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Book Excerpt: Understanding video games as culture

This excerpt from "Video Games as Culture: Considering the Role and Importance of Video Games in Contemporary Society" examines how games can help players access other experiences and realities.

The following excerpt, parts of a chapter from “Video Games as Culture: Considering the Role and Importance of Video Games in Contemporary Society” by Daniel Muriel and Garry Crawford, may be useful to game developers in order to understand some of the key elements that make video games windows that enable the player to access other experiences and realities. It is based on chapter five, “Video Games beyond Escapism: Empathy and Identification”, where video games can be seen as mediation devices that allow players to experience situations that they have not had or would not have otherwise.

This excerpt is part of a book that considers contemporary video game culture, which provides an important lens for understanding crucial aspects of contemporary society. Drawing on new and original empirical data, including interviews with gamers, as well as key representatives of the video game industry, media, education and arts, the book will appeal to upper undergraduate and postgraduate students, video game scholars, media and cultural studies researchers, and those involved in the video game industry and media. “Video Games as Culture” was published in March, and is available for order on Amazon or directly from publisher Routledge (20% discount using the code FLR40 at checkout ).

Introduction

We frequently associate the act of video gaming with escapism. That we play video games in order to escape the ordinariness of our everyday lives is a widely accepted idea. It is often suggested that video games provide opportunities to build an alternative or parallel reality in which players are able to live an immersive experience far from the ones they are having in their regular lives. In this sense, video games are helping create a new range of social and personal experiences, but by doing so, they are not only fostering escapism, but they are also enabling connections with other aspects of social reality.

Numinous Games' 2016 release That Dragon, Cancer

Escapism is indeed an important part of why people play video games, but it is not the only cause or consequence of video gaming. We would suggest that, far from escaping from reality, video games can also connect us with (other aspects of) reality in surprising and unexpected ways. For instance, video games can help us put ourselves in the shoes of others and provide new experiences. Video games work then as mediation devices between players and reality, which could potentially, encourage players to empathize with different, even extreme, situations – such as, civilians in a context of war in This War of Mine (11 bit studios, 2014), parents of a boy with cancer in That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016), migrants trying to pass through a border post in Papers, Please (Pope, 2013), or groups living through a scenario of social catastrophe in The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, 2012).

[…]

Escapism and video games

According to Yi-Fu Tuan (1998), escapism is inherent in human culture. It is a notion that, ironically, human beings cannot escape from, and can be found in times, places, and practices as distant as the prehistoric era, Disneyland, shopping malls, religion, the contemporary city, imagination, and cooking. Escapism implies ‘going from somewhere we don’t want to be to be somewhere we do’ (Evans, 2001: 55), and this place we seem to desperately want to escape from always points to the notion of reality. This outlines then a canonical definition of escapism as the process through which we (temporally) escape from some aspects of our current reality, such as boredom, work, routine, or stress, for example. However, having defined escapism as about getting away from ‘reality’ (even though we acknowledge that ‘reality’ is a concept that is particularly difficult to define and filled with multiple nuances), we are still left with an unanswered question: where are individuals escaping to?

Lucas Pope's Papers, Please, released in 2013

This idea then, seems to suggest that people seek relief and shelter in places in which their current socio-material conditions of existence – what we know as reality – are suspended or altered in a way that, typically, makes them, for example, more pleasant, safer, under control, or more exciting and thrilling. In this sense, virtual versions of reality – imagined (Tuan, 1998), simulated (Evans, 2001), or staged (MacCannell, 1973; Pine and Gilmore, 2011) – appear to be preferred destinations. In particular, taking into account the argument that we live in a digital age, as we saw in Chapter 2, video games could be seen as one of the most typical contemporary forms of escapism. Moreover, according to Gordon Calleja (2010: 336), it is possible to assert without exaggeration that ‘digital games are considered the epitome of contemporary escapism’.

This is the case for many of our interviewees, who stated that one of the main reasons they play video games is to escape from their daily life problems and routines:


I also play because of that, because it helps me to break away […], it’s my time to chill out (Iker, male, 43, regular player but not self-identifying gamer).

For many of our research participants, video games are, at least partly, about escapism, and they expressed their wish to be transported to a different world where they would be able to live diametrically opposed realities from those they experience normally. Thus, video games involve an idea of escapism realized through the realistic fiction of entering in an alternate-reality: ‘Sometimes I wish I could be transported to this world and just live that part’ (Carl, male, 28, self-identifying gamer). Hence, our participants identify a movement across a boundary line between reality and the video game, and then, articulate this boundary-crossing as an escape from the vicissitudes of the real world to the pleasures of the video game universe. As we find in the following definition of video games:


I guess it’s an interactive experience, yes, for temporary escapism, for different reasons. A medium to tell stories, like a place to escape to, something safe and fun (Albert, male, 25, indie developer, game artist).

Playing video games is, for this interviewee and many others, a place to visit, a location to escape to, a space to inhabit; it is also (typically) a pleasant experience: enjoyable, safe, and fun. The experience of video gaming is defined by the elaboration of an alternative reality, detached from the one players normally live in; a reality that is construed as a better version of its mundane counterpart, which is usually riddled with routine and boredom.

[…]

However, as Alfred, a 26-year-old dedicated video gamer, argues, ‘escapism is just a part of the experience’. For him, playing video games is ‘half and half’, adding that there is ‘definitely an element of escapism’, but that it is also about keeping ‘in touch with people’. Alfred also narrates how he often has conversations with friends and family about out of the game matters while he is playing, and will shift in and out of focusing on the game, depending on the level of attention needed at a particular point. Hence here, Alfred is describing a continuous process that does not make clear distinctions between the game world and everyday life. Gamers articulate both the (perceived) distinctions and continuities between the two (or more) realities. They speak in terms of ins and outs, ons and offs, entering and exiting, but also make connections and recognize overlaps between both universes. In the end, according to Pawel Miechowski, the developer at 11 bit studios (creators for This War of Mine), escapism is undoubtedly part of the appeal of video games, as gamers often ‘want to run into power fantasy’, but escapism ‘is not everything’ because the ‘world isn’t such’. For a game to be enjoyable, often they have to retain, at least some sense of believability; the fantasy has to connect to some sense of (alternative) reality. And therefore, we would suggest, that video games might also lead the player toward not just escapism, but also empathy, identification, and connection to other roads.

Connecting with other realities

As we write this book in mid-2017, we are sadly witnessing an endless amount of news, images, and discourses on the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. But this is not a new phenomenon. It is merely the latest version of a story told many times, which narrates the tale of those human beings who are seeking something very simple but, apparently, very difficult to achieve: a better life (or simply just a life; since it is often for many, a matter of life or death). They escape from war, famine, misery, all kinds of persecutions. It does not matter what awaits them on the other side of the multiple frontiers they have to cross, they are ready to risk their lives to escape the horrors that make up their current situation. Border after border, these people only yearn for one thing: to reach their destination.

11 bit's This War of Mine, released in 2014

The frontier – that liminal space – is a place between two places; it is a universe with its own rules and meanings, which are different from those we find on both sides of the border. The frontier is a transit area but it is also a detention zone, where the authorities decide who enters and who stays out. It is in that paranormal borderline sphere where Papers, Please (see Figure 5.1 below) takes place. In this game, we put ourselves in the shoes of an immigration officer at a border checkpoint, dealing with the people piled up on the other side of the border who want to enter our territory, the (fictional land of) glorious Arstotzka. The player spends most of the time checking documents such as passports, work permits, IDs, visas, and vaccination records, with the task of deciding on who enters into the country, and who does not.

It is widely accepted that Lucas Pope’s game, Papers, Please, recreates a frontier that reminds us of a former Soviet republic. It is almost impossible not to notice that the game features all those things that we would typically associate with what happened on the East side of the Iron Curtain: from the fictitious names of the countries to the dull aesthetic that impregnates its whole design, characteristic of the Soviet bloc. However, the more time we spend as Arstotzka’s frontier inspector, the more it reminds us of the present. Passports, id cards, work passes, forms, entry visas, frisks, augmented security measures due to terrorist threats, full body scans, inquisitorial interrogations, deportations, detentions, use of deadly force, and so on. Is all of this just the realm of extinct Soviet republics? Or is this closer to how the frontiers of advanced Western democracies work; especially in these moments of global distress, where millions are being forcibly displaced worldwide?

The player has to make a tremendous effort in order to survive and provide for their family because everything depends, to a great extent, on how efficient they are in managing that crossing point we call the frontier. That means we are forced to leave several human beings behind, maybe abandon them to a terrible fate; people who wish to be reunited with their family, who might be victims of abuse, exploitation, and persecution. But if the player helps them, they will be punished and have consequences later, affecting the in-game player’s own family welfare. The player will be forced to face the consequences of their actions, like not being able to provide their own family with food, medicine, and heat, or having to choose which of their family members receive those vital elements.

Fortunately, Papers, Please gives the player some leeway to, from time to time, make decisions that are against the rules and regulations: smuggling products, accepting bribes, letting people in danger cross without the proper papers, stopping dangerous individuals that are trafficking people, collaborating with a resistance group that, later on, will plan terrorist attacks, and so forth. There is the possibility to poke holes in the system, giving opportunities to those who have none, and trying to help yourself and your family. The player might be creating a greater evil or damaging their own interests, but at least they are able to negotiate beyond the limits of this frontier. Papers, Please is about embodying the bureaucrat; assuming the role of the dull civil servant. However, it also allows the player the opportunity of becoming the saviour and the ally of pariahs; the anarchist working from the heart of the iron cage.

But our question is: is this a reality we would like to escape to? Does a video game like Papers, Please offer an attractive universe that invites players to get lost in it as a break from their daily lives? Is this video game avoiding reality or, actually, chasing it? Although Papers, Please puts the player in a frontier inspector’s shoes, it is in fact connecting them with wider social issues; it is giving players an experience of migration processes, global security, modern politics, abuse, responsibility, abandonment, and similar socio-political processes and consequences. The game puts the player in thousands, if not millions, of people’s shoes. And the popularity of Papers, Please, and similar games, would seem to suggest there is a desire (at least for some) to explore other realities that are less fantasy but more closely tied to the world we live in: ‘I’m more interested in emotionally profound experiences […] something which pushes those boundaries’ (Edward, male, 54, head of a master on video game development).

In this sense, Jordan Erica Webber (2017a: online), co-author of the book Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us (Webber and Griliopoulos, 2017), argues that video games are potentially ‘a compelling medium through which to engage in philosophical thought’. This implies that video games are, unlike philosophical thought experiments that only occur as imagined scenarios, ‘counterfactual narratives that test the player’ in an interactive scenario. Video games offer opportunities to engage in the most varied situations and approach different questions such as perception, personal identity, free will, and ethics. Video games then help connect us with multiple realities and experiences.

However, how does this connection with other realities work? We will explore now two similar and interrelated mechanisms through which video games are mediating in processes that connect players with other realities rather than helping them escape: empathy and identification.

Empathy

Video games have often been perceived, especially by clinical psychologists but also by other media scholars and social scientists (Appelbaum et al., 2015), as a medium that can have a negative impact on their players, particularly in triggering or even promoting violent behaviors. It is not unusual for the media to report on studies that supposedly highlight causal links between increased levels of aggression (particularly among children and adolescents) with the habit of playing video games. In the same way, it is not uncommon to be told that perpetrators of acts of great violence, such as mass shootings, are avid gamers (Scutti, 2016). The assumption that is often made, either implicit or explicitly, is that playing video games supresses any hint of empathy in those who play them; inducing in these video game players a state of personal, emotional, ideological, and social numbness (Dean, 2004).

Fullbright's 2013 release Gone Home

However, what we found during our research is the existence of numerous cases in which the participants reflect explicitly on the relationship between empathy and video games. There is even a label called empathy games to refer to certain genre of video games like the aforementioned Papers, Please; a categorization that could similarly be applied to other titles such as Gone Home (Fullbright, 2013), Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016), Valiant Hearts (Ubisoft, 2014), That Dragon Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016), Cart Life (Hofmeier, 2011), To the Moon (Freebird Games, 2011), Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012), Dys4ia (Anthropy, 2012), Depression Quest (Quinn, 2013), Brothers: a Tale of two Sons (Starbreeze Studios, 2013), Inside (Playdead, 2016), and This War of Mine (11 bit studios, 2014). In fact, the last title, according to one user on a comments section of the website GiantBomb, was ‘this year’s Papers, Please in terms of empathy simulator’ (Luck702 in Oestreicher, 2014). Moreover, this was even something that was recognized by the developers of This War of Mine: ‘Papers, Please was a great a game that inspired us to move on with our project, to make an empathy game’ (Pawel Miechowski, male, 40, senior writer). It seems that video games have also embraced a global trend where empathy is, at least in theory, on the rise. This is what authors like Jeremy Rifkin (2010) and Frans de Waal (2009) call The Empathic Civilization and The Age of Empathy respectively, to describe the current transformations in the role played by empathy in the fields of psychology, biology, law, education, politics, communication, social relationships, and economics, to the point of suggesting that empathy ‘is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilization’ (Rifkin, 2010: 10).

[…]

Empathy is a very difficult notion to define because the academic literature, and its popular representations, allude to both mind and body, cognitive and emotional processes, and ontological and phenomenological problems. In some accounts, it could be understood as ‘the mental process by which one person enters into another’s being and comes to know how they feel and think’ (Rifkin, 2010: 12). In this basic definition, empathy encompasses both the emotional and the rational aspects of an embodied, yet imagined, experience.

[…]

Opposing this strong cognitive-driven notion of empathy, the primatologist Frans De Waal […] opts for emotional and embodied engagement as the key elements in the construction of empathy:


Seeing another’s emotions arouses our own emotions, and from there we go on constructing a more advanced understanding of the other’s situation. Bodily connections come first – understanding follows (De Waal, 2009: 72).

[…] Moreover, De Waal argues that, of all bodily connections, facial expression is the most important. The face is depicted as the emotion highway because it ‘offers the quickest connection to the other’ (Da Waal, 2009: 82).

It is not surprising then to see certain video games using faces to put the player in this empathy highway. In This War of Mine every character controlled by the player is identified by a close-up picture of a real person’s face. In fact, its developers photographed themselves, including their friends and family, because they wanted to confront the player with ‘regular people, looking like people you may meet on the street’ (Pawel Miechowski). Gone Home uses drawn – realistic – portraits and pictures of characters – mainly your family – to help the player empathize with them, by putting a face on those whose story you are trying to figure out. Even the simple pixelated graphics used to portray faces in Papers, Please are fundamental in establishing a connection with the situations and individuals depicted in the game. Those quasi-faces parading through the border crossing point remind players that they are dealing at the same time with nobody in particular and potentially anyone, triggering an uncanny sense of empathy towards a problem that might have affected them and their relatives in a more or less distant past, or might happen to them in the future, but, surely, it is afflicting thousands of people around the world as we write/read this.

The importance of faces and their gestures is something that Team Bondi, developers of L.A. Noire (2011), fully understood. Taking on a role of a detective, the player has to solve a number of cases by collecting evidence and, as the key aspect of the game, interrogating suspects and witnesses. Players must decide whether the characters are lying based on their facial expressions. Team Bondi used MotionScan, a motion capture technology developed by their sister company, Depth Analysis, which focuses on capturing facial expressions (Alexander, 2011). Though TellTale have not developed a dedicated technology for facial expressions, they soon realized faces were of the utmost importance in order to elicit emotions among players. The Lead Writer of The Walking Dead’s first season video game, Sean Vanaman, stated that after ‘writing the first episode we start to make lists of the type of things characters are going to feel in the story and then start to generate isolated facial animations to convey those moods and emotions’ (Madigan, 2012). As Smethurst and Craps (2015: 284) suggest, this is how the game represents traumatic events: ‘by showing us its impact on the faces of characters who are suffering through the shock of losing loved ones in harrowing situations’. This means that video games, using the proper technology, can translate emotions expressed by human models into animated facial expressions that will be scrutinized by players, affecting their choices and capacity to create connection channels with others.

Thus, video games are powerful mediators that are able to develop empathic responses in those who play them, mediating between realities and connecting them: the ones inhabited by players in their regular lives and those materialized in the universe of the game.

[…]

This fundamental idea is summarized by Karla Zimonja, artist developer and co-founder of Fullbright, when she was speaking about Gone Home and its potential to show the intricacies and tribulations of an adolescent girl’s life (realizing she is gay, coming out to her parents, her first relationship), but also other mundane stories about parenting, abuse, professional and personal frustration, friendship, infidelity, loneliness, marriage, and so forth:


That’s the thing about video games, they can give you experiences that you can’t have in real life, that you haven’t had, so it can be, hopefully, an experience that can add to someone’s conception of how people are in the world.

Video games, therefore, are able to provide new experiences to players, but ones that are rooted in (someone else’s) lived reality. They facilitate the possibility to ‘step into someone else’s shoes’ and ‘experience the world from someone else’s perspective’ (Harris et al., 2015: 58). It is an open window to other people’s lives, problems, and situations; an open window video games invite us to step through. An invitation that has the potential ‘to foster greater empathy, tolerance, and understanding for others’ (Simkins and Steinkuehler, 2008: 352).

Robert Yang's The Tearoom, released in 2017

This is the case of the video game The Tearoom (Yang, 2017), which is described as ‘a (free) historical public bathroom simulator about anxiety, police surveillance, and sucking off another dude’s gun’, and is heavily inspired by Laud Humphrey’s (1970) classic sociological study of men who have anonymous sex with other men in public toilets (‘cottages’ in the UK, and ‘tearooms’ in the US) (Yang, 2017). In this, its creator Robert Yang, seeks to simulate a public bathroom in Mansfield (Ohio) in 1962, where the player can have sex with other men. According to its developer, Robert Yang, The Tearoom is based on a historical fact; in 1962, the Mansfield Ohio police department hid a surveillance camera behind a two-way mirror in a public bathroom in order to film men having sex with other men. Later, the police department used this footage to arrest and imprison these men under Ohio’s sodomy laws. Thus, in this game, Yang tries to raise awareness of several key social issues. At its most obvious level, The Tearoom allows gamers to experience aspects of the lives of homosexual men in a time and place where they were being particularly targeted and persecuted. As Webber (2017b: online) wrote about the game in The Guardian:


In the game, large icons clearly indicate when it is or isn’t appropriate to look towards the man at the other urinal. It’s like a subversion of the stealth genre, as this time you want to be seen (though not by the cops). Yang wrote on his blog] that this mechanic was difficult to design because – as he puts it – “decades of male heterosexual hegemony have trained gamers into thinking of ‘looking’ as a ‘free’ action, with few consequences or results”. Players who are used to works that pander to the straight male gaze may struggle to empathise with someone for whom a glance may be punished. 

However, in placing the contemporary gamer in this historically setting and role, it also raises questions and emotions about the continued marginalization and persecution of gay men (and women) today. In particular, Yang states that he wanted to ‘make players feel anxious about what they’ve got to lose’ (Webber 2017b: online). Also, significantly, in the game penises are replaced by guns. This is a direct response to Twitch banning the streaming of Yang’s previous games, but more generally, it also highlights the absurdity that a video game industry, and society more widely, which happier to accept the depiction of a deadly weapon in a video game, than it is male genitalia. This game then, seeks to make important political points, and raise awareness of historical and contemporary social issues, by placing the gamer in a specific social setting and role; in the shoes of a gay man in 1960s Ohio.

Proof of video games’ effectiveness as mediated experiences of other perspectives can be found in testimonies of people who have been able to better understand a person’s situation thanks to playing them. According to Miechowski, the developer of This War of Mine, that would be the case of a woman who is the daughter of a war refugee. After playing the game, she declared that it helped her to understand her mother ‘and the horrors she went through during the war’. Although spatial, cultural, and emotional proximity can help in the process of empathizing with others, sometimes additional mediations are needed and video games are able to provide them. This hypothesis seems to be corroborated by the experimental study of Bachen et al. (2012) carried out in three Northern California high schools with 301 students, examining the effects of playing the video game Real Lives (Educational Simulations, 2010) – defined as an ‘interactive life simulation game that enables you to live one of billions of lives in any country in the world’ – on empathy. The study concluded that, even when there was geographical and cultural distance involved, those who played the video game experienced an increase in their ‘sense of global empathy’ and boosted ‘their interest in learning more about the countries in which their characters live’ (Bachen et al., 2012: 452). These kinds of video games allow players, Bogost (2007: 135) suggests, to ‘engage in political actions that many will never have previously experienced’, which, in the end, will probably ‘deepen their understanding of the multiple causal forces that affect any given, always unique, set of historical circumstances’.

These mediations can be so powerful that they are capable of unleashing strong emotional responses in players. Laura, a 26-year-old indie developer, narrates how specific individuals empathized with the characters in one of her video games, which is replete with difficult decisions to make, usually involving survival and violent scenarios, and the high probability of hurting other characters. Some players identify with the characters as human beings, ‘bloody hell, it’s a person!’ (Laura); this would explain some of the reactions to playing the video game, like a girl who was streaming her gameplay – in a playable section that depicts a long and explicit process of torture that your character and one of his companions have to endure – and started to cry:


And she got to the point in which she started to cry. It was like, ‘I can’t take more of this’, she was crying and very upset (Laura).

This is not an isolated example. For instance, Miechowski enumerates a list of intense emotional responses that were triggered by This War of Mine:


I know people depressed because they saw suffering in the game. I saw people excited, because they survived. I saw people having a sort of catharsis feeling when they survived, and I saw people being embarrassed or even

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