Just another upsetting Gamasutra article that I had to post to and figured I’d stick up here too. You know, I have write-ups on here just waiting to be finished and posted, but when I get caught up with work the only times I seem to finish writing are when someone manages to piss me off. I really gotta do something about that. . . .

Anyway, this one is Chris Dahlen‘s plea for new and exciting settings for games, specifically Africa. Among other reasons, he claims that games about blowing Africa to bits are more realistic than films about saving Africa. If one thing is unrealistic, the extreme opposite of that must be the truth? Right? . . . Right?

It was a good chance for me to talk Post-Colonialism for a bit. I’m sure you could apply much of it to games in general. Here’s the article and here’s my response:

That kid you mentioned, the one that wondered if the entire world could be burned down; you’re right about him not being a neo-imperialist sociopath. He’s just asking a relevant question. The discussion was about what could be done in the game, the possibilities brought about by its capabilities, and when you’re being told about each component of a world being flammable, it’s reasonable to ask if all of them are.

This article, however, packs quite a colonialist message. Exotic locations “should” be used in games solely for their exoticism? I guess Africa is a place where us rich, white people go to blow things up for fun. After all, that’s what most of these games are about, right? A white male with apparently no problems in his life except for a single immediate threat which he can fix with a few well placed shots (or badly placed explosions). I don’t think that’s what you want to say, but it’s the message.

“Newness” is an excellent way to entertain and if most games are set in one environment, a great way to obtain that sense of the new is to place your game in a very different one, but I should like to think that something as important as your game’s setting is selected for more than a “cool factor.” I’m not a fan of the blatant message film, but they at least provide good reason for their locations and they’re not just showing you the coolest spots, the best ways to show off graphics or cinematography, they’re showing you what they believed needed to be seen to achieve a greater purpose than how pretty an image they could make. If you know what you’re doing, you ought to be able to make pretty images out of any environment.

“Darfur is Dying” is your only example of a game that attempts this kind of maturity, unfortunately its use of the game format is immature. You don’t learn about Darfur through playing the game, you’re told about Darfur while playing the game. Knowing about Darfur is irrelevant to the gameplay itself. This would be like watching a movie about Africa that doesn’t make sense without its accompanying brochure. That being said, I like that it’s so difficult because it’s risky to make a game that can’t be won, it’s part of their message and it works (a technique that ought to be used more often).

I love the GTA games, but I also think it’s about time we move beyond appropriating stereotypes for the sake of filling space on a disc and try making choices in game design and art direction aimed to communicate a theme. A game can be cool and thoughtful, just like movies have been with pop hits like Fight Club, the Star Wars trilogy, Chinatown, Amelie, Alien, and the recent No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. The settings in those films are not inherently entertaining (no setting is), but they were selected for reasons that benefited the point of the films. Why can’t game developers give their work the same respect?

“Build us Mount Kilimanjaro, and we’ll raze it; give us a life-like shantytown, and we’ll admire the way the bullets richochet off the metal. Gamers show our respect for something by trying to blow it sky high.” No, we show our disrespect for the game by blowing everything up. Respect, in this case, being brought about mostly by consequences. I’m not saying players should be “punished” for violence like that, but the reason humans don’t blow everything up in reality is because of real world consequences. Those consequences enforce respect for the world we live in, but games provide a simulation of that world without consequences and therefore, without respect. I wouldn’t even say that this view encourages destruction or waste in the real world, but it does make 90% of a game’s potential irrelevant to reality. That’s why million dollar, 3 year development games can be treated as toys; glorified pong.

You seem to live in a world where games are limited to fiery, jack-off festivals. That’s not my world, and I’m glad it isn’t.

-Christopher J. Rock

About the author:
Christopher J. Rock (http://)
Film student at California State, Long Beach. I want to make the gaming world a better place.
  • HAHA! Fiery jack-off festivals. Comedy, made me chuckle.

    I don’t see how the game industry has been not kind of Africa. The only other example cited is Halo 3. And if I payed enough attention to the story, I recall that Africa is the last point of human resistance on the entire planet. Is that such a bad thing?

    Africa could be the setting for some great games, I agree. But so could my backyard, or the liquor store down the street. Why’s Africa getting all the love, what about Iceland? It’s always bothered me that Iceland doesn’t get portrayed accurately in video games.

    “Imagine if mainstream titles took their regular old gameplay to the new continent.”
    It would be a mistake to take the “regular old gameplay” and stuff it into a new environment and thinking it’ll be something new. “Burnout Paradise in Africa” is the example and that would be a lazy idea. Assasin’s Creed is basically GTA in Jerusalem, but they didn’t seem to put anymore thought into the design because it turned out pretty awful, despite the awesome play mechanics and visual design. What’s important is that the games make sense to the setting. There have been plenty of rally racing games that have tracks in Africa. The setting works because that type of racing actually takes place there. And you can’t forget that it actually has to be fun!

    Blowing shit up seems to be universally acceptable as fun, always.

    I checked out Darfur is Dying and quickly discovered that much of the message of the game is lost in the presentation. Its interface is a terrible way of getting its message across, incredibly cluttered and unintuitive. I’m not sure how a Diner Dash clone puts me in the shoes of a Sudanese refugee. But at least it has a leaderboard.

    Games, and other forms of interactive media, could be used to get across important political messages and social ideas incredibly well if used properly. It’s about getting together the people with the knowledge of the ideas with the knowledge of the medium, accompanied by a good budget. Not just outsourcing the project to the company that can do it on the tightest budget.

    “They’ll still make us blow stuff up; that’s just the nature of the medium.”
    The beauty of the medium is that developers have the power to control the worlds they develop. There’s no rule that says a game needs to allow you to blow everything up, many just seem to think it’s the only way they can make their games sell. What’s important is thinking beyond. Change of setting is a step to getting there but it’s not going to make any difference if the fundamental beliefs of what a game is never changes.

    By the way, this was originally posted on GameSetWatch, right here.