If someone handed me a black-and-white outline for a famous painting and colored pencils and asked me to fill it in, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t create great art. I probably wouldn’t get most of the shading, but I’d at least have an idea of where the colors were supposed to go.
I’ve been thinking about the importance of video games as art today–I buy wholeheartedly into the notion that they are a form of art, but some is more pop-art than anything else. While I love movies, TV and books, I think there’s something unique to video games that other media struggle to do (books probably come closest): they put you in someone else’s head, and force you to live with the consequences of your decisions. Not all games really focus on this, but I’ve noticed a lot of indie games do a fantastic job of putting those choices on you, and punishing or rewarding you for them.
This thought, in light of the current political scene in the US, suggests to me that there aren’t enough politicians playing really good indie games. After being forced to make those difficult decisions, you get a whiff of what it would be like to live through a loosely related scenario. Granted, I’m not likely to understand what it’s like to live as the captain of a steam ship sailing on a vast underground ocean, or be a border agent for a closed-off authoritarian nation, but I have become emotionally invested in the outcome of the life of a character in those scenarios. It’s a simulation, it’s entirely fake, but it’s not without stakes: If I die, I have to at least endure the frustration of going back to the beginning.
The most concrete, and possibly not a great example of this, would be This War of Mine, a slice-of-life simulator where you’re leading a group of residents in a war-torn city through harrowing moments of everyday survival. Food is limited to what you can loot or scavenge. Non-player characters will do the same to you. Sometimes a member of your household will steal your cache and leave. After you’ve sent one of your characters to an elderly couple’s home and tried to decide whether to attack them and take their stuff or leave them alone and just grab whatever’s outside (so that your group doesn’t starve), you start to think how awful it is that these innocent people are being forced into the scenario by military actions beyond their control or choice.
Then you start to look at the world around you, and realize that there are real people in that scenario. People are being ejected from their homes to become refugees from Syria, for example. That’s also the reason this might not be a great example: it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you might actually meet a refugee. At that point, you’re almost certainly never going to fully comprehend the horrors they have endured. Simply playing a video game will never make you fully qualified to even understand what they’ve gone through. You can’t really walk a mile in their shoes from the comfort of your computer chair. But, you will at least know where the colors go.
This is also why it’s important to read diversely, and to experience as much art that takes you out of your comfort zone and into someone else’s head. I’m not going to claim that I know about revolutions because I played Civilization and Red Faction, nor that reading John Lewis’ March trilogy will make me an expert on the civil rights movement. Hell, even listening to/working on a podcast with LGBT characters doesn’t qualify me to speak to what it’s like to live as part of that community in this political climate. But, I can at least say I’m making some small effort to understand. I’m trying to learn what the shape and color of that is, even if I’m looking at it through blurred glasses. (Not that I want a pat on the back or recognition, I just feel right trying to better myself).
This was all swirling through my head when I landed on another notion: I don’t think it’s possible to make complex decisions without taking emotion into account. A decision like that of how to help the refugees from other countries has an emotional component, even if there is hard data that supports it. I was thinking (and likely with bias) about how the liberal decision to take refugees in comes from a place of compassion, while the conservative decision to ban them comes from a place of fear.
Perhaps we need to send the Republicans a few copies of This War of Mine?