Will gaming venture into social issues?


Next generation systems offer opportunity to expand scope of gaming experiences

The Nintendo Wii U is already here. A few weeks ago Sony announced the holiday 2013 release of the PlayStation 4. And Xbox is expected to finalize a release date for the Xbox 720 this April. Yes, we will soon find ourselves fully immersed in the next generation of gaming.

The hardware will be better, with background download and multitasking capabilities. The graphics will be better – Google “PS4 Final Fantasy Tech Demo” – with greater realism than ever. The interactivity will be better, with games and features being accessed globally from peripheral devices and with motion controlling taking a leap forward.

But will the humanity behind the games be better? My excitement for this new generation lies in the possibility for greater ethical commentary to bleed into video games. With all the new additions, I look forward to a gaming industry that’s more focused on bringing social and ethical issues to light, a new generation with a moral pulse.

I’ve seen sparks of this in our current generation – nothing overt, more moments when the game suddenly becomes a little too real, when an uncomfortable sliver of harsh reality pangs within. Through its choice-based narrative, the Mass Effect series has brought players face to face with ethical dilemmas and their consequences, but the sci-fi setting waters down the problems, losing much of its real-world application. Similarly, the new Metal Gear, with its series-wide debate of the tradeoff between technology and humanity, also loses applications because of its futuristic setting.

The trouble is that many modern games that have a political or ethical arena as a backdrop will do so superfluously, to the point that it may be exploiting the subject. Black Ops II and its child soldiers had an opportunity to have players make hard decisions and bring the reality of today’s civil wars to bear. The moment was tragically fleeting.

Max Payne 3 and the poverty resulting from guerilla dictators also could have paved the way for a gamer who is more aware of global affairs. This was lost in a flurry of bullets and a self-indulged protagonist, one guilty of adding a certain glamour to its violence.

We must be careful that these issues are dealt with sincerely. If it is done simply to spark controversy, then we’ve lost the battle.

This new generation, I hope, will allow social concerns to be dealt with thoughtfully and vividly, with issues of environmental and human exploitation being brought to the forefront – not simply as a backdrop, but as immersive elements to a game’s plot and player’s choices.

This could be as simple as a first person shooter in which each mission has a humanitarian element in its structure and rewards. Use of parodies of real-world people, places, and companies – for which the Grand Theft Auto series is famous – could allow players to see the real-world applications of their actions.

Another option could be to ensure that, with player choices, plotlines split and alternate endings are created where the player sees how their decisions shape Earth of the near future. With any change, players must see how their choices not only affect the grandiose plotlines of environmental destruction, poverty, corporate elitism and war but also the people, creating empathetic links between major and minor characters.

With greater connectivity in this next generation, as the gaming world becomes no longer confined to living rooms nor confined by international boundaries, there should also be a push to bring to light issues of social, political and ethical conflict. The last six years have seen international borders begin to break down as it pertains to gaming, with almost 70 per cent of the world’s population playing video games, in one form or another. This is an opportunity for the gaming industry to use that international community.

If we wish to forge gamers into responsible global citizens then we must be willing to bring global issues to these citizens in a responsible, sincere way. Doing so will ensure not only that this new generation is the more immersive, but also that the video game industry, with its estimated $82 billion market by 2017, will be a forum for global, humanitarian change.


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