WASHINGTON (ViaNews) – The era of gaming began in the early 1970s with the introduction of arcade video game Computer Space by Nutting Associates. This game was later followed by the better known Pong by Atari in 1972. Initially, video games were thought to be solely for children but the audience of gamers has greatly expanded since then, as well as the purpose of games. For many, games are the perfect medium for education on social justice and advocacy.
Considering gaming rose to fame only a few years after the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties, it is surprising there was not a more immediate trickle effect. However, as the gaming community has developed so to have factions within the said community that praise games which discuss pertinent topics such as race, gender, sexual orientation and etc. In opposition to this faction, there are those who want to keep social justice separate from the medium.
Juniata Assistant Professor of English Hannah Bellwoar is an avid gamer and has instructed the courses Writing Across Media and Interactive Media Writing. As a member of the gaming community, a woman, and someone who studies media, she offers insight into advocacy in gaming.
“There is a segment of the gaming community that is against the idea of politics in gaming and the use of the medium for purposes outside of entertainment. I’m not sure how big a segment that is but they’re there,” said Bellwoar.
Those who are against social justice in gaming believe games should be judged solely on criteria such as performance and graphics. Any criteria outside of those three are generally viewed as irrelevant.
Writer for gaming website Critical Hit, Glenn Kisela, discusses how advocacy is being used in gaming in his article Take the ‘SJW’ Out of Gaming.
“When it comes to gaming, SJW [Social Justice Warrior] Politics is used to describe content that discusses gender, race and mostly anything that isn’t purely gameplay. I’ve seen on many game reviews, mine included, comments questioning the author for discussing anything outside of pure game mechanics, graphics and performance,” said Kisela. “Even locally, you see the South African audience resist being pulled into discussions that move beyond the realm of ‘pure’ gaming, for lack of a better term. That is not exclusive to game reviews, this same sentiment is found in articles that discuss social issues in the gaming scene.”
In a previous article, Kisela described the gaming community as a “white boys’ club.”
“With all of the success and growth in the [gaming] scene both locally and globally, we need to ask ourselves, is everyone enjoying the success?” said Kisela. “Where are the women gamers? Where are the gamers of colour (GoC)?”
Bellwoar said, “I think that in terms of mainstream games, a lot of the gamers are white males, so I can understand why it’d be called a ‘white boys club’. I don’t think there are as many gamers of color in the mainstream, however, there are people in the community out there who want inclusivity in gaming, as well.”
An example of a social justice game would be the 2013 release Gone Home. The game is designed in a first-player format from the perspective of the character Katie.
Katie is visiting from college but is only welcomed by an empty house. The duration of the game is spent with the player exploring the house to uncover what has happened to her family. The game discusses topics such as assault, adultery, and sexual orientation.
Though Gone Home received positive reviews from game journalists including MetaCritic, for some the game is summed up to a walking simulator.
According to Jesse Singal in her 2016 article, Why the Video Game Wars Won’t Stop, a walking simulator is “a derogatory phrase used to describe these types [walking simulators] of games, because in the eyes of a certain aggrieved subset of gamers, all you ever really do is walk around, read stuff and listen to dialogue.”
Still, despite the criticism, there is no doubt gaming is becoming a medium for advocacy.
In her Writing Across Media course, Bellwoar uses the online game Half the Sky to introduce students to games with a different purpose. She believes games like Half the Sky are proof that social justice and gaming do not have to be separate.
Bellwoar said, “Design a game in a way that players can develop empathy in the characters, the story, and the world. When you’re put in the position of, let’s say there was a game where you were a slave, you have to now make the decisions of this person from that community. When you have to make these decisions you’ll be able to understand more and you’ll see the challenges they had to face.”
Gaming may have started out as an entertainment tool for children but during its growth, it has become a tool for politics, advocacy and, perhaps even social change.