Understand this Crazy World a Little Better with the Power of Video Games

“Fantasy is not divorced from our world. It is a lens through which we explore it.”
—Rhianna Pratchett

Log into Facebook, hop onto Twitter, skim the headlines, and one thing is clear: the world is on fire.

Everyone seems to be posting about current events, a nonstop stream of news articles and opinions, personal anecdotes and memes. As they should be. As stressful as it can be to feel bombarded by what seems to be an endless tidal wave of insanity and emotion, it is a good thing that people are so engaged and care so much. Engagement and participation and caring are more important now than ever before. The majority of my friends post a lot about social issues, politics, and current events, and I love it—I love them for it.

Me? I post a lot about Final Fantasy VII. This is not without criticism. “How can you care about video games with everything that is going on in the world?”

Well, here’s how. I was having dinner with a friend of mine recently; we were joined by one of their friends, one who I had never met before. My friend and I have been friends for over a decade, and the bulk of our friendship has centered around our shared love of video games. When the subject of gaming came up, however, my friend’s friend expressed that she didn’t care about video games, that she found them trite and pointless and of no value. I immediately thought of this meme:

Donald Trump as President Shin-Ra from FFVII says "We are going to build a plate over Midgar - and the slums are going to pay for it!"

President Trump-Ra. Image from wolfnanaki on Tumblr

For those of you who haven’t played Final Fantasy VII, this is as astoundingly spooky as it is funny. The plot of FFVII revolves heavily on a conglomerate called the Shin-Ra Electric Power Company, a weapons manufacturer turned electric company. In the world of the game, a natural current runs throughout the planet, which many believe to consist of the literal lifeforce of the world. Shin-Ra, using reactors, mine the current and convert it into electricity.

The game begins in the city of Midgar, with the protagonist joining a group of ecoterrorists called AVALANCHE to bomb one of these reactors. Midgar is also where Shin-Ra is headquartered and serves as a very clean allegory for class systems. It’s a circular city divided into eight sectors and sectioned “upper plates”; the rich literally live on top of the poor, who reside in the slums below with no fresh air and no sunlight, surrounded by the debris and garbage of those above. Shin-Ra has no concern for the people in the slums of Midgar, nor the rest of the world, so long as they pay their bills.

The company doesn’t care that it’s siphoning off the very source of life on the planet as long as its pockets get fatter. Its people lie, cheat, and kill for their gain, and they use their dominance to cover and justify it all. President Shin-Ra, when told that AVALANCHE is located in sector 7, decides to drop that section of plate and kill everyone in the slums to wipe them out. The news (controlled by Shin-Ra) then reports that the collapse of the plate was a result of another act of terrorism by AVALANCHE—they did, remember, blow up reactors.

The meme above portrays Donald Trump as the president of Shin-Ra, acting very much in character for both. While the metaphor of Midgar now seems pretty hamfisted, remember that Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997. A video game that took on nuanced, complex subjects was as revolutionary as polygonal 3D graphics. As the story progresses, a central theme emerges: gray areas. What at first seems like a standard “good guys stop the world from being destroyed by the bad guys” plot quickly becomes one of perception.

The electricity provided by the Shin-Ra corporation makes things better in a lot of ways: it increases the quality of life for many people around the world, and it provides jobs, protection, and technology. And while there are certainly people within Shin-Ra’s ranks who are corrupt, motivated solely by power and greed, there are many there who are not. One of the characters who serves as an antagonist for most of the game ends up sacrificing himself in a desperate attempt to save Midgar, dying—according to the original game—along with the people of the slums instead of fleeing like the rest of the Shin-Ra executives. On the other side, one of my favorite scenes of the game is when the leader of AVALANCHE realizes that although the group’s intentions are noble (save the planet), it also causes a lot of death (blowing up reactors). Again, these are simple metaphors, but they’re effective, concise, and poignant ones. Do intentions matter? Or do actions?

At the end of the game, a mysterious magic called Holy is summoned from the depths of the planet in hopes of saving it. It works, but not in the way anyone thought it would. Humanity is wiped out, and the planet is saved. “Good guys” and “bad guys” all contributed, regardless of intent, and all are rendered equal. For me, the messages and themes in Final Fantasy VII had a profound impact on who I am as a person and on my world views. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, which is why the meme mashing up President Trump and President Shin-Ra is so effective: we know this story. We’ve been here, we’ve learned from it, it has shaped us.

Back to the dinner, and the conversation about gaming being worthless entertainment. Games with morality systems came up—games that force the player to decide between such options as “save village, get crappy reward” and “slaughter village, loot their houses for great reward.” These have been present in RPGs for a long time now but are getting more and more complex. In the beginning, morality systems seemed to be nothing but flavor, with minor game consequences if any at all. The further that gaming advances, the more these ethical choices directly impact the outcome of the game.

On the night of this conversation, my friend was in the middle of a second romp through the Americana wasteland of Fallout 4. He made the point that Fallout series, and games in general, were moving to a more interesting morality system, that many of the choices weren’t so much good choice versus bad choice but bad choice versus bad choice. Save the little kid and the parent dies or save the parent and the kid dies? But then he said something that really stuck with me—that normally in games with morality systems, he plays a “good” character, one who always makes the “correct” choices. That he has tried to play an evil character and simply couldn’t do it, even in a fictional world.

In his most recent playthrough of Fallout 4, however, his character romanced an NPC raider (a “bad guy”), and in getting to know and becoming invested in this raider character, it made doing “bad” things feel justified—because when invested in a character or perception he had previously seen as “bad,” he was able to experience that reality where “bad,” well, wasn’t. With the exception of supervillains, people don’t set out to be the bad guy. They don’t join a cause or take a particular action because they want to sow the seeds of chaos and discord. From their perspective, they are the good guys, or if not “good,” at least doing the grueling work of what is deemed necessary.

I’ve seen the sentiment of “we’ve been here already” come up several times since the election in reference to the Harry Potter series. And while it’s true that the parallels in the Potterverse mimic our current reality very closely (GAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH), reading is a ultimately a passive role: you are an observer, watching a series of events unfold. In gaming, especially modern gaming that forces morality choices, you are the one who has to chose. Even in very linear games, like Final Fantasy VII or Silent Hill 2, the act of physically guiding the protagonist through the story ends up feeling personal, taking an experience from passive to active. From “I saw this happen” to “I experienced it.”

And this . . . this is exactly why video games are not trite, silly entertainment. This is why posting about FFVII is, in my own way, contributing to the political and social conversations on social media. Video games give people in their own positions a venue to explore others. To see the world from another set of eyes, to walk in another pair of shoes. They allow a player to explore perception, to be exposed to concepts and situations that they may never encounter in the real world. Video games can make scary, complicated concepts accessible and allow players to learn without being lectured to.

Another prime example is in The Last of Us. (Spoilers in the rest of this paragraph.) The game ends with the protagonist denying the world the one single thing that could save it due to his own personal trauma. And yet, this incredibly selfish act is understandable because we have spent the entire game getting to know this man, rooting for this man, an extension of ourselves, physically guiding him through a grueling journey and hoping every step of the way he makes it. We may not agree with Joel’s choice, but we can sympathize with it. That is powerful, powerful stuff.

No, playing video games isn’t going to change the world on its own, but exposing people to situations they may never otherwise encounter, experiencing perspectives and how much they matter, sympathy, consequence . . . it’s all a start. By telling stories—be it in film, literature, theater, music, or games—we have incredible power. We have tools to navigate and make sense of our world, a world that right now seems absolutely senseless to many of us.

So how can I care about video games with everything going on in the world? If they can help us out of this mess of ignorance and shortsightedness, if they can be the seed that plants compassion and critical thought, if they can be the start of something that makes us better, how can I not?

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