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"Isolation for all of us is corrosive" - The power of addressing social issues in games

Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor on making games about people rather than policy

While AAA developers are notorious for shying away from the inherently political aspects of their work, inadvertent or otherwise, games address social issues with their mechanics and stories. The developer's countless social biases are reflected in the game, and its rules are defined accordingly.

Speaking at Ludicious Game Festival in Switzerland last week, Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor unpacked The Sims, and why it's the "most effective interactive critique of the turn of the millennium American materialism" he has ever encountered.

In The Sims, you start from a position of privilege -- not only do you own a plot of land, but you have enough money to build a house. From there, you raise your Sims' happiness through buying more expensive household items and climbing the corporate ladder. Its mechanics paint a view of consumerism where absolute fulfilment lies atop a pile of increasingly pricey electronics.

Steve Gaynor, Fullbright

"It addresses social issues of capitalism, materialism, American middle-class privilege, whether that's on purpose or not," Gaynor told the crowd. "And this is true of any game. Games inherently address their social context through the rules and fictional elements no matter what. So if your games are going to speak to social issues that surround them, whether you get a choice in that or not, it's incumbent on you to think intentionally about how you want to relate to that."

The Sims is described as a life simulator, but as Gaynor noted, there is no definitive version of what that means and it ultimately supports a very particular middle-class life experience, intentionally or otherwise.

As such, Gaynor suggested that developers should be deliberate when addressing social issues, by asking why they are saying something, and knowing how they are going to say it. However, he noted the pitfalls of advocacy media, where a piece of work argues a political point to change the audience's opinion.

While this can make an impact, he said, it falls into the trap seeing social issue as abstract concepts and "overarching ideas or forces that should be grappled with on their own terms". Although not without their merits, advocacy media becomes about policy, rather than people.

"The way that social issues impact the individual, that is what can strike people's hearts because social issues do affect each of us as an individual, and we can see how that plays out in other people's lives," said Gaynor.

Drawing comparisons to his own games, such as Gone Home or Tacoma, and work from other developers including Night in the Woods and Butterfly Soup, the issues are "no longer about policy and the abstraction of human rights and equality".

"The way that social issues impact the individual, that is what can strike people's hearts"

"They are about people," he said. "People these games allow you to get to know. People you can care about. Which gives you a conduit for caring about, for feeling the issues themselves.

"When a critique of modern capitalism and the exploitation of the working class is focused through the bond of six people just trying to survive together on a doomed space station, or through the travails of an aimless group of friends living in a dying rust belt down, ideas about workers rights and economic inequity and corporate responsibility -- these transcend the audience's existing assumptions and become personal."

The real strength of this approach, Gaynor argued, is not necessarily to make more convincing arguments or compelling rhetoric, but to make players feel less alone.

"Regardless of your political persuasions or investment in any particular social issue one way or the other, that ability to bring people together has inherent humanistic value," he continued. "When someone is affected by a social issue, when someone who is themselves marginalised, othered or oppressed -- or simply worried about or invested in the important social factors that affect them -- that can be really isolating if you feel like you're facing these things alone.

"Isolation for all of us is corrosive, but when you or the issues you care about are addressed directly, acknowledged, represented in the media you encounter, that gives you a clear and tangible piece of evidence that you are not on your own. You are not the only one having these experiences or taking these issues seriously. They affect other people too and you're seeing it up on screen. You immediately become less alone in that moment."

GamesIndustry.biz attended Ludicious Game Festival with help from the organiser.

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Ivy Taylor avatar

Ivy Taylor


Ivy joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.