Video games with a social message

Video games with a social message

Video games with a social message
In the popular simulation game The Sims, players have long been able to create male and female characters — but only up to a point. That changed this year.

In May, Electronic Arts, the publisher of The Sims, released a patch for the game that removed all gender barriers, freeing players to create virtual characters with any physical attribute.

For Blair Durkee, the shift was significant. The day after the patch was introduced, Durkee, a student at Clemson University in South Carolina, logged into The Sims and started designing her first transgender character. She named the character Amber, gave her a deep voice and broad shoulders, and made her infertile, “which is really the only attribute that all trans people have in common,” said Durkee, 28, who transitioned to female at 24.

“A lot of people assume that all trans men have feminine features and trans women have masculine features, but that’s not the case,” she said. She plans to make another trans character as a love interest for Amber.

This inclusive attitude toward gender and sexuality, once a rarity in video games, is becoming more common as games take on more diverse and weightier subject matter, beyond flesh-eating zombies and alien attacks.

In recent years, new games have emerged such as Papers, Please, by the independent designer Lucas Pope, which puts players in the role of an immigration officer at the border of a fictional country. The game That Dragon, Cancer caught the attention of critics and players this year for its emotional portrayal of family grief. The game was based on the experiences of two of its creators, Ryan and Amy Green, whose son died of cancer in 2014.

A yet-to-be-released game called Camp Bucca, made by five independent developers and students from New York University and Carnegie Mellon University, will put players in the shoes of a US soldier stationed at a detention centre of the same name during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Players will be able to use “enhanced interrogation” techniques on Iraqi detainees to draw attention to the abuses that occurred at the centre.

“We want the game to provoke an emotional response and convey a deliberate message,” said Edward John, one of its developers, who asked for his last name to be omitted, citing safety concerns from those who might oppose the game. “In the game, there is no ‘winning,’ a metaphor for the current state of Iraq,” he said.

Some of these games may raise a ruckus among gamers who operate within the toxic subcultures of the industry, kindling controversies over gender and other issues. But at their most powerful, such games can also move people to take action on their own behalf.

Dr Robert Schloss, a former shipboard physician in the US Navy Medical Corps, came out to his commanding officers in 2007 after playing the original Sims game. The Sims, released 16 years ago, was one of the first video games to allow characters of the same sex to have a sexual relationship.

At the time, the US military operated under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibited gay, lesbian and bisexual members of the armed forces from openly disclosing their sexual orientation. So Schloss found an outlet for his identity in the game, creating four male characters, who made up two couples, and having them live in the same virtual house.

“The more I played the game and experienced that possibility for life in an alternative universe, the more I wanted to make that a reality for myself,” said Schloss, 41, who was granted an honourable discharge from the Navy Medical Corps in 2007 and is now an assistant professor of clinical radiology at a New York hospital.Other games have followed the example set by The Sims. Fallout 2, in 1998, and Fable, in 2004, allowed same-sex marriage between characters. BioWare’s role-playing games Mass Effect, in 2007, and Dragon Age, in 2009, introduced LGBT characters. More recently, the acclaimed PlayStation 3 action adventure game The Last of Us, released in 2013, featured a gay teenage protagonist.

Rachel Franklin, the vice president of Maxis, the Electronic Arts studio behind The Sims, said, “It has always been important to us to provide our players with powerful ways to express themselves and tell a wide range of stories — whether they’re customising their Sims’ age, skin color or gender.”

Justin Mahboubian-Jones, 28, who lives in London, said he found that games helped him come out in 2004. While he first self-identified as gay as a teenager, the thought of telling his religious parents scared him.

At the time, he was a regular player of the game Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, which had an online multiplayer mode that let players customize their avatars and connect with other players from around the world, resulting in a diverse community of all ages, genders and sexual orientations. Mahboubian-Jones began talking to players who openly identified as gay.

“Just being able to talk to other gay gamers relieved a lot of that internal pressure and let me normalise walking and talking in the shoes of a gay man,” he said.

Jesse Fox, an assistant professor in the School of Communication at Ohio State University who studies how online interactions influence people’s offline attitudes, found that avatars can powerfully affect how people act in the real world. In a series of studies she conducted from 2009 through 2013, she saw that participants responded better to avatars modelled on their real appearances, as opposed to generic-looking avatars.

This is linked to what is known as the Proteus effect, a concept introduced in 2007 by Stanford researchers Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson, who concluded that the appearance of a person’s online avatar had a significant effect on his or her behaviour, in and out of a virtual environment. In one study, participants who were assigned a more attractive avatar in a virtual environment were found to exhibit more confidence and intimacy in the real world than those assigned to a less attractive avatar.

“This tells us that avatars can change our behaviours,” Fox said. “They allow us to practice and test out certain behaviours in a virtual world.”

Durkee said this was true for her. Before her transition, she began playing The Sims in 2001 and found comfort in being able to live vicariously through the female characters.

“When I was younger, I always wanted to play games as a female character, even before I knew why,” she said. “I can’t fathom how different my life would be if I were exposed to positive representation of trans people at a young age.”
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