Much like their older brethren, video games inhabit a space that isn’t the easiest to define. It is even tougher to define exactly how important this space in which the worlds that games exist in is to the medium itself.
It is considered natural for the community to cast a critical gaze at some of these aspects as games progressively evolve as a medium and embrace themes and topics that had previously been considered impossible to encapsulate within the pixels and polygons of a video-game. Such discussions often revolve around whether games are being held back by their by naïve fantastical worlds that are still stuck within “traditional” gaming cliches when that effort could be diverted in making games a more serious medium.
Escapism has come to be attached with negative connotations in certain communities of late.
But is that really true? Should games focus primarily on the real world in order to push the envelope of “games as a serious medium”? Should we singularly consider our eternal quest is to receive validation from experts of other fields?(read: Roger Ebert)
The Traditionalist’s Imaginarium
At first glance, it would be seem foolish to leave behind the very foundation on which the video-game medium has been built upon. Unlike other mediums that began as a means to express their creators’ opinion or views, games evolved very different in that regard. They evolved primarily as means of entertainment, its virtual domain extending the ability to provide escapism to its players to the extent no other medium could hope to achieve. The human mind finds it easier to escape into a world that isn’t real.
Leaving behind the very foundation of the medium to venture into the unknown for the sake of an uncertain and interpretative “progress” would be foolish and quite frankly a little naïve. Fantasy worlds have time and again shown that they can suspend players’ imagination and immerse them more efficiently than many “realistic” worlds manage to. Games are often that time of the day many look forward to when they can relieve themselves from their worldly burdens and undertake world-saving tasks in a world devoid of stereotypes and pre-conceived notions.
It also doesn’t mean that fantasy worlds are entirely rooted in its creators’ imagination. Many role-playing games based in an imaginary setting like Dragon Age and Mass Effect feature many elements that have been directly inspired from the real world. Its representations of alien/fantasy races, their characteristics and societies mimic that of our real-world cultures. It can result in an interesting reflection on our own world but through the portal of an imaginary one. It is also capable of bringing questions surrounding freedom and ethics – something which many role-playing games center their key decisions around.
Games like Journey and ICO hold a certain appeal because they resemble fables from hazy dream-like worlds that stand somewhere on the line dividing imaginary and reality. They speak as profoundly about the real as they speak in abstract.
In absence of pre-conceived notions and stereotypes, many of these fantasy worlds are excellent means of drawing its players into their world capable of providing an “out-of-body” experience – something we know more commonly as escapism. Suspended in such a state, it is much easier to have a deeper emotional effect on players, which would explain why many gamers of fantasy RPGs often daydream about the world.
Labeling such worlds as naïve and unbecoming of the “potential” of the medium is unfair to what they do manage to achieve.
“The New Real” Movement
Games based in a real setting and focused on real issues, however, possess the ability to drive home a more powerful message with much ease. Without the imaginary world and its lore, real-world settings do not need to concern themselves in unnecessary exposition and can instead directly focus their efforts on surrounding players with issues – interpersonal or international, the player knows are very much real in the world around them. These games haven’t always been around forever.
Let us take a time to distinguish between games based in a modern setting versus games based in a real setting. There is considerable difference between both as one can rightfully take creative liberties with its setting behind the cover of “fictitious representation” while the latter’s very selling point is its realism essentially representing realism of our life and the world –whether it’s told from a fictional point of view or a documentary-styled real view. Molleindustria’s Unmanned was an interesting but brief interactive meditation on a drone bomber’s life as he remotely kills alleged “terrorists” from thousands of miles across – never experiencing the brevity of his actions nor feeling the risk of war – and this disconnection with his own actions was admirably shown. This was a fictional excursion but in a real setting.
Others like the recent Depression Quest weave together interpersonal experiences of its creators and their battles with depression that not only wonderfully weave a self-conscious tale but also make its’ players aware of the very detail of emotions which one experiences in depression. Depression is still very much a taboo in the modern society – and people tend to overreact to it and the game aims at spreading awareness about “Exactly, how does it feel like?” and with its story brings out the possible options to overcome it. Such a personal experience makes games incredibly personal experiences – something which we never knew or even imagined them being capable of of a mere decade ago.
Such “real” games are capable of suspending its players in an odd “in-limbo” of real and the unreal where despite being immersed in a game, they are constantly reminded me of the world or an aspect of themselves. This self-aware immersion is an excellent example to showcase the kind of progress we’ve made as a medium. Add that to such game’s ability to drive home a harsher message on a socio-political issue or a personal experience making video-games an intensely relatable experience – a stark contrast from the escapism of the fantasy world, don’t you think?
I conclude quite predictably, that when it comes to the “Fantasy or Reality” arguments in games, there is no one correct answer. There may be preferences for one or the either but the strength of any great medium isn’t that one needs to give way to other — no matter how archaic or unfitting it may seem to our ambitions to be taken seriously. A medium is marked as mature for its ability to accommodate varied experiences. Literature is adored globally because we can have Crime and Punishment alongside American Psycho with Picture of Dorian Grey as the differing variant. Films can have CGI-effects infused blockbusters and documentaries. Neither holds its medium back.
Likewise, games are starting to offer experiences like Unmanned and Depression Quest. Even AAA games like Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line — two games with a common theme of anti-violence that treat it in different ways — one revels in it, while the other wears you down with it. We have to appreciate this important change — a world where different experiences can live.
The Space That Games Exist In
Whatever it may be, games based on real or fantastical elements will retain their validity as long as they are successful of taking players out of their physical shell and provide an experience that involves them.
Because at the end of the day, video-games do not exist in the harsh realities of our world nor do they exist in the vibrant imagination of its fantasy world. They exist in the space in our mind where the perception of our own reality blurs and that of the game becomes increasingly real. Some call it escapism, others label it as immersion.
[Update]: This blog post got a mention in Critical Distance’s February 2013 edition of “Blogs of the Round Table“