Is there an alternative to gaming’s dystopian gloom?

Colin Campbell, Wednesday, July 19th, 2023 10:52 am

“We have a ton of post-apocalyptic games,” said Alan Gershenfeld, president and co-founder of E-Line Media. “The question I have is, can we create evocative, aspirational and achievable worlds that are truly evocative?”

Gershenfeld was speaking at a session (Less Gloom, More Bloom? Is Dystopian Media Shaping Our Future?) during yesterday’s 2023 Games for Change Festival in New York. He chatted with Games for Change’s president Susanna Pollack about the effects of big budget gaming constantly portraying the future as post-apocalyptic.

During a short reel of recent hits, Gershenfeld showed artwork from Death Stranding, Days Gone, Dying Light 2, Fallout 4, Far Cry: New Dawn, and Metro: Exodus. He also namechecked The Last of Us. All these games are set in fictional futures of massive human depopulation, survival supply shortages, and peril, often in the form of mutants, civil war or dictatorship.

Gershenfeld acknowledged that there are good reasons why big-budget games are often set in the kind of future scenarios that no sane person would want to actually experience. Futuristic landscapes are often spectacular, offering artists myriad opportunities to create juxtapositions and scenes that might be more challenging in more ordered worlds.

Future worlds, in which society has broken down offer opportunities for narrative conflict, including wild animals, monsters, and zombies. We live in an extended cultural moment in which global devastation is an all-too-likely real world outcome, adding to the demand for stories about the end of the world.

It also helps that depopulated worlds – or at least those populated by easily replicated baddies – are much cheaper and easier to produce than well-ordered, sophisticated societies. Gershenfeld recalled his days working on open world games at Activision. “Open worlds are complex, expensive. You have to populate them with a lot of AI and a lot of people. I’ve literally been in meetings where people said, ‘well, we’ll make it post apocalyptic. We’ll have some zombies and some stray animals’.”

The point stands though, that big budget gaming’s idea of the future lacks the kind of diversity that other art forms bring to the subject of futurism and speculation. A single season of dystopian-futurism TV show Black Mirror has way more interesting ideas about the future than current AAA gaming’s apocalyptica.

Big budget games like The Last of Us look deeply into human relationships, in the context of extreme hardship and a breakdown of ethical and moral norms. But these games are about survival, and often lack the underlying optimism of a certain strain of classic science fiction.

“Star Trek abstracted human relationships in the world of their fiction,” said Gershenfeld. “A lot of people watched a world where they would be okay living. But I’m not sure many would want to live in the [gaming] worlds. I think that represents a challenge to gaming and to the media more broadly.”

Near future inventions

Gershenfeld’s E-Line Media’s mission statement is about “harnessing the power of games to inspire people to understand and shape the world”. The company has partnered with various foundations, universities, non-profits, government agencies and social entrepreneurs to pioneer games. Its best known release is Never Alone, which was developed in partnership with the IƱupiat community in Alaska.

The company also released Deep Blue, set in the near future, and starring a deep sea explorer and scientist. Gershenfeld is a former president of Games for Change, which is dedicated to promoting positive change in the world through, and within, games.

He argued that more sophisticated portrayals of the future have often inspired inventors. He pointed towards innovations that creators claimed were inspired by TV shows, books, and movies like Star Trek (cellphones), Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (submarines), and Minority Report (multiple examples).

“A lot of inventions came out of people seeing stuff in novels or movies or games,” he said. “Games can inspire real world behavior. We can inspire collective visions that are really evocative and take steps to urge those futures into existence.”

He added: “Perhaps more than film and TV, games have that opportunity, and yet, these [post-apocalyptica] are all the future-facing games that we’re seeing.

Achievable goals

Post-apocalyptic world are generally simple to design, and yet there are fictional universes that include complex interactions and rules that consumers love to enjoy. Gershenfeld pointed towards highly sophisticated fictional transmedia worlds like the Marvel Universe, and wondered if “impactful” worlds might be invented that inspire change in the world.

“When you make games, you almost inevitably do world building. So you have to think about the rules of the world, the systems of the world, how everything works together.” Nuanced futurism calls for nuanced thinking, and research. “Our games are often inspired by real people. And so we do lots of interviews, we spend lots of time together in those worlds, and then collaboratively we urge them into existence.”

He offered an example of a game about building in the near future. “What would a floating city look like, for example? How would engineering have to change for that to happen? You have to do a lot of interviews. You have to understand accelerating technologies as well as cultural changes, and environmental changes. Once you design all those systems, you have to put stories about people at the center. You stress test the world with a lot of human stories.”

Another of E-Line Media’s current projects is The Endless Mission – a community-driven sandbox creation game. The company is also working on Endless Studios, in which youngsters “play to learn and learn to make as they build skills to thrive in a rapidly changing, globally connected world”.

World-building should be on every child’s educational curriculum, he concluded. “When a child or a teen or an adult designs a world, they have to do the research and become an expert in that world. That’s a fascinating thing. If we challenged young people to create evocative, aspirational and achievable futures in world building at all ages, that’s the generation that might create the next worlds that inspire us to change the real world.”

Colin Campbell
Editor-in-Chief

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist.

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