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Turning Video Games from Toys into Tools

Turning Video Games from Toys into Tools


In his book Half-Real, video game researcherJesper Jule outlines his theory on video games being half real: real rules that the operator must interact with, real losses, real wins; that occur in a fictional world.

“To play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world and a video game is a set of rules as well as a fictional world” - Juul

Recently, however, with the rise of independent video gaming, many games are blurring the lines between these two halves. Independent video game designers have been leaving the aggressiveness and competitiveness to the blockbusters and introducing games that focus on character depth and existential experiences.

In December, Orthogonal Games released The Novelist, a computer game that focuses on the personal dilemmas within a tired family. The operator is positioned as a ghost observing the struggles of a despairing writer, his tired wife and their bullied son. As the ghost the user is able to extract memories, desires, and thoughts from characters and encourage behavior in order to tie their home back together. To play a game like this, one must take a psychological walk in another’s shoes, experience the identity of another and put their struggles in our hands. Including real world problems and nuances in video games allows them to reach their full potential by intellectually challenging and bettering the player. The skills required to play a video game have evolved from a set of actions performed to accomplish a goal, to skills that transcend the medium into the real world. Independent game developers have managed to turn a toy into a tool.

 Gameplay screenshot from The Novelist (Source)

Papo & Yo, a game released by Minority tells the story of a young boy, Quico, and his best friend, Monster. They play together and love each other despite Monster being a dangerous creature with horns and razor-sharp teeth. The real problem is Monster’s addiction to poisonous frogs and the rage that follows his eating them, which puts both Monster and Quico in danger. Monster’s character is designed as a metaphor of a substance abusive father, and as Quico, the player must learn to solve puzzles and accomplish tasks by taking advantage of Monster’s emotions, both good and bad, to complete the adventure.

 Gameplay screenshot from Papo & Yo (Source)

The developers of Assasin’s Creed, currently one of the best-selling action adventure games, will be releasing Watch Dogs later this year; a game in which the user operates as a rebel fighting against government surveillance in a futuristic Chicago. Just as soon as these independent developers started embedding real-life nuances and relevant issues into their games, the blockbusters followed.

The independent game developers that are pushing this trend describe their stray from guns and gore as a desire to produce video games as art and as tools that encourage communication with the self and with one another. Sony Computer Entertainment’s vice president Adam Boyes explained that “Video games were always a way out, but nowadays we can have deeper conversations, whether it’s around the NSA or our relationships with our parents.” It seems as though, while we used to find amazement in exploring other worlds, we are finding just as much amazement in exploring our own. 

The realistic challenges presented by these games are almost as powerful as the visual simulators we awed at in futuristic movies; they transport the user’s conscious into an experience that has as much of a powerful impact and learning experience for the mind as being there would. What is most amazing about this new tool is that it is not due to any sort of technological development. We are dealing with the same equipment, but by reinventing the substance and the mentality we apply to the machine, we have advanced its power by tenfold.




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