As is the thing to do these days, I've been thinking about video game's place as an artistic medium in today's society. Though I'm not really concerned with games being considered art so much as I am concerned with video games moving beyond mere entertainment. Video games being something other than fun and entertaining, it's a crazy idea, I know, but let's take a closer look at it.
As of today, we play video games for various reasons: escapism, to be challenged, to relax, but always to have fun. A game that is not fun will almost universally be panned by critics, because, well, it's just not fun to play. This is completely understandable given our current mindset as to what constitutes a good game, and what video games should be (they are called "games" after all). But if video games are ever to advance as a medium which evokes strong emotional reactions, is it fair to require all games to share the same fundamental characteristic; that they are fun?
Take, for example, a game that is meant to display the horrors of war. Would it be possible for this game to be made, make you feel emotionally (and possibly physically) sick at times, yet still be a commercial success? Right now, I think that's impossible. But there are plenty of examples in film, literature, and art that do that exact thing and are regarded as the pinnacles of their respective medium. Why can't a game do that too? I suppose one could just write it off as differences between the various media, but that's just lazy.
Right now, it would seem that video games are not allowed to do these things. While video games have been gaining ground and becoming more and more respected for their artistic potential, it would seem that they are prohibited from doing anything too controversial. I suppose this is because of some cultural stigma that still says that games are something made for children, or, if not that, that they are something you do to pass the time, and not something you use to have an emotional experience. Really, though, that's just not a very good reason.
I believe that the true motivation for developers to not create games like this is money. As I already said, people play games to have fun, and most people don't want to play a game that's not fun. And if people don't buy your game, you don't make money. Plain and simple, nobody wants to take the financial risk. That's why the majority of games like this today are simple, indie developed games.
Regardless of what prevents developers and publishers from making these games, if it were to be attempted, it would seem that video games should have an edge over other forms of entertainment when it comes to eliciting emotional reaction, given their interactive nature. A person is much more likely to feel emotionally attached to a character that they are able to interact with rather than a character which they simply watch. And that's really where a lot of emotion springs from: a perceived connection between the player/viewer/reader and the character. That's the reason you cried like a baby when Aeris died in Final Fantasy VII.
But that's too simple, and just not what I'm talking about in this feature. I want more than a tear shed for a lost companion; I want to play a game that makes me feel like a bad person once I've finished; a game that makes you question the things that you're doing (but not because of some twist where you find out you've really been working for the bad guys the whole time, or because of some contrived moral choice). But, hey, maybe I'm just a masochist.
I think it is pretty obvious that it is impossible for a game like that to be made at this point in time (and be successful), but I think the more important question is if video games should even move into this territory. Should our games maintain their position as vehicles of fantasy and escapism, forever appealing to the child within all of us?
My answer to that question would be both in the affirmative and the negative. Clearly games will always have a place as something we do to have fun and relax, and that's probably what the majority of them will continue to be, and that's not a bad thing. However, if our medium of choice is ever going to evolve and become more respected, then it must push boundaries and cover topics which make some of us feel uncomfortable. And somebody needs to start somewhere. A major developer needs to take on a controversial issue, thus allowing others to follow in their footsteps, and allow video games to mature and become more "grown up."
It seemed as if Konami was taking a step in the right direction when they announced that they were going to publish Six Days in Fallujah. But as we all know, that didn't work out. Public outcry forced Konami to suspend their role as publisher. And this game was being billed as a "game-amentary" that covered what happened during the battle, and not something which made any political or social statements, but it certainly could have been a way for games to start covering such sensitive ground.
Can a video game ever be successful and cover controversial topics/create a negative emotional experience? Today, no. Sometime in the future? I certainly hope so. Should developers attempt this seeming impossible feat? Yes, and the sooner they start, the sooner our games will become more grown up.