The late Roger Ebert once stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest when he proclaimed that “video games can never be art”. I know, I know: that topic has been done to death. Don’t worry, I’m not here to revisit that particular discussion; it came to a conclusion that I believe all can agree on. But now that we’ve cleared up that video games can be art, perhaps its worth considering the cultural use of games outside of the realm of art and entertainment.
Games will always have an intrinsic entertainment value to them, but they can be much more than that. They can be educational tools, they can be marketing tools, and they can have political, cultural, and societal messages. While still heavily rooted in the “for your entertainment” style of game making, the indie scene has been stormed recently with games offering societal commentary. Games such as:
- Richard Hofmeier’s recent Independent Games Festival Award sweeper Cart Life which illustrates the lives of street vendors in the western US.
- The New Grounds flash offering “Dys4ia” by Auntie Pixilante which offers a commentary on the developer’s own trials with their experiences as a transgender woman.
- The recently Kickstarted “Homeless” by Last Pick Productions which allows you to try to survive life as a game-developer-turned-homeless-person and seeks to allow in-game purchases to fund real-world social workers who support the homeless in Vancouver, BC.
- The recently controversial “I Get This Call Every Day” by developer David S. Gallant which was created to bring attention to the frustration of his career in a customer service call center.
- Lucas Pope’s upcoming “Papers Please” which allows you to act out the job of a border guard; keeping a close eye on the passports of people crossing your border who may be innocently crossing for travel or may be running an illegal sex trade. Make sure you do a good job so that you can afford to keep your family properly sheltered and fed.
And with a little bit of internet searching I’m sure you’ll find heaps of other offerings that are in the same line. These games seek to raise awareness of everyday life rather than the propulsion of birds into pigs or the rescuing of princesses from another castle. The value of games like this isn’t lost on those in the political world either. Even Al Gore has been trying to gamify climate change. The nuances of what makes a good game may be lost on poor Mr. Gore… but the point is, games are a great way at getting attention to your cause, and a great way at communicating propaganda to your audience, and they can create a rallying cry much more fierce than Disney was ever able to achieve with Der Fuerhrer’s Face. It’s why PETA has been using video games to bring attention to their cause, it’s why Jason Oda created Bushgame, and it’s why musician Skrillex even has his own game. Wait… what?
OK, so Skrillex Quest isn’t so much propaganda as it is entertaining, but it’s goal is the same as spreading propaganda, and that’s recruiting someone to your cause. Skrillex didn’t make a game because he wanted to create the next Minecraft, he had a game made for him because the above mentioned Jason Oda has some success with his games going viral and it was assumed that a video game would be a great way to market himself. If Skrillex wanted to increase the number of people buying his albums, he would need to expose himself in an entertaining way that would include a taste of his music. Print ads aren’t particularly great for musicians as you don’t really get a chance to experience what it is you’re supposed to be interested in: the music. Video ads have been the de facto standard for high-end marketing for years, but if a movie that requires very little invested attention is good for marketing, why shouldn’t an interactive experience like a video game be even better? I mean, that’s the way to get people to really become intrigued by your product, isn’t it? Give someone a task that gets the brain thinking about what you want them to sell, and if you make it fun enough they’ll come back for more. Think Skrillex is the first to latch onto this idea?
Companies such as McDonalds and 7-Up saw the benefit of getting their product placement into games back in the 90’s, and you can bet that the trend continues today. You can also bet that these games have gotten a little more savvy with their presentation. Today, it’s a rather atypical to attempt to sell these games directly and instead (like the above mentioned Skrillex Quest) they’re offered for free as a way to lure you in and hook you before you realize what’s happened. At the most subtle level we have achievements. Ever hear of people trying to get trophies on the Playstation Network? Or Achievements on XBox Live or Steam? They herald back to the days of the “High Scores” on arcade machines, It’s a meta-game that serves two purposes:
- to help addict the player to the game and keep them playing.
- to get said player to brag to their buddies after getting the achievements.
If you can get people talking about your game, then you get free advertising via word of mouth. It’s extremely subtle in this case, but that’s the whole idea behind any corporate entity offering a free game. Coca-Cola’s game “Bottle Stacker” is designed as a way for you to play a game on the website that you will likely share with friends (I scored 3.8 ft on my second attempt, by the way), and also try playing with real bottles and cans the next time you buy their product. Having these entertaining little things to play keeps you invested in their product. Even the United States Army made America’s Army, as a tool to aid in recruitment.
The United States Army acknowledges the importance of entertainment not just in their recruitment process, but also in their training. As a culture, we’ve begun to realize that if you keep a person entertained, they’re going to remember the information you’ve given them. This holds true for advertisers, and it holds true for educators. I’m sure we’ve all played with flash cards at some point in our early development, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that video games have a tangible effect on the learning of languages and skills. There’s a reason that video games are being increasingly used in an educational capacity, and they don’t necessarily need to be strictly branded as a video game either. Take a look at Codecademy, for example. It’s not as overt of a game as some of the other things I’ve mentioned here, but it does help to promote learning in a more fun way than a traditional text-book or training video would. Interaction is the key. People want to be challenged, and they want to feel rewarded for surmounting that challenge. When you type something, and the interface says “Great job!” that’s just as nice as when you’ve received 100 points for jumping on a goomba in the original Super Mario Bros. for the NES, isn’t it?
Yes, video games are entertaining hobbies to fill your spare time with. They can also be art. They can have political, cultural, and societal messages; they can be marketing tools, and they can be educational tools. Games are are heavily entrenched in our society, and if you’re looking at running any sort of a venture, it’s worth considering how you can put video games to use to communicate to your audience and keep them coming back for more.