Virtual Storytelling: Pedagogical Divergence
In modern society there exists a medium that has become inextricable with regards to the social relations of youth. Emergent from technology, video games have become an undeniable cornerstone of popular culture, with each passing year bringing a new massive pattern of collective behavior; from the likes of Fortnite to contemporary Among Us, gamers have taken a truly epic position within developed human civilization. Growing at a relentless pace, the nearly 2.6 billion gamers around the world in 2020 have evolved from just 1.8 billion only four measly years prior. This figure is even more staggering considering the medium’s inception was only ~50 years prior in the 1970s. For comparison, this indicates ~32% of the world’s estimated population are gamers. In the 1820s, 12% of the world population could read. That means it took gaming only 50 years to more than double what books took thousands of years to attain in reach. Of course there are sociopolitical, economic, and technological factors that influence this, but it goes to show that humans have never before experienced such a degree of interconnectivity, with gaming being a facet of the forefront for this movement. Gaming’s ability to integrate with certain other mediums, such as music, allows it to pull from the momentum of other works (with record labels now targeting games and streamers to expand their discography’s audience). As a form of entertainment, it promises to be the next great form of culture. This is reflected through data, as about 70% of Americans play video games, while reading for pleasure tends towards rates below 53%. Intellectuals have long praised literature as a method for elucidating the human condition, from War and Peace to The Tale of Genji. Although this is only one purpose literature can serve, it is arguably a salient one. If gaming is to bear the burden as the most popular artistic medium on the planet, can it too perform the feat of artistic significance? Will it?
To act as pedagogy for the human condition, gaming must produce experiences which possess significant thematic gravitas. For the purpose of this article, a game’s merit will be considered on the basis of its success in that respect. It is important to remember that the inherent subjectivity of art dictates no absolute merit exists, as well as that no one individual has the right to decide that merit. Nonetheless, it is easy to identify that this definition of merit exists in a handful of titles. One example is Playdead’s Inside, which tells the tale of a young boy’s escape through a dystopian world. The game contains no dialogue, nor a robust competitive system laced with microtransactions; instead, it strings the single audience member along a series of simple puzzles, through which emerges a poignant treatise on control, collectivity, and phenomenology. This is recognized by the mainstream: The Washington Post called Inside “a masterpiece,” following up with characterizing it as “[having] the sort of reversal in fortune that you’d expect to find in a Lars von Trier film. The game is a procession of stately, grim exclamation marks. It is visionary art.”
Another prominent example of such work is Yoko Taro’s Nier Automata. Following two androids in the distant future, it paints a proxy war between their human-created race and an alien-constructed machines. With numerous eponymous allusions to prominent philosophers and their schools of thought, through the androids’ awakening Taro takes the player on a tour de force. He is able to postulate an ultimate thesis of how one must live under the framework of modernity, a vision many try and fail to reach in all mediums. On Epilogue Gaming, a site dedicated to exploring games as a storytelling medium, Blake Andrea wrote: “The primary reason I am confident in the term ‘masterpiece’ is that Automata accomplished a kind of storytelling that could only take place in a video game. No film, book or TV show could tell the story that Automata delivers by the end.” What Nier Automata so deftly demonstrates is that games are not only capable of artistic expression, but also bear sufficient potency to supersede traditional media.
One could proceed further, sifting through the recent explosion of YouTube channels dedicated to artistic and philosophical video game analysis (like Jacob Geller), or individuals who have dedicated exorbitant amounts of their precious time to delving into such worlds (see PeterEliot’s revered ~36,000 word, ~115 page analysis of ICO posted on an internet forum). Even academics have begun to take notice, with a Purdue University publication and article in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, among others, exploring the creative and literary elements of video games. The idea itself of games being a form of pedagogy is not novel, illustrated by Ryan Patton’s article “Games as an Artistic Medium: Investigating Complexity Thinking in Game-Based Art Pedagogy,” published by Studies in Art Education. However, it is already evident that games have the capability of displaying great artistry. Unfortunately, the great players in industry and the economic nature of game design threaten the pragmatism of such works. This fact is nowhere more apparent than in the case of Fallout. A once hailed franchise where the villain could justify his position through intricate discussions of “Hegelian dialectics,” it is widely known to have experienced a fall from grace in recent years. Culpability is popularly delegated to Bethesda Game Studios, which has over time decreased the narrative weight of their games in favor of maximizing profit models through poorly written downloadable content, cosmetic microtransactions, and a games-as-a-service business model.
Considering the labor intensive process of programming and game design, it is difficult to blame them. Revenue streams are inconsistent based on release windows, peaking at new content drops when sales spike. Oftentimes creating a game people like is extremely difficult, so the venture carries high economic risk. Compounding these factors, it is no wonder many large development studios attempt to avoid market stochasticity by turning to regular payment systems, which promise financial stability. These payment systems degrade the ideological significance of a game, both through their existence and indirectly by pulling company resources away from narrative and imaginative elements of game design. As a result, most artistic experimentation has fallen to independent developers. Technological prowess can often help a game bolster the resonance of its themes; considering that indie developers also lack the reach of large firms, neither are able to maximize the spiritual value of their products.
So it appears there is a crossroads. A decent amount of games like Inside and Nier has been released within the past decade, so a coming renaissance seems somewhat likely. On the other hand, the behavior of major actors in the marketplace seems to suggest a different story, one of caution and mitigation for the avant garde. Both directions have benefits and drawbacks.
If gaming realizes its potential as an artistic medium, tangible progress could be made socially, politically, and economically. At least, the World Economic Forum believes this to be so with art. A renaissance of the medium could allow gaming’s popularity to combine with art’s compelling themes, leading to positive outcomes for many. This would be in the form of emotional fulfillment, newfound desire for political engagement, and greater philosophical tact, all things art can impart unto the audience¹. Some in the past have argued games can be used to spread violent behavior, but research has shown this is not the case. However, if a world with thematic gravitas in gaming did exist, it could be simultaneously isolating on an international cultural basis. China’s rapidly growing video game industry is exemplary of how certain governments react to games as art. Among numerous examples of censorship, Devotion, a Taiwanese horror game focusing on mental illness and guilt, was pulled from Steam shelves after backlash and removal of licensure by the Chinese government. The ostensible infraction was a tiny wall decoration deemed disparaging of Xi Jinping, but more realistically it could have been the game’s underlying criticism of the sinosphere’s treatment of the topics. Perhaps both played a role. Subsequently it was also cut from global shelves indefinitely. If artistic games begin to be considered as threats by certain governments, foreign games may be banned altogether (the primary locus of output for these titles). A situation of this sort may seem initially far-fetched, but in the past countries like China have completely firewalled US social media sites. This would sever one of the only collaborative connections across borders for people in diametrically opposed countries, an event of considerable impact.
If gaming fails to achieve artistic enlightenment in favor of staunch corporatism, it is likely ideologically meritable games will fade into relative obscurity. Thus the notion of games-as-a-service will predominate and the economic difficulties of producing high-quality games will be circumvented. Opposite to the previous case, this could act as a binding force between nations in a world with rising political tension. Esports is a market growing at an alarming rate that exists transnationally, with little opposition from any individual national entity. In general such economic networks facilitate the codependence of states, thus reducing the political volatility between them. Gaming would be a small part of this. As an interlocutor of the greater global economic mosaic which fuels policy and can sometimes preclude warfare, if a tipping point is reached in international tensions it could have a very real effect. However, with less risk comes less reward, as the magnitude of unknown cultural loss could be heavy.
At the moment the divergence may tend toward the latter path, as big tech’s behavior has shown profit crushes emotion in most instances. Only time will tell. It is certain, though, that the virtual worlds created by humanity hold inexorably real power; their exploration may yield revelations hitherto unseen.
¹ Some in the past have argued games can be used to spread violent behavior, but research has shown this is not the case.