The real world is a horrible place filled with wars, poverty, disease and Jersey Shore and that’s why videogames are so popular. More than films, more than television – even more than novels – they allow their audience to escape into an exciting fantasy world where they can live out their dreams of being a soldier or a wizard or whatever.
But games have been escapist fantasy for years now; even so far back as the seventies, players were immersing themselves in sci fi epics like Space Invaders. And although you could argue that the first responsibility of any game, digital or otherwise, is to be fun to play, given the level of today’s technology and writing, I think games can be used to explore topics rather than avoid them.
For me, Heavy Rain is the best example of how a videogame can change your thinking about the real world. There’s a wonderful, heartbreaking scene towards the game’s beginning where you play as a single dad, Ethan, in the midst of a messy divorce, trying to take care of his young son, Shaun, on one of the nights that he’s been given custody. Making conversation with the boy is near impossible – he invariably replies with either silence or single words – and unless you pay attention to the clock, the evening ticks past homework and bed time, and you end up looking like a bad parent.
For me, Heavy Rain is the best example of how a videogame can change your thinking about the real world.
Getting everything right is really tricky. You have to wash your son’s clothes, prep his dinner, help with his math assignment, make him a snack, watch TV with him and then make sure he goes to bed on time. Time goes by at a much faster speed than in real life and if you fumble more than a few of the game’s tangled button combos you end up spoiling dinner or missing snack time, failing to live up to the itinerary given to you by the boy’s mother.
You also have to contend with your kid’s cold disposition. Walking up to Shaun and pressing square or circle to talk leads nowhere and the whole scene passes without so much as three sentences said between the characters. What’s interesting is how these are the same buttons you used to talk to him before; in the pre-titles, pre-divorce sequence of Heavy Rain, approaching Shaun and pressing one of the talk commands elicited a chirpy and verbose response. Now, you’re being told to shush because he’s busy watching TV.
The fact that the buttons are the same mirrors the way Ethan thinks about Shaun. In the way that you’re still trying to do the same things – pressing square and circle – Ethan is trying to be the same father he was before the divorce. He’s trying to play with Shaun, connect with him. But he can’t connect. In the way your button presses don’t have much effect, neither do Ethan’s half-hearted questions and platitudes.
And then, when you’ve failed to cook dinner and rekindle the relationship with your son, you can trudge Ethan upstairs to sit and cry over photos of his ex-wife. And that’s what my dad used to do. Almost every evening he had custody of my sister and me after he’d split up with my mum, he’d either cook something in the microwave or not cook at all, make small talk with us as best he could, then slink away to another room in the house, or watch TV in silence until it was our bed time.
And I disliked him for it. First because he’d invariably send me to school with a rubbish packed lunch, and second because, when you’re five, it’s really confusing to see your parents be sad. They’re supposed to be invincible, impervious authoritarians – you’re the one that needs looking after. I couldn’t understand why he was distant. At such a young age you don’t have an understanding of complex emotions like that, so all I knew was that dad was less fun, worse at making my dinner than mum, and our relationship was strained.
Years later, I felt I could empathize to some degree. I’d been through break ups of my own by then and could understand how it affects you emotionally. But it wasn’t until playing Heavy Rain that I really got what he was struggling with. That scene between Ethan and Shaun maps, I think, how awkward it can be for a single father and his children to get on after the end of a marriage. Playing it, I struggled, in a vicarious way, with the same things my dad did and although the emotional impact is far, far lesser that in reality, that sequence is nevertheless bloody heartbreaking, especially when you know the source material so intimately.
Rather than merely provide escape from it, I think videogames can adapt and explore the real world like no other medium.
By making it difficult for me, as Ethan, to talk to my son and have his dinner ready on time, Heavy Rain let me see, briefly, into what life was like for my dad after he and my mum split up. In the way I struggled with twisting the analog sticks to start the washing machine, and tapping square to get Shaun to talk, he couldn’t muster the energy to look after us properly, or find the words to speak to us.
And I think it’s a really valuable thing about games that it can take recognizable situations and map them out in three dimensions to let us see different perspectives. Rather than merely provide escape from it, I think videogames can adapt and explore the real world like no other medium. It might make the process of playing sound slovenly, but in a game, we don’t have to imagine – we can do. The vague sense of empathy I had for my father before Heavy Rain was amplified by being allowed to experience, even in a condensed way, what life was like for him.
By embodying somebody, albeit indirectly, it becomes easier to empathize with them and that’s something games are uniquely equipped to let us do. It’s kind of like the bleeding effect from Assassin’s Creed‘s Animus, where the more time Desmond spends in the shoes of other people, the more of their abilities and emotions he absorbs. The small time I spent being Ethan Mars, and the way that Heavy Rain translates his emotional struggles so well in gameplay conceits, taught me how it felt to be my dad. It helped me to stop blaming him.
But I’m keen to play down the personal side of this anecdote. As followers of the excellent PASSIONGAMER4CHANGE Twitter account will know, talking up your uniquely emotional response to a game is a widely recognised bullshit ploy for attention. And it’s not like Heavy Rain really changed my life at all. I didn’t play it then immediately call my dad to say all is forgiven. In fact, it wasn’t until months after I’d finished it that any of these things really dawned on me.
What incidents like these do show, though, is how games can be used as educational tools. If we can measure cultural value by one thing, I think it’s by something’s ability to elucidate, edify or represent people and for me, and I suspect, plenty of other players, games like Heavy Rain are capable of that.
My dad is someone who distrusts games for being violent and puerile. If he knew what they had taught me, I think he’d change his mind.