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Why Arenít There Games About [Blank]?
by Ben Serviss on 05/30/13 09:10:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article originally appeared on

Paris, Texas
Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. His character in the film grapples with rebuilding a shattered life.

There’s a common narrative occurring for people whose lives have been touched by videogames in their formative years. First intrigued by the novelty of interaction and control, you become enamored with the concept of manipulating a digital avatar until you achieve a certain kind of mastery over the process. Timing thumbstick rotations with button presses becomes a second language. A fluency in the average game experience emerges.

Yet as you mature, the straightforward, childlike adventures you loved grow ever so slightly less appealing. You start to wonder why, when film, TV and literature address complex, deep subjects on a regular basis, games repeatedly serve up tropes of rescuing princesses and gunning down masked men.You start to wonder why, when film, TV and literature address complex, deep subjects on a regular basis, games repeatedly serve up tropes of rescuing princesses and gunning down masked men.

Why aren’t there games about life in a small town or sexism or the struggles of minorities?

There have been plenty of calls to create games dealing with a greater variety of subject matter. Aside from the Bioshocks and Spec-Ops, most triple-A games seem content to revisit safe, proven ideas. We see it in the power fantasies, the revenge tales, the epic struggles between good and evil. And with budgets for triple-A games now soaring into the tens or hundreds of millions, it’s good business sense to stick with what works.

Six Feet Under
Six Feet Under examines death, loss and love amidst the messy business of life.

Indie developers are much more likely to address unconventional topics, with results ranging from the thought-provoking to the understated to the pretentious and every shade of gray in between.

Yet the freedom from answering to the suits upstairs means their projects are fueled by whatever they’re passionate about – whether it’s narrative-free minimalist systems with emphasis on mechanics or interpretations of existing game tropes or some other topic that doesn’t make your top 10.

Why aren’t there games about falling from grace or mental illness or raising a family?

Indies are able to make these games because their talent, passion and drive overlap into projects meaningful enough for them to devote significant chunks of their lives bringing into reality. Whatever their motivation, their desire to see their vision brought to life has outweighed the inertia of inaction.

Which brings us to the answer to this question. Why aren’t there games about more nuanced topics that concern the human condition, areas of interest outside fast-paced battles and easy to digest rescue stories?

Because you’re not making them.

Flowers for Algernon
Flowers for Algernon examines ethical treatment of the mentally disabled.

The sheer magnitude of the triple-A business makes riskier projects much less attractive. And it can be hard to remember, but the indie development community is a wide collection of individuals from a great assortment of backgrounds pursuing their own dreams. If there’s a topic you really care about to the extent that you burn with righteous indignation at the fact that no game addresses it, then the task has fallen to you.

But luckily, should you wish so violently hard for this topic to finally be addressed meaningfully in a game, you have all the chances in the world to make it a reality. If you're a game developer, your nights and weekends will easily fall to project fueled by such passion. If you've never made a game before, don't let that stop you. Learn to program, use Construct 2, write a TWINE game, even make a paper prototype version if all digital means fail.

Maybe you’ll discover an even greater truth about the topic than you knew before. Maybe you’ll realize, by iterating on possible mechanics yourself, that this topic just isn’t suited for the medium. After all, not everything needs to be a game.

But by taking action other than rushing to a pulpit to rant-slash-raise awareness of your topic, you do yourself and the game-playing public a service – adding to the deepening pool of experiences possible in games, helping push the medium forward one game at a time.

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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Kenneth Poirier
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I think this is a question we all ask ourselves everyday, at least if you are older than 29 years of age.

I've tried to sit down and hash one of these things out on many occasions. My problem usually ends up being the game ends up not being a game at all, but rather a book or an animation piece, anything other then a game. Most genres don't really lend to the type of story telling we would love to explore. When you are talking about social issues, chances are your dealing with drama and that really pigeon-holes you into the classic scumm like adventure genre, or Japanese style interactive fiction. The only issue that really lets you step out of that box is "war is horrible" which has become almost a staple of the FPS these days.

The other problem I encounter is that once you start to develop these very deep characters it becomes really really hard to produce. Do I understand these issues? Sure. Can I relate? sure. Have I actually been in any of these positions? Very few. I'm a white male who programs video games for a living. My life is pretty darn good. Which means getting consultants to develop these types of story lines. Then you run into the problem of your consultants not understanding video games enough to translate the material into the genre.

So the medium and the subject matter really are at odds with each other. It can be overcome, certainly, but at great expense. Expense that most indie developers can not afford and the big companies, like you said, are not willing to take the risk.

Benjamin Quintero
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Well said Kenneth. I recently abandoned a project of my own because of this very reason. I had a simple and subtle plot about personal struggles with the loss of a loved one. In the end it became a production nightmare for a lone developer to tackle and a subject matter too dark for a large development company to care about and expect a ROI.

There was a recent collect of slides rolling around the web called, "Fuck Video Games" which kind of dove into this subject of trying to shoehorn difficult topics into a video game for the sake of keeping as a video game instead of a book or even graphic novel.

Sometimes it's difficult enough just to come up with gameplay that is interesting and not iterative of someone else. The window seems to narrow everyday in the landscape of game mechanics, which is why so many games feel like reskins of other games. Though very much refined many of the video game tropes, "a character(s), a world, a personal conflict of some kind", are hard to shake. Gamers like to control an avatar, and explore a world. This often leads to the small differences between everything from first-person shooters like CoD, to platformers like Super Meat Boy, and even games like Flower where your "avatar" is the wind. Broken by genre they feel different enough, but in their own genre's they are refinements of the same trinity.

There are limits to the medium that we haven't yet found a way around. The further you break away from the holy trinity, "a character(s), a world, a personal conflict of some kind", the less people start to call what you do a video game, and the greater risk of complete failure and downright relational from offended gamers. Damned if you do, damned if you don't...

Kenneth Poirier
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Additionally I would like to add that one company that was really striving towards this goal is Purple Moon Games. They were founded by developmental psychologist and I do believe they had a rather sizable research grant to study how young girls think and play. They spent 40 million dollars and only developed a few titles before going out of business. There most popular one is an interactive fiction work called Rockett's New School. If your interested in the subject, I suggest you check it out.

Michael Josefsen
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I don't think it is a good idea to forcibly cram emotionally complex subject matter into games since games lend themselves better to situations where a person actually has much agency. What can you do about cancer? About divorce? About dying family members? About love? Not a whole lot... things tend to just happen. That's not great for games, where the point tends to be that we can act directly in relation to problems and see a change in the state of the system.
For this kind of subject matter, I belive abstraction is the ansver.

When I think of what I want to see in games, its usually combinations of genres and themes you dont see often. Where's my historically correct Feudal Japan First Person Shooter with bows and katanas? Sooo many things that would be easy to do, to stand out - but maybe the lack of variety is because standing out from the mob is risky.

Owen Bennett
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Ok. Here's a game: you are a person who discovers they have cancer. The game is constructed as a series of days, each of which provides a new set of challenges - dealing with your family, work commitments, going to the hospital and so on. It starts off easy, but as the game progresses, and you become sicker, it gets harder to do these things. You start chemotherapy which makes it even tougher and things that used to be easy (getting dressed, going to the toilet) become tough challenges. Each challenge you beat improves your morale, which gives you "power-ups" which you can use to best later challenges. There are different kinds of challenges, which affect you in different ways, for example improving your mobility, giving you more stamina and so on. If you can complete enough challenges, maybe you'll survive and go into remission.

It's not even a stretch in terms of game mechanics - there are plenty of games that already use this kind of "survival" mechanic. Sure, it'd be harder to make it work, and to prevent it just being utterly grim, but there's nothing in the structure of video games that says it isn't possible.

Ben Serviss
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Some topics may not be best suited for games, but it's definitely possible to reach for ambitious ones. Check out this write-up of That Dragon, Cancer at GDC:

Chris Mills-Price
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Agreed, Owen. I'd go further and say not only is it possible, but it's actually a really great direction for games to take.

As Michael points out, a big part of the appeal of gaming is that feeling of agency we get, which contrasts sharply with many things in day-to-day life. Putting the "what?"/"how?" questions aside, the "why?" is easy to answer: To give people a sense of agency about things that normally do not offer it.

Cancer's a familiar example for many, and "Re-Mission" (
me ) is a great example of how games can help. In that game, cancer *patients* are given a game that helps them imagine what their chemo drugs do, internally. It sounds like they're getting good results out of giving those patients a sense of agency. Patients who play the game have higher adherence to the chemo program, which helps outcomes significantly. Basically, the game takes something that feels inevitable (death from cancer failure of treatment) and puts it a little bit in your hands.

Ben's link about "That Dragon, Cancer" showcases the use of another gaming strength, story-telling. Most approaches to handling grief/mourning/suffering involve some way of positioning the event in a narrative, making it somewhat "understandable". Whether one attributes the event to divine will, happenstance, poor decisions, or some other reason, that narrative helps move past the grief. I think well-made games can provide that for virtually any experience, though the "how" is certainly not easy to answer.

Figuring out how to keep a team afloat while doing it may be the hardest part.

Although I think it's a challenging endeavor for developers, it seems a very worthy one.

Michael Josefsen
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I want to believe that there is still many unexplored ways of making daily routine type tasks interesting in a game, but what I have seen so far didn't work well. Your game idea is interesting, but I can't help but imagine either pointless Heavy Rain like button prompts or a silly Incredible Crisis style mini games, but my lack of imagination isn't proof that it can't be done. I just have a hard time seeing how fundamentally uninteresting tasks can be made uninteresting (putting on clothes, eating, etc.) But maybe they don't have to be fun or interesting in themselves, but purely in context of the story/situation. Seeing the protagonist get weaker and feeling how everything becomes more of a chore could possibly have an impact, but I fear it might be a bit gimmicky after a while.

You are basically talking about putting well-worn types of game mechanics into a new context - resulting in some kind of deeper meaning - and I think this can be done well, but I still hope someone has an incredibly clever idea for something new one day.

Michael Josefsen
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(correcting myself: " I just have a hard time seeing how fundamentally UNinteresting tasks can be made INteresting")

Michael Josefsen
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And I think any attempt is better than no attempt. That Dragon, Cancer does something few games have done, and that is very praiseworthy, even if I really wan't to see a difficult subject like cancer treated with respect, without making a largely static interactive fiction like game. But it is hard to see how it can be done.

Chris Lynn
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I think part of the problem is that we have yet to find different ways to make emotions and gameplay converge. Dealing with the interactive element and the internal struggles of a character in a way beside the interactive novel/book is complex. That is why there are so many games like Walking Dead, Dear Esther and Heavy Rain, all of then loved by the story they told but taking critics for not being "proper games" from reviwers and audience (I really like then as games though).

Right now what most games do is they take an interactive element (fighting is the most common) and alternate it with story (cutscenes). Some games try to blur the lines a bit by (Half-Life 2), but still both are not one convergent element. Gameplay and everything else is still separated, as much as we would like it for be one full product.

I don't know. I think as we move foward we will find ways to tackle this issue. Take books that were done in different centuries and you will see how things we take for granted today actually evolved very slowly. Something like Crime and Punishment and The Picture of Dorian Gray, which deal with both complex topics and the internal struggles of its characters, were very uncommon when compared to the number of books printed. Don Quixote was a critic to knight books, and to medieval literature in general, for being too superficial. So, I expect games to catch up as we experiment with new ways to interact with our stories, which is something that makes games unique.

Joseph Majsterski
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"Why arenít there games about falling from grace or mental illness or raising a family?"

To be fair, there have been games about these subjects. The Sims in particular covers the third item pretty well, doesn't it?

Edit: I'd say a place where this type of stuff is well covered is in the Interactive Fiction community.