Futures in commercial games

#1

Hi all! We’re currently conducting a research project on how games imagine different versions of the future, in particular when it comes to sustainability and we’d like to start a little discussion! There are many people here with good and deep thoughts about games in a societal context!

My name is Marion Behrends and I am in my second year of the master’s program of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University. In order to complete my education, I am working on an extended thesis project aiming to understand the role of commercial games in directing or limiting the ability to imagine (desirable) futures in players, supervised by Dr. Joost Vervoort, Assistant professor of the Environmental Governance Group of the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development and Research Associate of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.

We are interested in what futures are represented, and not represented, by commercial games at the moment – how this impacts the types of futures that we can all imagine, and how more diverse futures could become part of the commercial gaming landscape.
I have conducted an analysis of around 100 commercial games that imagine different futures so far, and it seems that (unsurprisingly) most of these games are set in dystopic futures with very limited ideas about future politics, economics, sustainability and nature, et cetera.
So we’d like to drop a few questions here in this Waypoint forum and get a discussion going.

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#2

Hi all, Joost here, I’m Marion’s project advisor and I will be engaging with the conversation as well. Really curious to see what ideas you all have!

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#3

No one’s representing a good, socialist future, for a lot of reasons. The two biggest being, I think:

  1. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (for capitalists)

  2. Not enough conflict to drive violent gameplay

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#4

I think @jackissocool hits on a very good point, given the majority of AAA games are driven by combat in some regard, their worlds need to be conducive to violence, often that means futures envisioned in games are dystopian in some regard and often have little interest in exploring questions beyond those that drive the story. Rarely are things like alternate sources of energy discussed unless they play a role in the plot somehow and if that’s the case, often that alternate source of energy has some major set-back (example: DOOM has information regarding alternate sources for energy, because energy is sourced from hell, leading to lots of problems).

I think it might be worth looking into futuristic city-building or 4X games for an idea of some futures outside of a violent context (less so in 4x games, but still). Many of these games are still tied to capitalism as the economic engine but provide some interesting views of the future that I of course forget right now!

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#5

I’m not sure what the questions will be, or what the definition of commercial games is. But I’ve been playing a lot of No Man’s Sky lately. It clearly is taking inspiration from science-fiction works from the 1960s and 70s, of exploring and finding. Some of the sites are breathtaking, and in part a main thrust of the game is awe from the size of the world and unexpected natural wonders.

In an ironic twist you end having to harvest a lot of the natural resources to fuel your ship and, eventually, build a base. When you’re attacked by a creature you can choose to fight it and kill it or run away, and it’s often more efficient to just do away with it. Beyond floating sentinels that enforce authority, there is never any repercussions for just doing with the environment as you will, and leveling entire forests is the norm.

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#6

Maybe you’re thinking of the the future Anno (2070 and 2205) games? These imagine a future where the conflict is political, economic and environmental, and that ultimately human civilization remains stable and avoids dystopia. Conflict revolves roughly around tension between late-stage capitalism and regulated capitalism that is pro labour and green policies (the same player will interact with and make use of both factions, which is a neat approach).

Neither are strictly non-violent, but the combat is rarely the primary means of conflict in an Anno game.

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#7

Hello, I have not played the game, but you might want to look into the online multiplayer game The Tomorrow Children. It is a dystopic vision of the future (of course!), but it’s my understanding that it is also communist. You work collectively (society needs everyone to mine for X ore, everyone returns X ore to drop points), and you do not own personal things (so it sometimes involves waiting in line for, say, a car). It was closed in 2017, but Janine Hawkins wrote a good farewell piece for Waypoint about it that might help illustrate how it could be relevant to you: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8x5zm4/my-last-night-with-the-tomorrow-children

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#8

Hi all, thanks a lot for the great replies! @Marion and I are in the Netherlands and it’s late here now, but we’ll respond tomorrow and post some questions for people to dig into.

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#9

The only futures that games can conceive of where the anthropocene has not reached its logical conclusion i.e. environmental collapse, are ones where some other apocalyptic scenario has occurred first. No future actually reckons with our actual future, and instead needs to imagine a more fantastical reason for a similar outcome.

A lot of clever stuff has been written about the fantasy of the post-apocalypse: the absolving of responsibility, the colonial fantasy etc and I think that all also applies to how commercial games and movies envision the future. It’s like they want the future to get to the total collapse of society as fast as possible, because depicting the slow decline of society into varying states of emergency places the onus on the audience to engage and take action.

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#10

The Mass Effect series interests me along these points because it’s politics are so…vague? We can tell they’re militaristic and I’m sure the books go into it more, but unless I’m mistaken, it never really goes into how we’ve managed to not destroy ourselves while still being capitalistic (probably?).

The Halo games are similar, in that, the humans are actively preventing the apocalypse but seem to be flourishing. Again, the military is really the only system that is seen in detail though.

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#11

The only games I can think of that present actively progressive and leftist visions of the future are ones that took those settings from franchises that already existed in other media.

The Star Trek games are the most obvious example, and I think it’s important to note that those games are, at least generally, Trek at its least progressive, in how they omit any exploration of social issues, advocacy for progressive causes, or explicit condemnation of capitalism - all features of the various shows - in favour of simple stories of military conflict.

This ties in with points already made by Glorgu and epigraph, but it might be interesting to explore how certain games can provide frameworks - flawed frameworks, but frameworks nonetheless - for imagining a better future. Waypoint’s own Stellaris streams dealing with the rise of the Striven Solar Commonwealth are a good example of what I mean.

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#12

I guess a main question of mine is, what do you mean by commercial games? Heaven Will Be Mine was made and sold on a much smaller scale than most of the games mentioned here, but is the best depiction of the future in a game I’ve seen?

Or rather, Heaven Will Be Mine deals with futurity, and fighting over what the best future is. There are three major ideological factions represented by three protagonists, and there’s three individual endings. In each ending, one of the character gets to decide their fate (and sometimes even the fate of society) and how the world will be.

This includes leaving earth behind and living in their robots, shifting the moon and flow of gravity so that the moon is habitable and becomes it’s own sovereign space and even includes leaving their humanity behind and becoming aliens.

This reminds me of an article that I saw about how a society with true socialism is completely unimaginable to us. A world that is fair is hard for us to fathom and will necessitate a giant, almost unfathomable shift. Heaven Will Be Mine recognizes a good future is radically different than ours. While it can take many shapes, it won’t resemble the current shape of our present.

“What is the thing you really want?”

The simplest, childish thought grasps Pluto, bubbles up within her, and before she can stop it she says it:

“I want us to be together, forever. In our beautiful shapes in space, free.”

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#13

One more relevant image because I love HWBM and have been thinking about how it views the future forever:

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#14

yes! I was going to suggest HWBM as well. Note I made to myself after playing it this year:
“horny metaphysical sci-fi shenanigans”

I remember having a conversation recently about gravity , and I actually brought up this game because I said I liked to think of gravity in a more romantic sense, like something we need but fucks us up…something about living and being warped by the song the stars sing to each other…don’t remember it exactly

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#15

Hmmm… I’m trying to think of big budget games who have some alternative takes on the future of humanity than just “coporations bad, military good” or just “everything is going to go to hell”, either fantastical or more realistic, that have not been brought up.

  • Horizon: Zero Dawn comes to mind, with societal collapse after an A.I. driven apocalypse, which is nothing new. But having humanity, now hunter-gatherers, survive by living both in harmony with nature and the existing A.I. is slightly more inspired.
  • Prey is mostly just “Big Space Corporation Meddling With Aliens Go Very, Very Wrong” until it’s eventually revealed to be a simulation designed to teach empathy to an alien species that has overrun earth. It’s a strange twist that envisions future humanity as a ruthless capitalist machine, but still retains the capacity to still be a force of empathy and peace in the universe (even if it is driven by selfish goals)
    -The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, while fantastical, still depicts a society that has been largely destroyed by a “natural” force that the previous generation was unable to stop. The parallels to climate change are not subtle. The theme of putting aside differences between peoples and using technology to prevent the catastrophe finishing the rest of society is the closest envisioning of the politics necessary for very-near-future-if-not-present us to stop climate change.
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#16

This is really interesting! An interview I conducted with a gamer that preferebly likes to play shooters also described it like you. So commercial games and sci-fi movies as a sort of escapism from the reality that is emerging from todays behaviour instead of being confronted with possible behaviour change!

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#17

Thanks for all the insights so far, really interesting points! At first, with commercial games we also mean indie games, it’s just more to exclude serious games for example. So for the analysis I conducted indie games were included next to AAA games.
Considering the conflict needed for most ‘classical’ shooters I analysed games from the main genres equally (ranging from Bioshock to Factorio, Horizon Zero Dawn or Papers, please). So, after we touched upon how games currently depict futures (and I’d also like to hear more about that!) I’d like to ask you if you can you think of reasons, why the game sector is structured in this way? What might be the influencing factors?

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#18

Happy to forward my thoughts on video games for academic puposes!

I think most games, particularly sci-fi orientated games have more in common with the imagined futures portrayed in movies more than they offer up anything wholly original. Neon lit Bladerunner cyber punk is a popular aesthetic, soon to be done on the grandest scale with Cyberpunk 2077. Cyberpunk by its very nature seems to be dystopian with clear limits put on humanity’s development personal and otherwise. The two most recent Deus Ex games are perfect examples of this, with augmented persons creating divide in society - representing similar divides that have plagued humanity through the centuries.

In terms of originality Prey and Fallout spring to mind, but serve up a retro-future that branched off at different junctures in history. In many ways these futures are ‘impossible’. Fallout the 1950s, in which the US embraced atomic power as well as the weapons it created. Prey from 1960s in which Robert Kennedy wasn’t assassinated and was allowed to continue his ‘progressive’ agenda that fuelled the moon landings and led to the lunar space station of which the game takes place.

Fallout started out as a series that was highly anti-war and a scathing indicement of the silver age, a world where the happy go lucky attitude of 50s maintained despite much of the world being reduced to an radioactive wasteland. Future apocalypse is always a mainstay in games with large open worlds, you perhaps don’t need as much work populating a wasteland with features rather than living breathing city. However, I think the more recent Fallout games from Bethesda have put alot of the old spirit aside in favour of giving players power fantasys and nuking your friends. It’s a series whose power has devolved quite considerably. Selling both the happy go lucky attitude of the atomic age along with the havoc it presented.

Prey offers up a more interesting and recogniseable future. The lunar station you explore feels like a real place even to the point it has a HR and marketing department you can explore. I guess the whole mimic presense does relate loosely to cold war dynamics, with humans ultimately looking for means to understand the aliens who can take our shape and how they can be brought under our rule and used for specific purposes. There is the prevalence of collecting resources and using 3D printers to keep yourself better equipped for the adventure.

As others say Horizon: Zero Dawn offers up a more original future, where nature has regained it’s place, yet much of the wildlife have been replaced by these mecha-stand-ins that rule over the humans who have been forced into a hunter gatherer society - still plagued by the same old human tribalism. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was another game that had similar ideas, a kind of colourful post apocalypse where the remnants of humanity fight the robots that created their demise.

In terms of imagined futures, I think there maybe something in some of the Call of Duty games - most notably the Advance Warfare and later Black Ops game that is set in the near future. I believe that Advanced Warfare had a level set in Iraq where it is a shining technological city. Also Infinite Warfare, which probably has one of the most realistic depictions of what a war across planets might look like. At the same time, it’s a fairly standard but suprisingly grounded parable of war, in which soldiers are sacrificed for the greater good.

I remember with some of these COD games, the developers seemed to be very close with actual developments in the US military - so it seemed authentic to a degree (outside of the Michael Bayisms). Infinite Warfare had some interesting parts inbetween the regular missions, in which you were able to walk around your ship - not too different to an aircraft carrier but everything was very self sufficient again with the 3D printers and media being channelled directly into your ship. One of the characters was a robot with artificial sentience, a capable special forces soldier who was programmed to come across as more human across it’s demeanour.

Related to this, though more fantasical, I think the Titanfall games offer an interesting vision of the future albeit with the old space civil war trope that is very Star Wars/Serenity. Though the second game has a very standard story, the first game involved an MP campaign in which a plucky group of rebels did battle with a bunch of mercenaries employed by the corporate overlords. Titanfall was an upgrade to the original COD formula, with improved mobility whilst on the ground as a soldier and the ability to call in a hulking mecha battle tank. There is an interesting dynamic in the background of Titanfall. The first game involved you selecting human characters in the multiplayer, but in the 2nd game there was more and more, your characters were more augmented to the point that some of them were the same robots you were fighting against. It was a cool little nod to the fact that humanity was gradually being phased out to actually fight interstellar wars. It’s another game where robots are subject to the old terminator fears but at the same time your robotic partner in the Titanfall 2 game is out to protect you and shows concern for your safety to the point that when he sacrifices himself to save your character it’s like losing a friend.

Bit of a ramble…

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#19

Yeah, the more systems/resources-focused games do seem to have more space for exploring non-violent futures.

#20

Thanks! Very cool, didn’t know about this one!