Fighting Discrimination Through Video Games

Video games have a rocky relationship with discrimination. For every JRPG that encourages making friends and working together with people very different to yourself, there is a first person shooter whose online community is full of people screaming racist, sexist or homophobic comments at each other. It’s a medium that has in its relatively short history shown the best and worst of the people who interact with it.

While this doesn’t make video games unique, any medium you can name has probably been home to sentiments that are equally unpleasant, The thing that makes video games unique as an experience sharing medium is their power to allow you to experience events rather than just seeing them from the outside. I feel that, given time, video games could use that unique advantage to provide experiences which could help to eliminate discrimination in society (at least partially).

Video games have in the past touched on themes of discrimination. Be it Link in Ocarina of Time being mocked for not having a fairy of his own, or the council in Mass Effect not taking your opinion seriously because you’re human, games like to make you feel like the underdog who overcomes adversity to be a stronger person. The problem with many video games that try this currently is that they make overcoming adversity seem incredibly simple. Within an hour or two you might complete a single action which proves your worth and hey presto, nobody judges you badly anymore. Chances are you’ll forget you were ever discriminated against in the first place.

The thing is, real life discrimination (something much more rarely touched on in video games) is much harder to overcome. It’s something that can’t usually be overcome through your own actions, merely endured and survived. For example, there are parts of the world where you’ll be regularly discriminated against for being gay, and I can assure you that no amount of quest completion and being a helpful person is going to win over a homophobic culture as easily as it would in a video game.

But onto the good news, video games could be a brilliant tool in the fight against real life discrimination. Their unique ability to put the player into the shoes of another person, someone with a disability for example, and allow you to experience some of the difficulties they face and some of the challenges they face day to day, could be the answer to helping people understand others. It may just be the way to help close the gap between those discriminated against and those who don’t understand what it feels like to be the discriminated.

I’m going to demonstrate my point using a couple of different examples of things that could hypothetically be built into and expanded upon in games. While these ideas would not by themselves be enough to support an entire game, they would be a great starting point. While these examples tackle a specific type of discrimination, many of the points can be easily adapted to reflect discrimination against other groups of people. Each example has one aim, to help someone see the world from another point of view.

When someone suffers with gender dysphoria, they live life feeling like they were born physically one gender and mentally and emotionally the other. It’s something very hard to live with and even harder to understand from just an explanation. Most of us will never know how it feels to want to make the difficult journey from one gender to the other, or how it feels to be discriminated against for that matter, but there’s a flash game that could hold the key to understanding the condition.

In the flash game Loved, before the actual gameplay begins you are asked for your gender, only upon making your decision you are told that you are wrong. So if you picked ‘man’, your character is instead a woman, and vice-versa. Can you image if this idea was expanded further in future games? Before the game begins the character you design is given a different name and becomes a gender swapped equivalent of yourself. What this does is it instantly puts your character into a body that you don’t want, a character that feels somehow wrong. It doesn’t matter that the game hasn’t changed, but your experience somehow feels different. It could be seen as the first step towards helping you understand the world through a new lens.

One of the biggest advantages video games have compared to other media in this regard is the ability to show why someone might make a choice, even when they seem to be opening themselves up for discrimination. In the recently released Derrick the Deathfin, you have a constantly dropping stamina bar that you have to replenish by eating things. What if a game took this idea and had your character, a woman wearing trousers to work where her dress code requires her to wear a skirt, having their energy depleted every time they wore a skirt to avoid being negatively viewed by those around her in society? She wears a skirt because it’ll allow her to move quicker and complete tasks easily, even if their stamina suffers as a result or being discriminated against. However, every time she wears trousers, she’ll face discrimination, which will make completing tasks more difficult.

Okay, slightly silly example, but with the stage set and the player in the frame of mind of their new character, you can see how the game can begin ‘discriminating’ against the character for things outside of their control. Challenges placed in your way to overcome, rules that are set for you but that don’t apply to your opponents, all ideas that can help you to feel powerless in your situation.

Japanese visual novel style games often take a more interpersonal route when it comes to game design and are often more willing to tackle situations and include characters that fall outside of the twenty-something, straight white male protagonist story many mainstream games stick to. One particularly good example of a game that included lots of different characters, each struggling with their own challenges due to different disabilities, is the visual novel game Katawa Shoujo. It features characters having to live with a heart condition, prosthetic limbs, horrific and visible scarring, being blind, having had both arms amputated and living as a deaf mute. The game takes a respectful approach to the stories of each of the characters and shows how each of these groups who may face discrimination in life manage their conditions on a daily basis. The game has you playing a character with a severe heart condition, but imagine if future games allowed you to either pick which of these characters you played as, or allowed you to experience smaller stories from the perspective of each of them.

One example would be playing as Shizune, the deaf mute, and needing to find and convey a message to Lilly, one of the blind characters. Just by the nature of the characters conditions you’d be able to find Lilly with relative ease, but communicating with her would be very difficult. On the other hand, you might have more luck conveying your message as Lilly, but finding Shizune would be much more difficult. Video games possess a unique ability to show you how frustrating it can be to lose the ability to do things the average person takes for granted and this could be used to great effect.

One recent example of an actual game seeking to fight discrimination has hit the Australian media in the last week. From Jens Stober, a game designer and PhD student at RMIT University’s GEELab campus in Germany, his currently untitled game seeks to humanise Australian Asylum Seekers and reduce the levels of discrimination against immigrants in the country, often referred to as “boat people”. The game allows players to play the role of either the border patrol officer or immigrant trying to cross the border and involves educational snippets to teach people about the issues raised on both sides of the argument. It’s important to note that the border patrol side of the game does give you the ability to use a gun, but will penalise you for using it.

While most of these are not yet implemented in real games, they show examples of ways that the interactive nature of video games could really impact the way we help people understand others, particularly those who are discriminated against. The core ideas of putting the player into a role they don’t commonly live in, forcing them to make the easy or the hard choice when handling their situation and actively being discriminated against by the game are all ideas that could be applied to gender, sexuality, race, social status, disability or any other kind of situation that creates division in our society. I know that getting these ideas into the core of a mainstream game is something a long way off, but I think that one day, when the time is right, this will be the future of how we teach future generations how it feels to be different.

What do you think? Do you see video games playing a role in teaching people to understand others? Would you play a game where you see life through the eyes of someone with Down’s Syndrome, or a woman in the Middle East (assuming neither of those is already your situation)? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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