Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Why Straight White Guys Shouldn't Always Play Games As Themselves

Robert Rath | 14 Aug 2014 12:00
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Lee Everett in The Walking Dead Game

This is no revelation to anyone who's African-American, or gay, or a woman, or part of a minority religion or has skin color that's different from mine. And it shouldn't have been a revelation for me either, since I've seen this depicted in movies, books and had it descried to me by friends. But playing that dynamic - directing the conversations myself - drove the point home better than any other media has. Were The Walking Dead a novel (or hey, even a comic) I might have read the same conversation and felt sorry it happened to a character. Games, on the other hand, simulate direct experience - I felt it happening to me, and it drove the point home.

The Walking Dead isn't the only game to pick up this tool. There are several independent games that aim specifically to give the player a sense of a life they don't live. Cart Life helps you identify with the economically disadvantaged, and in one portion reveals the challenges new immigrants face when they arrive to a different country. Dys4ia, more than anything else, helped me grasp how it feels to be a trans person. Depression Quest does the same for mental illness and The Path communicates often frightening navigation from girlhood to womanhood.

Understand, I'm not saying games starring minority groups should be created to educate straight white men, only that minority protagonists can benefit different people for different reasons. These experiences speak to players that come from that background, but they can also invite those who don't share that experience to see from another perspective and reevaluate their assumptions - and that's, in short, what art is supposed to do.

Art can involve creating beautiful things or provoking an emotional reaction, but it also serves a social purpose. Frequently, this involves art's ability to let us see distant places or differing perspectives, revealing social ills that may lie far from the audience's experience. Slave narratives like 12 Years a Slave and the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin played an instrumental role in the abolitionist movement. Dickens novels - drawing on the author's own childhood - exposed the severe economic injustices of the time, from child labor to debtor's prisons. In the last century, film took the leading role in socially-conscious storytelling, from A Raisin in the Sun (originally a groundbreaking stage play) to Do The Right Thing to Milk.

12 Years a Slave Movie

But all these mediums were passive. The audience observed the story rather than experiencing and shaping it. They were missing the element of choice, the one thing that truly puts us in a character's skin and lets us understand problems and situations otherwise unfathomable to us.

Take Endgame: Syria for instance, a newsgame that puts you in charge of the Syrian rebellion. Before playing it, I couldn't understand why the rebels were continually partnering with foreign jihadists. It seemed like a terrible idea from all angles because - as a westerner - I was focused more on the long-term strategic outcomes rather than the situation on the ground. The game elucidated this decision within three minutes by presenting the question: Would you like to use foreign fighters and risk instability, or abstain and have your lightly armed units crushed by the regime's military? That's a tough choice to make, and after multiple playthroughs I felt - and more importantly understood - how both options were a poison pill. Using jihadists killed more civilians, lost me international support and escalated the war. Not using them meant watching my troops get slaughtered, losing local support and risking defeat.

That's a choice I never would have faced outside a game. It used play as a learning tool - and play has always been a learning tool - to elucidate a complex political situation.

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