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.

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.

EncyclopediaEnemies copy
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.

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.

Uber Update – The secret Pyro Update

Again with the secret updates! Today, there is a hidden pyro update in addition to “World War Wednesday” Uber Update page. Right there as soon as you load the page. Yep, on the blackboard, a picture of a pyro with a great big arrow pointing to it – it’s a link to the pyro update.

Only one new weapon this time, “The Detonator”. Seems like a good name for it too, seeing as it’s a flare gun that detonates. Nice and simple! Details are scarce – “Alt fire detonates explosive flare” – but let’s take a guess – we shoot the flare, detonate it, and set nearby targets on fire. As benefits are rarely without drawbacks, I’ll take a guess at slightly lower damage, a slower moving flare, or increased reload time, though that’s pure speculation.

Sounds like a great weapon for setting distant enemy groups on fire, and a great addition for spy checking at a distance. Anyway, once again it’s exciting to find another secret. Makes me wonder if there’s a missed secret on page 1 – has anyone found one?

Team Fortress 2 – The Semi Secret Uber Update For Scout

Alongside the easily seen Mobster Monday and Timbuk Tuesday is a subtly (or not so) hidden scout update. Lurking at the bottom of the Timbuk Tuesday page is a can of what looks like bonk atomic punch. It’s a link! Click the can and you are led to a page detailing a new weapon set for the scout, “The #1 Fan”

Valve's scoutpack update
Awesome artwork as ever, courtesy of Valve.

“The Soda Popper” looks like another weapon rewarding you for killing effectively, like the Bazaar Bargain, building up ‘hype’ ready for a rain of minicrits. A smaller clip size is your downside, much like the Force-A-nature. A rain of minicrits from behind could cause total disarray to an unsuspecting team.

Next up is a bat – “The Atomizer”, which looks like an ‘access’ weapon – useful for getting behind enemy lines, grabbing a health pack, then wreaking havoc on the enemy team (or their teleporters). I imagine that third jump will also give an interesting edge in combat during the first few weeks when no one is expecting it! Combined with the force-a-nature, will this give the scout a quadruple jump… One can only imagine so, and the prospect is awesome.

The last new weapon, “The Winger” seems like a standard but nonetheless useful pistol replacement. The extra damage, presumably without scatter, looks like a great opportunity to sneak behind enemy lines and snipe their sentries/medics/etc when they least expect it.

Hidden updates somehow always excite me more than the obviously stated updates, it’s somewhat like a treasure trail…

Reacquiring your ‘gaming mojo’

After reading this, I wanted to put some thoughts down.

I can think of two ways you might lose your gaming ‘mojo’. At least these are the two I’ve experienced myself.

The first case is when I find myself getting slaughtered in x game (or genre of game), when I remember that I used to win easily… I’ve had this with first person shooters, strategy games, and specific titles. Mostly this is a multi player phenomenon, but in some cases also single player. I’ve put this ‘sudden’ degradation in ability down to an unnoticed learning curve. In these games, I got good through practising, but without noticing an increase in talent.

When I come back to them I expect to be good, get beaten, and as a result feel, well, quite bad. Sometimes I just put the game away and resign it to the past. If I care, for whatever reason, I usually go to train in a harder game to bring my skill level back up (playing, for example, red orchestra for an hour or two before, say, team fortress gives me an epic boost in kills).

The second case is when I can’t find a game I actually want to play. I have plenty of choice (really, woe is me) but I just can’t get into anything. I flit off to other things, coding, walking,e eating, but can’t play. Sometimes I just go with this, and get on with non game life – but sometimes it feels like “I don’t want to play anything any more, maybe I should even sell my pc!”. Then I get worried that an important part of ‘me’ is missing, and desperately want to get into a game. What does it take for this? Well, something good usually.

And recently I noticed something remarkable – while I’ve lost interest in strategy gaming, I picked up total annihilation the other day, and as dragged in, despite being tired, cold, and uncomfortable… While first person shooters have recently been quite good, F.E.A.R. and Red Faction captivated me in a compelling way. And I can’t tell you why. But I will try to work it out. All I can really say is, many games recently are missing elements common to these addictive classics.

Chalk and cheese, and pork and fleas

Games I’m really enjoying at the moment!

Assassin’s creed 2 (and by proxy 1, as 2 has taught me how to enjoy 1 a lot more). You’re an Italian assassin, enacting revenge for your father’s death, and something altogether grander too. Such an improvement on assassin’s creed one it’s unbelievable.

Dirt 2 – a varied and relaxed rally game. (so often rally games are too hardcore and gritty) Has a great feel, and is one of the best racing games I’ve played. One of the best games – it hits so many spots. I’ve actually gone so far as 100% completing the single player.

Tropico 3 – A ‘Caribbean island sim’. I have Tropico 1 and 2 bought recently from a d2d sale and have briefly touched on them, but it’s 3 that I’ve been spending most of my time with. A great atmosphere, nice looking, and with a horrifically addictive gameplay, it’s been calling me back for a month or so now. And nothing gets your metal limbs ticking like being called El Presidente!


Recently, I’ve been playing Borderlands, a first person shooter crossed with an RPG, with excellent multiplayer support for co-op. (and PvP if you like that kind of thing)

The idea behind the game is a combination of levelling up, getting better weapons and items, and improving your own skill (using cover, working out where to shoot the enemies to get critical hits, and actually hitting those spots, etc)

The game is great fun on your own, and far more so with a teammate (or multiple teammates) – though some kind of communication between the team is important. The mic support for borderlands is very good, when you speak, the game transmits – I prefer this over push to talk, though prepare your ears for a teammate coughing or sneezing, and in the process deafening you completely. (woe woe woe)

The difficulty ramps up as you add more players, as does the loot – making multiplayer far more rewarding. It’s also more interesting, as you can chat, devise tactics, and decide who gets which guns. There really are a lot of guns, in lots of colours and flavours.

The game also looks and sounds excellent – the graphics are like a hardened up version of Okami’s style, with a more western look. Things can feel a bit dry and arid at times, but that’s the nature of the environment, and as much as possible there is good variety. The music is brilliant – it ends up getting stuck in your head, and the sound effects match the theme of the game.

The downsides – unskippable intro sponsors (can be fixed, but annoying), the claptraps (little robots) can be annoying if you’re trying to use a shop near them and they keep on ‘dancin dancin’. (but otherwise they’re quite cute), the stat compare takes a while to get used to, and some of the menus are still “consoley”, and don’t work well with a mouse. The story is also a bit weak – though I’ve not completed it yet, it probably won’t suddenly make amends – it’s a typical role playing ‘find treasure, kill baddies’ storyline. The story is missing, but it’s not a gaping hole in a game of this sort.

I was going to get some screenshots, but they’ll have to wait as they didn’t work. D: They’ll hopefully come in time. Nag me if you want to see and I forget.

Bubbel – Starting to look like a game

My first (woo) game, Bubbel, has started to look like a game. It’s a very simple 2D bubble clone. The aim is to make a really addictive playable game to begin with. Then maybe I’ll add some funky ideas – or maybe not.

The motivation for this game is threefold. Firstly, most importantly, is for myself. I want to make it, I want to do it. The second is to get a demo, which I can show off to prospective employers – a demo I couldn’t develop very well within the scope of my degree. The third is for Illusia, a bubble fan of supreme proportions.

So here it is – the beginning!

An early version of bubbel - not playable yet, but geting there.
An early version of bubbel - not playable yet, but geting there.