Digital Unrealities: Video Games and Social Justice by Drew Terhune

The first video game I remember is Super Mario World. My parents and I were renting my grandparents’ house then, so I guess I must have been four, maybe five. I doubt that I was particularly good at it, but I remember being enthralled with the world in the TV. I could fly, I could stomp on bad guys, and I had a pet dinosaur. As far as the fantasies of a four-year-old, it was pretty much the best.

Between then and now, I went to college and read a bunch of philosophy, and video games got much bigger and more complicated. (Well, some of them did, anyway.) As a result of those two things, I became slightly obsessed with studying video games like I had previously studied books and films.

Like a novel or a movie, they’re a different reality, but one that we can move around in, one where the rules are something to be studied and tested and mastered. My favorite topic is the issue of choice in video games. There are some games where you have a small, fixed number of choices (like Oregon Trail, where you can be a doctor or a banker or a farmer), and some games where the choices are seemingly endless (these games are frequently referred to as “open-world,” e.g., Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim).

While the experience of these games feels very different, there’s really no such thing as a totally open-world game. A game is a set of rules that outline what is and is not possible; a card game, a board game, or a video game all fit that basic definition. In the card game “Spades,” you can’t lead with a spade until the suit has been broken. In Grand Theft Auto 4, you can participate in all manner of criminal activity, but you can’t be the President. Those options are outside the reality of the game. So “freedom” in a game is really the ability to make a selection from a given set of choices, not to do anything you want.

In a way, reality is a game, too. When we think about how the structures of reality, like society and physics and biology, make things possible or impossible, the metaphor of a game is pretty apt.

This is not a philosophical meditation about the nature of reality, though. Actually, the idea that “reality is a game” has nothing to do with whether something is real or not. (If that’s disappointing, you can re-watch The Matrix.)  We’re really talking about the way that reality operates.

In games, rules have impacts; the intersection of a potentially uncountable number of rules creates an environment with objectives and challenges. Except that in the game we call reality, not all rules are fixed. Some rules, like those of physics, are functionally immutable. No matter how much I’d be able to save on airfare, I will never be able to fly without the aid of some technology. But social rules are not like that. Take for example the rule that you can’t turn left on a red light, or the rule that pronouns correspond to gender in most western languages. Those are rules that we’ve created, and some of those rules (like the gender binary of language) have created us. Society and individuals are always mutually constructing one another. We can only change ourselves by using the tools available to us, and those tools were given to us by the society that we are seeking to dismantle.

This whole metaphor is just such a tool. “Video games” live in a pretty masculine space. There’s a lot of problems that result from that (e.g. the marginalization of women in the video game industry, the oversexualization of female game characters), but that also means that “reality as a video game” has capital in spaces where conversations about privilege typically gain no traction. “Social justice is a video game” is certainly not the password to reaching men, but it’s as good a place as any to start.

Also, not all video games are Call of Duty. There are games that use the tools at their disposal to create spaces where complex, emotional experiences happen. At this year’s Independent Games Festival, the game Cart Life won grand prize. The controls are simple, but the game is overwhelming; you play as one of three people who need to start and manage their own business with very little money. One of these is Andrus, a Ukranian immigrant who runs a newsstand. His only friend and companion is his cat, Mr. Glembowsky. Starved for human interaction, Anders goes home to his week-to-week motel and slowly loses himself to his loneliness and his painful past.

Another example of a game with a social justice message is Dys4ia, a quick flash game that uses simple mechanisms to represent the complex, alienating, and transformative experience of gender transitioning.

There’s a lot more in the intersection of video games and social justice. If we aim social justice toward equalizing privileges, can we ever bring an end to the systems that created privilege in the first place? What if we alter the system so that identity isn’t a limiting factor? Or, in gamer terms, perhaps we could make a reality where our power stats don’t vary with our identity. In Grand Theft Auto 4, your only option is to be a criminal; Today in the US, opportunities for children in poverty are wildly unequal, which causes a host of things, especially lower educational outcomes. But when we fix the problem, should we just try and increase each opportunity singularly, or should we also explore constructing educational systems that are never unequal in the first place?

In killing rage: Ending Racism, bell hooks writes that “there must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” I don’t presume to be able to provide that model. But maybe video games can help. Maybe the ability to throw out the rules and construct an unreality that’s simultaneously real is more than just a diversion. Maybe it’s a place where serious, meaningful thinking can happen.

Acknowledgements: a lot of these ideas came from my interaction with this article, and from conversations with a friend from undergrad, Iris Bull. She’s currently a grad student in the University of Oregon’s Media Studies Program. If I messed up anything, it’s my bad, not theirs, though.

Drew Terhune is an Assistant Residence Life Coordinator at the University of Oregon. He graduated from UO in 2011 with a Bachelor’s in Latin and History. A reader in his bones, Drew is particularly interested in the way the alternate realities of literature, film, and video games can be used to explore and teach social justice.

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