Imagine it’s 2050 and you’re helping design a course for high-school students called Video Game Literary Classics. You’ve been asked to suggest culturally-significant video games for them to academically analyse and discuss, as they would with classic literature. Which titles would you choose for literary study and why?
It’s a good question, and one posed to the community by Angie over at Backlog Crusader at the end of last month. The aim here is to look at releases which say something significant about humanity; interesting philosophies, ethics or social commentary that’s worth in-depth discussion. The number of responses will determine how long the course will be and, although it’s been a very long time since I was in education, I’m stepping up to the challenge. Here are five games I’d suggest and the reasons why.
From 1993: Mortal Kombat
My brother had a Game Gear when we were kids, and we played the original Mortal Kombat together while news reports appeared on television and in papers to declare it as being a source of corruption. Back then it was considered to be a horribly-graphic release and both parents and politicians were worried about the affect it was having on children. I can remember my sibling and I thinking this was kind of stupid: how would playing a game on a screen make anyone to want to be violent in real life?
It was an interesting time. Society was a mix of excitement for new technology, fear of the impact of digital violence, and mass hysteria about ‘keeping our children safe’. Almost three decades later and the title in the spotlight may have changed but the moral panic hasn’t: we’re still having the same conversations about whether playing video games is harmful or addictive. Fortunately there’s plenty of research now to show the benefits too, so at least we’re able to have a more balanced discussion.
From 2012: Journey
In a complete contrast from the earlier release suggested above, Journey is about a quest to reach a mountain in the distance that contains no violence whatsoever. You’ll meet other players in-game with whom you can only communicate through musical noises made my your character; but far from being an obstacle, it in no way stops you from wanting to them on their way. Does this say something about human nature, that we’re all built with an intrinsic desire to be ‘good’ and do the right thing?
It’s something to ponder over, but one thing we can be sure Journey highlights is that gaming experiences can be beautiful, scary and exciting all at the same time. It ignited the debate about whether the medium should be considered as art and has a lovely philosophy at its core. My stepson summed it up nicely in a comment he came out with after completing the title: “So I’m the star… and the next person playing right now will see me in the sky at the start of their game. That’s cool.”
From 2013: Gone Home
Games like Journey and Dear Esther sparked a trend for narrative titles in the early 2010s which were sadly looked down on by some members of the community. They ended up becoming known as ‘walking simulators’, a derogatory term meant to imply that their lack of traditional gameplay made them less worthy than other action-heavy releases. Could something where the player did nothing but move forward and where there was no need for skill still be considered a video game?
Game, story, art: however you want to define it, the genre is perfect for telling a story and helping the player to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Gone Home in an amazing example as it wonderfully captures 1990s culture and what it was like growing up in the decade. More importantly, it also discusses views on homosexuality at the time and the stigma attached to being anything other than straight. We’ve still got a long way to go but it’s interesting to see how things have changed over the past 40 years.
From 2017: Horizon Zero Dawn
There are so many questions about society which can be explored through the narrative of Horizon Zero Dawn. Where will the relationship between humans and robots ultimately lead, and is artificial intelligence (AI) something to be feared? Will the way we’re treating the planet eventually lead to our downfall? And how does Aloy rappel down mountains, slide into patches of tall grass, go head-to-head with all sorts of dangerous machines and everything else Mother’s Heart throws at her – and still look absolutely perfect?
Jokes aside, this girl is far from being a one-dimensional character who only exists as an object to be rescued or for the gratification of men; and she actually wears something practical rather than being scantily-clad. There have been many discussions in recent years about the portrayal of digital women and just as much abuse thrown at the females who make them. Are protagonists such as Aloy, who we can be proud of and look up to, evidence that both the industry and gaming community are finally starting to grow up?
From 2017: Fortnite
Love it or hate it, Fortnite interestingly highlight several current trends in the gaming industry. The title itself is a copy of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) and now other creators are starting to replicate Epic Games’ baby in return. Its free-to-play and cross-platform basis has been a reason for its huge popularity. But there have also been recent reports of the company’s employees being placed under extreme pressure to work gruelling hours too, revealing a darker side to maintaining the success.
It seems as though there’s not a week that goes by during which this game doesn’t make an appearance in the news. There’s a fear about how addictive it is and how it’s going to be the downfall of our children – but not so much talk about good parenting, and how it’s important to know what your youngsters are playing and whether it’s suitable for them. Whose responsibility is it to moderate: parents or publishers? And what impact is this going to have on society in the long-run?
Thank you to Angie for coming up with this collaboration, and for letting me participate! There’s still time to join in: take a look at her post before 23 June 2019 for all the details, and get involved.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.