Why are games so negative about the future?

Colin Campbell, Monday, August 14th, 2023 12:58 pm

Why does gaming have such a bleak vision of the future, and what is the effect on our collective aspirations? Those questions were addressed in a recent Games for Change conversation between event head Susanna Pollack and E-Line Media co-founder and president Alan Gershenfeld.

I wanted to hear more, so I called Alan to talk some more about the subject. In his original video he conceded that dystopian, post-apocalyptic games often make for great stories with spectacular visuals. We are all fascinated by visions of our familiar world, made unfamiliar through apocalypse, whether that be climate change, war, disease, or alien invasions.

In the past, speculative fiction has often been optimistic about technological progress, even while positing warnings about particular technology’s potential for disaster. These worlds are often based on human constants and contemporary concerns, but the worlds themselves are unfamiliar – think Brave New World or Star Trek.

Post-apocalyptic dystopias are often kinda samey – crumbling buildings overgrown with weeds, rusting vehicles, dangerous hinterlands where brigands roam. Depopulated worlds are (arguably) easier for game developers to make than more complex societies made up of many individuals going about myriad tasks. Certainly, bleak worlds are easier to build than complicated future worlds that are yet to be imagined.

But they also create narrative opportunities within human relationships, in which difficult moral choices come into play. The rules we live by, and the moral behaviors we value, are suspended in dystopias – it’s fun to explore how we might react to such a suspension.

“Developers and publishers like post-apocalyptic worlds because they have natural action and survival verbs that create evocative, memorable visuals, and compelling gameplay”,” Gershenfeld told me. “You can distill down to really powerful dilemmas, or you can present cautionary tales around climate change or other ways society might break down. But also, successful games follow successful games and we see a lot of people copying what other folks have made successful.”

Gershenfeld adds: “I think there’s a place for dystopian media. They make great entertainment. But the preponderance of it is concerning. The fact that gamers are spending billions of hours immersed in dystopian visions of the future is concerning, especially since there is a lack of alternative aspirational visions of the future.”

Bleak preponderance

As a publisher, E-Line Media sets its sights on using games to effect change in the world. Its games include Never Alone, which tells the story of an Iñupiaq girl and her Arctic fox. It was made in partnership with the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Beyond Blue is set in the ocean depths, and is often compared to an interactive nature documentary.

Leaving aside the attraction of post-apocalyptica, there remains discomforting questions about how gaming might be shortchanging the world, through such a bleak interpretation of the world. As well as his work in game publishing, Gershenfeld is co-founder of world building agency Experimental Design, alongside Alex McDowell, who is best known for designing the complex future world of the movie Minority Report.

Famously, many of the technologies predicted in that movie have become reality, or are in some form of manifestation. As McDowell says, visions of the future can shape the future. McDowell’s worlds are often rooted in real ideas, which are only widely disseminated through popular fiction. In turn, this inspires investment and ideation into the working concept.

“Future facing fictions – from novels and comics to movies, television, and interactive media – have an enormous impact on how we individually and collectively see the future and imagine the future,” Gershenfeld says. “If it’s all dystopian, I have to believe that is having a negative collective effect. I understand that there’s a lot going on in the world that can have a negative effect on people’s outlook on life and the future, but I do have a concern that the overwhelming prevalence of dystopian portrayals of the future in popular media contributes to the serious global issues around youth and young adult mental health.”

Fear and disgust

A recent article in Rolling Stone found that 25% of Gen Z use the word “fear” to describe how they feel about the future, while “34% also express anger, disgust and sadness to characterize the narrative”. Writer Sarah Davanzo noted that “there has never been a period in the history of humanity where a person’s expectations of the future are so incredibly murky and screwed up as they are today.”

“I would like to see game makers create aspirational, achievable and evocative visions of the future,” says Gershenfeld, “especially because games are a medium that’s better set up for it than others. Video games have so much power, because they allow us to step into a role, and have agency. Maybe [game-makers] should take our enormous talents and dollars and see if we can create some more inspiring futures.

“I’m concerned that the preponderance of very evocative dystopian games reinforces a sense of fatalism in the world; a sense that I don’t have agency, and that’s not healthy.”

Speaking of E-Line Media’s work, he says: “We want to make games that bring diverse voices to the front, and that look at the awe and wonder of the planet and of society. We want to explore some of the big social issues of the day.”

The company is currently working on a game that looks into lawlessness on the ocean, and how that very real problem is being addressed, and might be resolved in the future. “Changing technology is often a good way to approach stories about the future, but why not also changing social norms and institutions?”

He acknowledges that approaching alternative visions of the future can be difficult, because it often takes deep research into the problems and potential solutions of the present. But he says that story-tellers who immerse themselves in these problems are likely to learn a lot more about the world – and to find surprising and innovative stories – than the same old rehashes of post apocalyptic wastelands.

“There are opportunities for commercially successful games that take a unique and fresh view of the future, that are so evocative that people want to urge that vision of the future into existence. I think that’s a really interesting challenge.”

Colin Campbell

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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