Our country is in two wars. Our shared sense of privacy is permanently fractured. The assumption of universal protection from our government is regularly disabused by reality. And we look at the not-so-distant future, and many of us see a skyline of mega-corporations looming over a gridlocked Congress and a lame duck president.
There are protests in the street, and at least here in New York City, it feels like the damn world is on fire. But when many of us play video games, there's not a problem in the world. That is its own problem.
I often turn to art for escapism, but I also lean on art for therapy, education, and enlightenment. The movies and television I watch, the books and magazines I read, and the music I listen to help me process, contextualize, and better my experience, the good and bad of what I come in contact with every damn day.
I can't say most video games have the same capability.
When many of us play video games, there's not a problem in the world
When I tried to build a list of 2014's best games, I couldn't find a single game from a major producer that speaks to what's actually happening in the world right now. Critics of social progress in video games bemoan a world in which escapist games are ripped from their arms, but all I want is one game that helps me deal.
We need games about racism, sexism, war, poverty, the failure of our government to properly govern, and the failure of our financial institutions to operate legally. We need games about wealth disparity and oppression. Even popcorn television like Law & Order provides more commentary on current events than the vast majority of video games. And that says nothing of more ambitious works, from TV shows like Girls, The Bridge, and Transparent to films like Birdman, Nightcrawler, Selma, and Inherent Vice.
Video games shouldn't be trailing other mediums. Video games excel at helping us escape the real world, dropping us in another place. That power should help us experience the highs and lows of the lives of others. It's an inherently empathic form. The problem with games isn't the games themselves, but the burdens of their creation. The majority of video games simply take too long, cost too much, and are too difficult to create to be as relevant as we need them to be.
A game designer once told me the best ideas of today will be in the video games of three years from now. He was referring to the integration of video streaming into the backbone of mainstream video games. Today, people watch video games on Twitch. Three years from today, people will play video games together through Twitch. We've seen the rudimentary concept in small DIY hacks like Twitch Play Pokemon; by 2017 we'll play something similar within the latest Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed. That three-year stretch is acceptable for how a game incorporates new technology, but impractical when it comes to how a game comments on our culture.
Take for example Grand Theft Auto V, which tried to be a game about the America of today. Grand Theft Auto V's first trailer hinted at a story that captured the moment of its time. Released on November 11th, 2011, a week after Occupy Wall Street protesters were forced out of Zucotti Park, the promotion speaks to frustration over the disparity of wealth in this country and the trouble of pursuing the American Dream. The man hammering a foreclosure sign in his front yard, the homeless man with the cardboard sign, the crop duster unloading onto the workers in a field. It felt like a direct reply to what we were seeing on TV. When the game was released nearly two years later, those problems still existed, but in a different way. Grand Theft Auto V is a satire about 2011 released in 2013.
Video games shouldn't be trailing other mediums when it comes to empathy
The most pertinent video games are happening in places with fewer impediments to publishing and with markedly faster tools than those used to create the 3D worlds with $60 tickets for entry. The work of individual artists in the games community are beautiful commentaries on sexuality, religion, depression, and the daily grind of office life. Games like The Best Amendment, Ultra Business Tycoon III, and dys4ia are playable on browsers and were made on cheap — sometimes free — tools that allow for rapid creation, like Flash and Twine. They rely on simple visuals or no visuals at all. And they're being created by solo designers or small teams who have passion and something to say and that needs to be heard. The work of artist like Porpentine, Anna Anthropy, Molleindustria, and many other talented independent designers tackle the anxieties and injustices of our time.
We've begun to see hints of smaller, gutsier ideas in big publisher's downloadable games and expansions. Ubisoft in particular has excelled at taking advantage of the short digital experiences, which are faster to create and have less overhead. Freedom Cry, its standalone expansion of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, allows the player to fight against slavery as a former slave. Publishers are designing incredible worlds, and it seems obvious for those worlds to be used time and again for new, interesting, and most importantly timely purposes, not just as the target ranges they were designed to be.
But beyond the need for faster tools and cheaper budgets, we need publishers that aren't afraid to take risks, that aren't terrified to have a stance on the problems on our planet.
Until then, the people who are making important games about the issues of today aren't inside giant game developers. They're working from their shared offices, apartments, or homes. With shorter time tables and fewer resources, artists are lapping billion-dollar publishers when it comes to making games that speak up about what it's like to be alive. Life is short; it's time for publishers to take a risk and say something.