Video Games That Tackle Social Issues

It’s not all just fun and games, video games also explore what we care about

One of my early childhood video-game-playing experiences was in elementary school, parked in front of a (now ancient) computer playing “educational” games, such as Super Solvers: Outnumbered where you use math to defeat a mad scientist (with a classical music soundtrack in 8-bit tones), or The Oregon Trail, where you have to battle river crossings, excess meat (I always wound up with way more pounds of meat when I went hunting than I could carry), and dysentery to safely deposit your pioneers in Oregon. I don’t know what the general success rate is of Oregon Trail, but I think I only ever made it once, and I played it a lot (seriously, dysentery was the worst!).

While video games like this were fun, we were all supposed to learn something from them (or else we wouldn’t get to play them in school, right?), so the idea of getting something more that just mere entertainment out of playing a video game is not a new idea. Indeed, there are many games that have come out over the years that help teach us lessons about social issues like environmentalism, mental illness, and cultural sensitivity. Able to unite and inspire, video games can lead to open-mindedness, which helps to disrupt embedded stereotypes, and can encourage us to think from other perspectives.

Environmentalism

Though it mind seem a little irrational to want to play a video game about saving the environment (since wouldn’t it make more sense to just go outside and be in the environment?), nevertheless there are many popular games that have a heavy focus on environmental stewardship. Being “green” and protecting the environment are values that many people view as important social issues–after all, if we don’t have a planet to live on, there won’t be much of a society anyway!

Fate of the World

Developed in 2011 by Red Redemption, Fate of the World is a global warming game wherein the player manages social, technological, and environmental policies in order to prevent the destruction of the world from the perils wrought by climate change. With a famously difficult learning curve, this turn based game hops forward five years every turn and you are forced to think about long term ramifications for every decision you make. This game is not only great for developing eco-consciousness, but for understanding the interconnectedness of society, technology, and the environment.

Flower

Flower is one of those games that takes your breath away; one of those beautiful, visually pleasing games that are just as enjoyable to watch as they are to play. At its core, Flower is about an appreciation for the beauty of nature, and it doesn’t beat you over the head with its message of sustainability. Rather it lets you take your time meandering through the game while seamlessly incorporating issues like urbanization and renewable energy. Since it’s not a heavy handed plea for environmentalism, the player is able to take their time examining their own feelings about those sorts of issues. This sort of subtlety makes it a great choice for building a deeper awareness of and appreciation for the natural world.

Mental Illness

Game developers have started to embrace the huge potential for video games to bring awareness to mental health conditions by creating games with protagonists who navigate their daily lives with mental illness. Covering topics like depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia, the immersive quality of video games enables the player to have insight into these often debilitating issues that thousands of people deal with every day. The goal is often to increase aware and understanding for these mental disorders, and sometimes even create games that help to treat them (in some cases, playing video games can help sufferers of depression and PTSD!).

Hellblade

One game that was specifically designed to mimic the effects of schizophrenia (as well as the profound effects of grief) is the award-winning Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017). Indeed, the developers worked with experts in the field in order to create as authentic an experience as possible. The story follows Senua, a warrior woman on a voyage through Viking hell in an attempt to free the soul of her dead lover, and she must face many demons on her journey, both real and imagined. Senua suffers from depression, anxiety, and psychosis; she can see and hear things that aren’t really there, adding complex layers to the playing experience. Since you are playing as a character suffering from a mental illness, it can help increase your understanding of and compassion for those who suffer from mental illness in real life.

The Last of Us

In The Last of Us (2017), you play as Joel, who has lost his teenage daughter in the events leading up to the current zombie apocalypse. It’s clear that Joel is suffering from severe grief and wanders his world in a fog of depression, unsure of what he has left to live for. As a player, it’s clear that Joel is not OK; through his tone, dialogue, and body language it’s obvious that he’s just going through the motions. It’s only when he meets Ellie, a teenage girl who reminds him of his lost daughter, that things begin to turn around for him and he starts to find purpose in life again. Of course, Ellie doesn’t “fix” Joel, but she does help him heal, and we still get a rather poignant view into mental illness through this character.

Cultural Sensitivity

Some video games handle issues of cultural sensitivity, bringing awareness to the public by telling a story from a different perspective. In this way, video game players can become more empathetic to other cultures and increase their sensitivity to the struggles that otherwise might be hidden from everyday view.

This War of Mine

This War of Mine (2014) takes place in the fictional war-torn city of Pogoren, Graznavia, and instead of playing as a soldier, you play as a leader of civilian survivors. This game gives players a completely new way to view war: keeping people alive rather than defeating the enemy. In the game you are responsible for the other characters’ health, hunger, and mood levels (kind of like The Sims), and are forced to constantly intervene to ensure your charges stay alive in the hostile environment. It’s an interesting take on the genre, as instead of mindlessly working through missions as a soldier, you must make life-and-death decisions about the everyday, average inhabitant of Pogoren.

Borders

Borders (2017) is an indie game that was created to highlight the dangers that illegal immigrants face at the US-Mexico border. After hearing stories from his own parents’ harrowing border crossing, the creator, Gonzalo Alvarez, wanted to give those struggles a voice. Players must survive harsh conditions and other obstacles similar to the ones real immigrants face in trying to enter the US, such as avoiding dehydration and La Migra (the border patrol). Through the game Alvarez is attempting to convey the perils that immigrants are willing to endure in order to ensure that the next generation has a chance at a better life.

What other games would you like to see included on a list of video games that deal with social issues? What sorts of issues do you think video games do a good job of tackling? Let us know in the comments!