When people tell me that they don’t really play video games, my heart sinks a little. For me, that's the same as someone saying they don't listen to music or don't enjoy films, regardless of the genre. I've always thought that what the person really means when they say they don't play games might actually be: “I haven’t found a genre of game that I enjoy, yet.”
Over the past decade, video games have matured as a medium. We are at a point now where games about war and fighting are outnumbered by games about relationships, personal development, culture and exploration.
Before we get started, we just want to acknowledge that certain aspects (eg: gamergate) of gaming culture are pretty awful. We know that, and we think it’s important to call it out. But what we’d love to show you now is some of the better bits – how games can actually make a difference in people’s lives.
Games have gone from this:
To this: A scene from “The Last of Us” where the young Ellie confronts a man about what the death of his daughter means for their relationship.
It’s effective, right?! Over the past several years games have gone from a few pixels that, if you squint, can almost resemble characters to vibrant scenes featuring professional actors. Actors whose body movements and facial animations are captured and put into the digital space in a process that’s lifted directly from Hollywood. This has had a huge effect on the kinds of stories video games are capable of telling, and in turn, allow us to have gaming experiences around people seeking asylum, coping with mental illnesses, and even dealing with death through gameplay. It’s only during the past handful of years however, that this newly developed storytelling medium is starting to be used for social change.
Still don’t believe a game can change the world? Here’s the proof:
Exhibit A – Depression Quest
This text based adventure game puts you in the shoes of a person in their early twenties, who is suffering from depression. As you play the game you make choices around who you are going to hang out with, what activities you are going to partake in and how you’re going to spend your off time. However as your character plunges deeper into depression the game starts limiting your options. Where the game would once offer you the chance to go out with friends on a Friday night, it begins to insist that you go to bed early or stay at home by yourself instead.
This game aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate the depths of how depression can affect a person’s whole life. It’s an incredibly effective tool to raise awareness and understanding of the mental illness.
Depression Quest is free to play here.
A word of warning on this one, this is a game about a terminally ill child named Joel that was developed by the parents as their tribute and goodbye to their son. Needless to say, it’s incredibly heavy hitting.
Players of That Dragon, Cancer embody Joel’s parents as they struggle with reality, their faith and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness as Joel’s cancer leads to his inevitable death.
Joel’s parents recently spoke out about their intent with the game, stating: “It cost us a lot emotionally, psychologically and financially, but giving our son’s short life this kind of platform has been worth everything it cost us, because sharing our love for Joel is worth any amount of hardship.”
After launching the game earlier this year, the developers were flooded with messages of support from people who had experienced a similar trauma in their lives, and found a way to explain to friends and family how they were feeling through That Dragon, Cancer.
Escape From Woomera is a 3D adventure game where the player experiences life as a person seeking asylum. Developed all the way back in 2003, the game locks the player in a detention centre where they can talk to others seeking asylum, learn their stories and make the best lives for themselves that they can.
The developers stated that the game “will be an engine for mobilising experiences and situations otherwise inaccessible to an nation of disempowered onlookers. It will provide both a portal and a toolkit for reworking and engaging with what is otherwise an entirely mediated current affair.”
The game was originally developed on a tiny budget of $25,000 provided by the Australian government (would you believe it?)
Never Alone was funded by Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a non-profit organization that works with Indigenous groups living in Alaska’s urban areas, as an educational experiment. The developers paired with Alaska Native storytellers and elders to explore the traditions and lore of the Iñupiat people in an interactive experience that allows the player to dive head first into a culture they would likely have no exposure to otherwise.
The game came out last year and was heaped with praise, even winning a BAFTA for “Best Debut.”
In all honesty, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to video games trying to change the world. Games for social change are becoming their own genre, and that’s incredibly gosh darn exciting. What the future of game development will bring, nobody knows. But with exciting developments in virtual reality expected to arrive later this year, the future for social change games looks brighter than ever.