There is something fundamentally fulfilling about restoration, repairing a damaged foundation and returning it, or converting it, into something greater through personal work. Most of the games we play encourage us to tear down our environments, deface them or topple the supporting pillars of organisations and governments. But what about those that encourage us to apply our creative minds to a task instead of destroying something?
When I was deciding what to write for this piece, I wanted to focus on games as rebellion, and why we engage so strongly and heavily with games which encourage resistance: I felt that those games which told me the status quo was incorrect and that it could be broken were the most resonant and effective in holding my attention. So much so, in fact, that I spent a lot of time recently endeavouring to free a North Korean controlled Philadelphia in Homefront: The Revolution because it was fulfilling to empower others and enact meaningful change, even in a fantasy scenario. That drive was something that made me return to the title despite its lacklustre mechanics, poor performance and drab, (although appropriate) art style. This idea of rebellion feels more relevant now than it has done for some time, which also accounts for the rising popularity of dystopian fiction such as Orwell’s 1984, but suggesting that the only way to deal with these issues is to fight and combat them instead of encouraging understanding and collaboration seems both reductive and unhelpful.
From a purely mechanical standpoint, there are already several games that encourage us to contribute to a ‘greater good’ or to help others through development. Those that reward us through their in-game systems simply for making the lives of others better are those that tend to connect with me personally the most. Although Dragon Quest Builders (DQB) may on the surface seem derivative of Minecraft, it adds a number of dimensions which encourage us to build, not only to help our own cause but also the needs (and whims) of those around us. Building specific rooms for denizens of the city makes them private and unusable for you, but can result in rewards down the line. Raising the quality of living for the inhabitants of the town you are rebuilding unlocks more items for you to use in the field: because your friends will build them for you while you aren’t there. It’s a purely collaborative spirit that does not involve competitive conflict or rising to the top of a hierarchy, just contributing because you are able. The Tomorrow Children takes this concept into an online collaborative space. Free to play (or free to start, as I am prone to calling these games), The Tomorrow Children paints a minimalist picture of communistic contribution and removes the bartering and self-fulfilment that is provided by the design of DQB – boiling down the whole concept to a system of consistent work for the betterment of the community. As you develop the blank, bare whiteness of the village by mining valuable resources and taking bus rides out to mineral deposits to retrieve them, advancements are unlocked for everyone equally, not based on the work you put in. Although stark and politicised in it’s presentation, it does a wonderful job of narrowing down the mechanics of ‘selfless contribution’. Perhaps, indeed, it teaches us to give and expect nothing in return, but that may be expecting too much from it.
However, aside from a few examples of games which are truly about communal work ethic, most of the games we play require us to tear down existing systems in order to replace them with those we perceive as better, whether that means more efficient, more rewarding or more democratised. When I played Homefront: The Revolution this week, I was fighting to erase the current controlling force and establish my own. So how do we reconcile this with a definition of agency and creativity in games? In any number of open world games, or even linear story driven experiences, the desire is to replace rather than reformulate or improve. These games, across a broad spectrum of genres and intended audiences, are telling us that in order to create, the canvas we paint on must be blank. That when we look at a painting, we can not improve upon it by adjusting or altering, we must paint over it entirely because it has already dried. That’s why I consistently return to games like Dragon Quest Builders and Minecraft, because there is no intention of destruction and replacement, only consistent improvement.
This analysis raises some more abstract questions surrounding the politicisation of content – one which engages with the overall theme of a game’s presentation rather than the writing or characterisation which can be investigated in a more story-driven, focused experience. The Tomorrow Children is clearly political, it’s art direction is evidently Soviet and Communist: but what about more innocuous experiences? I doubt that it is the intention of the developers of a game like Dragon Quest, any of them, to present a political message. It is how we react and perceive that content which informs us: if you approach the game with a left-leaning attitude in favour of, perhaps, unionisation or even work communes, to use an extreme example, then these experiences might serve to reinforce those proclivities. If instead you’re simply a fan of JRPGs like I am, it might resonate with you on a more emotional and personal basis. Although there’s a lot more that one could say about politicisation of themes rather than explicit story beats, it’s too much to cover here.
There is a simple message we can take from these experiences that teach us to share and feel compassion: they encourage us to be better human beings. It may not be explicitly conveyed through dialogue or grandiose politicised speeches, but it is something subliminally suggested to us throughout the course of playing these games. Even more so when we consider the vast potential of something like Minecraft, which not teaches abstract concepts of sharing and helping others, but also practical knowledge such as physics, engineering and, with regards to multiplayer, social inclusion. There is however nothing to say that games which empower and create philanthropists are more worthwhile than those which allow us to express anger, or sadness or fear, but in most cases I feel significantly more fulfilled by games that want me to be selfless and positive over those that want me to feel selfish and negative. there is a time and place for both, but focusing on the former is more healthy.
To summarise, my thesis statement is this: I wish more games told us that being forthcoming and kind was the way to achieve greater things as a society, and as an individual. So many games get lost in telling their stories and building their characters that they forget to look at the overarching themes they represent – creativity, sharing, philanthropy and a general sense of optimism. It ties in with my recent enjoyment of increased colour and focus on artistic stylisation in games over exaggerated realism. Some concepts are better left interpreted than forced upon us.