Every other week, every other day, every other hour there’s a tweet, a message, a claim, an interview or an article talking about the responsibility that gaming has on cultivating our current day society. A lot of times the targets of these criticisms are M-rated games, the equivalent of an R-rated Stallone, Snipes or Schwarzenegger flick. The criticisms usually revolve around gaming not being more responsible for raising people in our society, and that’s kind of the gist behind Steven T. Wright’s piece on Vice called “Magic and Mushrooms: What Happens When Video Games Take Drugs Seriously?”
It covers a range of different games across a couple of generations and how they depict drugs and magic in gaming. It mostly talks about how the ills of drugs are glossed over in most games because developers are trying to sell the allure of fun instead of teaching people about drug abuse.
The author talks to Andre L. Johnson, the President and CEO of the Detroit Recovery Project, who chimes in about the responsibility game makers should have when making games dealing with drug or alcohol abuse, telling Vice…
“”They don’t care,” […] “It’s capitalistic society. They’re trying to make their money. They see their competition, and they know they have to include this kind of stuff. Who’s gonna come out and say, ‘I’m going to make a socially responsible video game that’s going to empower’?” […] “There ain’t too many people who can do that. When people are money hungry, they don’t give a damn.”
Well, they completely ignore the fact that you can get sloppy drunk in a game like GTA IV and it becomes practically impossible to move around or do anything efficiently because Niko is incoherently drunk. In fact, this was the penalty for pirating the game: forced to always play as a drunk. It made the game unplayable.
Alcohol abuse had a penalty in the newer GTA games. Need a reminder? Check out the video from Samdinivian that conveniently compiles some clips for you.
In The Lost & Damned there’s a running sub-plot about the main character having to deal with his ex-girlfriend’s debilitating meth addiction.
Abusing alcohol in Mafia II made it difficult to drive, in fact the screen would phase in and out and make it difficult to see what you were doing and where you were going if you had too many beers or too many shots of hard liquor. Wright conveniently ignores that.
Smoking too much weed in Saints Row 2 renders your screen too blurry to get anything done. No mention of that either in the Vice piece.
The Suffering 2: Ties That Bind dealt with all manner of societal vices, including drugs. It was basically “anti-bad things: the game”. There was nothing glamorous or inviting about the lifestyle Torque led, and there was no happy ending to be had. It was all grotesque violence, gore and sadness.
No mention of The Suffering by Wright.
Instead, there’s a quote from the creator of LISA about drug abuse. The game itself is about a post-apocalyptic future where there are no women and men have turned into cannibalistic, violent evil-doers. I guess in that future VR porn doesn’t exist and body pillows stopped selling, eh?
Either way, creator Austin Jorgensen feels it’s now his responsibility to talk about the side-effects of drugs now that he regularly smokes weed…
“For me, it was like, if I was going to put a drug in a game, I think it was okay, because you take it, and it’s clear the side effects are really, really bad,” […] “In Fallout, I’m not sure if using the slow-mo drug even has negative consequences. Maybe that’s the wrong message.”
“Living in the United States, in Colorado, I smoke weed; I live right next to a legal dispensary. For LISA, it was an afterthought. Now, I feel a huge responsibility. I think about this stuff a lot, and for my next game, Ninja Tears, it’s going to be huge. I want people to see the positives and negatives and everything else.”
The reality is that most gamers don’t care about the moral messages in a game. LISA‘s highest crowning achievement — according to the user reviews — is that it’s a well-told story with funny moments, a heartbreaking ending and a lot of the humor one would expect from Earthbound. What people aren’t clamoring to play the game for is a moral message about drug abuse.
Once moral straits begin to pull people out of the immersion, you’ve already failed.
Sure you can include moral messages in your game if you want, but is that why the average person picks up the title to play it? Did Sonic really become a household name due to the anti-industrial, pro-environment message it was teaching? Was the undertones of excessive and corrupt policing in America the reason GTA: San Andreas was one of the best selling games during the sixth gen? Do Germans really love playing simulators and conducting trains because of passenger safety messages? And do you really think people are playing Nekopara Vol 1. and Vol 2. for proper baking etiquette and kitchen health concerns?
At the end of the day, you can include whatever social message you want in a game, but first and foremost your game has to be fun. Even Ubisoft is smart enough to only include the historical facts in Assassin’s Creed games as optional pop-up windows without bombarding people with history lessons.
Nevertheless, your story and social message still need to tie into a solid, enjoyable game if you want people to care. Otherwise they won’t. They’ll ignore your game or warn others away, which is exactly what happened with the game Sunset, which only managed 16,000 copies being sold since its release back in May of 2015, according to Steam Spy. Being nothing more than propaganda for a sociopolitical ploy only attracted people who were looking for an interactive product that was propaganda for a sociopolitical ploy.
There’s obviously a place for those games on the market, but in a free market most people want to unwind by playing a game that brings them joy, entertainment, excitement and most importantly, fun. Sure you can make your game about the ills of any social vice, but if that’s the main aim then your game will likely stay niche.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s the only moral message about drugs gamers received during arcade titles was at the start of the game. After that, all bets were off and it was about kicking butt and taking names.
We didn’t dump quarters into the machines to listen to a sermon.