Game People Calling: Dark Games Are Good for the Soul

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Although the darker side of videogames is often seen as a threat, it can actually be quite beneficial. Games provide experiences that let us examine our dark side and bring us face to face with our fears in a healthy way.

The media focuses attention on games that can generate shocking headlines, but ironically they often miss the really disturbing titles. There are many games that have to be played at length before they give up their dark themes, so in talking about dark games that are good for us to play, it’s important to consider both the headline toppers, and other, less controversial, games that are just as dark.

Games that place us in a collapsing world are interesting because they engage us with our powerlessness. Whether it’s BioShock‘s utopian dream gone bad or Fallout 3‘s post-apocalyptic landscape, we are caught up in events too big for us to control. These post-modern scenarios uncover our inability to tame the world we are born into. Instead we are left trying to work out how to survive in the aftermath of our parents’ broken dreams.

One of the most visceral and criticized moments of these war-torn experiences is found Modern Warfare 2‘s infamous No Russian level. As the world is now more than aware, you infiltrate a terrorist group and take part in an attack on civilians in an airport. But beyond the kneejerk reactions about young adults shooting innocent bystanders there is a darker question unfolding here – what price should we pay for our security? There is potential to understand our personal reaction to the fearful choices that we face to preserve our freedom.

The flipside of these world-collapsing games are experiences that address the dark consequence of our own world-forming decisions. Fable 2 lets us become the master of Albion and then confronts us with the fearful consequence of the decisions we have to make. Similarly, Shadow of the Colossus grants us great power to slay monsters, but then subtly questions whether this is really the right thing to do. Here we are the creators of potential utopias, but there is doubt and uncertainty brooding in the air.

Perhaps the most penetrating are games that dial things down to the individual and confront us with the darkness of our own moral freedom. Grand Theft Auto‘s sandbox world grants us a space in which we can run riot if we wish. We can choose not only whether to avail ourselves of prostitutes, but also whether we pay or do away with them afterwards. Behind the bravado is a small window on how it feels to encounter these sorts of decisions.

More chaotic games like Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake build experiences out of dismemberment and blood splatter. They are an easy target for criticism because they wear their violence on their sleeves. But there is much more to these games than one shocking death after another. They build real tension as you battle your way through wave after wave of enemy. You face the dark fact that you are alone in a world of chaos with only your wits to preserve you.

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The final type of darkness includes games that confront us with the sad and disturbing stories of others. As in apocalyptic scenarios, we experience a profound lack of power, but this is now all the more telling because it is an individual we are trying to engaging with and save. BioWare is masterly here. Far removed from any fickle sex scene, Mass Effect 2‘s ability to involve us in the lives of its characters before letting them slowly unravel in front of us is as deeply affecting an encounter as I can imagine. Our heroic moments seem only to make the individual loss and collapse all the more telling.

Some of these moments pop up in the popular press with either outraged or perplexed headlines. Others are simply too involved to be noticed outside the gaming world. Either way, videogames involve us in some very dark moments. But quite the opposite to what those headlines would suggest, these are not dangerous experiences we need to guard ourselves against. They are good for us.

Provided we have an ounce of responsibility we don’t need to worry about the detrimental effect they might have on our real lives when we stop playing. In fact, as with other cultural stories, engaging with them is the green shoots of a genuinely healthy individual.

Just because games address subjects that we don’t often find elsewhere – powerlessness, abandonment, consequence, moral freedom, personal loss and collapse – doesn’t make them treacherous. What is does mean is that our response to them is important, and that to capitalize on the fund of meaning they offer we need to understand the experiences they offer in detail. We need to notice what is happening in the person playing as much as in the graphic violence or sex on the screen.

I know these games aren’t perfect. They are often too preoccupied with violence and walk all too familiar territory rather than taking genuine risks. But one thing I wouldn’t change is their willingness to create playful ways to experiment and engage in very dark moments.

Beneath the explosions, dialogue and gunplay they silently ask some disturbing questions about how this makes us feel. Answering that question is a long and personal task, but one worth the risk and effort.

Game People is a rag tag bunch of artisans creating awesomely bizarre reviews from across the pond.

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