Electron Dance
27Mar/12Off

Less Cause, More Effect

Figure, in bed, says "Kill Me"

Brian Moriarty, in an interview with Electron Dance last year, talked about how he was disenchanted with videogames as a medium. In the comments, I came clean about where I agreed with Moriarty:

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

Yes, I'm sorry. Once again Cart Life rears its evil, ugly head. I'm sure you must be getting a little tired of me banging on about it by now so I'll cut to the chase.

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.

Andrus Poder at Motel

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.”

Brian Howe's Review of The Cat and the Coup (Kill Screen)

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.

Terry Cavanagh, Twitter, 23 March 2012

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.

Masked doctors look down

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.

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Comments (68) Trackbacks (2)
  1. From the top of my head: Flatland (http://seethroughstudios.com/download-flatland-fallen-angle-free-version/) made me look up Flatland (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland). There’s bound to be more, but I’ll have to dig deeper.

  2. Just Cause, Mass Effect

    It’s a tricky question. It’s certainly making me think.

  3. This is a tough one.

    After spending a good ten minutes sat staring at my screen, it hit me: Trackmania Forever. More specifically, the Trackmania Forever that I controlled with my eyes at the Eurogamer Expo last year at the SpecialEffect stand. It opened my eyes (no pun intended) to a world of individuals less fortunate than ourselves who are unable to play games as easily as we do because of their disabilities. That experience highlighted a few things for me: the importance of accessibility, not taking my own ability and freedom for granted, and the SpecialEffect charity itself.

  4. This is an interesting question. No games immediately spring to mind, but I’m sure there have been some. You’ve also planted the germ of an idea about the way in which games resonate with us, and what we bring to them. Hmm.

  5. I chuckled because I have that exact experience every time I see something like Terry’s tweet. Wait it’s a game, and you don’t really like it? It made you uncomfortable? It’s not fun at all? Sign me up!

    Really good question, and a tough one. I’m trying to think of examples that aren’t Cart Life. Maybe Sid Meier’s Civilization II. It sort of had the tangential effect you mentioned with The Cat and the Coup. I played it when I was fairly young, and I’d say it made me more interested in learning history, especially anything to do with those juicy “wonders” that you could build. I’ll think on it some more.

  6. I suppose Foldit and Molleindustria’s Unmanned both meet this tangential learning criteria, as well. Foldit is a weird example, though, because it’s one of those games that people play after they learn about what it represents, and the examples you mentioned are sort of the other way around, so I’m not sure it fits after all.

  7. Fire Emblem Radiant Dawn: I played this when I was 12 or 13, and I remember thinking that the handheld “Sacred Stones” had a good story, but subsequently being blown away by the ‘grown up’ Fire Emblem game. Up to that point in my development, I had been turning to the idea of a more peaceful, more successful utopia. The game made me focus on the opposite idea in a way nothing yet had, to the point where, in conjunction with Steinbeck, Bradbury, and Gurren Lagann, I even wonder if we don’t live in a gross approximation of utopia.

    Silent Conversation: I read, and came to love, “the love song” just because of this silly little game. It’s not a very substantial thing, but it certainly did effect my development.

  8. @Alex: oh hell yes, I am with you on Civilization. The first one for me, though. I learned a bunch of World History 101 via that game. It never turned into a love of history for me, but it may be responsible for my increased interest today. (Admittedly, so may my more recent [10y] interest in geopolitics…)

    @HM: What is the inverse of a game that leaks? Is it a game that we resist? I often find myself resenting individual games which I enjoy because they might express an unquestioned worldview, philosophy or attitude I find lazy, thoughtless or repugnant. This is something I am hoping to tangentially explore in an upcoming piece on Tropico 3.

  9. Got one!

    Call of Duty.

    Noise! Bullets! Explosions! The raw power of an enemy machine gun as the fence I’m crouched behind splinters and shreds.
    Battling troops and tanks in Arnheim until I simply can’t take any more and flee to a bunker, level my rifle at the doorway and pray for it to stop.
    Chased from room to room, up and down the shell of a house, jumping from a first floor window into the snow to welcome the rescuing tanks with open arms.

    Seriously, I had to just go outside and stare quietly for a while after some of those levels.
    Gave me a whole new respect.

  10. Great post, HM – I was only familiar with one of the games you mentioned, Cart Life, because you’ve mentioned it before. And don’t ever apologize for waxing philosophic, even at length, about a game that’s obsessed you. My Dark Souls Diaries stand at 20,788 words and there are still five episodes left. You, my friend, are guilty of no crime.

    I’ll definitely check out these other two. They sound fascinating.

    For me, let’s think… I’m generally a mainstream gamer, but don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story was a great indie that got me thinking a lot about privacy and how our concept of solitude can change over time.

    A game that makes you see things differently. That’s a hard one. There are plenty that have had an effect, but few that have been so momentous as that.

  11. @Ketchua: I had heard of Flatland before, as I was a great fan of Martin Gardner’s mathematical books in my teens (and now sad to discover he’s died two years ago) and he used Flatland to explain dimensional concepts. I didn’t realise Flatland went back to the 19th century, originally a social satire! So thank you for that. As for the game itself, wow, I found it pretty difficult to muddle through – I gave up around the factory.

    @CdrJameson: I did think Call of Duty was an exceptional piece of work although admittedly it didn’t do anything more for me that Saving Private Ryan hadn’t already done.

    @Gregg B: I’m torn on your example. The thorny issue I’m addressing is that games are said to be extremely powerful and have the potential to change our lives… except I’m not seeing much of it even though I chew my way through a lot of indie fare. Gobi suggested in his essay A Complex Problem (via the last Link Drag) that we are settling on toys and instant gratification machines and shying away from anything that might be of import. Your reaction is not to a game that you’d be expected to play but to a controller that was developed for others. But on the other hand, I’m just been a fucking meanie, and that single game playing experience changed your perspective forever.

    @Alex: On your Civ example – I’m thinking that these sort of responses happen more often when we’re younger, because we’re so ripe for information and a game only has to drop a few hints and we’ve learnt something. When we get older, it’s more difficult to dazzle us with a few facts and games can’t get too deep, because no one wants to watch a 30-minutes cutscene/read 15 walls of text during a game.

    I often discount political games for “changing people’s minds” because they only tend to preach to the choir; the people who play them are the people who are already in your ball park. Did Sweatshop or Slavery Footprint actually change anyone’s shopping habits? People revert to denial pretty quickly. Do they convert or challenge people’s thinking? It’s the Google problem of being served stuff that meets your expectations. Did Unmanned tell you anything you didn’t already know?

    @ShaunCG: The opposite of a game that leaks is a normal game. A game that does nothing other than expect you to play it and then walk away, go back to your life as you were, albeit a little more relaxed if you’re lucky.

    @mwm: I’ve not played what you cited, but nice example! As I speculated above, I wonder if these kinds of impacts are limited to our younger years, simply because we are still developing and everything is up for grabs. Now I’m at death’s door (verging on 40) and it’s pretty difficult to change my mind about stuff. Experiences tends to harden notions into personal absolute truths.

  12. @Steerpike: Heh, don’t plant the idea of The Cart Life Diaries in my head, now. I’ve got that spot reserved for Mass Effect…

    You could do “Johnny Got His Gun Quest” as will literally take about two or three minutes of your time, a tiny thing.

    Now Don’t Take It Personally is an interesting one. I don’t think it changed my mind about anything but I suppose it did give me cause for concern that the Facebook generation won’t give a rat’s ass about online privacy.

  13. @HM: MEANIE.

    No you’re right though. Now you’ve mentioned it it is blindingly obvious that it wasn’t the game that affected me, it was indeed the controller. Back to the drawing board. Any chance this article can be opened up to “controllers that changed my world view”? ;-)

    I’m in the same boat as Steerpike (it’s a nice boat). There are games like Cannon Fodder and Every Day The Same Dream and McVideoGame which made me go YES!, but they didn’t change my outlook per se, they didn’t ‘leak’. I’ll keep mulling it over.

  14. @HM: I’m not sure that can be described as the opposite! If we try and nail down your definition another way, and correct me if I’m wrong, but can we say a game that leaks is a game’s substance seeping through to your consciousness and provoking actual change? If so, a game that does nothing other than expect you to play it and walk away is the absence of that, whereas the opposite might be a game’s substance seeping through to your consciousness but being rebuffed?

    A shallow example might be a game like RapeLay or Battle Raper… put a person down in front of those and the odds are good you’ll probably find them aggressively rejecting those quite quickly. A more complex example, which I mentioned above, would be my feelings about Tropico 3: that on one level it is a highly enjoyable, fun, charming game, but on another level I find it faintly repellent because it is a game soaked in Western privilege and late capitalist orthodoxy. So there we have a game’s ideas coming through to me and resonating with me beyond a level of a game’s mechanics, but my actively rejecting said ideas after consideration?

    I suppose it’s not oppositional in the strictest sense but it is certainly a step apart from mere absence.

    Apologies for the enormous tangent, but what you’ve written above has intersected with what I’ve been thinking about recently.

  15. Nb. I might suggest Fate of the World as a possible “game that leaks”, not because it introduced any new ideas – like most political/ecological games it only underlined ideas I was already familiar with – but because its mechanics were constructed in such a way as emphasise the impossibility of the lofty ideals the game set before you. You can win, but only by failing better. And on one level I already knew this, but I did not *understand* it. So FOTW is probably one of the few games I can think of where the mechanics were somewhat eye-opening for me; it’s also a great example because it was the game’s mechanics rather than narrative conceit that leaked.

  16. @HM: Perhaps not directly, but it did inspire me to go dig up more info on Wikipedia. And it made to consider certain perspectives more carefully: How do the operators of such vehicles identify as “soldiers?” How do they reconcile themselves with the war hero myth? How does killing feel when it’s less personal? It made me think on these issues more than I had before, so I’d say, for me, it succeeded.

  17. @HM: Ugh, typo. It made **me** consider certain perspectives more carefully.

    And I felt like I did much of this pondering outside of the actual gameplay process, so yeah, I’d say it carried over once I was done playing.

  18. @Shaun: I was going to say something similar with regards to “a game that leaks is a game’s substance seeping through to your consciousness and provoking actual change” but thought I might have been over-egging the phrase a little!

    The opposite might be something that takes from you, rather than gives, perhaps leaving a vacuum or space of sorts that draws in other things that aren’t usually there, possibly undesired things. For instance, a game that makes you do things you wouldn’t usually do, causing shame or embarrassment for example, but changes your outlook nonetheless. Perhaps Brathwaite’s Train or indeed, McVideoGame. Am I speaking rubbish? This might be veering OT.

    O_o

  19. Absolutely loved the article and the fact that -as was bound to happen- all of the games have a distinct political edge.

    I, on the other hand, must admit I’ve yet to encounter a game that has changed the way I think. At least not so obviously. Just like literature, I tend to believe that (a particularly rare breed of) games slowly add stuff to ones thought system, subtly raise questions and only in even rare instances truly enlight.

    And that is why no substitute for philosophy will ever exist.

  20. @Gregg: I over-egg many things. This makes the best omelettes. Sometimes they are brain omelettes! Although that would be disgusting.

    I’m curious about what you’re angling towards here, as I’m not familiar with either of those titles. Perhaps I should give them a look. I’m interested in the

    Whether or not we are veering OT this is one of the most interesting VG discussions I’ve been drawn into recently. :)

    @gnome: I think you are onto something here: I suspect that some of what we are really talking about is the moment of revelation, the pinnacle of a slow process of aggregation at which clarity bursts through, rather than some de-contextualised Eureka! moment. From HM’s description of Cart Life, it sounds like the game precipitated this moment, and was instrumental in directing how his behaviour shifted afterwards.

    The description of that reaction sounds a little different from that of The Cat and the Coup, which was more of an introduction to an area of history of which he’d previously been less aware.

    The latter are probably easier to induce in a gaming audience provided you can make a game concerning something about which most people aren’t very knowledgeable, whereas the former… well, that is really all about how your game intersects with the ideas someone is already carrying in their head. And certainly that idea of intersectionality interests me the most.

  21. Haha, forgot to finish a half-formed ideasentence in my last comment. I meant to say, I’m interested in the idea of a game that induces shame or embarrassment, but most of all in the idea that a game could dislodge something from someone and actually leave a void there. It takes an argument or creative work of significant sophistry to dislodge a deeply-held idea or belief, and I wonder how a game might manage that, if one ever could or has?

  22. @ShaunCG: Yes, now that’s a very interesting idea to look at it. I do believe we agree.

  23. @HM: …it didn’t do anything more for me that Saving Private Ryan hadn’t already done.

    Ah, having not seen Saving Private Ryan (what’s the point? I’ve played Call of Duty) it seems this game was as affecting as the film, which seems to be quite an achievement for a game.

    Also: Alter Ego.

    Every prospective parent should play that one.

  24. It’s a bit easier for me, because as a game designer I can get changed by playing something if it has no impact beyond videogames. Play Mother 3, and have my mind changed about single-shot mechanics — that counts.

    But that’s cheap.

    Not sure I can think of anything that changed me. Maybe Deus Ex, back when I was a teenager? It prompted me to read The Man Who Was Thursday, at the very least (I still remember — there was a except from it in behind the desk in the lobby of the hotel in New York). It formed a fairly potent blend of conspiracy nonsense when combined with The Invisibles, which definitely did change me, and I was reading around the same time.

  25. There’s a game for the Mega Drive/Genesis called Soleil, also known as Crusader of Centy, that I think had a real effect on me. Mostly on the way I look at games, but I think that does count. In 1994 (!) this game did more to challenge stereotypical videogame narratives than just about any game since. Phenomenon 32 comes directly from there (and man I wish that game wasn’t so broken, because I did some cool stuff there) and so does Traitor, because Soleil made me very aware of what killing enemies in games means.

  26. This may be incoherent due to sleep deprivation, but…

    Pathologic: The choice at the end affected my priorities in ways I can’ get into without spoiling the game and led to a nasty personal revelation as well

    Cart Life: Same story as HM’s really – despite already having that exact lesson drilled into my head by David Foster Wallace, playing it yourself really does make a difference

    Ramses: Can’t talk about without going into mechanical spoilers for this one bit towards the end, and I’m sure it’s of much less value to people who didn’t play it as egotistic, casually self-destructive teen, but choices I made in this game and the regrets they caused are still useful as an impromptu kick in the ass all these years later.

    Is it Time: Changed my relationship with nursing homes

    The Linear RPG: Made me question the worth of all the hours I’ve sunk into certain games, leading to a quarter-life crisis

    Oh, and Bioware’s games, taken as a whole, helped me come to terms with my relationship problems in that I found dating men just because there were no available ladies wasn’t worth it in the long run, no much how hard it can be being alone sometimes (it kills me that hurting people in real life was a less effective lesson than having to put up with a fictional character’s schmaltzy dialogue, but I guess that’s a bitter lesson in and of itself)

  27. About the original post — isn’t it a bit dispiriting about the potential of games that, in two of your three examples, the way the game leaked was to inspire you to go find out what it was based on? As though games can only be advertisements for something else.

    Two games that leaked for me in that way were Peter Nepstad’s “The Ebb and Flow of the Tide,” which got me to read the Lord Dunsany story it was based on (and though the game is good, the story is wonderful), and Steve Jackson’s “Illuminati!”, which got me reading The Crying of Lot 49 and hence lots more Pynchon. (I think I’m probably lucky that I didn’t try Robert Anton Wilson instead.)

    I’ve made several comics and one piece of fan art based on nethack so that probably counts too. And Dungeons and Dragons surely colors my perception of stuff in ways that I’m not even aware of. We’ll see if I ever write that Magic Realm fanfic in the style of Donald Barthelme and/or Virginia Woolf, but the fact that I’ve even thought of it probably qualifies the game as leaky — and it has made me think about how to evoke something when you’ve only got two words to do it in. I also used to think about the world and mythos of Divine Right. My examples are all tabletop games because I’m old.

    The accumulation of various multi-level puzzle games that gradually introduce mechanics has made me think a lot about how I ought to be trying to teach undergraduates to do proofs in symbolic logic. Since that’s a big part of what I do for a living, that definitely counts. But the game that made me think about it the most is an obscure flash dealie whose name I cannot remember for my life. There are colored orbs on pedestals, and when you pick them up you can walk through doors of matching colors, but you can only carry two at a time. Ring a bell, anyone?

  28. I’ve also brought don’t take it personally babe up in discussions of our weird wired world to people who aren’t into games, so that probably counts for me as well. It’s good to play it along with A Visit from the Goon Squad.

  29. Deus Ex got me thinking about human advancement. I don’t want to spoil the final level and the endings that emerge from your final choice, but since I wasn’t satisfied by any of the endings it made me wonder about the purpose of scientific advancement. And the conversation with the AI Morpheus was intriguing. Also, it’s one of few games that encourages you to deal with enemies in a non-lethal way. Having said that, Morpheus is an entirely non-essential part of the game, and after the halfway-point the character who tells you not to kill people becomes irrelevant, so that’s gone too. I guess the game is amazing in a few unusual and worthwhile ways, but I’m struck by how much of that game – which is held up as a poster boy for thoughtful games – is actually not very thought-provoking. Yes it’s satisfying and engaging to navigate the many systems and networks in the game, but they don’t make me think about the world generally.

    If you’re interested in the way game mechanics can alter the way we think, you might want to look at Ian Bogost’s book, “Persuasive Games”:

    http://www.bogost.com/books/persuasive_games.shtml

    Bogost argues that game mechanics can alter the way you see a real-world system. For instance, if you play a game in which you run a fast food restuarant, and the game’s systems are set up in such a way that the only way to be profitable is to steal land from native Africans, feed your cows experimental mutagens, produce cheap, nasty, hazardous burgers and then bribe journalists to keep quiet about it, then you might begin to wonder whether a global fast food industry is a good thing, because you will consider the fact that, even if the people at the top have good intentions, the business of running such a business might naturally result in an exploitative fast food industry.

  30. @James Patton

    The problem with Bogost’s point is that if a game has been set up so you have to be a bugger to succeed then you don’t think about the subject – you think ‘oh, the designer is making a heavy handed point’.

    If it was set up carefully to reflect reality (which might have the effect of only allowing success if you’re a complete bugger) that might be different, and similarly if you could ‘win’ ethically, but it was much easier by being a git that would have more impact.

    An example of this done well would be that being-trapped-in-the-twin-towers-can-you-survive game, the name of which clearly escapes me. That had more impact by chosing your starting position at random rather than giving you a place where you always died.

    An example of it done badly would be September 12th, which might as well have printed the sentence ‘violence breeds violence’ on the screen and saved a lot of time and effort all round.

  31. I really didn’t expect the comment thread to take off like this. And all the different titles being banded about here that I never heard of! I don’t think I can keep up with all of the conversations going here…

    Gregg – I was in two minds about the SpecialEffect example because I could’ve been arguing about a “gameplay experience” which broadened your horizons. It’s not really the game itself, but the game + player that are working together here in my examples. The Cat and the Coup, for example, would do nothing for a student of Iranian history.

    Shaun/Gregg – On the opposite of “leaking”, you are on your own here =) I’m prepared to read any articles you write on the subject! Although isn’t “dislodging” a deeply held belief still a change? An impact? The mathematician in me sees these as the same. I’d also suggest the sea of gung-ho military shooters is probably not all that healthy, in the same way that 24 promoted torture as an everyday, essential tool.

    Alex – I’m a little nervous around Fate of the World. A reliable world simulator just doesn’t exist – if it did, politicians would be using it everyday as part of policy decisions and PR. So in the end, this is a simulation toy. Which means – how truthful are its real-world implications? Gnome touched on this during his review, ever so briefly. I am reminded of “The Day After Tomorrow” which is just breathtaking in terms of its pseudo-science bullshit, but seems to have swayed people into the climate change camp: seems that SFX and sleight-of-hand can work an audience quicker and faster than decades of science.

    Gnome – I am sympathetic to your position that it is the aggregate effect of multiple experiences that effects change and moments of epiphany are very much overrated. I think you are right.

    Jonas/George – I forgot to explicitly exclude game design realisations from consideration. The reason is there is plenty of games that make meta-game statements or prove what games can do, and we’d also be inundated with “moving game moments” (I realised games could make me cry!) Gregg chucked Train into the discussion earlier and that’s meant as a demonstration of how mechanics can upset people rather than change someone’s outlook. Not to diminish your example Jonas because as you know I, too, was astonished at Soleil (a.k.a. Ragnacenty) which starts out like an ordinary brightly-coloured JRPG but goes to some unexpectedly dark places for 90s era console title. None of these moments, however, demonstrate games capacity to change players’ lives, but only to teach designers how to make better games.

    Bear – Pathologic is on my to-do list! I really can’t wait. But first, Mass Effect. And Lone Survivor. And– Not heard of Ramses nor Is It Time! Fascinating reaction to Bioware’s stuff. Apologies if this is too personal question, but your comment cries out for clarification: you are (or at least were) bisexual in real life?

    Matt W – You are totally on the money that the two of the examples were just encouragement to go to the library. I wish I’d had more “proper” life change examples other than seeing words in books as an avalanche of Tetris blocks or getting the urge to carjack when walking to work after heavy GTA III sessions (TRUE STORY). I like your examples because they’re not life changing per se, but they are changing the nature of discussion, enhancing it, and this is a noble achievement for games which is in the same neck of the woods and much more aligned with gnome’s ideas of slow dripfed change. On symbolic logic: is your chosen subject mathematics or computer science? As for your orbs game, I think it was mentioned on RPS years ago but I didn’t play it; I can almost see it but cannot remember what it was called. Anyone else?

    James – Interesting point that thought-provoking Deus Ex didn’t actually provoke much thought outside of the game. I wonder if it’s more of a case of slow change again, the kind of thing that just adds to your personal messy web of thought, building up views on surveillance, governmental oversight and the have-and-havenots of the digital present and future. I was wondering if Persuasive Games was going to be mentioned here (they will be getting a mention here in the next few months and– ah… I shouldn’t spoil future posts…) but then again do they fall into the camp of games you play because you’re already aware of the problems being discussed? Do people play these games when they don’t have any “preloaded emotional investment” in those issues? Then again I’d point everyone towards Michael Abbott’s very interesting piece on how Newsgames affected his students.

    CdrJameson – I meant to add earlier that the title was deliberately chosen to dupe everyone into thinking I was going to talk about Mass Effect at last. I’d say Saving Private Ryan is still worth a watch, though! Not familiar with Alter Ego – what did it do for you? On your persuasive game point, I think they need to avoid a binary good/evil outcome; in other media: something loaded like Atlas Shrugged is geared for a particular agenda, but something like The Wire is far more ambiguous about finding real-world solutions. The Newsgames case study linked in the previous paragraph is an excellent example.

    But I am thinking more and more that Don’t Take It Personally should be on my list.

  32. Pathologic – good call Bear! That game maybe didn’t make me look at the world differently, but it made me see that its designers have the ability to look at the world differently. Like Cart Life it was pretty broken from a technical perspective, but it was also compellingly playable.

    The Void too. Great game. Very flawed. Haunting and sexy.

    I’m also intrigued by ShaunCG’s comment about the need for a game that truly embarrasses or shames the player. What a great design challenge! Games can make you feel awesome, or make you furious, or make you excited, or even make you sad, but I can’t think of one that has ever made me feel truly ashamed.

    Don’t take it personally made me feel… dirty, I guess, or guilty, which is as close as I can think of.

  33. You are right that there aren’t many games that really change the ways we look at things even if they’ve been fascinating in just putting us through interesting experiences and scenarios that we would not get the chance to explore otherwise. I was thinking at first that actually no games may have had this effect on me, but then a few occurred to me that fit this criteria.

    **SPOILERS AHEAD for first 2 examples if you haven’t tried them and want to go in pure and without pre-conceptions***

    Molleindustria’s Inside a Dead Skyscraper gave me a feeling I have never had in a game before : the way I stumbled across things in that short game gave me this short sharp intake of dread that was really quite powerful and something I never had around the events themselves at the time. It somehow got through the bubble-wrapping I guess I’ve naturally evolved in watching tragic news events before. I can’t say I’ve done anything differently because of that but I think it’s made that even more real to me.

    I guess Opera Omnia might have changed how I think of historians just slightly or the importance of how history gets framed. I’ve never been quite sure I’ve pulled the right message from that game and when I say that I just mean that I’m not a 100% that it made sense for me to draw the conclusions that naturally occurred to me at the time, not that there was only 1 thing the author intended for the game to show, though maybe there was a main one.

    Here’s one that’s a bit different: Portal. I’m basically referrring to the Tetris effect but its a genuine way in which games have changed my perception of reality, at least for a time. After playing Portal I was suddenly imagining how easy it would be to get from point A to B if I had a Portal gun. That thinking was overlaid onto my reality. It made far away visible objects seem less far away and more significant as a result.

    Inside a star-filled sky might have given me a glimpse at undestanding the depths of infinity and hold that in my mind better than anything else has managed. It builds on the groundwork laid by watching the film ExistenZ – the prospect of getting lost in that infinity.

    I think often games might have had an effect on the ways we think about things but just often other media has their first and filled out those ideas for us before some games shared about the same things, though they often been less effective at getting ideas across so far. Give it more time and with a younger generation playing games earlier that have themselves got better at presenting messages and this leaking effect from games will be more commonplace.

  34. Hi HM! My chosen subject is philosophy, and Don’t Take It Personally should definitely be on your list. Leakage aside, it’s just got some of the best writing ever.

    About the games you’ve never heard of, I don’t know if I can but a bunch of links in the post without falling into spam-boo-limbo, but Ebb and Flow of the Tide and Rameses are interactive fiction titles (text adventures, you know) which you should be able to find with a search at ifdb.tads.org. “Is it time” is a short flash game that you can find by searching for the phrase in quotation marks. Magic Realm and Divine Right are a couple of seriously out-of-print fantasy boardgames from the 70s.

    That orb game is so annoying to find! Searching doesn’t help, because very game ever features orbs. If I ever design a game like this you’ll be collecting magic hypocycloids.

  35. @Shaun: James Patton (above) describes McVideoGame without ever naming it ;-) and Train is an unsettling ‘board’ game, see here (another Bogost link)!

    After I thought some more about what I said I actually realised that the opposite of leaking, and thus changing somebody, would be not leaking and thus not changing somebody. HM mentions this in his post above (I always was bad at maths) ;-) But nevertheless, perhaps leaking still has an inverse which can alter you very much in the way we discuss.

    CdrJameson does bring up an interesting point though: “… if a game has been set up so you have to be a bugger to succeed then you don’t think about the subject – you think ‘oh, the designer is making a heavy handed point’.” Which rings true to me. In McVideoGame I didn’t feel bad about what I was doing because it seemed to me like I didn’t really have a choice but to inject my cows with growth hormones and chop down the rainforest for cow chow; I recognised the message without really bearing the brunt of it. I think with Train however, if you didn’t know what it was about (which is very much possible), you might feel quite bad when you discover what you were effectively doing, and I think that’s the sweet spot.

  36. @matt w: “magic hypocycloids” should be in every game henceforth.

  37. Steerpike – Cart Life made me feel pretty guilty. And I was surprised that Planescape: Torment broke through the player/avatar wall and inflicted similar effects.

    Raging Lion – I’ve still got Opera Omnia in my unplayed folder, another of those I keep meaning to fire up! Interesting you got that Tetris effect out of Portal. It’s actually rare I “suffer” from such a thing these days although it probably means I don’t get that a strong sense of gaming flow much these days.

    Matt W – Of course, of course, philosophy is the third option I omitted to include! That makes more sense, even. The reason Don’t Take It Personally should be on my “leaky game” list is because the ending angered me so much I wrote last year’s The Glass Society. You can always post multiple links and I usually approve any multi-linking posts snagged by the spam filter because they fall down a different hole to the rest of the spam. Oh God, personally, I can’t take any more games featuring magic hypocycloids. They have been done to death.

    Gregg B – As I said, I think from my perspective, a little more ambiguity is interesting (in fact, I think that’s why Fate of the World is actually good, its only real message is that there are no easy solutions). But there’s something to be said for agitprop which pushes an uncommon or normally-obscured message, even if the mechanics force you down it.

  38. *facepalm* I thought you meant Don’t take it personally should be on your list of games to play, but of course you meant that it should be in the article.

    I had a little more sympathy for DTIPB’s message because I’m a social-media Luddite myself; I’m not on Facebook partly because it has no appeal for me and also because I’m afraid my students would look at my page or even *gasp* try to friend me. The biggest issue I had with the plot was with the Isabella plotline; there’s some issues with the twist, but even before that, there was one message she wrote that no teacher would’ve failed to do something drastic about. Not even John Rook.

    It just occurred to me: Isn’t it appropriate to the theme of DTIPB that the game itself mines your personal data? And makes you like it?

  39. @HM: CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

    @Gregg: thanks for the info!

  40. @matt w, don’t sweat it I wasn’t clear enough! DTIPB made me mad because I thought it came down heavily on the side of kids talking openly is the future and to hell with the consequences of what these social networks and click trackers and relationship mappers are doing behind the scenes. It’s an asymmetric world. Then again, I thought it’s future was unlikely. I should have linked it before, but here is what I said.

    It didn’t change my mind about anything, but it did harden my views somewhat.

    What’s that about the game “mining your personal data”….?

  41. Damn, I’ve been so busy this week I almost missed out on a great conversation. This is all so fascinating to think about.

    I tend to fall in love too deeply with my hobbies, so a lot of games have “leaked” for me, at least temporarily. Not in the sense of changing, say, my political view, but in changing the ways I look at and interact with the environment in the real world. If a game is just a game but has something memorable in it, it can change my outlook on the world slightly for even a long time. But I’m stubborn, and if a game seems to deliberately be trying to influence me to feel a certain way, I usually resist.

  42. I’m not so sure that the kind of thing Soleil does can’t affect lives. To turn our understanding of what constitutes the enemy (or, to use a more academic term, the Other) upside-down is a very powerful thing. I won’t say it changed the way I think, but as the gnome pointed out, it’s often a slow process of accumulation, and in that sense I think Soleil has had an effect on me.

  43. I must also say that I find The Fate of the World to be much more dangerous than The Day After Tomorrow. The latter is clearly fiction inspired by a real issue, and while I find its exaggeration to be potentially harmful (because it can also give fodder to the lunatics), I think its obviously fictional nature is processed by most people in a very different way to something that claims to be documentary.

    But where The Day After Tomorrow gives us, in however flawed a way, something to think about, The Fate of the World gives us a *way* of thinking about things. The Fate of the World makes us think about the parameters of its system, but in so doing imposes its system on us. And the one thing it refuses to let us think about is that it is precisely that system which is the cause of the problem in the first place.

  44. HM: Was there a minor character mentioned toward the end of DTIPB who happened to have your last name?

  45. @Amanda – With the ongoing hype that games are a powerful medium and can “change the world” I think it’s telling that even amongst hardcore game enthusiasts, there’s little evidence that any of our lives are affected. However this thread has given me some hope that there’s definitely stuff happening. I also feel that games that try to “game us” with their rule systems, as CdrJameson mentioned earlier, are too readable. And the overt readability of their meaning is a problem in itself, which comes across as a system can talking down to its players. If you already agree with its message, it can be an interesting exploration of something you already believe, which is probably how a lot of message games succeed.

    @Jonas – Yes I’m leaning more towards gnome’s thoughts on this matter after getting through this particular comment thread. I think something like Soleil is one of many data points which tell you: why is it always okay to murder bad guys? I remember having this sort of about-face going through my teens when I started to realise that most of the media I was consuming had the bad guys killed off but this never happened in real life. Interesting spin on The Fate of the World which takes me back to our interview last year…

    @matt w: Nothing like that happened to me. Is there some article that talks about DTIPB hacking your details? I had a quick run round Google earlier but to no avail.

  46. It might just be that you didn’t play Digital, or didn’t enter your last name into it. If you’ve entered a name into Digital and you play DTIPB on the same computer, then a character named Katelyn who is mentioned at the end of the game has the same last name. (I am ashamed to say that I didn’t pick up that this was happening, even though no one would give a character my last name unless they were making a joke of it.) See here, though I forget where I saw it mentioned first.

    Shades of Psycho Mantis, eh? (I’ve never played that game.)

  47. I’m not sure about grand philosophical paradigm-shifts, but some games have certainly affected the way I notice things in the world. Not long after I finished Thief I went to a concert at St Albans Cathedral; approaching as night fell I found myself mentally noting where the best shadows were, good hiding spots not too far off the main path, likely escape routes. Once inside I glanced up and checked which bits of the ceiling were wooden – rope arrows won’t attach to stone, after all.
    I made it through the evening without blackjacking anyone or stealing any chalices.

  48. @Phlebas: that’s amazing.

  49. Wow, lots of comments! I tried reading them all… read most, got a good idea of what’s been said.

    I really like the premise of this piece, but I’m not very fond of the examples. I guess when Moriarty says “they will never attain the lasting power of sublime art, and they will continue to play a minor role in our intellectual and spiritual lives.”, he’s probably referring to the power that art has to change us as a person, not just changing our knowledge about some specific topic. I mean, you can learn a lot about transport business by playing transport tycoon, and even more if you research transport business after you’re done playing, but I don’t think that’s the kind of profound experience we’re talking about… is it?

    Because, in that case, I think you end up agreeing with Moriarty. If the lingering effect is “I googled some historical event”, it shouldn’t really count.

    BUT

    This is a tricky subject. Who we are as a person is defined to a great extent by the experiences we have in life. And I mean, all experiences, not just the ones that makes us overtly think “boy, I’m a different person now!”. In this sense, it’s not fair at all to say that video games are sterile in comparison to other media.

    In a less strict sense, I believe the credit we give to music/books/movies as identity transformers is culturally determined, not something that’s tied to the medium per se. The fact that videogames are interactive should makes us think otherwise. I can’t talk for other people, because each person deals with things differently. But I could definitely name a few games that changed me as a person, and I mean, permanent effects – both behavioral and cognitive.

    I’ll start with FINAL FANTAST VI. Yes. My favorite all-time game, I was heavily addicted when I was around 14. I’d rather not go too deep about it here, but basically, it made me look at life as a whole with more epic/adventurous eyes. Seriously, big time.

    I can think of other games, even though it’s not easy to put into words the effect they had on me. I just know that, if I hadn’t played them, things would be different.

    Other games with such effect that come to mind: Passage, Cart Life (yay).

    And games with very minor but noticeable effects: I’m Scared of Girls, Space Funeral, Indiana Jones/Atlantis… just to name a few.

    It just makes a lot of sense to think that, something that takes a great deal of our time, of our thoughts, of our emotional experience define who we are as a person (in the most profound sense you can think of).

  50. @Nicolau – I like what you say about the respect paid to books/movies etc. being culturally determined. If we look back to the 18th and early 19th centuries, novels were seen as frivolous, childish, and potentially damaging. Instead of the figure of the nerd that stays at home all day and plays videogames and has no friends, they had the figure of the lazy housewife (it was often a woman in this myth, sadly) who sits at home and reads novels instead of experiencing real life. We mustn’t forget that, when Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd and Ben Jonson were writing plays – ie. the most highly rated era of theatre for about two hundred years either way – theatres were seen as dangerous, subversive and were both physically and morally next-door to brothels.

    Now, of course, books and theatre are seen as nourishing. There’s a large number of people who connect the number of books a person reads to their ability to empathise with other real-world people. Personally, I’m sceptical. I think we attach too much credit to the form without paying enough attention to the amount of guff that goes in as well. To pick my most loathed example, I doubt Twilight makes its readers into better, more rounded people; if anything, it might do the opposite, though I think people can also overestimate the *negative* impact something has on you (witness our old friends Jack Thompson and Leland Yee).

    What I will say is that in the 15th and early 16th centuries, English theatre was limited to educational/moral plays about how to avoid going to Hell, and how wonderful God was. At the same time, much Italian theatre was in the form of the Commedia dell’Arte, narratively simple improvisational street theatre which often used stock characters; the fun came from seeing the actors use these characters in creative ways with no rehearsal time, but it was hardly going to make people reconsider their beliefs. Then, from about 1570 to 1640 in England we get a period traditionally seen as very, very good. We get King Lear, Dr. Faustus, the Revenger’s Tragedy, the Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, the Tempest, the White Devil, the list goes on and on. People still put these things on regularly because, in some way, they make people reconsider how they think. Then from about 1640 to 1660 we have a period, under Oliver Cromwell, when theatre was banned (it wasn’t religious enough). And from about 1660 to 1850 we then have a lot of theatre which is, in my opinion, either hilarious but not belief-shattering, or sombre and predictable and not very interesting.

    Now, much of that is subjective. Perhaps there are people who really like theatre from 1660 to 1850. But it sounds like the whole discussion is predicated on subjectivity anyway: the question is, “How does this game change *me*?”, not “Let’s look at the cultural shifts of videogames over the past 30 years in a totally objective light”.

    So I have to suggest: maybe things just aren’t quite right at the moment? Maybe there will be a time in the future when all the variables line up (although we can’t really know what they are right now) and there will be a large “crop” of games that are really thoughtful and also really popular and which change the way people think about games and about the world generally. After all, when people pick stories that changed their worldview, they’ll probably cherry-pick works that might stretch back 500 years. That’s a huge resource of culture to plunder, and we have to remember that even if games aren’t exactly in their infancy any more, they haven’t existed for very long.

    Or is that all nonsense? What do people think about these historiocultural (if that’s a word) readings of art through the ages? Is there any currency to them?

  51. @Matt W: I never played Digital! By the time I was getting around to it, the internet had already spoiled the twist for me. I couldn’t convince myself to give it a proper go. I know I should but… I have also not played Metal Gear Solid.

    @Phlebas: You may not have blackjacked anyone but it’s still creepy. =)

    @Nicolau: As I’ve worked through these comments I’m warming ever more to gnome’s almost scoffing response that it’s much more likely we are changed by games in totality and concentrating on “revolutionary changes” inspired by individual games is perhaps underselling the medium. Interesting that you’re pretty much of the same mind.

    However, I still feel that if a videogame made me interested in some “real world thing” then it’s still a win. It’s not easy to get people interested in things like a coup d’etat in Iran in 1952.

    But I would love to hear what Final Fantasy VI did for you: I’d be willing to give you wordspace for that story!

    @James Patton: I think you’ve taken the comment ball and knocked it out of the park! I’m no art historian but I’m cautious when mapping the development of other media onto videogames. We seem to be in an age of such rapid technological change that I can’t tell if we’re speeding through the evolution of the medium or just taking the normal course. Plus, videogames are innately more complicated than all of the other linear media we deal with; there are many paths from the beginning of a videogame’s journey and it’s ending – plus those endpoints are often not even fixed. Does that slam the brakes on our evolution because making disruptive videogames is a “hard problem” to solve (like Brian Moriarty suggested)?

    Half of the internet is happy to compare videogames to other artistic mediums; the other half says no, that videogames are so different we shouldn’t even be making these faux comparisons. An article at the end

    This is my roundabout way of saying I don’t actually have an opinion.

    I will say that something is happening right now. There’s so much activity in the field due to the barrier of entry (free, easy tools like Stencyl) falling stone dead to the floor. Who knows where this could take us?

  52. Page 2 of the comments! ARGH RUNAWAY

    I played FFVI a few years ago for the first time on my DS (the GBA version) and I found it a slog to be honest and overall quite predictable, although I will say it’s a lot darker in places than I expected it to be. I get the impression that had I played it when it came out and I was young, I’d hold it aloft like many people do. As such I’m a bit apprehensive about playing the likes of Chrono Trigger as well, another ‘classic’ RPG. Planescape: Torment I played a year or so prior to FFVI and it constantly surprised me, shook me, made me laugh — FFVI paled in comparison. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, I don’t know.

    However, back in the day FFVII ‘changed’ me. I mean, hell, I did a perhaps ill-advised and slightly cringe-worthy project on it at college as a result (I’m glad damp and mould claimed that project in my parent’s old garage). It was the first game to wrap me up in this sweeping epic adventure (3 CDs!). Games had taken me places before but not on such a massive scale and, just like FFVI, VII had a superb soundtrack which only hammered the scale home — I still go all dewy eyed and wistful when I listen to FFVII’s soundtrack. It was back in a time when cutscenes were rewards as well and Square (still) do very nice cutscenes. At the time, it highlighted just how grand games were capable of being and how much they could potentially be, but looking back, I think it was more my youthful naivety coupled with the scale and romanticism of it all that knocked me for six. I dare not ever return to it.

    Ahhh youth, where did you go? Everything burned so bright back then.

  53. HM – well you’re right, videogames are unlike anything we’ve seen before so there’s no way to tell how their evolution will compare with other forms! But I was thinking that, if other forms had periods which we today don’t think of as particularly mind-blowing, maybe videogames will also have periods which we don’t think of as mind-blowing either. But I completely agree that what with the speed of technology, the all-time-low barrier of entry etc. we can’t just compare games to other media and expect a perfect fit.

    Ultimately I, like you, don’t really have a fixed opinion on this. I *hope* that I will one day play a game that makes me rethink life in the same way that a novel like “Infinite Jest” makes me reconsider the way people deal with reality. But, since I can’t remember playing such a game, it must be rather hard to make such games. “Heavy Rain” was a promising prospect, for example, but the plot was just too Hollywood; it was clearly derivative of cop shows and movies like Saw that by the climax there was a dissonance between the different bits that had been jammed together – climactic fight scene on an absurd conveyor-belt system vs. touching emotional scene between father and son. But I still hold out hope. Surely all we need for games that make us really, really think, is somebody who is able to make very good games but who also has very interesting thoughts and, maybe, a decent knowledge of culture and life generally. Sure, that sort of person’s got to be rare, but I’m certain somebody like that must exist *somewhere*.

    Oh! “The Baron.” It’s a truly brilliant game and one of the most intriguing and expressive things I’ve played since… well, I can’t remember playing anything more genuinely mournful, understanding and emotive. And it’s a frigging *text adventure!* Actually, maybe that’s part of the reason why it’s so good. If your entire production cycle revolves around writing some text, you don’t need to sink thousands of dollars and man-hours into the game: you can just *go*.

  54. I think the discussion of whether video games can have a strong impact in our lives should be separate from “is video game art?”. Because, you know… I took some time to think about other media that have had strong impact in my life, and they’re not clearly distinguishable… not many. Very very rarely does a movie, a song, an image or whatever-is-called-art changes who I am as a person. So there’s a little bias is saying “video games are not art because they don’t rock my world”.

    @Gregg B yeah, FFVI was great back in 1995, but I just refuse to play it again because I’m positively sure I wouldn’t like it as much… I probably wouldn’t even like it. But I’m very fond of my memories. Planescape: Torment is really great indeed… I considered it when making my list on the previous post, but it’s not really life-changing. I’ve been gravitating to indie games nowadays because they have a stronger likelihood of bringing something fresh. As far as epic-like RPGs go, I’d recommend Dhux’s Scar. Really mind-blowing.

    @HM I couldn’t dwell on the full extent of the impact FFVI had on me… too intimate!

  55. Hummm, effecting games;

    Cactus Norrland – pretty crude, but intresting – although no lasting effect.

    I found the Path was dripping in atmosphere, I had alot of time for the sense of been lost in the woods it gave me. But I imagen it would frustate alot of people.

    Amnesia, boy did that have impact, at first until I settled into the grove a bit. Cheap tatics sure but I found myself scared. Not sure it changed my world view.

    Oh an portal 2 made me delighted me in a way that I have not been for a long time – I have never delighted at a game before.

    On impact; hummm, I go to the theatre for that kind of thing.

  56. @Gregg: Not all of your childhood is intact (I am destroying mine by rewatching Transformers the cartoon series, “Noooooo….”) but some of it will be. I still got a kick out of playing some of those Atari games.

    @James: Depending on my mood, sometimes I’m inclined to think games are shockawesome fabulous and other times that the perfect game is an insoluble problem, that all games require significant blinkers and knowledge of mechnical tropes for them to immerse you. Depends on my mood.

    And I’ve still not played The Baron although I was very close once. I don’t quite remember what the twist was but I believe it was somewhere in the haunting/shocking section.

    @Nicolau: Yes, I was trying to avoid the whole games=art thing here, and concentrate on life-affecting experiences which led to a more concrete discussion, I hope.

    @awwells: Welcome back, Captain Wells! Reading between the lines, it sounds like you have no real examples of life-changers =)

  57. I feel for me games are possibly still to much in there infancy to be capable of such things, It took centuries for writers to get to novels. Games have a good head start as they have so much media to draw from, as its a combine art form. Cart life is interesting because it uses the mechanics to make its point (as I understand it….MAKE A MAC VERSION!), this is a massive leap forward – ‘dont take it personally’ is a book on a screen, not a game. Mass effect is a movie broken up by interactive sequences where you have to jump through hoops to get to the next bit of the movie.

    Well its that, or I am a sociopath.

  58. @HM: I know what you mean. Some games have had such an effect on me – emotionally, that is – that I’ve been amazed. But the niggling thought at the back of my mind is “Did this *need* to be a game to do that to me?” Okay, fair enough, that fact it *is* a game and can do this is significant. But I’m still not sure if we’ve really nailed what sets games apart from other forms, and pushed that to its full potential.

    And the twist in the Baron is in shocking/horrifying camp, that’s for certain… The developer even put a section in the “about/help” menu suggesting young children shouldn’t play it. It’s definitely a “serious” game – not, that is, a game that’s trying to be weighty and “meaningful”, but simply a game that’s not made for children and is not made as a power-fantasy.

    @adam: But when writing was invented we still got the Epic of Gilgamesh and the works of Homer. The idea that the novel is the pinnacle of all literature is understandable, since most people think “novel” and “book” are pretty much synonymous. But Beowulf, the works of Chaucer and the plays of Shakespeare were all written before the novel was formed. And when the novel *did* emerge, it was often an exploitative, sensational story about a criminal. The novel actually developed out of so-called “Newgate Lives”; these were pamphlets sold in the street about the lives of prisoners in Newgate prison who would soon be executed. (And I’m pretty sure you could then watch the hanging as part of the fun, as a kind of epilogue to the pamphlet.) There was very little high-minded about it when the first novel was written; they were often penned because there was a gap in the market, not because people thought they were artistic. Bear in mind that, at the same time, people were writing poetry and drama (which I find a bit dull but which was nevertheless taken seriously at the time) which was considered far, far more ennobling or intellectual or whatever than the novel was.

    Basically… when writing was invented we got epics like the Odyssey and the Iliad. When drama was first separated from religion we got Aeschylus, and within twenty years we had Sophocles. When theatre in England became static rather than performed by roving companies, we got Marlowe and Shakespeare within twenty years. With film we got Eisenstein (and others, I’m sure, but I don’t know enough about film). And now we have… Planescape? Well, it’s very good but not really life-changing. Plus it’s fourteen years old, so what have we done since then? Mass Effect? Again, it’s *promising*, but it’s also surprisingly forgettable. Maybe Cart Life does something we haven’t seen before; I’ve not played it beyond the “Yeah, I totally know what to do! Let’s go somewhere! Wait, that took me eight hours to walk, I’m hungry and it’s midnight” stage, so I can’t really comment. To be honest I do think “The Baron” is the game that’s really stuck with me more than any other, although that’s largely due to the way its structure allows for maximum reflection on what the game is about and what the game *is*. (I’ll say no more for the sake of spoilers, but I think Gijsbers did something really clever there.)

  59. @James: just going to hop in briefly to say that your argument is pretty spot on, but I think you should decouple writing from storytelling. The best evidence suggests that the Homerian epics were originally oral stories that evolved over generations, and I suspect the same is true to some extent of the Epic of Gilgamesh too. Storytelling preceded the written tale by a very, very long time, is what I’m saying.

    Aside: possibly some legs to the idea of multi-pathing and emergent narratives in gameplay demonstrating a flexible, variable yet coherent example of storytelling similar to the variance you get in oral storytelling (and not in later, more formalised modes).

  60. I don’t think it really affects the main point, but I’m going to quibble that your history of writing is very Indo-European there; the Tale of Genji and probably Journey to the West come well before the Newgate lives.

  61. At the danger of sounding extremely arrogant, I can also answer this question from the other side: as a game designer, I know that some of my games have affected people very deeply. The ones where I’ve gotten the strongest feedback of that kind (i.e. the game having a personal effect on people’s lives, not just having made them cry or something) are The Infinite Ocean, The Fabulous Screech and The Museum of Broken Memories.

    The first one has inspired a few people to become programmers, not because they want to make games but because of the ideas about programming depicted in the game (which aren’t even precisely mine, but those of a character).

    The second one has had a very strong effect on some people who have old pets, making them aware of how important it is to treasure the time they have left. It didn’t make anyone love their pets more, obviously, but from what I’ve been told it has caused a change in awareness for some people. That’s actually what I’m proudest of, I think.

    I’ve also heard from a few people who had very intense experiences with The Museum of Broken Memories. That’s the hardest for me to deal with, because it makes me feel like such a superficial and pretentious idiot, especially when the people in question either experienced war themselves or have children who did.

    I thought a lot about posting this, because I know it sounds dreadfully self-important. The reason I decided to post it after all is that all of the people mentioned here are people who don’t come to games looking for a deeper experience; they don’t play games with that almost academic self-awareness people reading blogs like this one tend to have. A lot of them are “casual gamers” and I think that by the very nature of the matter their experiences tend to get lost or overlooked. I’m not trying to make some kind of point by saying that, I just felt that these experiences do count for something.

  62. Looking back, the previous post does sound just as shitheaded as I was afraid it would. Is there no good way of speaking about positive experiences one has had in one’s own work without sounding like a self-important idiot?

  63. Jonas, that couldn’t have sounded less shitheaded. If you’ve heard that your creations have affected people deeply then there’s nothing wrong with telling us that!

  64. Yep. No brag, just fact.

    It’s not relevant to the subject of the post, but The Fabulous Screech did make me cry big huge tears, and I think is the only game to have done so.

  65. I’ve been a little busy so it’s taken me a while to dig into these comments. I’m on a plane right now, so I have no escape. Actually that’s not true, I have a document I’m working on in another window.

    @adam: I did read something this week which said that the problem with games is that technology is disrupting “the medium” far more rapidly than that of books or cinema, which had more time and space to breathe. You could get into a gratuitous comment battle with statements like X is not a game. =)

    @James: My God, man, you’re making this all so highbrow =) Interesting thoughts, I’ll just let Shaun and matt duke it out with you, because they are obviously better equipped with regards the history of literature. On Cart Life, I think it takes a particular frame of mind to work – it is easy to feel disengaged by its grind as almost happened to me, but if you manage to punch through that barrier, it just grabs you. As I’ve said previously, I don’t think it’s for everyone.

    @Jonas: I think that’s extremely important. One of the things I have difficulties with is that if games are so important and influential, then why is it only “critics” who manage to reading meanings from them? I am interested in games that produce change without having to make a “mental effort” to do so, that it just rubs off. For example, I think a better “Citizen Kane” to aspire to is the The Wire. It has such an impact that viewers cannot fail to be moved by some of its messages on the drug war and the failure of institutions, even if they don’t get the idea that the series is a portrait of a city and how all its institutions interact. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to see: something which upsets how people see the world without them having to do much careful analysis. It just does something to them.

    And no it didn’t sound shitheaded. While your games haven’t reached me with the kind of impacts you describe (and matt w admits), I hear that plenty of people have been touched. It counts. It all counts.

  66. The Wire struck me as an extremely game-y piece of writing.

    The whole thing was a series of choices and consequences, where each character’s decisions made sense within their personal context. It’d make a great design template.

    Mind you, thinking of things as games just seems to be my main way of looking at the world – I was at Tintern Abbey the other day mentally designing a political simulator where you were a medieval abbot, balancing the different interests of various power groups.

  67. NB I am inordinately fond of cats. I told my wife that just before bedtime I had been playing a game that made me cry and she said “Kitty?”

  68. I can has link? If not, it should be in my name.