This is a problem we frequently see in story-driven games. In an industry dominated by white men – in 2021, according to Statista, 75% of developers worldwide identify as malewhile the Entertainment Software Association reports that 73% are white— stories are mostly seen through a very specific lens. In Ghost of Tsushima (2020), the conflict is rooted in the Bushido code, a set of principles comparable to the European idea of chivalry. Not from the point of view of Japanese culture and history, but from the films of Akira Kurosawa. The lower classes treat the in-game samurai with deference, almost worshiping them in their insurrection against the occupying Mongols. However, in reality, the relationship between samurai and the wider populace was much more complex. The effect is that the narrative is less of a glimpse into history and more of a Western take on decades-old Japanese films.
A more extreme example is that of Quantic Dream Detroit: Become Human. The game actively rewards players for exploring all avenues, including those that make its playable characters agents of oppression. The game is set in the future, but it draws on the past to inform its narrative, especially black history. Like many fictional depictions of rebellious androids and other technological underclasses of people, the game creates an awkward analogue of the civil rights movement, albeit with an exclusively white cast of protagonists.
When a white male-dominated industry creates games for a perceived white audience, we will continue to see narratives – historical and otherwise – tailored through the prism of white sympathy rather than complicated, intersectional reality.
Likewise, as large developers and publishers are generally risk averse, the onus is increasingly on independent developers to present a fuller and more complete picture of the story. In The return of the Obra Dinn, solving the mysterious deaths of the titular ship’s crew, the player also learns about the class divisions between the upper and lower decks, the conflicts within a multinational crew, and the reality of people living within the crowded confines of the hull of a ship. Equally complex narratives can be found in The sky and Treasures of the Aegean Sea.
Without the oversight of major publishers and less focused on marketing, indie games are more likely to explore the often unpleasant intricacies of story that triple-A games avoid.
Despite some of its failures in developing historical narratives, we can’t underestimate the game’s ability to lead us into deeper interrogation of topics we otherwise ignore.
I asked Christopher Mitchell, director of the School of Creative Technologies at the Vancouver Film School, about this potential. In response, he pointed out that “games are educational technology. When you create a game, you are constantly teaching and educating the user on how to perform complex tasks. While some may resist bringing games into the classroom, they are essentially educational tools, so it makes sense to deploy them in educational institutions.
Covid-19 has brought this issue to the fore. As the pandemic disrupts education and lessons move to digital spaces, there is a need to use interactive visual tools in teaching. Filippo Lorenzin, artistic director of Museum of contemporary digital artsays, “Digital projects and tools that many institutions would eventually bring to the public in five or 10 years became the top priority overnight and were launched within months in 2020.”