Good Games for a Good Cause

<thrive_headline click tho-post-989 tho-test-1>Good Games for a Good Cause</thrive_headline>

Good Games for a Good Cause

Posted by CJ Wilson

26 Feb, 2021


One benefit of the increasing ubiquity of video games and the growing democratization of game development is that games have transcended entertainment to encompass causes such as activism and healthcare.. 

While some people would prefer to keep politics and “the real world” out of their games, and while games have certainly had meaning and political relevance since the first story-oriented titles on the SNES, the progression from having activist/political relevance to being built for that express purpose is a necessary step in the development of any artistic form. 

After all, what would the novel be without such overtly political books as 1984 and A Clockwork Orange? Or how about film without Do the Right Thing and Full Metal Jacket? Moving from artistic expression to active and intentional political or “cause-focused” art engages the form with the culture as it is now, in a way that says, “Hey, folks, we’re here, and we’ve got some things to say.” It’s the last step of fully integrating an art form with the gestalt of the modern day.

Games With Meaning

In his Masterclass on game design, Sims veteran Will Wright says the agency provided by video games creates a different “emotional palette” (a different set of emotions the form is good at producing). “Because the player is responsible for the actions within the game, they can experience feelings like guilt, accomplishment, pride and self-expression.” This sense of meaning is enhanced when the game’s “optimal win conditions” align properly with the message you’re hoping to promote.

Many games make use of this to great effect. One of the most well-known (and one mentioned in Wright’s masterclass) is Papers Please, whose simple system of trying to approve (or not approve) immigrants into your country can create profound feelings of stress and guilt that cause you to ask questions about authoritarian bureaucracy’s incompatibility with humane treatment of other people.

Papers Please is a well-known example, but it’s not the only one. We’ve also seen a recent run of environmentalist “reverse Minecraft” or “backwards Factorio” games. What do I mean by this? Well, Minecraft and Factorio both drop you into an untouched landscape that—through an environmentalist lens—you wreck by building factories and structures. That isn’t a bad thing: these are games, after all. You aren’t trashing real nature. Still, it did feel like a layer of possibility had been left untouched.

Enter games like Eco, by Strange Loop Games, and Terra Nil. Both take an environmentalist approach to their respective genres. Eco is like a more survival-focused Minecraft, with the added wrinkle that you’re trying to stop a meteor from destroying your world. The other twist? You have to do it without wrecking the biosphere. You have to pay attention to energy usage, pollution, deforestation and so on. Terra Nil is even more direct, dropping you into a wasteland that, instead of turning into a mechanical nightmare, you are meant to terraform into a lush landscape. 

The active nature of these games promotes deeper thought about the consequences and challenges of environmentalism as well as the clash that we, in the modern era, have begun to feel between progress and health. 

Healthy Games

The interactive nature of video games has also allowed them to be used for a variety of medical and therapeutic purposes, and the increasing accessibility and improvements of VR are only strengthening that trend. 

Take Boston developer Mightier. This company takes a sweet but simple approach: their games mimic challenges kids face in real life, giving them chances to practice calming skills and emotional regulation for the purpose of therapy. Mightier isn’t even the furthest along. 2020 saw the advent of the first FDA-approved treatment-focused video game, designed to help kids with ADHD: Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRX.

With so many people isolated as a result of the pandemic—and thus, unable to access normal therapy and treatment options—the possibility of utilizing video games instead seems perfectly timed.

Even on the provider side of medicine, video games are having an impact. Developers Osso VR and Level EX have both released games that purport to train medical professionals to do their jobs better. Time will tell how effective they are.

The Value of Fun

Whether it be gaming as a political treatise, gaming as therapy or gaming as education, gaming has another quality—beyond its interactive nature—that makes it phenomenal for teaching or proselytizing: it’s fun. Not everyone can get hyped for documentaries and lectures, but the interactive nature of gaming accomplishes two things. First, it gets people more engaged. Second, it provides another method of learning for those who are more hands-on.

Gaming is still easing into this sphere, but its influence is quickly growing. Keep an eye out for more games designed with a good cause. No doubt they’re going to become important talking points soon.


About Author

CJ Wilson

CJ Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist specializing in game writing, journalism, and non-profit work. His writing expertise includes gaming, law, nature/environmental writing, literature, and travel. As a novelist, he specializes in character-focused fantasy and sci-fi.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments