When it comes to video games, the real world is usually cast to the side, ignored, and left in the corner as if it were in trouble. Usually, in-game, the real world (or some variation thereupon) is in trouble, but as gamers, we like to be able to escape, and pretend that the real world doesn't exist for a short time. It's partly why I like games so much. Games keep me from going mad every single time I step outside.
When real world elements pop up in video games, it can be jarring, but it can also be a pleasant shift into something new and interesting. It can bring an assurance to a certain type of gamer that using your brain when you game is not at all discouraged. Bringing your interests and hobbies outside of gaming to your personal experience is one of the best ways to get more out of your games.
Consider your interests. Are you science person? A philosophy enthusiast? Perhaps you love poetry and literature. Are you a history buff? Trust me, there are elements of your non-gaming interests littered throughout this current console generation. You might have to dig a bit, but you will find them, and you'll gain so much more.
If you follow newspapers or even a few video gaming websites, you know that the real world tends not to wait for many people. There is always some kind of event that you just know could end up in a video game, or perhaps even has. Sometimes the events that filter in are awkward, other times they suggest that a writer felt strongly about a topic and wished to share with others. In the latter case, it depends very strongly upon the writer's abilities to ensure that the gamer investigating that person's story actually cares about the topic in the same way.
Consider Grand Theft Auto IV. Niko Bellic, the player character, is an Eastern European immigrant to Liberty City, a veteran of an unspecified war seeking a new life, if a violent and cynical one. His speaking Serbian reveals Niko's nationality, and suggests that he likely fought in the Balkan conflict during the 1990s. If this is the case, it casts him in much darker shades of gray than most GTA protagonists. GTA seems to favor the blatantly bad people with slight touches of brightness as main characters, but Niko exists in an area between noble-intentioned-sort-of-maybe-not-a-totally-bad-guy to wow-bad-guy-for-real. It's his background's solid root in reality that gives him this air, even if the gamer may not see him in such a light.
The real world events that seem to have the strongest influence on video games are those involving war. While Niko Bellic reflects a specific, late 20th century, post-Soviet Union / post-Cold War conflict, there are other events, rooted in science as well as war, that can give gamers chills when they realize the reality of the location. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare utilized the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster to high effect in its Pripyat level, an eerie, unsettling recreation of a real place, with a real history, where real people lived, worked, had families, laughed, and existed. What we see in Modern Warfare is a glimpse at a world where life has fallen by the wayside, one of those rare places in the real world where people cannot live, where they simply cannot exist, because of a historical event.
The Pripyat level of Modern Warfare stands out because of its environment, and the horrific reality of the location gives it a greater sense of impending dread. When the characters are forced to hide, to watch as enemy troops slowly come at them, while they continue to move out of the dead city, it's unsettling, suspenseful, and terrifying. That terror, the sense of dread, it owes much of that atmosphere to the location itself.
Look up pictures of Pripyat, read about it. It's one of the most terrifying and sad things you'll ever learn about. Its tangible existence, its real status as an isolated place, locked away from the rest of the world, protected and feared all at the same time makes it seem like an unreal location, as if it were something better suited to, well, a video game, a figment of some developer's deranged imagination. When the full reality of what Pripyat used to be, the future that it represented, the potential it had, when that hits you as a person, as a gamer, you fall silent. You cannot conceive, for those brief moments, that this was real.
It makes you crave the unsettling fiction of Silent Hill. At least in Silent Hill you're mostly certain that the monsters are in your own head, not products of a real world gone mad.
I've often written about how games offer escape. What if that escape sends us, as the player, right back into the reality of the world around us? No, we're not living in a war zone. No, we're not dealing with nuclear fallout that evicts us from our homes and might kill us almost thirty years later. In our games, though, we are, and, as gamers, we recognize that sometimes our games take on elements of the real world that we need to know about.
Education never stops at the classroom. I admit that Grand Theft Auto IV got me interested in learning about the wars in the Balkans. I grew up hearing about them, but I never knew what those wars meant, until a video game reminded me that the 1990s were not a peaceful period of time, and that, no matter who you are, there is always a war going on, somewhere. I can find the direct correlation between my personal interest in military history and the game that made me look outside of the console box and start investigating.
Grand Theft Auto IV was the first video game that made me think that perhaps there is something smarter going on with developers than we gamers realize. Perhaps, as we gamers get smarter, as we educate ourselves more about the world, we'll see more and more elements in video games that can make them a useful learning tool, a gateway to the real world, to exploration.
Maybe I've had it wrong the whole time. Maybe video games aren't an escape. Maybe video games are a temporary doorway to another world, one that opens up the history books and the possibilities in this one.
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