Storytelling in gaming: What if games led progressive society?

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Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? It has been an endless philosophical debate that goes back centuries. Back then of course, the discussion was around painting, music, literature and the sort. Looking at it now, with the understanding that gaming is a medium as powerful as films or books, can life imitate gaming?

A Reddit user, by the name of FinalMantasyX, posted the history of The Sims and how it mimicked society’s view on the LGBTQ community. You can read the full post here, but in short, it broke down the timeline as follows:

  • Sims 1, which was released in 2000, did not allow same sex marriage but allowed same sex sims to kiss, dance and have sex.
  • Sims 2, which was released in 2004, allowed same sex marriage but called them a “joined union”. It’s also important to note that joined unions gave fewer points than a heteronormative marriage.
  • Sims 3, which was released in 2009, finally equalizing marriages across all sexual orientations. Also noteworthy is that this is the first time a canon gay pre-made sim appears.
  • Sim 4, which was released in 2014, allows cross dressing, sexes to access both hairstyles, makeup and more. It also allows you to determine if your sim pees standing up or sitting down as well as deciding if your sim can fall pregnant or not.

It makes for an interesting read, showcasing how one game evolved along with society to become a truly inclusive and representative game. It also begs the question; it’s fairly obvious that gaming imitates life but can life imitate gaming? Can gaming influence society to be more progressive?

Life imitating gaming

As mentioned previously, it is fairly obvious that gaming imitates life. The drive for the best, most realistic graphics, the most advanced physics simulator, the growth of VR, all of these are symptoms of gaming’s desire to imitate life. It has led to countless discussions around the dangers that will come when the line between digital and reality begins to blur.

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The discussion around life imitating games is just as interesting. This concept most often comes up when mainstream media publications insist on the idea that violent games lead to violent kids. Whilst this has yet to be conclusively proven, it is repeated whenever shocking acts of violence occur with children.

Moving away from the primitive view that violent games leads to violent acts, is there space for progressive games to lead to a more progressive society? As the gaming world grows and the community becomes more diverse, you can already see the effect in games themselves.

Whilst there is still some way to go, there is better representation in gaming characters, the stories told delve into important social issues and the right kinds of discussions are being started, both in game and out. All things considered, gaming is reasonably progressive and inclusive.

However if we look at Sims, and a large extent of games that have played their part in the progressive narrative of the gaming world, these progressive stories are largely reactionary. It took women calling out game studios before female characters became more than just eye candy and had fleshed out backgrounds and personalities.

It took gamers of colour demanding representation before the slew of white men made way for others to be the hero of the day. In the case of The Sims, it took the LGBTQ community battling in court before the game gave them equal representation.

What if gaming stopped being reactionary and paved the way forward instead? An example given in the original Reddit thread showed the first gay character in a game appeared in 1986, in the game Moonmist. But in the day and age that we live in now, games have a more impactful voice on society.

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Games are not always fun time wasters, they can be mediums for enthralling story telling. What if Watch Dogs 2 did more than just make its protagonist black, what if they used Marcus to shed light on police brutality in America?

This is not to say that Watch Dogs 2 failed because it didn’t go down this route nor is it to say that, that should have been the purpose of the game. It’s more of a question, an idea of what the game could have been and the impact one game could have had on society and its views on an important and divisive social issue.

An idea for the future of gaming

There is still conflict for many over the idea of social issues having a place in gaming, with those for and against it arguing vehemently. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s undeniable that gaming is a powerful vehicle for progressive storytelling.

Some games are created to be fun and light-hearted and just give you action-packed time. That’s perfectly okay and this is not an article suggesting that those games are not allowed. This is an article asking, how would things have looked if The Sims took a stand for the LGBTQ community in 2000 instead of 2014.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: February 9, 2017

Glenn Kisela

I’ve always loved video games as well as writing, so mixing the two together was inevitable. When I’m not doing that, I do photography and design. I’m also a big fan of English Cricket. Ask me about the ICC.

  • Dutch Matrix

    Uhhhh…. could you please provide a source for the statement of “In the case of The Sims, it took the LGBTQ community battling in court before the game gave them equal representation…”

    • I find it interesting as well as EA has been super aggressively defending the LBGTQ community for a while now.

      • Dutch Matrix

        Look, I googled this before I put statement to HTML, and found no reference to this. So I would really like to know where Glenn got this from. I have been playing the Sims since the first one, and can say that they kept up with the times pretty darn well.

  • Member Berry Bob

    Art can imitate life but it doesn’t have to. Games can take social or political views, either current or older, and use them in their storyline. Some will, some won’t and I think that’s how it should be.

    Regarding your closing point, societies views change over time. 10 or 20 years ago it wasn’t socially acceptable to do certain things or be, in this case, a certain gender. If The Sims from 2000 was more like 2014 perhaps it would be just as popular or perhaps it would have been seen as a bad joke and crushed the series.

    I hate “what if” – there is always an equal and opposite “what if”. I’m glad things have progressed and I’m glad we can look back and see how we’ve changed. We should look to the past to see how far we’ve come but look to the future to see where we want to go.

    • Dutch Matrix

      Well said!

  • Original Heretic

    Life does imitate games. All the time. There are cosplayers all over the world who dress up like their favourite game characters.
    I know, I know, that’s not the storytelling aspect that is being written about above.

    In order for stories in games to influence life, it would have to be something truly revolutionary and insightful. And, sorry to say it, the writers who could pump out works like that are not generally found writing for games. Those writers will more than likely be pumping out novels.
    But please, don’t get me wrong, I am not at all saying that game writers are bad. My main criteria for enjoying a game is that it must have a great story.

    • Generally games with great story imitate social imbalance quite a lot. The Last of Us is a good example of that. Even though exaggerated by a zombie apocalypse (or because of it) the game itself dissects the nature of humanity very well.

      • Original Heretic

        I hear what you’re saying, but I cannot equate what they’re doing in that story with something like works produced by George Orwell or Aldous Huxley. Hell, I’d even Isaac Asimov in there.
        It is HIGHLY improbable that a zombie apocalypse will hit, whereas the scenarios put forward by the gents I just mentioned have already come to pass in many ways.

        • It is about setting not about the validity of the setting. Put people in a situation and see what they do. Life is strange is a good example of this. Time travel is highly improbable based on our current understanding of the universe but it does leave a very interesting setting to explore what you would do in certain situations.

          • Original Heretic

            I’d love to say that no matter the scenario, people will always find a way to surprise us, but I think people are too predictable. In general, there will be exceptions.

          • Exceptions are usually the ones who get written into history books.

          • Original Heretic

            Or they get buried in obscurity in an attempt to erase them.

  • Good Question. However the Sims is hardly the type of game I would associate with social progression. RPG’s and Story Driven Graphic Adventure games on the other hand tackle this thing often.Life is Strange allows you to become a Lesbian for instance while Mass Effect gives you almost full control of your relationship based on your romantic choices sexual preferences.

    Also your Article is rather skewed as it exclusively deals with sexual preference and orientation but the title states social progression. What about race,economics,politics,religion? Sims does not tackle that in the least.

  • Magoo

    I think that the social impact of game narratives is being blown out of the water, as much in violence as in any aspect that you have mentioned here.

    Let’s look at Dishonored, where in a way you can play as a conservative saint and in another way you can go full on devil’s advocate. The game is designed so that you win either way, so there is no pressure on that end. How do we decide which role to follow? Ethically? I don’t think so. How do we rate each experience? Morally? Again, I don’t think so.

    If Sims had allowed women to pee while standing in the year 2000, it would have been a funny game mechanic, maybe even assumed to be a bug.

    • A more recent example of this “blown out of the water” aspect was the whole Tracer pose fiasco. I was dissapointed in Blizz for pulling the pose but then when they made her a lesbian I was like “Good for you”

  • Skittle

    The woman wearing the VR headset looks like she is fondling some virtual balls

    • Magoo

      Yes I agree VR porn is for women too.

  • Sageville

    “What if gaming stopped being reactionary and paved the way forward instead?”

    Using Glenn’s premise, what would be the “end game” for this imagined society?

    Sounds like Star Trek…

  • BakedBagel

    WEW DONKEY KONG IS REAL LIFE FAM

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