Can games really be a force for good?

In my latest article over on Medium, I discuss how games can be used to distract, and to hold people’s attention against all odds. Games even seem capable of distracting us from biological needs like hunger and sleep. So do I really believe games can be a force for good?

In short, I don’t believe that games are inherently good, bad, or anything in between. They’re a force, a tool, a thing that exists which, used by different people in different ways, can be for good or for bad. Or even for evil.

Have no fear though – this isn’t going to be an airy-fairy discussion of philosophy! Despite it “being complicated” there are clear case studies and examples of games being for good, bad, and “evil”. Let’s start from the bad, dip through the valley of the shadow of evil, then come out on the other side. We’ll wrap up by trying to stick all that together.

Games for bad

It is easy to see, games aren’t a force for pure good. They really can distract a person from what’s important, they really can be addictive, and they really can encourage bad schemata and behaviors – not mass murdering, but more subtle things like cultural stereotypes and trust in certain idealistic worldviews.

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Hellblade : Senua’s Sacrifice puts you in a dark place

Thankfully, most game developers have either parents or children, and are aware of this. Increasingly, games will remind players to take a break, and children are pretty good at getting homework done (faster than usual) if games are held till after the hard stuff is complete. The issue of inclusivity is also growing, with more and more games from tiny studios all the way to AAA productions including a wider range of genders, races, quirks and stereotype bucking characters. A long way to go, but a long way forward from the field of white-male-shotgun wielding heroes of 1995.

Games for evil

Very rarely are games intentionally for evil. There are a few nasty examples (names won’t be named as they don’t deserve more publicity) that directly encourage, quite frankly, nasty behavior. But among all games, encouraging “evil” is very rare. But there is a more common evil in the increasing tide of “games” designed around addiction (for the benefit of their makers) with no inherent value. Boiled down, they are nothing more than psychological traps – almost indistinguishable from “games” to the unwitting outsider.

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Our bacteria aren’t evil. ❤

These subversive little wracklings are an easy trap to fall into. A high proportion of the games I play are either totally built on this premise of addiction, or use it as the primary method of holding engagement. While I’m optimistic about games for bad, this face of games for evil appears to constantly grow in “popularity” as more and more people get addicted to the next big thing in fighting exponential growth with linear tools.

Games for good

So with all that bucket load of bad, how can games be good? An indeed, how can games that are also bad and evil be good at the same time? There are obvious examples – the infamous Call of Duty “airport scene” of 2009 that asked “what is acceptable”, the addictive grindfest of Clash of Clans that also happens to bring together parents and children in a heart-touching way, and the mindless drone of tetris letting a war veteran work through crippling flashbacks.

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It’s a 10 year grind to the top. And it’s also a way to bond with your children. Complicated!

I can only summarise this in one way : games are complex pieces of art. They cannot be reduced to good, bad or evil – they are like books or movies, with a whole new level of audience engagement. So whether they are used to distract, remain ignorant of, entertain or educate, try to see games for what they are : much more complex than any single word can describe.

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