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Is A Game Really "Just A Game"?

Posted on Wednesday, December 1 @ 15:46:11 Eastern by Jesse_Costantino
We gamers have a built-in reflex whenever some controversy rears its ugly head in the gaming world. Rather than admit that a game may indeed be racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive, we shout as loudly as we can via forums, comments, and blog posts that it’s “just a game".

At the same time—alongside the rise of independent games and so-called art games—many of us gamers insist that there are deeper meanings to the games we play. Mario isn’t simply rescuing a princess; he’s overcoming his sexual insecurities. And Samus Aran isn’t just battling space pirates; she’s a force of nature seeking to restore ecological balance.

Am I reading too much into these classics? Absolutely. But if the alternative is to say that they’re “just games”, then maybe we all should read too much into the games we play. Besides, the rise of acutely self-referential games like No More Heroes, Braid, and Vanquish leads me to believe I’m really not that far off.

Regardless, we can’t have it both ways. A game can’t be both “just a game” and at the same time be meaningful. Either it’s just a game and no more significant than a thumbtack, or it’s a potentially powerful work of creative media. We’ve spent so long defending our hobby to non-gamers that sometimes we don’t think about how we’re defending it and choose instead to stick our heads in the sand by busting out the “just a game” card at the first sign of danger.

The controversy tends to revolve around games that try to be both realistic and heavily focused on action. The kerfluffle a couple of years ago over racism in Resident Evil 5 brought this contradiction to a head. The main defense of the game went something like this: “It’s just a zombie game that happens to be set in Africa, so of course there are black people that act and look like zombies.” But once we make that claim, then we can no longer treat Resident Evil 5 as a game with meaning beyond its raw entertainment value. It becomes “just a game”.

This isn’t the fault of game designers or publishers who might seem only to be interested in making empty blockbuster fare. Last year’s mega-hit Modern Warfare 2 took a big creative risk in its “No Russian” sequence. Regardless of your thoughts on that sequence, it went well beyond the pale by putting players in an uncomfortable situation. Designers are trying to meet us halfway, but we’re not meeting our end of the bargain.
 


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