Big games are often light on themes

Hitler’s mech as it appears in the original Wolfenstein game. Id Software

Recently, I’ve found myself reacting quite strongly against games I haven’t played yet. Occasionally, to games that haven’t even been released yet. I’ve found myself immediately sceptical and hostile when a game’s marketing tells me that it has something to say “about” some serious theme or social commentary.

I’ve found myself immediately assuming that the game is not, in fact, going to say anything interesting about that topic at all. It’s an odd feeling, a pre-emptive hostility that I certainly didn’t used to feel towards games.

Last week, when Ubisoft released the cover art of their upcoming Far Cry 4 — a game we are yet to see any footage of — I echoed the many on Twitter who pointed out how the cover is clearly racist. There’s the man that many have perceived as Caucasian sitting on a throne, a cowering Asian man on his knees before him in an amazing literalisation of colonialism.

Some have defended the cover, at least insisting that we wait until we play “the game itself” before we start criticising. But as others still have pointed out, Ubisoft have deliberately released this cover to be consumed as a marketing text in its own right, and considering the series' previous game’s own poor treatment of colonial and racist undertones, it was inevitable that such criticisms would be made.

Also last week, the new Wolfenstein game came out. When Id created the first Wolfenstein game in the early 90s, they established many of the conventions that still exist today in the first-person shooter genre. Now, like many older IPs, Wolfenstein demands a new, rebooted franchise every few years — just like Superman or Batman.

This time, developers MachineGames decided to take the alternate history route, asking what the 1960s would be like if the Nazi’s won world war two. There is a scene in the game where the player has to infiltrate a concentration camp. Now, again, I have not played Wolfenstein yet, but when I heard that this scene existed, I immediately balked at the idea of a blockbuster first-person shooter even considering depicting the horrors of a concentration camp.

It was a gut reaction that I’m interested in understanding. Obviously, as a game critic, I think videogames are no less able to tackle difficult or challenging topics than any other medium: if films and literature can say something meaningful about concentration camps, then surely videogames can, too? At the very least, at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, its been over a decade since several Australian developers created Escape From Woomera, highlighting the plight of refugees detained in Australia’s own interment camps, so surely it is possible to present Nazi concentration camps in a meaningful manner?

The obvious answer is “yes”. But why do I not trust Wolfenstein to be that game? It’s not because of a distaste for commercial first-person shooters, a genre that I voluntarily spend a lot of time playing. Maybe it is because it is a franchise that, in its first iteration, had a boss fight against Hitler riding around in a giant, Gatling gun-equipped mech that, when it blew up, showed a slow-motion replay of it blowing up a second time.

Maybe I just have little faith that a game where the main mechanical vocabulary is pulling the right trigger to fire a gun at someone’s head will be able to say something about the horrors of the Holocaust. Just like I wouldn’t expect Burnout, a game about spectacular crashes while street racing, to have something meaningful to say about the horrible consequences of speeding.

Is it that I don’t think blockbuster “triple-a” games are capable of big, mature themes? I am okay with an indie or “arty” games trying to tackle grim topics but if it is a blockbuster titles whose primary goal is to return a profit for its publishers, do I think it is too “tainted” to say much of anything? That seems like a problematic distinction, perpetuating a “high” and “low” brow divide across arty and popular games. Besides, I both enjoy and write about blockbuster games all the time, no less than I do indie games. Heck, I wrote an entire book about a triple-a game that was very clearly “about” something. That game, too, was a reinvention of a long-running series. So why the double standard?

The controversial cover for the upcoming game, Far Cry 4. Ubisoft

So why this scepticism I feel towards Wolfenstein’s concentration camp, Far Cry 4’s colonial overtones and, also, if I am being completely honest, Watch Dog’s commentary on surveillance culture (moments after it asks you register for Uplay, no doubt)? I think it’s that I’ve been burned by too many games in the last 18 months that feel front-loaded with “Themes”. That is, blockbuster games that before their release, have made a big deal about being about this or that topic. Except then, when they are actually released, they are just another conventional blockbuster title with just the faintest layer of Themes painted on top.

Bioshock: Infinite is perhaps the best example of such a recent game that I can think of. Before its release, it was deliberately marketed as a game about racism and American nationalism. Except when it came out, it didn’t actually have much to say about it at all. The extent of its engagement with these themes could be boiled down to “Hey, racism exists but maybe everyone is equally bad”. Or Grand Theft Auto V, a game supposedly about “masculinity”, which has even less to say about anything than Bioshock: Infinite.

It’s part of a broader trend among blockbuster games to try to seem “mature” or “serious” by injecting some Themes without actually addressing them on anything more than a surface level. These are games that are “mature” or “serious” in the same way I thought Marilyn Manson was mature and serious when I was fifteen because he swore a lot. They are commenting on these themes to the extent that they are acknowledging that, yes, these are things that exist. That’s it.

And, sadly, I’ve come to realise that this has altered my expectations of any blockbuster game that markets itself as being about any one particular thing. I now expect such themes to be the thinnest veneer that can be waved around in marketing material with no deeper analysis or engagement with them. It’s perhaps why the blockbuster games that I think are most successfully about something (Driver: San Francisco, Binary Domain, Bulletstorm) do so without trying to convince me beforehand that they are about anything in particular. It just emerges as I engage with them over time.

To stress, the problem isn’t that games must be really meaningful to be important. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a game “just” being fun to play, even being slightly ridiculous. That is completely fine. But I want games to own that, to be confident about their desire to be “just” fun without an airbrushing of themes on top. Either tackle larger themes, or don’t. I thirst for that confidence of direction.

Of course, presumptions are usually unfair. Tomb Raider, for instance, caught a whole heap of slack for seemingly revolting depictions and suggestions of sexual violence before the game was released, unhelped by the executive produce saying in an interview how they wanted players (presumed to be male), to “protect” Lara, not “be” Lara. Yet, when the game came out, it was a largely refreshing game about an empowered young women protagonist standing up for herself. It wasn’t perfect, but it was far less problematic than the pre-release material suggested. This isn’t to say the pre-release criticism was misguided, but that sometimes blockbuster games can surpass that understandable scepticism.

So maybe one day when I play Wolfenstein or Far Cry 4 or Watch Dogs I’ll find myself eating my own words and accepting that they dealt with their respective themes in a mature and intelligent way. It’s entirely possible. But for now, I guess I just feel very sceptical and cynical towards big game releases that present themselves as “about something” when, so often, it turns out to just be a marketing tactic.

No country for new games

League of Geeks, whose upcoming game Armello recently ran a successful $300,000 crowdfunding campaign, are one of many Australian game studios to receive government funding in recent years.

As part of the Liberal government’s slash-and-burn budget on Tuesday night was the surprise announcement that the Australian Interactive Games Fund was to be cut, effective immediately.

First announced in 2012, the Games Fund was designed as an accelerator for the Australian games industry, allowing studios to produce new intellectual property that would be retained in Australia.

A$20 million was originally provided by the fund, set up by the previous government, of which only A$10 million had been spent. According to a press release by the Game Developers' Association of Australia, the cut was made with zero consultations with the industry.

Unsurprisingly, the news was met with an outcry from both current and prospective Australian developers, not least of all those who were planning on submitting to the fund in the upcoming months. Various outlets reached out to local developers and industry members for comment, all of whom were scathing of the decision.

Yet, the Games Fund was not perfect. While it provided some with amazing opportunities not previously afforded of game developers in Australia, others were concerned it did not provide enough resources for new or emergent developers, focusing instead on supporting those that already had some industry experience — a concern perhaps validated by the appearance of the same interviewees again and again in the above hyperlinked articles. A feature written early last year by Dan Golding captures the wide range of responses, hopes, and concerns the Games Fund drew from people.

The dismantling of the Games Fund then, while both infuriating and distressing, is not the most violent blow this budget strikes against the future of games productions in Australia. Rather, it’s the budget’s much broader attack on young and poor people for the sake of a rhetorical “budget emergency” (while putting aside even more money for offshore interment camps and military hardware) that fills me with the most anxiety for the games that will now not just move overseas, but simply never exist.

Nyarlu Labs' Forget-Me-Not Screenshot by author

Like every nation’s games industry, Australia’s has an ingrained problem of homogenisation. In the articles linked above, an overwhelming number of the interviewees are men. This is not surprising, considering that a survey of the local industry as it stood in 2011-12 frighteningly showed that only 8.7% of those in the industry are women — which, at least, is a higher percentage than Tony Abbott’s front bench. The Games Fund, while an incredible and hard-fought-for opportunity for those already making games in Australia, did little to broaden the scope of who makes games in Australia.

Though, significantly, those who are “in the industry” and those who are simply “making games in Australia” are two very different things. Australia has a rich undercurrent of students, artists, young people, and hobbyists creating and sharing games, often beyond the borders of what is commonly considered “the industry”.

Individual projects such as Brandon Williamson’s niche but critically acclaimed Forget Me Not or Alexander Bruce’s incredibly successful Antichamber; student games like Rabbit Rush; and games being made in the spare time of those with other full-time jobs such as Push Me Pull You point to a much broader ecology of Australian game creators than just those employed by an industry.

It is this broader ecology of game creators that has just begun to emerge in recent years with the proliferation of more accessible means to both produce and distribute games, that this budget most violently attacks.

By making health care, education, and unemployment support unobtainable to vast swathes of the nation’s youth, not only will creating games become unviable for many, it will not even be considered as a possible avenue of creativity.

Even further: creativity will not even be considered a viable avenue for many once those safety nets that any respectable nation owes its citizens are dismantled. Who has time to be creative when your own government is willing to let you starve to death? The culture’s creative output remains the domain of those who can afford to be creative.

Cutting off the Games Fund demonstrates that the Liberal government has no interest in supporting an existing vibrant and maturing creative industry. Attacking the younger and lower classes of the nation by gutting a wide range of social services demonstrates that the Liberal government has no interest in the creative and cultural future of the nation.


Update: Christian McCrea wrote a series of tweets after I posted this column that I think dig a bit deeper into some of the issues I merely touch on here, so I have compiled them here if people would like to read them.

Disclosure: I taught some of the students who worked on Rabbit Rush

Games evangelists and naysayers

A new study suggests Tetris might help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Not Tetris 2

(Correction: This article initially misquoted the “Play, don’t replay” webpage as saying “this simple trick” when in fact it says “this simple technique”. I apologise for this error.)

A few days ago, renowned game designer, author, and speaker Jane McGonigal launched a new project on her website called “Play, don’t replay! HELP PREVENT PTSD(Update: McGonigal has updated the wording of the website since this column was posted. The original can be found here. ) Its stated goal is to get trauma victims to play a pattern-matching videogame such as Tetris or Candy Crush Saga as soon as possible after the traumatising event to potentially prevent ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder.

The aim of the project is to have as many people as possible know about “this simple technique” so that they can pull it out themselves in case they suffer a traumatic event. Not because it works, mind, but because it might work, and McGonigal wants people to try it themselves and then provide feedback. She has asked her 59,000 twitter followers to share and retweet the project multiple times. There is an email address you can provide your results to once you try it out.

On the surface, the project is clearly well-intentioned. Who wouldn’t want to help prevent or ease the suffering of PTSD? However, in the tone of the post, the presentation of the science, and the demands for crowdsourcing test subjects, it is a shockingly irresponsible and unethical project. It is a project through which we can vividly see all the problems with what I’m going to call the “games evangelism industry”. This is an industry of individuals and organisations that has a self-aggrandising need to convince both others and itself that games are good and can fix problems and, to paraphrase the title of McGonigal’s own book, can save the world.

I’m going to look at the problems with this particular project in more detail then return to this idea of a games evangelism industry and why it deserves our scepticism.

First, the necessary caveats about the science that McGonigal is working from: I don’t doubt for a moment the integrity of the study (pdf) that McGonigal cites. There is little doubt that playing small games can be useful to distract people from various things. That such a technique might help ease PTSD is a commendable avenue of research.

However, to take one controlled test where forty participants watched a twelve-minute film and present this as definitive proof that this approach should be trialed by everyone in the uncontrolled real world is an unethical way to conduct research. Of course, the writers of the study don’t make such claims. They, of course, note that further research is required and that maybe this technique could be employed by emergency services responding in the early post-trauma period. McGonigal, however, doesn’t share their restraint. She wants everyone doing this right away. She wants a #Kony2012-esque social media campaign to get 100,000 people to read her blog post. She thinks it irresponsible to sit around and wait for definitive results. She even goes so far as to label those that voice valid concerns about the project as “games naysayers” and compares them to climate change deniers.

The project is an unethical way to both present findings and to gather research data. Further, it trivialises the realities of PTSD. McGonigal runs with the study’s wording of Tetris as a potential “vaccine”. But you wouldn’t take a potential vaccine for any disease and distribute it to everyone after a single clinical trial. Why should PTSD be treated with any less seriousness? Responding to a comment on the post questioning the approach, McGonigal cites her own suffering of flashbacks and nightmares after a traumatic experience to demonstrate her good intentions (intentions which I do not doubt for a moment that she has). Yet, she wants everyone to try this because it might work. She doesn’t stop to think that one test on forty people in a controlled environment is not enough to rule out that sticking Tetris or Candy Crush Saga under the nose of someone who has just had a traumatic experience could potentially be harmful for some people (especially considering Candy Crush Saga is not even mentioned in the study itself!).

Further, and crucially, in her desire to implement this project in the real world, she makes no attempt to compare or contrast this method of battling PTSD with existing methods. It doesn’t matter. The point is that it proves games can be used for good.

In this project we see one of the most vivid examples of the games evangelism industry where it is more important for games to be seen as good than to critically ask what might be good about them and whether something that isn’t games might be better. I don’t use the word “industry” lightly. People like McGonigal and organisations like Games for Change, despite being a non-profit organisation, directly benefit from advancing the notion that games are useful tools for social change. They provide a veneer of respectability for a far broader (and lucrative) “gamification” industry where expertise quickly translates into speaking events, consultancy roles, and book deals. The games evangelists tap into a growing enthusiasm around games and create a need for a particular type of games expert that they themselves are then perfectly positioned to fill. All while the “social change” games they advocate just as often merely reinstates the status quo than actually challenge it.

Which isn’t to say games can’t facilitate positive social change. Of course they can! But the priority quickly shifts from actually making games that do this (which have existed for a very long time), to clutching at any argument that might further prove how games are useful and how these people and organisations are necessary. To the games evangelists, games become hammers and all the world starts to look like a nail.

And, of course, you can’t disagree with them. What? Do you want PTSD victims to suffer? Why don’t you want to make the world a safer place? Why are you being so negative about this? Do you hate games and play? What is wrong with you? Games evangelists trade in inspiration; to question their ideas is to questions their inspiration. In McGonigal’s own terms, anyone who dares disagree with the uncritically optimistic outlook of games evangelists is a “Games Naysayer” and any criticism of their projects, like that presented here, is negated. After all, she’s just trying to help.

It is tempting to want to believe games are fundamentally positive things. Especially, of course, if your livelihood is dependent on games in one form or another. The various responses to McGonigal’s post on twitter highlight this thirst to believe that games are good. It’s intoxicating. After decades of the mainstream media and our parents alike telling us that games are bad, developers and players alike want to believe that, after all this time, this hobby that we’ve devoted ourselves to is good.

But just as films can be works of art, Nazi propaganda, or both, games are never ever only one thing. They are no less capable of being “bad” as they are of being “good”. Or, even, they don’t have to be “bad”, but maybe, just maybe, in any given situation there might be something else that is better. That McGonigal’s latest project doesn’t even attempt to compare Tetris to pre-existing methods of treating PTSD reveals that the highest priority is highlighting the significance of games is a much higher priority than actually helping anyone.

Uncritical evangelism is unhelpful, and it only benefits those who are evangelising. “Play, don’t Replay!” is, on the surface, a grassroots online activity to raise awareness. I don’t doubt that this is exactly what McGonigal, with the best of intentions, sees it as. But it is also a means to crowdsource research via the free labour of trauma sufferers while drastically overstating the results of a single study in order to advance a personal agenda. Like any project, it demands scepticism and criticism; its positive intentions don’t exempt it. But dare ask a question about the methods or the science of the project and, no, you are merely a games naysayer.

Almost as a counterweight to the lawmakers and media personalities that use a single clinical trial to prove games are fundamentally evil, the evangelists use a single clinical trial to prove that games are fundamentally benevolent. “Play, don’t Replay!” is just another example of games evangelists twisting a study into a nail to advance their own hammer under the guise of saving the world, and it’s something that people should be cynical about.

If being a games naysayer means thinking critically about the place of games in society and not overreaching the findings of individual studies, I for one will gladly be a games naysayer.

(My thanks to Mary Hamilton and Dan Golding for providing feedback on a previous draft of this column. My thanks, too, to the various people I’ve had conversations with about this project over the past few days that have helped to shape the arguments I make here. That said, the views shared in this column reflect mine alone.)