"Guest Post: Building Games That Let Players Build The Future"
By Dennis Farr
Science fiction is an odd beast, asking us to suppose and imagine a world that is often based off our own, with little bits and bobs changed. When set in the future, there is a certain level of world building that must occur, and to which we must then be introduced. While we will still bring our own thoughts and assumptions into that story, they do not necessarily feed into the story itself, depending on the skill of the author (whose own short-sightedness may make an appearance instead). However, with games, this line becomes incredibly difficult to separate, as the player also becomes part of the authored experience. The writers and designers of a game that entails some level of decision-making can answer many of the typical questions: how, when, where, etc. Ultimately, I am the one who decides why, however.
The idea of this dissonance came via playing Mass Effect, where the male Shepard I played was quite gay in my mind. It was not until the third game that he was able to express his love for a squadmate, however. By this time, it seemed obvious he would have been in the closet, though the game’s writing about its universe makes it clear that being in the closet seems an outdated notion. Unfortunately, I, as the player, was playing in the here and now, and retroactively writing that bit of world building in did not stop what bits of the story I had already filled in for the series.
This idea can be problematic in many regards: talking of a futuristic setting where people are of mixed heritage, because Earth’s default is multicultural, and nationality is no longer really a concern, offering the option to have a POC as the protagonist, and then finding yourself surrounded with white people. If a game is telling my character that she is the norm, but then finds herself not, it is a bit jarring, and leads to the player coming up with explanations—explanations that will conflict with the lore of the game.
Of course, this is nothing new to games (looking at Firefly and its lack of prominent Chinese characters, Whedon), but something that becomes more pronounced when giving the player options about who they are. Games can identify our stats, role on the battlefield, and what titles we may have: they can not get at the core of our identity if we choose to play as someone other than the default white male who happens to be straight. Yet, in games, I can choose to not be that default! It’s as exciting as it can be confusing.
Games are a medium often defined by their interactivity. In concerns of how a game controls, how we engage with the story as it is laid out, more and more is being addressed, and yet there is the question of how we address these issues of being a minority in a game set in the future? How does a game make sure we move beyond our own experiences, and get to experience the world they have created for us? Can they?
The tricky part is that I don’t believe the player’s experiences should be eschewed, but should be considered in how it may enhance the story. How hopeful a story that not only addresses the past, but shows how things have gotten to the point they are? There is often such a focus on building the world in front of a character that the full past and how we moved from our present to their future is minimal at best. You cannot jettison the response the player will have, or force the issue, so finding a way to integrate it seems the best bet.
Considering gaming’s audience is growing ever larger and more diverse (though I’m not convinced it’s ever lacked a diverse audience), issues concerning being a minority in today’s world will likely continue to be a part of the discussion in what happens in these fictional worlds. Easy steps need to be a better eye toward not assuming who is playing what (I, for instance, often play a black woman due to their underrepresentation in the medium), and making sure not to make simple mistakes, such as using the wrong pronouns. A woman who is playing in an egalitarian future will likely find it difficult to take the game as seriously if she is suddenly addressed as a he.
There are all manner of revolving pieces surrounding a game, so that is often is just a marvel that it is all playing out in front of me, giving me choices that are beyond just pressing buttons, and telling a story that will reach an ending despite such. As the industry continues to expand to whom it is writing, hopefully it can be sure not to fall into these potential pitfalls.
Denis Farr once attended an all-male college as a joke. He has since rejoined the world and started writing about games, LGBT issues, and intersectional feminism. You can find his blog here, and follow him on Twitter here.