Time for Games to Grow Up

Time for Games to Grow Up

I have been thinking about how gaming deals with serious real world issues recently, it stems from comments on this post talking about the next step for the Total War games. It is clear that many people want a modern setting for the series with World War Two being something you are all keen to see.


It is apparent, when you think about it, that for all of the claims from people involved in the games industry that we are able to deal with mature and serious issues, we just can’t. The vast majority of World War Two games skirt around the more complex issues of the war, it is rare to see a moral justification for why you are fighting. Games set in the present day are not much better, rather than taking a cold hard look at the realities of the Iraq war or the fight in Afghanistan titles like Modern Warfare 2 take these real world settings and simply use them as a platform for extravagent over the top storylines.

People try to say that games should be taken as seriously as films and literature, but where is our Schindler’s List or The Hurt Locker? We don’t have one, there is a reluctance amongst game developers to deal with historical issues in any depth. Obviously issues such as the Holocaust and the war in Iraq are sensitive or controversial, but there is no reason why a developer shouldn’t make a AAA title that takes a serious and emotionally involving look at some of the events of the past 100 years.

World War Two games have become tired affairs, they don’t break any new ground, each one seems to be an example of a developer treading water, not moving forwards and progressing the medium. People claim they are tired of World War Two games, but when so many buy them you realise why developers make them all in the same image.

If the Total War series was to move into the 20th century than topics such as the rise of Facism, Nazism and Communism would have to be dealt with and I am sure The Creative Assembly would tackle these issues in a mature manner. But would they have the guts to break new ground and really look at these delicate subjects in a way which causes us to stop and think about them for minute?

It is time that a developer has the guts to make a game which breaks the norm and makes us think about what we are playing. If we are to be able to claim that games are on the same level as films and literature then we need to see games tackle real topics, not simply skimping over them.

13 thoughts on “Time for Games to Grow Up

  1. i agree with you wholeheartedly in theory, mr. evans.

    then i walk past a telly (i’m in new york) and see the fits of rage half of my countrymen have twisted themselves into over something as benign as people seeing doctors when sick and i question not a developer’s desire to handle substance and weighty issues, but the public’s ability to handle such issues in a game.

    perhaps i’m a pessimist, but people are rather stupid and uncomfortable when dealing with many things in a wise, productive or mature way.

    i wish i had enough faith in humanity to say that games dealing with moral consequences in a realistic world setting wouldn’t end in disaster – games that explored nuance beyond “bad!” and “good!” in political movements or told stories from our own past or present that made our skins crawl, with decisions made, or better yet made us understand WHY some of those decisions were made and put us in the role of the people who made them.

    i fear that people are not ready to go to those places, even if developers are (and i see no signs that they are either). between the protests and the enraged parents groups and the awful trash-media’s gleeful coverage of how the game lets you operate little pixel(for example) dachau’s – i suspect that whatever message or exploration of the human soul the game was trying to say / make would get lost in the melee.

    gods i sound like a pessimist.

  2. Damien, they’ve gone to these places in films and books. Even music, and -certainly- in traditional art.

    Why shouldn’t games join them?

    The interactivity allows for something a lot more.. striking, sure. But let’s find out.

    On the other hand, it’s worth recalling that we did have some pretty emotionally deep games, or were at least getting there. Things went downhill since the Dawn of 360 – both technology and gameplay stagnated into an endless sequence of disappointing sequels on the same engine due to technological constraints and the potential for low-cost/high-profit releases.

    Back in the late nineties to early 2000s we had a variety of rather mature RPGs released. Admittedly, FPS games never did seem to go there.

    Oddly, I do find myself inclined to cite Half-Life as willing to go uncomfortable places to some small degree. While clich

  3. hrmmm. i’ve thought long and hard on the concept of “games as art”. i never really like what i come up with. its always the interactive aspect that stumbles me up. it’s a very different thing to observe, or even empathize with awful or morally challenging events or characters, than it is to play an awful or morally challenging character or avatar.

    my thinking has always gotten a bit fuzzy at this point, so bear with me if i get too scattershot.

    faced with a situation in-game of say… a rape. gamers will do one of three things, depending on how the game is laid out. they’ll either go out of their way to not commit such a crime, commit the crime while rationalizing the act (“it’s only a game…”) or commit the crime and enjoy such an exploration of cultural taboo.

    going out of their way to avoid the act really means there’s no real reason for the act to be in the game in the first place. beyond the building of a character who wouldn’t rape someone, there seems little upside, design-wise.

    “its only a game” also seems counterproductive, taking the player out of his immersion and forcing him to right his bearings via a real world compass.

    the third would make me uneasy, as games exist mostly in our fantasy minds, and exist there for so much longer than a film or novel. while its not to say that fantasizing about acts like rape or genocide would make people more likely to commit these acts, it still rides somewhat of a razor’s edge in terms of my own ethical comfort level.

    another option would be to take control away from the player while having these decisions or actions carried out in cut-scenes – which would be even more self-defeating, as not only would the player have “its only a game” to fall back on, but they were just along for the ride and had nothing to do with the decision making.

    things like films and novels can get away with “heavy” concepts and settings because they dont ask you to participate in those acts.

    regardless of how harrowingly a film makes its point its audience will have the safety of being able to watch terrifying scenes unfold without being complicit in those scenes. i think that safety allows a film audience to stomach a great deal more than a gaming audience could.

    basically, to sum up this blargle, if gamers had a choice in the matter i suspect that a large number of us would try to work around such decisions, and if you forced them to make those decisions the enlightening effect of the scenarios would be drowned in the player’s feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to make such very important game decisions for ourselves.

    i think we as gamers are a bit too eager to cross the “games as art” barrier. i think that crossing that line, becoming “art” acknowledged by all, would bring with it a massive set of baggage that we’re not used to and would be uncomfortable with.

    i would suggest that we find ways to work on how games write characters, honestly. games are a fantastic medium for dialogue and yet the majority of dialogue in games is… at best, forgettable, at worst? fucking awful.

    i really wish i’d spent the time to write this in a word processor first, i’m sure i have thoughts dangling and unclosed all over the place.

    i’ll leave you with the following question, tho. how often do you sit down and remember dialogue from a game? that you quote in your facebook profile or use as a motto?

    maybe games should avoid tackling some of these morally thorny subjects until the writing is better. i’d hate to see games reach for greater cultural resonance only to produce great narratives only when graded on a curve. (gta4 comes to mind)

  4. The response of the tabloid press would be very interesting to see if a game was to deal with something like the Holocaust or if it was to include a rape in the narrative and force the player to react to it. It may be that the backlash would be worse than anything we have seen so far for games like GTA4 and Manhunt.

    Narrative and writing in games is another story entirely and one which I think plays a big role in creating the negative stigma games have in the eyes of the media. For all the hoorah over the stories in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, due to their settings people looking from the outside in will dismiss them as being cliched examples of games being stuck in high-fantasy and sci-fi themes.

    Which brings me back to the idea that games need to deal with more realistic topics with a well written narrative. The Modern Warfare games may use shock and awe (nuclear explosion in the first, airport in the second) but they don’t have the emotional impact that you get from something like Generation Kill, Band of Brothers, The Hurt Locker or Jarhead. For all the success of Modern Warfare it hasn’t done anything to move games forward.

    If we look at the Total War series, many people (as seen in comments elsewhere here on The Reticule) want to see it set in the 20th century, would The Creative Assembly include Nazi Germany? Would the purges of Stalin be included? Or would TCA avoid these issues for fear of backlash?

  5. re: total was in the 20th century. unsure. i mean, nazis are wargaming staples going back to tabletop times. however those games were wargames, strictly wargames. no modeling of forced labour camps or concentration camps required for them.

    i’d ask, would including the micromanagement of The Final Solution (building the camps, transporting units of jews from city to camp, etc) really do anything positive for the game itself?

    i mean, what would be the bonus in going that far out on a limb in a game? beyond the shock publicity the game would get, and the outraged protests, etc. would this set of gameplay features bring anything of value to the game itself?

    i wonder about that. i’d also wonder how mature this set of features would / could be.

    i think games butt into their nature as a toy in situations like this. if its not fun, will gamers play it? if you manage to make the industrial micromanagement of genocide fun, you’ve probably made an awful mistake.

  6. Obviously there wouldn’t be any micromanagement on the scale you are talking about, that just doesn’t feature in Total War games really, but would The Creative Assembly just ignore the Holocaust, how would they deal with it if Nazi Germany was playable?

  7. i think i’m bungling my words or something, here. total war empires or napoleon – for example. you have the campaign map. in a WWII edition, you could build death camps away from your cities in the campaign game, say. they would generate an increase in production or some bonus in return for a significant drop in diplomatic ability or prestige (other nations do not approve, etc).

    without changing the total war format, there’s not much more i can imagine is available to do, holocaust wise. the format of a total war campaign just really doesn’t feel (to me) like it would allow a developer to model something as heavy as the holocaust and give it any meaning.

    i mean, from a total war standpoint, nazi germany would be just another side to play. within the confines of the total war game experience, i cant see how it would be possible to work some of nazi germany’s admiration of war crimes into the game and not be jarringly out of place (poorly handled, tossed in just to toss it in and be “edgy” or controversial). one of the problems with this particular line of conversation is that on paper, the extermination of jews didn’t make a lot of sense. there wasn’t much of a short term gain in it’s implementation, and its only long term bonuses were seen through the eyes of race-hatred. neither of these translate well into a computer game.

    perhaps total war is a bad example? i mean, the main goals of the series are to slaughter as many troops as can be put in your way. for it to start taking uncomfortable moral stands when its whole tech tree and all its buildable structures are all geared towards the pursuit of war might be a mistake, no?

    maybe a better example for this would be civ 5? i mean, its at least theoretically possible to “win” at the civ games without killing everyone else in your path.

    or maybe we’ve fallen down a rabbit hole by trying to talk about the hardest of the mature subjects a game could attempt?

    perhaps without the stigma and baggage of the holocaust, the conversation we’re having would be less bogged down in the specifics of the thing, yeah?

  8. the main point you were making was a greater level of maturity in games, and i agree. i think games need to be much more consistently well written before that can / should happen.

    as it is, much writing in games is clumsy, ham-fisted and has no subtlety or fully developed characters. even the best examples of writing in games tends to be “the best” because there’s nothing better, not because its actually as great as similarly applauded works in other artistic mediums.

    (i’m sorry i muddied the waters on this thread with very imprecise posts that took the concept in twelve ways at once, when it really only needed to be focusing on the above.)

  9. Actually, any tabletop wargame I can think of totally skirted the Nazi/fascism issues- cardboard chits represented units from the order of battle, and if a few happened to be Waffen-SS, they probably had slightly better stats late in the war (more priority for equipment) and lower early on (less experience and actually lower priority than normal units for heavy stuff). That would be the extent of it.

  10. hrmmm. i’ve thought long and hard on the concept of “games as art”. i never really like what i come up with. its always the interactive aspect that stumbles me up. it’s a very different thing to observe, or even empathize with awful or morally challenging events or characters, than it is to play an awful or morally challenging character or avatar.

    my thinking has always gotten a bit fuzzy at this point, so bear with me if i get too scattershot.

    faced with a situation in-game of say… a rape. gamers will do one of three things, depending on how the game is laid out. they’ll either go out of their way to not commit such a crime, commit the crime while rationalizing the act (“it’s only a game…”) or commit the crime and enjoy such an exploration of cultural taboo.

    going out of their way to avoid the act really means there’s no real reason for the act to be in the game in the first place. beyond the building of a character who wouldn’t rape someone, there seems little upside, design-wise.

    “its only a game” also seems counterproductive, taking the player out of his immersion and forcing him to right his bearings via a real world compass.

    the third would make me uneasy, as games exist mostly in our fantasy minds, and exist there for so much longer than a film or novel. while its not to say that fantasizing about acts like rape or genocide would make people more likely to commit these acts, it still rides somewhat of a razor’s edge in terms of my own ethical comfort level.

    another option would be to take control away from the player while having these decisions or actions carried out in cut-scenes – which would be even more self-defeating, as not only would the player have “its only a game” to fall back on, but they were just along for the ride and had nothing to do with the decision making.

    things like films and novels can get away with “heavy” concepts and settings because they dont ask you to participate in those acts.

    regardless of how harrowingly a film makes its point its audience will have the safety of being able to watch terrifying scenes unfold without being complicit in those scenes. i think that safety allows a film audience to stomach a great deal more than a gaming audience could.

    basically, to sum up this blargle, if gamers had a choice in the matter i suspect that a large number of us would try to work around such decisions, and if you forced them to make those decisions the enlightening effect of the scenarios would be drowned in the player’s feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to make such very important game decisions for ourselves.

    i think we as gamers are a bit too eager to cross the “games as art” barrier. i think that crossing that line, becoming “art” acknowledged by all, would bring with it a massive set of baggage that we’re not used to and would be uncomfortable with.

    i would suggest that we find ways to work on how games write characters, honestly. games are a fantastic medium for dialogue and yet the majority of dialogue in games is… at best, forgettable, at worst? fucking awful.

    i really wish i’d spent the time to write this in a word processor first, i’m sure i have thoughts dangling and unclosed all over the place.

    i’ll leave you with the following question, tho. how often do you sit down and remember dialogue from a game? that you quote in your facebook profile or use as a motto?

    maybe games should avoid tackling some of these morally thorny subjects until the writing is better. i’d hate to see games reach for greater cultural resonance only to produce great narratives only when graded on a curve. (gta4 comes to mind)

    1. It seems to be that the majority of games writing that you ‘remember’ is something that has been turned into an internet meme. Depressing really, but that is the state of games writing most of the time.

      So often I’ve read in articles in PC Gamer or on the web where people talk about how the scriptwriter comes in to mould the story around the game, rather than, as I think most games should be done, have the game moulded around the story.

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