Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Video Games evolving into a form of media

What is art? This is a question that has been on a lot of peoples lips since the first introduction of new media. To many, art is a piece of work from which each can draw their own interpretation, and emotional response based on their personal experiences, and personality. What large groups of people seem to agree on however, is what art isn’t. The conservative Christians in the so-called Bible Belt of the 30's and 40's considered the thriving popularity of movies to be the work of the Devil and the parents of the last decade spent their time worrying if little Timmy might learn how to hijack a car by playing Grand Theft Auto 3.

But can video games be considered a stand alone medium of expression? The shortsighted answer is a cold No. The more optimistic answer however is: Not yet, But it most definitely should.

When the general public thinks of video games they often think of them as playthings. A brief escapism from the everyday life, in a video game you can be a cowboy fighting a gang of thieves or a successful manager bringing your football team to the World cup finale. But potentially, video games can teach you about life, and maybe a little bit about yourself. In video games with charisma, a choice that may seem like the most positive at the moment can turn out hurting the people you are trying to help. A good example of this is the fairly recent fantasy roleplaying game: Dragon Age Origins.

In Dragon Age, you play as a warden. The Wardens is a international organization that has treaties with the different species in the world to bring them armies to fight a soon to come blight upon the land. When you go to the Dwarwen kingdom in the mountains, this is supposed to be smooth sailing. The king has recently passed away however and there is disputes between the kings own chosen follower, and his actual heir of blood. At a first glance, the choice seems easy. The prince uses less than honorable methods and the other one seems like a regular saint that has been forced into hiding by hired goons.

But when the game ends, and you get the updates on what has happened in the different nations since your influence, the saint-like heir is actually the bad ending. Instead of making the Dwarven nation a better place, he just carried on the same way the late king did and the land of dwarves plunged into civil war. The prince however, ends up changing the way the whole kingdom is run. People are now free to choose their own careers, where before they were locked into kind of life their parent of the same sex had, in likeness of the Indian caste-system from the real world.

This is kind of a weak example, but choices and consequences like this one could be used to teach players about the world we live in. Strategy games could be used to teach history and First person shooters could be used to explore the single soldier’s role in a war started by diplomats. It may provoke us, make us question ourselves and potentially make us change for the better.

Video games can also be documentaries, but this has a long bumpy road ahead of it. In 2007, a division of the video game developer Atomic games worked with the American military to develop a training simulator. During the process however, the band of soldiers that the division had worked with was sent off to Iraq to fight in the war. There, the band participated in one of the most bloody battles of the entire Iraq campaign and lost a lot of teammates. When the soldiers returned, they contacted Atomic games and asked them to convey the story of the battle through a video game to the rest of the world. What resulted was a survival horror game but not in the traditional sense, the fear would come from uncertain, terrifying unpredictability of an actual city war. It would use the likenesses and retelling of the soldiers and senior officers that fought in the battle of Fallujah to paint an as accurate and respectful picture as possible of not only those six days, but of the entire war.

But as was predictable, some people weren't happy. Once word got out that someone was making a game about such a recent event, people were outraged. Parents who had lost sons and daughters in the battle, and senior officers who didn't even participate started a debate about it. Heads were going to roll. These people, as with many others still viewed games as toys. Their anger reached the press, and the press literally destroyed the credibility of the small video game developer. Konami, who was slated to publish the title soon backed out of the project and Atomic games was left out in the cold. In a matter of a few years, that being as soon as 2009, Atomic games shut down completely. And that with Six Days in Fallujah still a ways behind hitting store shelves, which I suspect it never will.

There's a lot of blame to go around for this affair. It's easy for an enthusiast like me to just say that those that lost loved ones should have ignored the release of the title completely or even backed it up. After all, it seemed like a really entertaining title. But that's just it. Video games are still at a social standpoint where it's merely escapism. While Atomic games should have been credited for wanting to take the medium further, Six Days in Fallujah would still be released in the golden age of Modern war-based shooters. To many, Six Days wouldn't have stood out much in the flood of first person shooters that comes out these days and it would have been shrugged off as yet another Call of Duty- or Battlefield-like title. That said, to me the blame goes to Konami. Konami is a huge video game publisher, and has followed the medium since the beginning. Konami was originally one of the backers of the project before they eventually left it and that means they simply lost their spine. This is a huge publisher, they must have known that making this game was quite literally sticking your hand in a hornets nest. This was like if as huge a movie-company as Universal Pictures had backed out of a movie, simply because it said something the general demographic didn't agree about.

But that's the thing about freedom of expression. If you want to have a right, you have to accept the responsibility that comes with it. And you have to be ready to defend your points when confronted about them. There will always, always be someone who disagrees with you. If you're planning to use a medium as young as video games to express yourself, you have to understand that you will most likely be on your own. Even video games that was supposed try and teach children about the second world war has been stopped in development because of moral outrage, and that's even though it might have had the best intentions.

So that brings us to my conclusion. Video games are a very young medium. Older and more respected mediums has gone through exactly the same challenges that video games face today. Comic books still face them. Movies won them all. Rock N' Roll won them as well. We have a unique storytelling and teaching opportunity in front of us, now we just have to make people respect it. And once they do, we have to know how to live up to the responsibility that comes with it.

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