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