Where I would find common ground is this: In 30 years, I can’t remember a single video game that has ever changed the way I think about something. Certainly I have had profound experiences, but these are games in the “emotional simulator” format, not of “and the next day, I saw things differently”.
Ever since I wrote that comment, I've been looking for examples where games have changed my world view or taught me something. Let's be clear: today, I don't give a shit about games that move me to tears. This is about having impacts beyond the confines of the videogame, a game that leaks.
Today, I'm going to share three personal examples that have done just that.
Cart Life is about the lives of people who struggle at the bottom of the ladder. It concentrates on those who exist on the other side of a shop counter and face you every time you buy a doughnut, a hot dog or a coffee. Modern capitalism tries to humanise itself by cladding itself in people, selling faces and not service. But this tends to work in reverse: it dehumanises those that face the customer, poisoning them with the blandness of corporate brand.
Cart Life fights to re-humanise them and, for those who totally get the game and survive the odd bug here and there, succeeds.
Afterwards, I found myself studying people in shops and cafés. What exactly did they have to do to get me a coffee or process my order? How much of their conversation – with colleagues as well as customers – was necessitated by the job? How did all this intersect with their non-work life?
This was the kind of thing the author, Richard Hofmeier, had been doing as research for the game.
In other words, Cart Life turned me into a crazy person.
The Cat and the Coup
“The use of surrealist symbolism to compress historical events can be an effective mnemonic, as when protesters literally push in the walls around Dr. Mossadegh, making you feel his confinement. But more often, it obliterates clarity.”
Last year, I posted about a game called The Cat and the Coup which explored the rise and fall of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Prime Minister of Iran in the early 1950s. What makes his story interesting is that the West, through the United States CIA and Britain's MI6, orchestrated a coup d'etat to end his rule. It is a grotesque example of the West's selfish yet self-defeating pursuit of interventionist policies that still persists today.
The developers, Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad, perhaps made a mistake in calling The Cat and the Coup a “documentary” videogame. I'm not even sure such a thing is possible. But this single misstep encouraged Kill Screen to tear it to pieces and a reader might draw the impression that this IndieCade finalist was without value.
Howe is correct in that The Cat and the Coup is both accessible and impenetrable at the same time; you come away with the sense that something important has happened here, but it doesn't do a bang-up job of explaining what that was. The text-saturated endgame remedies this but we find ourselves again questioning whether the videogame experience can really supplant other media in terms of educating an audience.
But I was so intrigued that I went off to Wikipedia and spent an hour or two digging up the details of Mossadegh's life and seeing the consequences of the West's meddling reverberate across the years to the present day. It was surprising to learn that Mossadegh was TIME's Man of the Year in 1951 shortly before things went south. And the coup likely contributed to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iran's continued allegations that everything bad that happens is orchestrated by the American CIA unfortunately has historical precedent.
Whether the game “fails or succeeds” is irrelevant because, as the result of playing The Cat and the Coup, I learnt something about the world today, something I had been previously ignorant of.
Johnny Got His Gun Quest
Played a really disturbing flash game on Newground earlier. I didn't like it, exactly, but I think I might post it.
You know, if I read a tweet like that, I have absolutely no option other than to follow the damn link. So I went from Free Indie Games to Newgrounds, happy to play Folmer Kelly's Johnny Got His Gun Quest.
It's a strange, truncated game – one might even suggest its capability for agency has been amputated – but precisely the sort of crazy thing that spawns out of the billion game jams that seem to be happening every single day in a town near you. I didn't like it much either, possessing nothing but shock value. Devoid of meaningful context, it's a failure.
But the description for the game mentions: “It's basically a loose interpretation of the book presented as a classic point'n'click.”
A book? Here we go again. What have I missed now?
So I discovered Johnny Got His Gun is a powerful anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo about a hideously mutilated World War I solider who has lost his ability to interact with the world – his arms, his legs and even his face are destroyed. It's also a film, a stage play and the inspiration for Metallica's song One.
If I get the chance I'll probably look the book up. Failing that, the film.
To Be Continued
I'll be sure to let you know if I play any other games that "leak". But it's your turn now: drop a note in the comments if you've played anything that has changed your real life outlook or told you about something compelling or important that you didn't know about before.
Update 03 Apr: Please check out the great discussion in the 50+ comments below! Readers have shared some fascinating experiences and opinions.