Challenging beliefs through video games.

Before I get to my main point here, I should begin by saying that it is thought by many that fictional storytelling ought to convey a “message” or “moral” or else in various ways make people think or challenge certain beliefs they held. There are also many others, however, who believe that fiction should only entertain, and should not question assumptions or in any way engender serious thought in the audience. Those readers who hold the latter view are to be warned that the following article proceeds from the premise that fiction ought to compel thought.

If this is the case, it still leaves the problem of how to go about challenging assumptions and provoking thought. However, if a work of fiction is to challenge a belief system, it is very difficult for it not to veer into the realm of what we call “propaganda”. (I use the word in its colloquial sense, to evoke the concept of “forced moralizing”.)

A novel which challenges its readers beliefs could be viewed as merely a work of propaganda, and therefore discounted. Since the author controls all events in the narrative, it may be said that there is no lesson to learn from his/her novel, because he may manipulate it to prove whatever s/he wishes.

Because of the nature of storytelling, it has long been the case that the interaction is fundamentally one-sided. The audience is told the story, and judges it as they will. If it is a story with a “moral”, and that “moral” is in harmony with their beliefs, they will likely praise it, and if it conflicts they will probably dislike it.* They must, however, “take it or leave it”.

In this respect, video games are different from other forms of storytelling, in that audience input can change the outcome. For this reason, video games have the potential to allow a degree of give and take not allowed by the other forms. Whereas in a book or film, the audience sees the maker’s characters enacting a set piece with a particular aim, or, if it is really sophisticated, some amount of ambiguity; in video games one may choose one’s interactions with the characters and plot elements.

Now it’s true that most games are not taking full advantage of this capability, and small wonder; as it requires more work on the part of the author(s) to do it well. Most games do not even try, and even of the games which do afford the player the chance of impacting the story, many simply allow a choice between being a selfless good Samaritan and a cruel psychopath, as excellently documented by Eric at Critical Missive. There is very little in the way of true moral choice; the player merely plays through both ways so s/he can claim such as another notch on the controller.

However, there are some games–Planescape: Torment and KotOR II are my personal examples, as longtime readers were no doubt expecting–which I think do elicit an emotional response from the player so strong that the player is compelled to make a certain choice each time. At least, I am.  This is not due to unbalanced “gameplay bonuses”, but because of genuine feeling about something in the game’s story. In this respect, such games act almost as a kind of self-test, revealing something to the players about themselves. This, in turn, may lead to the player examining their own beliefs.

I am not sure that this is possible with any other medium. You might have your views on something changed by reading a novel that makes some point, but it seems more likely it will impact your view of the world around you–a very important thing, of course–but because reading a novel is rarely a test of its reader’s ability (unless it is a very bad novel) it is hard to feel the sense of personal involvement. Doubly so if the novel is trying to persuade its readers of something they are not inclined to believe.

I am not, by the way, attempting to claim that games are superior to novels or movies or anything like that. They are merely different forms, each with pros and cons.

*There are undoubtedly cases where people’s minds have been changed by works of fiction, but I still believe these are not that common, especially regarding political or religious issues. Feel free to chime with any examples of it you may have, however.

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