This will be musings piece, as I’ll outright state that there is no real right answer to the question, and this post really goes just line down. Many times over the past decade I’ve seen writings and demands for video and computer games to grow up, to mature as a media. More often than not the claim is that games should be able to handle hard and difficult subjects. Of course, what these subjects are varies from person to person and group to group, as we all know how political opposites can sometimes be completely at heads with each other to the point of gaining the same overall end result. Then you have the issue of handling a difficult subject in a game is often through the use of player independent narrative, which could be done in any other medium. After all, themes and subjects are simply framing devices for a game. That is not to say framing devices are unimportant, just the opposite.
If we continue this line, discussing hard and heavy issues through games is not something new. It may be new to audiences and generations that did not play the Ultima games or other similar classics. Ultima‘s second trilogy is, after all, a series that discusses human virtues in philosophical manner and how they affect human nature, but also how easily these virtues can be twisted and mangled for extremes. While nothing spectacular on the grand scheme of things, it would be incorrect to think that gaming has not touched upon serious subjects.
It just might not be a subject someone in particular cares about.
Then, who decides what would be a subject hard and tough enough for gaming to trek into? Naturally, the developer, or the writer or the director would be the person who would make the call. In reality, someone with more power over the product, a publisher or executive, probably can have heavier say on the subject than many are willing to use. After all, games are mass entertainment and not confined to any specific audience. Thus, would it be the consumers at large who would get to decide what would the topics be? It would be impossible to make any sort of voting system that would work, the press would simply mangle messages back and forth for various reasons, and sadly developers and their publishers would only listen to the clique they’re most invested in and the people who yell the loudest. Clearly we need to have some separation between the provider and consumer, in which the developers have the best opportunity to make use of their God given skill and knowhow to analyse the market at large without resorting to media bogus or loudmouths. High hopes, I know.
If we’d follow this, then what would be considered a tough subject would depend on the general consensus of a given area, country or culture. After all, cultures and people differ from each other enough so that we can say some subjects are drastically more taboo in some, while completely in the open in others. There’s also gradual change in the topics, so a game with a long development cycle might be out of date in its themes when it gets out.
This of course leads to the question if a game with certain subjects, and themes, should then be published in a region where the content would be considered taboo? Should it get censored or should it stand free as a piece of its origin culture? If we follow the the idea of games being art, the less they are touched the better, meaning no censorship or content changes should be applied. On the other hand, games are commercial products that should make money, and sometimes changing stuff for the local market is sure way to make more dosh. Both of these can backfire, especially if a title with a significant underground following suddenly finds their object of mania lacking in all of those interesting elements.
Perhaps the themes and subjects themselves are not the important factor, ultimately. Choosing your audience and target consumer groups with your choice does carry a heavy weight, but not perhaps as much as the content itself. Content, of course, is the game play itself, rather than any of the frames. If the frames overtake the content, you’ll more likely than not end up with a cold turkey in your hands. While the game press likes to talk about the importance of story and its themes in games, the cold reality is that games sell more on their intrinsic nature as games far more.
There are some off titles that do mix its carrying hefty themes into the game’s play rather than just presenting talking heads to the player. Perhaps this would be path for gaming to take, and slowly phase away from literary and film techniques. After all, film essentially stems off from theater in many ways, but theater acting does not translate very well towards the camera, or vice versa. Literacy is word written down, yet text has its own ways that speech can’t convey. Naturally, this also applies the other way around. Thus, I have to come to an old argument I tend to present; games should find their own way of doing this, independent of films and text. As much as the two older medium have managed to find their own way throughout the ages, video and computer games still have ways to go. The media’s still young, despite few generations now born in a world where gaming is ever-present. In order games to incorporate themes and topics into the play of the game in wholesale way rather than in more traditional approaches, then there’s a need to further whatever the core element of electronic gaming; playing. The ways to do it are probably just as many as there are games under the Sun, but sometimes it’d be best to take a step back and look at the whole history of games and get to the bottom how to improve them in the future.