In video games short history as a medium, much time has been spent both disparaging them for their limitations and exonerating them for their potential. As someone who has grown weary of the many debates about games, I can honestly say I get it. I get why some people think videogames are ridiculous. For every copy Journey or Minecraft it seems like there are a hundred more bloody bikini clad torsos and well-dressed men murdering sexy nuns. In response to N+1’s challenge to game’s artistic merits, Tom Bissell wrote, “The games I am most interested in allow me a way out of myself …. [they] allow me to observe and control fictional characters, and when I am at the helm, I try to make these characters behave not as how I would, but how I feel they would want to—a strange sympathetic process for which there is, as of now, no good name.” Leaving alone the tired “are games art” debate Bissell highlights one of the most valuable services that games can provide: they can give us a window into someone else’s world. They can teach us empathy.
There seems to be a growing trend of late for games to explicitly attempt to encourage players to empathize with life situations of others. Papo & Yo, despite all its imperfections, serves as a harrowing look into the world of a boy living with an abusive alcoholic father. The Binding of Isaac explores the world of a boy enduring religious abuse. Dear Esther let’s us explore the memories of a man who lost his wife, Amnesia: The Dark Descent gives us a view to another’s dark past and latent fears, and To the Moon gives us a glimpse into the romantic difficulties of people with Asperger’s syndrome.
And while such experiences illustrate the humane side of our misogynistic and narrow-minded medium, it is important to recognize how limited these glimpses into the lives of others are. We can envision a boy running from an enraged father when Monster eats a frog, but we are not walking in Vander Caballero’s shoes nor do we want to. As we solve puzzles and flee from otherworldly terrors, we are ever aware that we are invested in fantasy. And while these fantasies might correlate to a person’s real life experience, for those of us who are privileged, there remains a gap in our empathy: we maintain enough cultural distance from such things to assume they are rare. Educational Simulations’ Real Lives 2010 seeks to bridge this gap by giving us a view into the lives of others based entirely on statistics.
Players begin the game being randomly born into a family chosen from census data of 2010. Initially all you can do is “age a year,” but as the game progresses, you are given more and ways to shape your character’s future and make decisions for her or him. You can move out of your parents house, attempt to go to college or trade school, get a job, search for a romantic partner, borrow or invest money, try to have a child, start a business, change houses, adjust monthly spending, and even immigrate to another country. Your successes and failures in these endeavors are determined both by your character’s ratings on traits like strength, intelligence, and happiness, as well as your family, cultural, and financial situation. And each time you age a year, you will be informed of various major events in the life of your family, things like sickness, raises, pregnancy, and marriage proposals. Some of these events are merely informative, while others give you options. For instance if you become pregnant, you can have the child, give it up for adoption, or have an abortion. Some of Real Lives most important moments, however, come not from player choices but what happens to the player’s character when she ages a year.
My characters, have suffered spousal abuse, been drafted into the military, struggled with alcohol abuse, suffered depression, lost parents and children to cancer, come down with diabetes, lost and gained money in the stock market, immigrated to first world countries, had children, received pay cuts and raises, enrolled in and been pulled out of school by parents, and been raped. I have played as an artist in Burkina Faso, a devout muslim in Lybia, and shoe maker in China.
Given that Real Lives functions a simulation and a text adventure, the players “experiences” may fall upon them rather coldly. I am told that my character has been raped but not really given any indication as to how that life experience has affected her. I see that her “happiness” stat has fallen from 47 to 16 but that seems a crude way of expressing her experience. I feel powerless to help her. I can only make decisions about how she will spend her time and money and if and when she might marry. I cannot control how this tragedy will shape her.
When the words, “you’ve been raped” appear I just stare unblinking at the screen. There is no window into the thoughts and emotions of an impoverished artist in Burkina Faso whose already fragile life is subjected to the most degrading and debilitating of assaults. This kind of pisses me off, so I turn off my computer and go to bed.
When I wake up, I begin to think about what a game that thoughtfully explored the effects of rape would look like. I think about the controversy surrounding the upcoming Tomb Raider game and how that game surely is not the right venue to tackle an issue that is so painful for so many. As my anger at Real Lives 2010 subsides, I realize that while it may not explore the emotional toll of rape, it manages to do something more immediately helpful. It had forced me to acknowledge the life experiences of an impoverished artist in Burkina Faso. I don’t like to think about things like rape and abuse, but I know that Real Lives’ systems are based entirely on real world statistics and probability. I must acknowledge that my character had these experiences–experiences that I would not wish on my worst enemy. And she had them not because I failed as a player but because the odds were stacked against her.
I like to think I am aware of how privileged I am, but Real Lives forces me to acknowledge that this could not be further from the truth. As I have played, I have been surprised by how difficult it has been to help my characters realize their dreams. My first character was very artistic and I wanted to send her to art school. Her parents pulled her out midway through primary school to help around the house. I managed to land her a job as an artist for a time but had quit in favor of a higher paying job so as to afford to feed her two children. I had hoped to help my Libyan character start his own business but could never quite afford to invest in the company consistently and health problems due to diabetes made him a hindered his ability to manage his business.
In real life, I live a fairly normal lower middle class existence—this combined with my desire to support my family, at times makes me feel like I don’t have the means to pursue my dreams. Playing Real Lives 2010 forced me to acknowledge how silly such thoughts are. Reaching my dreams and doing what I love are far more reachable for me than for the vast majority of people in the world. Real Lives was an important game for me, because if I ever hope to help those less privileged, I must start by acknowledging how much has been given me.
About the Author:
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Paste Magazine and Think Christian.
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