Videogames With a Social Conscience

Videogames get a bad rap. Parents' groups condemn them as a raucous cocktail of guns, murder, sex and prostitution—reminiscent of the drubbing comic books received in the 1940s. Sen. Hillary Clinton, now soon to be U.S. secretary of state, once listed them as part of a SARS-like "silent epidemic" infecting an entire generation of impressionable youngsters. "We are conducting an experiment," Clinton said in 2005, "and we have no idea what the outcomes are going to be." Now that the market is awash in violent videogames, the industry may be belatedly getting a social conscience. For the past several years a small coterie of passionate game developers have been incorporating social issues, politics and moral choices into gameplay. Lately, big-name game developers have picked up these themes and begun to incorporate them into the blockbusters that make up the bulk of the U.S. industry's $9.5 billion a year in sales.

Ubisoft—better known for shoot-'em-up games such as Blazing Angels and a series of Tom Clancy–based thrillers—recently launched a new version of its bestselling Far Cry series of first-person shooters that takes the game in a more altruistic direction. It follows on the heels of Activision's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which in 2007 recast the long-running series from the relatively safe environs of World War II—where right and wrong are always fairly straightforward—to the middle of two hypothetical wars in the Middle East and Russia (a not-implausible future). And BlackSite: Area 51, partly set in Iraq (but with aliens), took on an almost "Daily Show"–style cynicism, with references to Abu Ghraib and the abuse of prisoners, and game levels with names like Last Throes, borrowed directly from the Bush administration.

The big commercial game developers have long steered clear of politics, and a vocal contingent of the online gaming community is sure to let them know whenever they stray. Since the late 1980s, videogames have been about better and better graphics, not realistic human behavior and emotions. As Ian Bogost of the Georgia Institute of Technology notes, even many of the blockbusters with the most advanced 3-D graphics still essentially employ the concepts established by Atari in the 1970s—"move stuff around on the screen and run into other stuff." And where videogames have touched on moral choices, they've been more likely to show up in fantasy worlds than in the setting of real international conflicts. As gamers get older and more numerous, Ubisoft and others are now betting that more of them are ready for some human complexity.

Ubisoft's Far Cry 2 strips out the science-fiction aspect of the first game (mutants inhabiting a tropical island) and instead takes a more realistic approach that includes issues not typically part of a videogame. It is set in a fictionalized central African country devastated by two warring factions. Typically, the character in a game like this would be nearly invincible, with a complete arsenal at his disposal to take out the bad guys. But just as soon as the game begins, the protagonist contracts malaria. The player must then choose whether to work with one faction or the other, or with the local church, to get the medication he needs. Conditions in the country continue to deteriorate over the course of the game. The sniper rifle is still the most fun part of playing, and the moral questions of right and wrong are not exactly central, but they're there.

Far Cry 2 sold 1 million copies worldwide within a month of its release. With this kind of success, introducing moral values as an added layer of depth could quickly become a standard. "If you look at Far Cry 2, it's 80 hours long," says James O'Reilly of Ubisoft. "You can't just run around blowing things up that whole time." As gamers have come to expect amazing, lifelike graphics, developers are now having to consider other ways to hold their attention.

They have plenty of material to draw on. Impact Games, a startup cofounded by former Israeli intelligence officer Asi Burak, took a courageous leap into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Peace Maker, a game produced by designers from both sides of the dispute. Players assume the role of either the Israeli or Palestinian head of state, and the objective is to balance public opinion on either end. Despite a tiny budget, the game received a boost in distribution when the Perez Center in Tel Aviv circulated 80,000 copies in Haaretz and Al Quds, newspapers from both sides of the conflict, on the same day that the peace summit opened in Annapolis, Maryland, in late 2007.

Palestinian and Israeli newspapers are the entree to Global Conflicts: Palestine, in which gamers role-play as freelance journalists, chasing leads through Jerusalem, conducting interviews and writing on assignment. The developer, Serious Games Interactive, has just released the second installment, set in Latin America, where gamers report on human-rights abuses and the effects of globalization on local communities from Mexico to Bolivia. Its next game—you play the part of an investigator with the International Criminal Court on the conscription of child soldiers in Uganda—is a work in progress.

With luck, perhaps these games will get people thinking about solving problems of the real world. We're going to need the help.