horizons broadened by the different quests they send us on or by learning more about them. It may be strange to think of it this way, but video games cultivate empathy, or at least, a deep sense of self-acceptance and awareness of our actions’ consequences.
We play the part of savior and hero and, for however brief a time, we become the chosen one. We champion whatever cause we are given, right all wrongs, and, what’s more, we expect to be challenged. We thrive on encountering enemies –it shows us we’re on the right path and getting one step closer to our goal. In this world, we are everything we’ve always wanted to be.
But sadly, it usually ends there. We shut off the game and go back into the real world where we’re “stuck” in one body with one story and one, restrictive POV. We aren’t interested in talking to other people, we rail against any obstacle we encounter, and we no longer believe we can make a difference in the world. Perhaps most detrimental is our lack of regard for social differences. Once removed from the games, we are far less accepting or aware of other “narratives” and lifestyles. We lose the sense of wonder and assimilate back into a world that privileges very particular types of people and even more rigid ways of living.
The following games seek to counter this way of thinking by raising awareness to issues that are prevalent in today’s society. Using the video games as a vehicle for social change, the creators put the players in the roles of the marginalized to better simulate what, unfortunately, is a reality for many.
Lim is a deceptively simple game with a deep premise: experience the violence of blending in. Developed by Merritt Kopas, a queer game designer, the game puts a twist on the typical video game formula: the player is somehow different or special from any other character. And, it’s true. Only this time, being different is a very, very bad thing.
Lim has players navigate a confined space as a rainbow-flashing block in a world of blue and brown blocks. The other blocks, noticing your differences, immediately attack you and try to ram you through the walls of the maze. They will only stop if you assimilate and “blend in”, though that’s not a perfect solution either. If both blue and brown blocks are near you, there will always be one color out to attack you. Even worse, if you try to blend in for too long, the violence will start to become self-inflicted as the game revolts against you.
Lim adopts a minimalist approach to deliver a powerful message. Navigating a fearful, aggressive public while trying to figure out your own identity can be a challenging experience, while the cognitive dissonance of seeking to blend in while rejecting your true self can be just as harmful. While this game is largely about moving through the world as a queer individual, the basic themes can be applied universally in a powerful, engaging way.
This next game comes from a surprising source: the University of Wisconsin. Fair Play is the brainchild of UW’s Dr. Molly Carnes and is intended to address racial biases in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. As black graduate student, Jamal Davis, players encounter micro-aggressions and covert racism (some more subtle than others) on the path to earning a PhD.
Fair Play challenges players not only to recognize their own implicit biases, but also to experience life on the receiving end. The game brings attention to the various types and varying degrees of racism through visual and verbal examples to show the struggles of minority groups. Further the game shines a light on how deeply entrenched racial biases are in today’s society.
Fair Play is so valuable because it uncovers these lesser-recognized obstacles to an individual’s success. It casts the player in a clever dual role: the player learns more about his own personal biases while the character himself experiences them. It’s an eye-opening exercise in diversity and equality and one that its creators hope will leave a lasting impact.
When Avalanche Studios released Mad Max in September, the game was met with mixed reviews. But one of the most important facets of the game went largely overlooked: the handling (and championing) of the differently abled. Disability is not seen as a curse in the game –rather, it’s a hallmark of a survivor. In this dystopian reality, the last ones standing are the ones who have learned to adapt and push through the pain.
Even the game mechanics reflect this. Max wears his leg brace, but he limps, favoring his good leg and needs to reposition and steady himself after kicking something. He doesn’t move like an able-bodied hero, but he doesn’t need to. He’s powerful enough as is. Furthermore, he, and other differently abled characters are not considered weak or easy targets. Rather they are viewed as threats because they are powerful both physically and socially.
Mad Max celebrates those who are differently abled and casts them in heroic roles. They aren’t limited to the periphery, disregarded as “broken” and “useless”, codified as being “freaks” and therefore evil, and have much more depth than a superficial, “disabled” aesthetic. The way they look and move through the world (whether with a walking aid or wheelchair) does not define them, but rather, they carve their own identities through their actions. What makes the game so inspiring is that in this particular world, what makes a character “weak” can actually turn into their greatest source of strength.
A Blind Legend
While Mad Max is unique because of its attention to detail with the aesthetic and movement of its differently abled characters, A Blind Legend is special not for what the players see, but, rather, for what they don’t. As the name would suggest, A Blind Legend is a video game (available now on mobile devices) without graphics, and is aimed at both sighted and visually-impaired players.
The concept of a video-less video game, though rare, isn’t a new one, but DOWiNO’s A Blind Legend is revolutionizing the process. The game uses binaural technology to create a complex, 3D soundscape to present a rich, medieval world. Binaural sound mimics natural hearing by having sounds come from all directions (while players wear headphones) and closely resembles how the visually-impaired orient themselves to their surroundings.
A Blind Legend follows the tale of a knight whose eyes have been gouged out and whose wife has been kidnapped. Guided by his daughter’s voice, the knight navigates a variety of terrains and encounters numerous enemies on the perilous rescue/revenge mission. As the player progresses in the game and starts to acclimate to the binaural technology, the sounds become increasingly layered and more immersive. The game is meant to simulate the experiences of the visually-impaired, while also giving non-sighted individuals a game that is as accessible and engaging as possible –and that will hopefully pave the way for similarly inclusive games.
Cloud Chasers: Journey of Hope
The final game on this list shines a harsh, but hopeful light onto the migrant experience. A hot topic in today’s world, thousands of individuals and their families are being uprooted and forced to seek a new life elsewhere. Cloud Chasers, the latest release from Blindflug Studios, puts players in control of a father-daughter team who are escaping the impoverished, barren desert life for the oasis of a city above the clouds. A scarcity of water turns clouds into a life-giving source of water, but also, a necessary form of currency. Players thus have to manage their resources wisely and must learn to negotiate the hostile world around them.
Every decision in Cloud Chasers is permanent and can lead to great gains or greater losses. Death and tragedy lurk around every corner and each experience, from stumbling upon a plane wreck to being sold into slavery to being ambushed or poisoned, is chronicled through journal entries. These are meant as a catalyst for introspection (especially after one of your characters dies) and to cause the player to reflect on all the difficulties they’ve faced.
Furthermore, Blindflug hopes that the game will make players consider the reality of the migrant experience and humanize the devastating statistics and news stories we encounter on a regular basis. Cloud Chasers provides a biting commentary on socioeconomic disparity, as well as the challenges faced by those caught in the crosshairs of political upheaval and conflict.
These games are just 5 examples of a variety of socially-conscious and innovative titles. Developers around the world are challenging the conception of “normal” and championing a more diverse, inclusive culture. Their narratives are often at odds with our own realities, but they immerse us in the most visceral, accessible way possible. Through gaming, players adopt new identities, but are also able to come to terms with their own. It can provide a healthy outlet for those working through gender dysphoria or those looking for a temporary escape from reality. By virtue of the medium, video games engage players in a way that no other art form can.
The games mentioned above are all important for shining a light on minority issues and alternative lifestyles. Though the players come up against many obstacles and seemingly winless situations, the games promise a light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, the greatest successes come from overcoming the largest barriers.
If players can make it through the maze in Lim, they will realize that they are not alone or so different after all, while, similarly, in Fair Play, the player learns to defy the odds and break down social barriers. In Mad Max and A Blind Legend, players recognize that being differently abled is its own strength and that “disability” does not define them. And, finally, Cloud Chasers teaches players to keep trying, keep going, and to never give up hope.
At the end of the day, video games are a beautiful way to cultivate empathy and an ideal platform for social change. By stepping into another’s shoes, we gain clarity and fight for a better world. We’re gamers. We play, not because we don’t have a life, but because we have many. Here’s to making them all count.
Tell us what you think! Have games changed your perspective on life? Do you think video gaming can make a difference in the world? Leave us a comment –we’d love to hear from you!