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Opinion

More Than Just Entertainment: Video Games as a Vessel

Sitting in a college town coffee shop on a snowy Saturday afternoon, I sipped my latte while moving Detective Michael Stone around the town of Pineview in Frostwood Interactive’s Rainswept. Music was playing beyond the world of my headphones, and the cafe was bustling with students and locals. Yet, at one critical point, it began to evolve from just a mystery. Curtains began to close around me, blocking all except the game. A series of moments began to explore the dark past of the victims at the heart of the story, as well as main character Michael Stone.

Rainswept begins with a warning about the game’s more sensitive topics. Usually, I shrug these things off, not because I think they lack importance, but because I tend to be desensitized to many things or haven’t had the experience for the topic to be triggering for me.

I found one of few exceptions.

Even in a stylized, two-dimensional game, I found my own emotions building to a swell, compelling me to pause and focus on something else for a few minutes. I was reminded of states of mind that I, fortunately, hadn’t been in in a very long time, and of my own demons that led me to them a long time ago.

Trauma plays a role in the story too. It’s discovered regarding a character’s past, and the player is forced to pick from dialogue options of how to respond to it. While the choices do not have an impact on the final events of the game, there is something about playing an active role that makes things resonate. For some players, it may be their first time listening to someone who has experienced trauma. Understanding its effects in a virtual environment may be the first step to better know how to address it in the future, though the breadth of options in this instance is limited.

In Rainswept, players cannot victim blame. It’s impossible to do, forcing those who may think to do so to reexamine their way of thinking. The game is a showcase for how video games as a whole can be an exceptional way of starting a conversation or continuing an existing one. Once people play an active role, even as a bystander, issues that suddenly felt distant become real.

Games like Rainswept can serve as a vessel for the exploration of sensitive topics in a very intimate, interactive space. Despite playing a role, the player is always somewhat removed from the events themselves through the sheer way of “playing.” In this way, video games can be a safe space to explore trauma, or maybe even help heal from it, and discuss important issues.

Becoming lost in an environment that is not one’s own can be incredibly therapeutic. In a 2017 study from Frontiers, it was found that handheld games can help relieve anxiety more than medicine for children before surgery. Puzzle games, such as Tetris, can even help relieve people of trauma. Whether serving as a distraction or bringing up important issues, it is clear that video games can be a tool for us to handle the weight that so often feels heavy in our minds. For every article that is quick to post regarding how games induce violent behavior in youths, consider these studies and the positive impacts that video games have had on your own life, and in the lives of those around you.

Personally, I play in large part for the escapism they offer. Though I never lose sight of reality, games offer a chance to submerge myself in a world free of my own stresses. My favorite genre across multiple mediums is horror, which itself is unique in that it offers consumers a way to manage fear in an environment free of true consequence. I may be scared the whole way, but come to learn that I can conquer the next monstrosity lurking around real and virtual corners.

I would also like to point out how titles like last year’s Neofeud prove how well games can provide social commentary, as it offered plenty on class systems, income inequality, capitalism, and the possibility of a dark turn that our technological future can very easily take. In these cases the vessel takes on a different function and allows us to look at the current state of affairs through modified lenses; since we play in a world different enough from ours, we can discover its secrets and, later on, take a step back to see the parallels to our own.

It’s important to have games like Rainswept and Neofeud, and they are just two of the many important, thought-provoking titles out there. Art is often used to make us think more about the world we live in, and games offer an interactive way of doing so. Whether a visual novel, a point-and-click mystery or a survival horror game with many underlying themes beyond the scares a la the Silent Hill series, video games can offer people a chance to battle through whatever may be happening in their lives. Their service as a vessel allows for the exploration of difficult topics in a more intimate manner than films or shows do, and in this way, their importance cannot be understated. Though many exist for pure entertainment value — which, lest we forget, is completely fine — others strive to make us think about the world we live in. They offer scenarios not too dissimilar, but familiar enough that, like The Twilight Zone, we can recognize and experience enough to learn from them. It’s integral that we don’t lose sight of their importance, especially in a global climate that requires serious thought about our roles in it.

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