Beyond entertainment, video games can be vehicles for positive social change. Unfortunately, the games with the biggest social messages tend to have the smallest budgets. However, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus holds no punches when addressing racism, misogyny, and other forms of bigotry by literally telling you to shoot the harbingers of those ideologies in the face. It is uncommon for a major game publisher to put out games with such overt political messages as Bethesda dared to do with Wolfenstein 2. A week after its release and Wolfenstein 2 has continued to garner praise. Hopefully, this sets a precedent for more AAA game developers to stand for something more concrete than “light vs dark”. That’s why this week we’re asking:
I would like to see more games addressing the issue of sexuality. Even though gay marriage became legal in the U.S nationally, I think there are still many struggles and problems the LGBTQ community suffers from. I view video games as one of the few powerful mediums capable of handling any issues and conveying messages to society. Therefore, I think it is very important to have more LGBTQ characters to represent their community and show that they are an important part of our society. Fortunately, I think more gay characters are recently being created and represented in the gaming industry like Tracer from Overwatch. However, it’s still really rare to see any transgender characters in games. I would really love to see games with a strong and independent main character who is a transgender struggling with their sexual identity and indirectly allow the audience to experience what it feels like to be a transgender.
One issue that I think could create both a worthwhile experience and a powerful message is euthanasia. For those unfamiliar, it questions whether terminally ill patients should be allowed to end their lives via assisted suicide. This issue hasn’t really been given the spotlight too recently, due to the current news trend, but it deals with the issue of, essentially, paid murder (putting it mildly). What goes on through the minds of the individuals that make the decision of going this route? Have they lost all hope in living? What about the person who practices euthanasia? What do they have to say in this? Did they choose this profession? There are so many questions that could be asked about this and I don’t know where it would end. A game could help bring possible answers to this by creating an experience that emphasizes choice. The player can witness a person working at one of these clinics, hearing the stories of these people, and hearing the backlash from the public for being here. Both sides of the story can be heard and it is up to the player to make the decision on what they should do to the clients. In other words, I’m thinking a grand visual novel/story driven game that emphasizes reading people’s emotions (like LA Noire). I think this would be an experience that would highlight the key issues that euthanasia brings up.
Sexual assault is a major issue globally, even in the US where women have much more freedom compared to other parts of the world. In a crime that is largely perpetrated by men, the male-dominated hobby of video games can reach the audience that most needs to be educated on the subject. I believe the sexual assault epidemic is largely perpetuated by a failure to educate boys on consent while simultaneous blaming women for crimes committed against them. Games, as is their nature, grant the player so much agency that oftentimes sexist ideals are reinforced by rewarding male characters for objectifying women. I’d like to see a game use player agency in such a way that instead makes players feel the consequences of exerting their power over another person in self-serving ways. There is a potential to educate both the internal and external effects of sexual assault from the perpetrator’s and victim’s perspective that could be more effective than current teaching methods.
I’ve not seen many games tackle the issue of mental illness, or at least tackle it well. Almost 20% of adults in the US now are dealing with some form of a psychological disorder, myself among them. Unfortunately, however, there’s a great stigma and misconceptions about mental illness. When most games attempt to portray it, it’s usually done to enhance the insanity of an antagonist or as a simple mechanic to be manipulated. There are some games, like Spec Ops: The Line or Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which are rare exceptions. Their portrayals of the affliction of mental disease are more accurate, or at least more poignant. Depression, bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and others are part of a growing international issue. Games have an opportunity to start discussions about social issues and here’s one area where games can step in and make a huge difference. Sometimes, medication and therapy aren’t enough. That’s why having a support system of people who are knowledgeable and care is of the utmost importance, and what better of a way to connect with people than over a video game?
Sports games have a vast and varied audience and though they aren’t particularly innovative or story-driven enough for the traditional gamer, they represent a great opportunity to expose a wide audience to social issues in a realistic manner. Games like the Madden franchise could tackle protests from players as part of their manager mode (as opposed to some in-game function where you press a button to get players to kneel or continue the current method of not addressing social issues at all). This portrayal would definitely upset a lot of people, but it has the potential to showcase social issues in a realistic manner that expose players to the difficulties inherent in taking a “progressive” stand in a traditionally conservative sport. Yes, many people will say that they don’t need this level of realism in their video games; however, the games like to market themselves as an authentic experience. I believe it’s actually a disservice to sanitize sports games and purposefully remove all traces of protest and controversy for such issues as Black Lives Matter, players coming out as gay, and the lack of punishment for players who are domestic abusers, considering that it’s such a prevalent part of the actual modern sports that inspire the video games.
I think divorce would be an interesting subject to tackle. Many story driven games that include romance options often give the player multiple highly eligible females (or males) to choose to court, and the gameplay experience typically ends up in a Bachelor-esque scenario, where the player simply chooses from a variety of supermodels or studly hunks, selects all the right dialogue options and settles down for life with a willing and compliant romance partner. I think that there’s a lot of room here to explore the idea of a relationship and what commitment looks like, especially if gameplay could be integrated beyond just dialogue trees or affection quests.
There’s not any one social issue I would see tackled over another. People are concerned with diversity, such as ethnicity and sexuality, and I still think that games haven’t explored those areas enough. To add to the list, however, I would like to see more games handling psychological topics, ranging anywhere from mental disorders or even unhealthy, toxic relationships. For example, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a recent example where the development team worked closely with neuroscientists and those diagnosed as psychotic to craft the titular character’s journey through the hellish landscape made of her reality and her mind. Even in a game like Injustice 2, Harley Quinn’s abusive relationship with the Joker was addressed. Even though Joker is dead in the Injustice 2 universe and cannot actually control Harley, he has a lasting influence over her. Things aren’t okay even though he’s gone, but she asserts herself because “We had mad love, once upon a time, but now that’s over, Mistah J! Nobody puts Harleen in a corner.” If more developers put time into researching and incorporating psychological topics, it could add more depth to their characters and destigmatize mental disorders.
High profile games often don’t capitalize on their ability to discuss social issues with the wide audience they have. One discussion that I think games gloss over so frequently is the impact of death. Not to say there should be a funeral for every goblin, grunt and ghoul you kill, but death in games is everywhere and it would be cool for games to acknowledge that it’s not as black and white. Everybody could benefit from a more holistic conversation on death and grief and I think a high profile game could be that platform.
What do you think? Are there any social issues you think video games should address? Let us know.