Why are there so few straight-up ‘issue’ games?

Before you read on – I rushed this essay out of the door, quite literally, as I was going to be away from home, and my PC, for several weeks, and had the urge to write. It didn’t take much reflection to realise that this was a heavily flawed piece, and, well, rather directionless, making all the wrong arguments. I may work on some of the ideas I was having when I wrote this in future, but otherwise I don’t consider it to have much merit. Nevertheless, I keep it here as a warning against rushing things out of the door, and because I don’t believe in trying to hide from my own mistakes. So yes, beware all ye who read on…

A question asked… fairly often, actually. At least, in my head it is. It’s one of those games-related complaints it likes to throw out every so often, along with “why are so many games focussed on violence?”, and “what the hell is wrong with that woman’s mammary glands?”. Unlike the latter two issues, though, I… brace yourselves for this… I think there may actually be a genuine, justifiable reason that so few games are are designed to tackle a single, hard-hitting issue.

Bear with me here, if you will. I’m not about to argue that I think games should be frivolous time-wasters and nothing else. Neither am I saying that I don’t think that hard-hitting elements should be included in games; hell, I still find it disappointing that so many games skirt around serious issues even when they could easily fit the theme of the game. Assassin’s Creed‘s infamous opening disclaimer that it was made by a multicultural, multi-faith team, so please don’t be enraged by the controversial scenes that may follow… before going on to make a completely un-provocative game which refused to comment on the issues brought up by the crusades, never mind the then-current state of affairs in the Middle-East, stands as a particularly shameful example of a failure in that regard.

So what am I arguing? I’m arguing that while games can – and in many cases should – deal with issues more significant than where to find your next clip of ammunition, there are certain issues which would simply not be feasible to make a game out of – not because of fears about accessibility or marketability, but because they simply don’t match up to the advantages games have to offer.

Assassin's Creed offending exactly no one, yesterday.

Again, there are certaily many important issues that can be tackled within a game. Large, geopolitical problems are actually ideally matched to computer simulations, which can offer players an informative and useful perspective on the difficulties faced by governments, and how these might be solved. Hence we have games like Red Redemption’s Fate of the World, and Positech’s Democracy, which deal with the difficulties in forming a global response to ecological problems, and the challenges inherent in running a democratic country, respectively. Both are interesting, thought-provoking titles, and both are entertaining in their own right as strategy games. Both are also, importantly, top-down experiences; you are presented with grand problems like famine and economic crises, and expected to fix them by changing policies and starting initiatives. You affect countless virtual people’s lives, but only indirectly, and while there is certainly feedback to your actions it is relatively impersonal. This is not a criticism: it comes with the territory. That famous, unsourceable statement,* often erroneously attributed to Stalin, that “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”, holds true, as the human mind simply isn’t able to hold the idea of that many people at one time, never mind the horror of countless numbers suffering or dying, and so dehumanises the situation for us. That the million deaths are virtual ones is unlikely to help engender deep emotions.

No, the difficulty comes if we try to do exactly that: create a game that creates attachment to characters within the player, while dealing with traumatic experiences. Making an emotional experience isn’t the problem – well, it is an issue in that so many developers yet try and fail to make games that actually connect with the player in a meaningful way, but it’s one that can and has been surmounted enough times in the past to know that it can be achieved, whether through complex verbal interaction, well-written linear dialogues and/or monologues, or simply through proximity and physical interaction. The problem is in matching this with a genuinely upsetting narrative.

Galatea. It may not look like much, but no game has come close to matching its conversation-led, widely branching story.

You may well be rolling your eyes right now. “I know where this is going”, you think; “He’s about to explain that the problem is that playing through an upsetting narrative isn’t fun, and that games are ‘all about having fun’, or some such rubbish”. Fortunately for both of us, that isn’t what I’m about to get at; not exactly, anyway.

The fact is that other media have been delivering hard issues for us to digest for a long, long time. The theatre’s been touching on such pleasant subjects as incest, murder and suicide for as long as the genre of tragedy has been around. Books have dealt with all sorts of complex forms of suffering, such as gaily placing the reader into the perspective of an impoverished, half-mad and deeply morally ambiguous character living in a bleak visions of the modern world, and so created an incredibly affecting and thought-provoking tale. Films haven’t shied away from cheerful analyses of the horrors of rape and violence, and neither have musicians wavered in their dealing with upsetting topics. In none of these cases has the fact that the subject matter and perspective might make the article less ‘entertaining’ stopped their release, and the world of literature has been a better place for it.

Where the problem arises for computer games is in the issue of perspective. In each of the linked media above, the reader/viewer/listener (herein referred to simply as the ‘viewer’) enjoys the perspective of either the victim, perpetrator or both of a particularly unpleasant situation – indirectly in the two visual media – and is forced to sit through their actions and reactions to the horrific scenes which unfold. In doing so the viewer ‘suffers’ as the characters do, and so gains an insight into an horrific event and/or perspective, bringing home the seriousness of such issues as rape. Why is this not equally suited to a game? Because core to the experience as a viewer is that you are both passive and a participant. Because we are well-used to these media, we are used to the idea that we have no influence on the events that will occur, and so are able to appreciate the perspective of the character that we are inhabiting even as we accept that we have no power over their actions. Try and transfer this to a game, and you end up with the following conundrum: who do we play as? If we’re trying to keep things as personal as they are in the above examples, we have to be, again, either the victim or the perpetrator, and both of these present extreme difficulties.

What do you mean, I'm 'not a fun character to play as'?

Playing as the victim, we have the issue of lack of agency. If the player has an inkling of what is to come, they will likely seek to avert the incident. Their success in doing so would avoid the whole point of the game in subjecting them to the horrific event, so the designer has to make the entire event unavoidable. The problem here is that by restricting the player to a single outcome, with no way of changing what happens, you may as well be presenting them with a film or book. This ‘game’ takes no advantage of the strengths of its medium.

As such, the perpetrator might seem the more suitable choice: at least here the player gets to take an active role in the proceedings, not just suffer horribly without any choice or input. Only, here the issue of the ‘message’ crops up: in other media when the viewer is given the perspective of a murderer, say, it is tempered by the fact that they are aware that they are themselves passive; they are seeing through the eyes of, and understanding the motives behind their actions, but not themselves driving the character. With a game this luxury is lost. Either the player feels entirely incapable of influencing events, thus bringing about the exact same problem as with playing the victim, or they are granted a broader agency, at which point directing their emotions becomes a problem.

Think of the games which put players in an open, immoral role: they always tend towards either over-the-top, nihilistic experiences which allow the player to indulge in monstrous acts within a cartoony setting devoid of all pathos (think Postal, Saints Row, Mad World et al.), or they end up as confused experiences which awkwardly attach emotive, moral storylines to characters who, in-game, indulge in completely immoral acts at the behest of the behaviour, creating a dissonant mess (think the most recent Rockstar games). The former games can be highly successful as entertainment, but they no longer count towards the aims we are discussing. The latter titles can also be successful as entertainment, but this is in spite of their themes, not because of them, and they will always fall down as affecting stories thanks to the major dissonance between the in-story character and the in-game character.

Hi, I'm Niko Bellic, sympathetic character and all around nice-guy. Please don't mind me while I go on a senseless rampage.

The reason these games have fallen down in such a manner is not due to the developers being lazy or unskilled; it is, as far as I can tell, due to them attempting to square the circle. The only way a viewer can fully appreciate the perspective of a morally reprehensible character is if they have their agency removed, so that they are not fully responsible for the character’s actions. Similarly, the only way a viewer can experience the suffering of a victim is to have their agency removed, so that they may not save the character. Either way, enforcing a lack of agency removes the unique feature that defines games, and so makes these stories that might just as well have been told through another medium.

Again, I am absolutely not saying that these are issues which cannot be brought into games. As side stories – either ones experienced and/or recounted by secondary characters, or as ones experienced by the player character outside of the story or as a (particularly harrowing) vignette, they can work well. Similarly, you can see how a game could be subverted to deal with a particular issue; taking Irréversible and Bioshock as inspiration here, you could imagine a game in which the player is seeking to avenge some horrific act from the beginning of the game, only for their result to backfire with horrific results. But this only works because the player (and their character) are moving towards an uninteded goal. You cannot just present a player with a game in which they know they are moving towards horrific goals and have it work in the same, effective way that other media can without losing the benefit of being in, well, a game.

At least, not as far as I can see. If you have a different perspective, feel free to comment or contact me, or indeed to argue differently elsewhere. I would certainly be interested to see any useful ideas on how a developer could create a game which doesn’t hide its intentions, and yet is able to thrust the player into a horrific, unpleasant situation without removing their agency or their emotional response to the issue being focussed on.

*well, it’s actually probably a corruption of a line from Kurt Tucholsky‘s “Französischer Witz”: “Der Tod eines Menschen: das ist eine Katastrophe. Hunderttausend Tote: das ist eine Statistik!”; roughly translated that comes to “The death of one man: that is a disaster. A hundred thousand dead: that is a statistic!”

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