Games: How the Endless Potential of the First Interactive Medium Can be Unlocked

Bioshock's Rapture
Become a Big Daddy and dive into Bioshock to learn about the potential of an objectivist utopia. Don’t forget to teach your Little Sisters!

Most people have heard of the AIDS problem being solved through the use of games. Many recognize the potential games have for educational purposes. And every gamer knows that Bioshock is a romp through a utopian society of Ayn Rand’s mind. It has been long recognized that games hold the potential for purposes beyond entertainment. However, as with most media, it is hard to draw the line that defines what is intended as a learning experience or is simply a part of the entertainment. How do we cut the meaningless away from the significant? As the first truly interactive medium, games face a unique challenge of giving players information developers wish to share.

To illustrate my point, I call on an old friend who happens to be an Italian plumber that doubles as a personal bodyguard of a princess. Mario from the Super Mario series perfectly illustrates what I mean by “the meaningless”. Though the portly plumber may seem to embody all that is right and just, further analysis seems to indicate the our civil serviceman is the leader of a communist revolution. This theory has been around for quite some time, and many dismiss it as a conspiracy theorist’s daydream. After all, how could a simple 8-bit red and yellow block stomping on turtles portray such a dramatic event? It’s just a game… or is it? Did Nintendo base our hero’s adventure on the teachings of a historically impractical political dictum? There have been many, many points and observations made by the online community and many of these speculations seem reasonable. Because there is no official statement made by Nintendo to clear up the issue, people will continue to debate whether Mario is a people’s Mario or simply an over-analyzed victim of fiction.

I’d like to mention another notable example, this time lesser known to the public, a game by the name of Papers Please. In this game, the player is a “papers checker” at the fictional country of Arstotzka’s border. Many people pass by and hand you their papers, and it is up to you to grant them entry or to deny them the opportunity. The number of decisions is limited: You can press ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Yet, when played seriously and analyzed in retrospect, this game can show where many of your ideals and your actions collide. Will you allow a person with no papers in? Are you letting in a terrorist, or someone who truly wants to join their family? As conditions change and new rules are enacted, I found myself in increasingly tense and complex situations. Self-realization is yet another path games can unveil, simply with a few options.

These examples serve to highlight the issue that games face today. It does not matter whether the original Super Mario seems to be a pixelated representation of a Marxist uprising. What matters is that the game today is just a platformer, telling the story of how an Italian plumber rescues his damsel in distress. In the flip side of the coin, we have a intentionally provocative game in Papers Please. Without the intellectual and emotional prodding, the game would be a waste of time, at best. What made the game shine was its intentional use of intellectual stimulation to guide the player through deeper thoughts perhaps unrealized by the player. Two games pinpoint the problem. To truly utilize games to their full potential, how do we get the developer’s message across without denying the freedom of a truly interactive learning experience?

To fully understand the issue, people must realize that games cannot be compared to other forms of media because they are primarily interactive. In no other previous time period have we had the technology to immerse other people in our works and allow them to explore and discover without interfering directly. Paintings, books, newspapers, television, and radio all have no freedom in how the reader is presented information. The artist, author, or producer create a work and send it out. The work is then finished, and the recipients are then free to process the work however they please. Games are unique in that they require active participation from the audience, and how a member of the audience chooses to participate changes the experience for that particular person.

This reciprocal nature of games opens new doors everywhere. The problem is nudging players through certain doors and ensuring that they don’t walk through others, guiding a player’s thoughts to larger problems and ideas at hand without limiting the development of those thoughts. It is hard enough to impartially lead people in thinking, and to accomplish that feat without active supervision from developers will be a significant challenge.

border patrol
Processing papers in “Papers Please” can cause you to reflect on your values and raise awareness about our own border issues.

So what can developers do to ensure that their intentions of revealing a larger issue is materialized, if that is their purpose? I can say that that particular issue will never be an issue. As humans, people will never stop analyzing, so there is guaranteed to be at least one group of people who think about the topics the developer wants to address. Consequently, that also means Pokemon conspiracy theories and Mario’s Communist uprisings will never cease either. To aid in the thought process, what developers can do is to keep game mechanics simple or at least familiar. Papers Please is one of the simplest games, a small indie production. Bioshock retains the ol’ FPS formula with the small addition of Eve and plasmids, which are just equivalents of magic. Both introduce nothing significantly innovative in the scheme of game mechanics, and allows the players to focus on something else other than learning new or difficult controls. The second thing developers can do is to exploit the limitations of a finite setting in games by strictly prohibiting certain unwanted thoughts. When playing Bioshock, you see the carnage and societal mess brought upon the city of Rapture because of the very philosophy the city was founded upon. The setting prohibits players from thinking about something irrelevant, say, the philosophy of immigration issues. Similarly, the setting of Papers Please unconsciously removes the player’s thought from objectivism and encourages the real-time consequences of border issues. Though this one might seem obvious, it’s amazing to see how far people can think if given the chance (cue in Mario and his Bolshevik buddies).

It’s not much of a surprise that many overlook the potential knowledge found in games. The medium itself is to blame. After a decades of establishing itself as a medium for entertainment, it’s difficult to see past it. From the primitive Pong to Modern Warfare 3, entertainment has established itself as the priority of games, which is not necessarily a terrible thing. It does waste the endless potential that the first interactive medium has to offer beyond amusement. To squander it means to waste the process of learning unique to the first interactive medium.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Diana Chin

    Great article! Love the references that you made to illustrate your points.

  2. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    I was speaking to my friend the other day and he, with much wisdom, told me that “video games” are an awful name for a medium and that something like “play” (referring to theater) is a great name. I had never really thought about it before, but yeah. Play is a great name as playing is the essence of all art, childish, exploratory, and audacious. Video game sounds so artificial, competitive, and technical.

  3. I’ve been playing PP for a couple of hours now -and it’s really intriguing. If you’re someone who pays attention to details and can work efficiently, this the game for you. Come home from your real job, and do this one…

  4. Alton Barker

    Believe it or not, I don’t have a hard copy of BioShock 1 (played my best friend’s copy when we still shared an apartment), and never played the sequel. Was just thinking today about how I really ought to have the first game added to my library.

  5. I understand and agree with your point about video games being incomparable to other media such as books and movies because of the interactivity of video games. I also agree with you on your point about the need to find a way for the developers to communicate their message in a way that isn’t heavy-handed or restricts the player from uncovering these things on his own.

    However, I feel that video games can be somewhat compared to books in that video games can offer a linear experience through the eyes of a particular character, and from that lens we can see that world and how it affects the character with it’s history and current status. I feel that this is particularly true with characters that are not simply an avatar for the player.

    Thanks for the article. I really enjoyed it, and it’s these thought-provoking articles that can really promote a more critical aspect to the discussion.

  6. Bioshock has never done it for me as a video game. Mostly, because I am not that familiar with Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I commend you on this article, if gave me food for thought on the medium of video games. I have never searched for the political side of a video game. I have started looking deeper into the political side of the medium of video games.

    Still, I commend you on this thought provoking article.

  7. This is interesting to think about, but I’m of the opinion that, in video games as in film, “cheap” entertainment and intellectually stimulating works can and should coexist. People have a desire for both, and it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game in which the presence of one detracts from the others. I believe video games are really beginning to reach an era where there is a much better balance of both types.

    That’s my opinion, anyway. Terrific article!

    • Austin

      Of course, there should be a balance in all things. It would be such a waste to not have games be entertaining. After all, entertainment is the start of gaming.

      Though I really didn’t intentionally lean towards transforming the entire gaming industry into a pedagogical institution, maybe it was my wording that brought about this kind of thought.

      Thanks for the comment; always looking for something to improve upon!

  8. Marjorie

    Experiencing “Paper’s Please” is like taking a ride on a morality roller-coaster. You have rules to abide by so you fasten your seatbelt, but your own human empathy often conflicts with these rules…one such example: one time I allowed this man’s wife through the border, after her husband had crossed, even though she was missing a required entry permit. I fell for her sob story and payed the hefty price. To my shock, she silently pulled a grenade from her coat and threw it at the security guards. My son died that day 🙁 <Paper's Please in a nutshell… 

  9. Brendan

    This is quite an intriguing topic, I’ve shared it to friends and colleagues.

  10. I played Papers Please this May, the beta that is.. I was in the ER regarding my my Appendix, due to me having Pendicitus? .. I don’t remember, I spend a week playing this game… gave me good spirits..

  11. Papers, Please was so haunting. No matter what you did, the game was so firmly against you. Despite having control over other people’s lives to some extent, you as the player still had to abide by the rules of the more important government workers who were in charge of you. I think it’s wonderful that games can be fun and a way to relax and escape, but I find it equally important for there to be games that make you think about larger consequences or draw parallels to our own lives and history. I think Bioshock became less about criticizing Ayn Rand’s objectivism after the big plot twist of the game — from that point the game felt much more like a traditional FPS in tone.

  12. Hello, Austin!
    I would like to begin my comment by thanking you for your article. You have some really great ideas here, and you were able to draw attention to the question of video games and their place in society. I happen to find this question a very important topic, so I am very glad about that. Your article, I feel, could benefit from addressing a few key issues: the writing is broken and grammatically incorrect, you have great ideas that are not followed through thoroughly or with care to detail, and video games are not the first interactive form of entertainment or media that are interactive.
    A book, for instance, is a very interactive form of media. Reading is not done simply by letting a book soak into your skin- it requires an intense knowledge of intricate language structure and rules as well as an active process of taking in information, constructing it within ones own mind, and processing this information with the reader’s own intellect.
    As for the video game itself, do video games not operate on a very specific and arduously compiled set of rules? Are there not codes upon codes upon codes of programs and “laws” which govern what a player can and can not do within a video game? What about the structure of the visuals themselves? Are they not also important story-telling devices that have limits of their own?
    Of course I don’t mean that I expect all of these things to be completely discussed in detail within one article; I just think these are important ideas your article glossed over. If you think about these ideas (and I am sure there are much more that I am missing as well) then your article could be a lot stronger.

  13. Also, the article never comes to the point of actually arguing “how the endless potential of the first interactive medium can be unlocked,” but rather wanders around a couple ideas of how one can be more mindful or attentive to specific games. You suggest at the end that seeing past video games as simply a means of entertainment can “…waste the endless potential that the first interactive medium has to offer beyond amusement,” but I was really hoping to get your ideas on how that barrier can be overcome on a broader or perhaps more enlightening scale. Perhaps get more into what and how Papers does this for the player? Another good option would be to talk more about Bioshock- a game that rewards the player for murdering little girls. A talk on THAT would be interesting.

    • Austin

      Thanks for your comments! I’m always looking for ways to improve, and comments like these really allow me to learn from those who know better. I’ll make sure for future articles to search for those breaks in grammar and flow.
      As far as the interactive medium part goes, I believe that is another glossed over portion on my part. Perhaps I could have defined more explicitly what I mean by “interactive”. I wish I could have addressed everything you mentioned in that paragraph, but alas, I was unsure on whether I could fit everything I wanted to within the confines of the article. Next time, I will be sure to discuss some of these, as they did cross my mind but failed to make it onto the screen.
      As for the the expansion on the examples, I again feared that my article might be too long. I originally did go into the whole morality aspect and personal impact of these games, but it ended up making my article far longer than I anticipated. As I mentioned, I’m still working on my writing, so any tips and tricks on condensing meaningful content always helps. Thanks again for reading!

      • Of course. Please forgive me if my posts sound a bit harsh- I am hardly a perfect writer, but I would want the same feedback from you and look forward to it in the future.
        Also, I tend to surf articles late at night and tend to be rather blunt.

  14. You start by saying the character of Mario is meaningless and then immediately accuse him of being some manifestation of a communist manifesto. If that has any truth to it, doesn’t that exactly make it some useful point of conversation to critique that political perspective? I am neither pro nor anti communist but I would say it is an important perspective to talk about. I would say that Mario as a communist offers at least much more intellectual stimuli than Mario as a plumber with no other agenda than impressing a girl.

    • Austin

      If you read the paper, I mentioned that Mario was an example of fans going wild, of interpreting what was not there. Though intellectually stimulating it might be (and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing either), the intent of the developers was lost, and I wanted to establish that this was a possible path of the gaming learning experience that developers should look to avoid, especially in games with deeper meaning.

  15. I can’t help but compare the video game, as an artistic medium, to the graphic novel. Seen generally as trivial entertainment, it took Alan Moore and works like Watchmen to truly display the potential. And even now, decades later, graphic novels are still arguably held substandard to traditional novels. I’m not sure we’ve had the video game equivalent of Watchmen yet.

    Just as Watchmen demonstrates how a graphic novel can be significantly more effective in telling a story, we need a video game that illustrates the medium’s “endless potential” as you say.

    • Austin

      Though I don’t discuss it because it’s a off topic (I was discussing the educational value of games, not the artistic), the games “Journey” and “The Walking Dead” are great examples of how as an artistic medium at least, games contribute something unique that other mediums can’t. Thanks for your input!

  16. I think that video games with a strong story can also be interactive in the sense that it makes people think during and after playing. It would be a way of having an interactive narrative in which the gamer is thrown into the world, so I don’t necessarily think that all video games are just mindless forms of entertainment.

  17. Jamie Tracy

    Great job. To add a little fuel to your fire; I am an Art History Professor and I use the Assassin’s Creed Franchise in all of my courses. I show my students concept art, still frames and video of me touring some of the historical sights. It has been a great resource and has helped me bridge the gap between a traditional classroom and a contemporary learning environment.

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