Video games are a gateway to understanding

And it’s okay to not understand them back

Way-finding in Campo Santo’s excellent dialogue-driven game ‘Firewatch’

[Disclaimer: The people reading here who have little to no exposure to video games, this is for you! This article will make an effort to avoid jargon or explain terminology of fundamental game concepts. We’ll also be exploring technical sides of the medium as well, so don’t count yourself out if you already have some know-how going in. With that out of the way, time to gush about some tremendously dorky stuff.]

I have always found the realms beyond what could be seen and experienced to be much more attractive than reality. The imagery is always so enticing: sprawling landscapes presented through the pages of books; the struggles of an alien race depicted in films; the shifting chords and mysterious lyrics of songs making a siren’s call to imagination. More attractive than anything else, though, was gaming. It could do so much more than just let you undertake new things. You could live through them, adapt them as your own. In hindsight, those visions from younger days were just distorted (or exacting) mirrors of the same world I was trying to run away from. But that novelty is still there because gaming allows you to inhabit the character provided, and perceive that moment in time through their eyes. This medium in particular has always felt wholly separate from the others; it enables you to dive directly into the source material and grants the power to change one’s perspective since these stories happen to you.

Obviously psychotic breaks from reality aren’t good and I don’t truly believe that anyone is a digital manifest, but playing pretend can have a lot of beneficial properties

A nostalgic look inwards

Many people have stories of their personal journey through gaming. Some started out on a parent’s knee, falling in love with the foibles of a particular machine. Some wasted quarters trying to beat the same kids in the arcade, memorizing combos. While many others were tucked away on beautiful weekends trying to collect all of the gems in some grand adventure. No matter the origin, these stories always serve to emphasize the connection those players have to the worlds that briefly adopted them.

There’s a personal attachment there, one which remains protected against the rise of connect-three mobile games that plague your morning commute. That connection is a simple but important one: when you die or lose in a game your natural response is “I died”, not “the character died” or “the game lost” — you are the one who has died. When someone is hit while driving their car, they will say “I was hit”, because the car is the vessel carrying them. It becomes the lens through which they are perceiving their environment because it is an extension of themselves. Games do something very similar, even in small ways, by projecting thoughts and emotions onto the player as the player does the same in return.

Stories in games are the ways in which they transfer a mix of emotional feelings and physical sensation. Do they instil fear? Joy? Discomfort? Modern games in particular have become increasingly effective at imprinting these onto the player in meaningful ways. For instance, a narrative-heavy game like ‘Life is Strange’ gives the crucial opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a confused young woman burgeoning into adulthood.

The main characters Max and Chloe having a moment of calm on some train tracks.

Life is Strange leans heavily on dialogue options and less on action. Some might call this a ‘walking simulator’, which is a derogatory catch-all for more story-driven games. Honestly, since it gives you the option to rewind conversations, it’s more like a simulation of an introvert’s dream. Like the times you’ve come up with the perfect response to an argument years later

As Max Caulfield, you are trying to find your place in the Pacific Northwest, wading through the crucible of teenage existence, and gathering clues to solve a larger-than-life supernatural mystery. The issues and life changes facing her become your own as you make choices through Max, as Max. How would you go about reconnecting to a friendship with someone who resents you? What would you do in moments of confusion, or danger? The stresses and indecision of her life end up deeply embedded in how you think of her world, and it’s a defining showpiece of diving into the mind of a character.

Even more impressive are the ways in which the mind of a character can sometimes inhabit your own. This is perfectly exemplified in CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece: ‘The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’.

The protagonist Geralt squaring up against a blood-thirsty Griffin

The Witcher 3 is an RPG or ‘Role Playing Game’ (not Rocket Propelled Grenade), these are defined by your character gaining levels and/or skills that reflect time invested. Except, unlike actual personal growth, these skills don’t usually help with anything in your daily struggles. And no, the giant callous in the middle of your palm from spinning that razor-sharp, bullshit joystick on the N64 controller doesn’t count.

Playing as Geralt of Rivia, your task is to help liberate communities plagued by monsters and curses through any means necessary (for a fee, of course; even Witchers don’t do spec work 😉). The environment provides heaps of context clues for carrying out these tasks, as well as in-game books and lessons that delve into various target’s strengths and weaknesses. The key distinction is that all of this information is purely optional; you can stumble into every issue and encounter like a bumbling idiot if you so choose, and still eventually succeed. But the overriding benefit of that educational investment is that the more you research and pay attention, the more successful Geralt becomes. His ability to complete his goals is directly impacted by your real-life knowledge and understanding as a pseudo-witcher.

Tools for understanding

Gaming conventions have these lessons in empathy on full display, where hundreds of people who share joy and passion in this medium can come together. Attendees are from everywhere and constitute a vast range of ages, backgrounds, creeds, and most importantly: capabilities. This is a place where the universal inclusivity of games truly shines. The smiles of people with motorized wheelchairs, coloured crutches, or any sort of disability widen because they’re being included as they approach any number of game developers holding out specialized controllers. Their eyes shining as the devs prattle on excitedly about the various ways they have adapted their game to be enjoyed by the most people possible. It’s something that’s as altruistic as it is utilitarian, and lack of accessibility is something that businesses have (rightfully) gotten in trouble for in the past. Thankfully, with time has come a smattering of new ways for anyone and everyone to be able to experience the stories these devs have crafted. There are now solutions for players who are color blind, have weak eyesight, or are completely blind. There are even specialized controllers for those with an array of other physical disabilities.

This is something you can hear about more in this great /noclip interview on accessibility in games

At the core of all these efforts is a sentiment that permeates all aspects of the medium itself: imagining life through another person’s eyes and empathizing with them. It’s something you’ll see if you walk around the floors of these conventions. You’ll witness people sharing the special experience of playing together, or the introspective contemplation of someone putting headphones on and delving into something meant just for them. These moments are not rare in gaming, and I believe, help to reinvigorate hope that we can get along and have the capacity to get to know each other better, despite the bleak outlook the world has been trending towards.

None of this is to say that storytelling and appeals to pathos are the only things that games have going for them. Sure, we could dive into the general holistic benefits that are often tossed around, like improved hand-eye coordination or ways that games can assist with mental illness. Unfortunately these points often exist to break the medium down to a purely functional level, similar to valuing the nutritional benefit of food over any sort of flavor. It’s a disservice to the art to make the foundation of acceptance rest on educational metrics or measurable returns while ignoring the merits of empathetic response.

People’s world-views have been enlightened for decades by the stories creators have been able to tell. Games deliver this message most succinctly by reaching out to the viewer directly. Having your voice and interactions guide a story and shape the ways in which the art challenges you continues to push the boundary of what is possible through storytelling. Narratives will always force us to see perceptions of others, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, through our own lens. Even if this entire medium befuddles you, its enrapturing effect on millions of people is something you can’t deny. It is my belief, and small hope, that games will continue to bring us closer together.

Have a look around.
Using Format