Like TV shows, books, and movies; video games have the ability to address complex issues in modern culture. Some accomplish this, while others only seemingly attempt to. Deus Ex Mankind Divided had been in the spotlight for its tone-deaf marketing campaign, trying to leverage the term 'apartheid' and attempting to use emotional messaging with statements like 'Aug Lives Matter' in the trailers.
I'm not writing this to address Square Enix's failings with their borderline offensive marketing strategy. Instead, I want to praise some games for their effective messaging regarding some complicated issues in the world today.
Games For Change has been working to encourage game developers to break free of normal design conventions, and praise those that do well in their efforts. Below are some games that I've not just had the pleasure of playing, but made an impact on me personally and challenged my own thinking.
This War of Mine
Most video games that focus on warfare put you in the shoes of a soldier, mercenary, or even just an able-bodied survivor. This War of Mine throws the player on the third side of a conflict; the civilian.
This War of Mine is unforgiving on a whole new level, eschewing a traditional single protagonist to put the player in full control of a group of survivors. The survival game tropes of requiring the player to collect food, water, and other resources is present, though there's far less resources to go around. Sacrifices have to be made, and people will die; whether by starvation, sickness, or violent conflict.
11 Bit Studios drew inspiration from the siege of Sarajevo during the war in Yugoslavia but there are also many parallels that can be drawn between This War of Mine and the experiences that civilians face in contested regions like Syria and the Gaza Strip. This makes for a far more somber tone to the the game, though there are little triumphs throughout. All in all, the whole package helps shed some light on the realities of war, and what the oft forgotten casualties of conflicts are forced to endure.
This War of Mine is available on Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, and Windows.
Papers, Please comes across as simply satirical and humorous initially, though that thin veneer wears off pretty quickly. You play as the sole border patrol agent for a fictional totalitarian state who is entrusted with the responsibility to perform his duties without error. As you play, you can choose to play by the rules, line your own pockets, allow those that stand against your government to work in the shadows, or simply help those that need a chance to enter your country.
On paper, it seems very simplistic, but as you continue the story, you're met with more and more stringent requirements along with greater costs of living. Papers, Please definitely is reminiscent of East Germany during the Cold War, where travel was restricted for years. In a way though, it helps demonstrate the cold truths of living in a totalitarian nation.
You're often forced to make very difficult decisions. Do you want to let the woman through with her husband, or reject her passport at the border? Should you accept the soldier's bribe to help feed your family, or stay true to your country? What's more is that every one of your actions has a very realistic consequence. Letting things slide can start with you getting docked pay, but can easily end with you in jail or losing a family member to illness or starvation.
Papers, Please is available on iOS, Linux, Mac, PC, and PS Vita.
Gone Home is what many consider to be a walking simulator. Gameplay is limited to interacting with objects and reading, though there's quite a bit to behold in the rather short playtime. Though it's considered a divisive title by players, Gone Home explores some pretty deep subjects.
On the off chance that you haven't played it or read the plot synopsis, I won't elaborate much further. What I can say about it however is that the story revolves around the strain that the protagonist's family is attempting to endure. It's an emotional story, and may make you sit back and think about how you would feel in their situation.
Gone Home is available on Linux, Mac, PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
Spent is a rather simple game, consisting solely of trying to balance your checkbook for only a month. Each day of the month, you're presented with a choice that could make or break your budget. At first your options seem easy, like choosing to avoid paying insurance or ignoring a phone call, but the problems will keep stacking up.
The reality is that millions of people struggle with poverty every year, working jobs that pay too little to cover costs that are far too high. Spent illustrates this issue very well by forcing you to make decisions that don't always pan out the way you think they will. Many people (maybe even you or someone you know) either scrape by or have at some point in their lives, and Spent quickly gets its point across.
Spent is available for free as a browser-based game here.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
I won't beat around the bush with this... Valiant Hearts brought me to tears. This isn't exactly rare (I teared up at the good ending of Bioshock) but it's noteworthy nonetheless. Valiant Hearts takes place during World War One and chronicles multiple characters during their tours of duty. It's a surprisingly deep game for being so limited in scope.
Perhaps what makes me appreciate it more is the fact that I'm a history buff, and the Great War is an often underrepresented time period in gaming. Adding to this is that Valiant Hearts: The Great War covers material from the war that is more-or-less forgotten. I appreciate seeing a new side of the conflict, especially since the developer decided to include people from all walks of life instead of just the traditional soldiers that you see in most war-focused games.
Games For Change
These are only some of the few games that the organization Games For Change has shined some light on. What's better about these games as well is that they're all relatively cheap (or free), and they're challenging on more than just a gameplay level. In all honesty, they aren't difficult, but they may influence you to think outside the box on some issues.
As an organization, Games For Change's goals revolve around attempting to influence change in the game industry to make a positive social impact. The games they feature involve not only those that I listed above, but educational ones as well. If you're interested in seeing more, I recommend that you check out their website to learn more about what they do.
Have you played any of these, or are there some that I haven't listed that you would like to mention? Sound off in the comments below! I enjoy conversation.