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Why Dark Games Are Good

30/11/2009 Family Family Gamer Article
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Why Dark Games Are Good

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How to deal with taboos like sex, pornography and devient behvaiour in video games was the subject of my GameCity talk. Rather than a danger, I suggest that games offer individuals an opportunity to engage with issues in a safe space, and have the potential of creating a new way to own a set of dark stories that may be vital for our moral, emotional and social health. I talk through the importance of owning stories, why stories creating meaning and how games can teach us to do this.

The Importance of Owning Stories

Like books and films, video games tell stories. But unlike books and films, games engage players by granting them agency of proceedings - they are the owners of the story rather than just a second hand hearer.

Successful games are those where players have a sense of control of proceedings. Either with open ended worlds or cleverly crafted progression, great games entitle us to feel that this is our story. Even with the tight limits imposed by the technology there are heart stopping moments of decision and indecision where we, the player, are the determining factor.

This makes games a unique space in which to experience stories. Not only do they powerfully use the techniques of books and film to engage the emotions, but they become tales that are owned by us as we play them.

Alongside our enjoyment of the loud impressive action, beautiful graphics and sound, there are also the quieter joys of interpreting what these stories mean and how they make us feel. Much more than with films or books, with games we are able to actively involve ourselves in the experience. This increases our response to events of the game drama, but more interestingly it also enables us to bring our own meaning to what is happening.

Players are left to enjoy the experience, and make sense of the world for themselves, and ultimately tell their own story about what is happening.

This view mirrors that of reader-response literary theory. Meaning is focused on the player and his or her experience, in contrast to focusing attention primarily on the author or the content and form of the work. Here, the player is the active agent who imparts "real existence" to the game and completes its meaning through interpretation. It is as if the game is a performance in which each reader creates his or her own, possibly unique, game-related performance. As an actor in the world we play our part and become aware of how that feels and the consequence of our actions.

Consider the PS3 game Flower. In it you control a flower petal flying through a beautiful landscape. As you pass through the space you realise you can open other flowers and add petals to your swarm. You continue until the valley is bursting with life and you arrive to awaken the end level tree. Players are left to enjoy the experience, and make sense of the world for themselves, and ultimately tell their own story about what is happening.

In this way games are porous, they let the player in more easily and obviously than books and film. Although the game makers control the setting, characters and limits of the experience, it is us who ultimately decides who the villain and heroes are, what's wrong in the game world and what needs to be done to fix it. It is our story.

Stories Create Meaningful Lives

This sense of ownership is not dissimilar from the sort of investment found in religious and traditional texts. Communities around these texts often don't see them as other people's old stories, but instead a vibrant living rendition of their own story. These texts survive because of their ability to be shaped and molded to each new generation.

An interesting similarity between these types of texts and video games are the subjects they address. Although a wide range of stories and topics are included, they often touch upon and include tales of violence, abadnonment, abuse and exclusion.

'Either our lives become stories or there is just no way to get through them'.

These texts offer wisdom about how to engage with these topics. They express the community's efforts to turn something frightful into something meaningful. Their existence may seem odd and offensive, but even the mention of these topics breaks the silence when they are painfully found in real life. Rather than creating distance between the reader and taboo subjects, they bring them together and enable them to engage and understand the issues.

As Douglas Coupland put it in his novel Microserfs, 'Either our lives become stories or there is just no way to get through them'. For the character there, stories are the only way to face the realities of life and survive.

Although still very much in its infancy, video games offer the potential of just this sort of engagement. In contexts where more than the rash brash enjoyments of the headshots, highscores and achievements can be heard, they offer an opportunity to get involved in stories about some of our most frightening taboos.

Games Help us Own Meaningful Tales

In this light, video games have the potential of reminding us how engaging with taboos is important. This new narrative vehicle re-connects us to the idea of storied experiences that through their emotional content enable us to make sense of life.

If we are to be meaningfully engaged with a story it needs to become an experience that is our own. Then we can freely experiment, imagine and play in the space created by the unfolding drama. We find ourselves involved in experiences that mirror possible events in our real life, only here we are safe. Safe to invest ourselves in the choices on offer and safe to consider how all this makes us feel, what we really value.

Rather than a threat, there is an opportunity to better understand the things that frighten us.

In this space we can then engage with the things that frighten us. Like with faith texts and fairy tales, we can work out how these things make us feel and what we want to do in response. And when we are faced with these things in real life we then have this experience to fall back on.

At a time when fewer of us own the old traditions and faiths, games offer one way for us to benefit from a well told tale that becomes our own. The issue here is not whether or not some things should be off limits to video games - should be a genuine taboo - but rather it is how we engage with these issues responsibly. Rather than a threat, there is an opportunity to better understand the things that frighten us.

Written by Andy Robertson

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Andy Robertson writes the Family Gamer column.

"Videogame reviews for the whole family, not just the kids. I dig out videogame experiences to intrigue and interest grownups and children. This is post-hardcore gaming where accessibility, emotion and storytelling are as important as realism, explosions and bravado."

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