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It’s hard to sit down and concentrate right now, isn’t it. Whenever something disturbing and important happens in the news, most things seem frivolous and unnecessary. I used to feel an amorphous sense of guilt about writing about video games for a living when important and heartbreaking things were happening all over the world. I work at a newspaper filled with talented people who do hard and vital journalism on the geopolitical events that affect us all. Shouldn’t we read that, instead of something on Elden Ring?
It was the pandemic that finally convinced me that games, like all art and culture, are vital when things go wrong – they not only provide distraction, but also respite. When we’re overwhelmed, we need something that helps us feel more grounded, in control. When we are heartbroken, we seek out songs, novels, and poems (and, yes, games) that return our feelings to us or give us space to process them. In 2020, video games actively helped people – to socialize, to relax, to cope with the almost unbearable stress of experiencing important historical events. I saw (and reported) the positive effects they had on people, some of whom were totally new to games. Sometimes it can be hard to find joy in the real world. This is why we create fictitious ones.
I think that in times of crisis, games are not just a helpful escape from our feelings, but a way to process them. I was really struck by these lines from the last paragraph of Simon Parkin’s beautiful Elden Ring review last week: “Video games can be all sorts of different things, representing all sorts of artistic ambitions. Most, however, share a common goal: to evoke a compelling fictional reality filled with alluring mysteries, enchanting secrets, and rewarding opportunities to compete and collaborate. They aim to provide a liminal space in which a determined player can fix what’s broken, order what’s chaotic… Its final gift is the assurance that whatever monsters lurk in a broken world, with perseverance and cooperation, they too can be overcome.”
This urge to fix things – to take action, to make things better – is something that video games can satisfy for us, even when we can’t do much to help in the real world. That’s why, perhaps, they can be such a powerful mental balm, and why we so often turn to them when things feel broken. Here, at least – on my Animal Crossing island, or in the Lands Between, or on my Civ map, I can feel a sense of calm, joy, victory, and bring some order to the world.
what to play
I have never seen a more touching interactive depiction of the effects of conflict on ordinary people than This War to me, from Polish studio 11 Bit, inspired by the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. Instead of a squad of soldiers, you take control of ordinary people in search of food, shelter, medicine and safety in an occupied country, trying to avoid danger and get by until a ceasefire is declared. You have to manage not only their physical needs, but also their emotional state, which takes a terrible hit with each new misfortune. This does not soften the horrors of war; it does not offer you an easy way to win. But this is an example of how video games can be unmatched in their ability to generate empathy. For the next few days, the developer donates all proceeds to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
Available on: Xbox, PlayStation 4/5, PC, Nintendo Switch, smartphones
Approximate playing time: 10 hours
What to read
The video game industry, of course, reacted to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which is home to several game studios. frogs, the creators of the Sherlock games, posted updates on Twitter: “The team is now spread across Ukraine. Stuck under bombs, with tanks and mechanized artillery at their windows. GSC, which is currently making Stalker 2: Heart of Chernobyl, has begged the rest of the world not to stay away. Ubisoft has paid for all of its employees in the area to move to where they deem safe. Developers Bungie, CD Projekt RED and others have pledged to donate to humanitarian aid as the crisis continues.
In larger games news: Street Fighter 6 was announced, with an unsettlingly barren logo that rather goes against the franchise’s ostentatious arcade riot. Nintendo also announced the next two Pokémon games, scarlet and purplewith a trailer promising an open-world adventure.
The Steam Deck, a portable gaming PC from game maker Valve, has been made available to a very small number of people while the company ramps up production. Not everything works on it, but impressions so far suggest this is as good and powerful a portable gaming machine as we’ve ever seen.
What to click
Gay Marriages in Russia: How The Sims Became a Battleground for the LGBTQ+ Community
Elden Ring review – an unrivaled masterpiece of design and inventiveness
Do you like Big Jet TV? Meet the Flight Simulator Streamers
Block of questions
Reader SleepingDog is here with a niche question in a way that I can totally relate to: Which games deal (best) with Scottish independence (in the near future)?
The game that immediately came to mind was Watch Dogs: Legion, an innovative and adorably flawed action-thriller about a near-future London-turned-technocratic surveillance state. In this game’s fiction, Brexit was a disaster, Scotland seceded from the UK, and commercial and military interests took full control of the government, providing two very good illustrations of why the Scottish independence might be a good idea in the first place. Unfortunately, there is barely a mention of Scotland in the game script (to my knowledge, and I played a parcel of it), so we don’t know what happens north of the border in this fictional future. If you want to get into running an independent Scotland, you can always try Civilization 6.
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