It is interesting to look at how people handle various types of media. Books and movies are often examined for themes and meanings that flow out of or perhaps even transcend the works themselves. Of course not all books or movies set out to do this, and there are movies and books out there for little purpose besides a few laughs and entertainment. However, it is recognized more readily in movies and books when they do contain engaging themes that can be thought of outside of the media. As you move to music and TV there seems to be less of this. There are definitely themes present within the works, but the exploration of these themes doesn’t seem to be as pronounced as for movies or books. Perhaps it is the subjective quality of music and the fact that it can be very hard to extract meaning from music unless you know what the songwriter is referring to. With TV, well I think this comes down to the fact that most TV isn’t really well thought out. Often there is a set beginning, but no set ending and I think it makes major themes a hard thing to maintain. Some do it, but it seems to me that they are few and far between.
Then we have video games. It seems to me that video games are treated in an entirely different way, at least by those who do not already enjoy video games. What I mean by this is that you don’t have to be a movie enthusiast to think about or discuss a theme from a movie. With video games it seems that you have to be someone very dedicated to the medium to really look at and pull themes and meaning out of it. Now admittedly I think there are reasons for this, both inside the medium itself and outside it. I want to take a look at these before I actually try to tackle some games and the themes present in them.
A Divide Between Gameplay and Story
Before simply focusing on the unfair portrayals of video games from those outside and creating some sort of victim complex, I think it is best to look inside the medium first. Perhaps some of us remember playing some of the early video games. If your first system was an Atari 2600 maybe you remember games like Space Invaders, Defender, Pac-Man, and Missile Command these games didn’t really have much of a story. They were almost purely gameplay, story is not an issue at all. We don’t find ourselves asking why the aliens are invading or what Pac-Man’s motivation for eating pellets and avoiding ghosts are. We simply play the game and as was the case with many Atari games you played to try to reach a high score. There are still games like this today. One could argue that the Mario games from Nintendo are still like that. Even though there is a story it is mostly there for background and setting, but most of the game is about the gameplay itself. However, games like Peggle, Bejeweled, Tetris, Farmville, Madden, Rock Band, and most games that deal with competitive online play are still in this boat. To sum all of this up, games started out with little to no story and there are still games that have little to no story, these games are usually not able to be looked at for any sort of messages or themes.
Then you have the games where the gameplay can hurt the integrity of the story. Perhaps one of the more well known examples of this is Grand Theft Auto IV made by Rockstar Games. The game centers around an immigrant from Eastern Europe named Niko Bellic who comes to America searching for the American Dream. He wants to escape his past life of violence and also find out who betrayed his military unit in the past. However what Niko finds is simply more violence, corruption, and the inability to escape a life of crime.
However, while that story is there, the gameplay allows you to have a certain degree of free reign. Basically it allows you to do things that the main character of the story probably wouldn’t do. This creates a disconnect and can make the game seem more about wanton killing and destruction more than a coherent life of crime drama/satire. This affects the story because you lose that cohesiveness, but it can also effect the perception of the game. If there is a story and purpose the deeds done even if they are evil, it can be reflected upon, think a movie like The Godfather for example. However, when you have deeds outside of any context well it could result in trouble with public perception.
Even if there isn’t a gap like this, gameplay and story still have a divide. It may be having to play a level, doing a list of boring tasks, or getting past a major battle before you can actually continue on the story. Admittedly this is part of the fun of video games, but also can be frustrating as you want to continue the story but are unable to without a lot of work or a certain level of skill. I’m not sure if this problem will ever completely go away, but it may not have to. It is something that we have to recognize.
Not Just for Kids
This is probably the biggest misconception about video games out there. Just the other day I saw a video posted by someone that was on Fox News. It was talking about games that were socially conscious and how this one guy thought that these games were trying to indoctrinate children into being liberals. The guy’s biggest misconception, and there were many in that segment, was that video games were just for kids. It seemed inconceivable to the guy that maybe adults would play these games to explore games focused on global management or city building.
However, this seems to be a lot of what goes behind the rhetoric against violence in video games or sexuality in video games. It is the idea that only kids are going to be playing the game so having these things in it are bad. Admittedly it doesn’t help when sometimes the video game companies market M rated games to kids… but that’s a different topic.
I think this mentality hinders us from actually looking at the themes and messages present in the games with stories be they mature or even for younger kids as well. If we look down on video games and adults who play them, because we think they are only a kid’s toy, then we’re going to be alienating a large segment of our population. Not to say that making your life all about video games is healthy and right, because it’s not. Granted one could say the same for sports (played or watched), television, movies even reading if we’re wanting to be fully honest.
As video games continue to develop and include more thought provoking ideas and themes, they’re going to have to be engaged. My main focus would be in the Christian sphere, but I would argue not just there. While the problem within video games that I highlighted may not go away, our misconceptions about them can. It may take time and effort, but I think we can do it.