Lorne Lanning, creator of the Oddworld series of games had this to say to EGM (#245.0, March 2011) on the topic of making meaningful and topical video games:

Art hanging on walls and in galleries around the world isn’t going to change the world, that day is long past.  Where is the new trends in public consciousness going to occur?  It’s a very simple equation – where is the most mindshare being spent?  Is it in a book, in a movie, in a game?  The first talk I gave at GDC touched on this, it was, how many hours of public mindshare are going into the experiences that we’re creating?  How many time did you see the movie Star Wars?  The biggest fan might say 50 times, about 100 hours invested in that IP.  That is the average user of Call of Duty today.

BAck in 1994 I ran that math, and in the United States alone [games generated] 60 billion hours of mindshare per year – so where better?  On a museum wall today, you will never, ever capture 60 billion hours of public mindshare.  That’s the landscape to penetrate…. that’s pretty ripe territory, you can grow some good grapes in that soil.

[...]

It was like, “Okay, so what are the stories I care most about?  What affects me the deepest, what makes me lose sleep at night?  How many people feel like me?”  And I think the numbers are higher than any market research is going to show.  I think a lot of people feel a great discontent with what’s going on in the visible landscape.  And I think where they get confused, is they get impassioned to take sides.  What I wish is that everyone would stop taking sides and look at the real problem.  If we can figure out how to use mediums where 60 billion hours of mindshare are going in 1994, and it’s 2011, maybe the medium is more than just a moneymaker.

Later in the issue, Pawel Selinger, writer for the upcoming Call of Juarez: The Cartel, expresses his belief that video games ought to try to tackle meaningful issues in an interview with EGM staff:

EGM: Are you still hopeful that videogames can achieve the same narrative punch as movies and books?

Selinger: For me, it’s already the wrong question.  It won’t be long before you’re asking if books and movies can be as good as games.  Because you’re involved in games, and nothing is as important as involvement.  I draw a metaphor that entertainment is like chewing gum:  First it’s sweet, and then you forget about it.  And that’s it:  Games need to tell a serious story to be relevant, because if it’s just entertainment, then it’s empty.  This is why games sort of hurt their own chances in this race – they deal so much with the light “entertainment” themes, and this is why people don’t see their potential.

And finally, Ken Levine riffs on the same themes while discussing 2K Games’ new project: Bioshock Infinite:

“Columbia was a distillation of the American mission in the world,” says Levine.  “And I think what happened to Columbia is that two people can see the same mission, read the same set of founding documents, and take away two or three or four or a thousand different interpretations of those documents.  And the interpretations are so diverse and so divergent that they’ll kill each other over it.  And I think that’s certainly more what we’re interested in talking about; not this interpretation’s wrong ot this interpretation’s right, but more the dynamic of what happens when people encounter ideas, and how they relate to those ideas.”

[...]

Asked whether his team will be dealing with sensitive issues in Infinite - slavery and gun rights come to mind after watching the demo, to name a couple – Levine affirms.  “God I hope so,” he says.  “Because if you’re not talking about something sensitive, what is there to talk about – chamomile tea vs. Earl Grey?  You’ve gotta find something people are passionate about, or you’re wasting your time.”

Games have always had the capacity to be fantastically meaningful, educational, and thought-provoking while still being fun, but often far too many developers shy away from telling a powerful story for fear that they will strike a nerve with some fans, and lose sales as a result.  Pure fun for the sake of it has it’s place, however my favorite games are always those that make me think long and hard.

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3 Responses to “Harnessing the mindshare”

  1. Void says:

    The games that make me think and deal with complex issues are the ones that seem to stick in my head the best. The more I have to think about a game as I play it, the longer it’s going to stay with me.

  2. Tesh says:

    I like games that tell good stories and prompt thought, but far too many of them are caught up in the trappings of the gamer culture; the mechanical nonsense of achievements and a leveling grind, and the wider, blunter tools of violence, hypersexuality and profanity. The medium is capable of a lot more than it’s doing.

  3. Andrew says:

    I think the last game that really made me sit up and think was Bioshock when I played it last year. The way it dealt with politics was fascinating.

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