Jake Anderson

Mar 17, 2021

12 min read

Looking beyond the controversial cliché: Goodwill gaming

Ghost of Tsushima Protagonist: Jin Sakai and the Torii gate

In September last year, a natural disaster raged throughout Tsushima, an island of the Japanese archipelago. When the dust settled, the people of Tsushima counted their losses and much to their dismay the sacred torii gate of their Watasumi shrine was among them. But, out of nowhere, an army of benefactors started donating to help. The priest of the shrine, Yuichi Hirayama, who launched the crowdfund said they reached more than “540% of its goal”. But just who were these charitable good samaritans? Well, they were none other than gamers. Gaming is not often known for being ethical. Yet, in recent years there have been many acts of goodwill carried out through it, both in-game and in real life, proving that gamers do indeed have a heart. With a historically negative reputation, the insiders and consumers of the game industry discuss how gaming is moving beyond entertainment to become something more.

“We received a great deal of support from the players of the game Ghost of Tsushima set in Tsushima,” says Hirayama. The game tells a tale of a samurai’s resistance against the Mongolian empire’s invasion of Japan. This samurai epic quickly became the fastest-selling PlayStation 4 exclusive game, dazzling its players with Tsushima’s beautifully emulated scenery. Until now, this sort of phenomenon was unheard of. Gamers coming to the aid of the real-life place their game was set in sounds like a plot to a Black Mirror episode. But upon introspection, the circumstances of it became clear. “It makes sense that after playing the game as a samurai and protecting the beautiful temples and shrines, that we were inspired to help repair it,” says Matt, one of the gamers that donated. If the game tells a compelling story, it could incite a strong emotional response from its audience. A response that could be a catalyst for a charity of the place it’s based on. Films already employ this methodology, take the 2016 Australian biographical drama film, Lion. It raised over $250,000 to support non-profit organizations serving vulnerable children on the ground in India. The plot perfectly illustrates this issue by telling a true story about an Indian child separated from his parents. It stands to reason that games could do the same and quite possibly even better.

As of 2020, gaming is now making more than the music industry and the film industry combined. Games have an untapped potential as a charitable asset. “I believe that it would be a great idea to market charity for struggling areas through games such as this one that portray those real-life places,” says Matt. A game about Chernobyl for instance could boost their charity’s donations many times over. It’s also worth noting that with video games, the story feels more like your journey instead of someone else’s. “These games put you in the shoes of the main character in an interactive form, forcing you to resonate with the world and characters on a much deeper level than what other media can achieve.” Certainly more than a disruptive tv charity ad that relies on the shock factor of poverty-stricken children. Why disrupt your experience when a game could make it part of your experience? It could prove to make gaming charity’s most dominant asset in the future.

But as it turns out, games are already well on their way to making this a reality through streamers. Twitch, the world’s leading live streaming platform for gamers, has raised over £150 million for charities through stream donations. Viewers donate for individual recognition as well as to feel good about their entertainment by donating to charities via the stream. So, gamers become charitable individuals if the charity is tailored to their experience. Take the players of the multiplayer game Overwatch that donated to The BCRF for example. They were more than happy to buy a Breast Cancer Research Foundation skin to customise their character with. For them, it was both a cool new look for their character and an ethical act. Together BCRF and Overwatch made a profit of £9.9 million just from gamers purchasing the skin to customise their characters. So it turns out that charity and games go together like bacon and eggs. Provide a gamer with an incentive to donate such as a moving story or customisable content their contribution becomes much more likely. Which explains why Ghost of Tsushima players were “inspired to help repair” the torii.

Gameplay: I am Jesus Christ

Yet despite the charitable endeavours of gamers, the games that they play have always held a less than virtuous reputation. Of course, there are exceptions. Indie game developer Maksym Vysochanskiy is an individual trying to develop a game that embodies goodwill in the same way the bible does. The Polish game developer’s new and upcoming game is called I am Jesus Christ. As the title suggests you play as the famed messiah in the events of the bible. His intentions behind it were to create an enjoyable, educational and interactive experience in which you could learn about the life of the messiah. “The game will allow you not only to see but interact with things from Jesus’s environment in Israel. I think it will be a great education”, says Maksym. Vysochanskiy also wanted to create a game with the potential to be popular without being violent, “it’s a little bit hard to find those good games, but I am a family man so I worry about violence in games and yet there is so much, it’s the same situation with movies. Look at what movies are producing the biggest budget and the biggest profit!” Of course, this would be an indie game, but his hopes are that by making a game about “the most famous man in the world” that it would become somewhat iconic. But, the most iconic titles such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto all glorify immorality. The common denominator is violence, violence that’s not even limited to the games intended for the mature. You’ll even find violence in games intended for children such as Pokemon. But why was this? Psychology experts such as Professor Dolf Zillmann and Dr Robert Johnston have stated that violent media can incite feelings of empowerment, excitement, and status, among other psychological satisfactions.

Video game violence exists because of what it makes the players feel. The violence is not meant to be escapism but it is meant to allow the opportunity for it. In your video game character’s adventures, their violent actions against the antagonists allow the opportunity for achievement, mastery and heroism. Aspects of life that are both rare and fulfilling, and are constantly sought after by both children and adults alike. Game designer William comments that “if someone does choose that playstyle, I’m sure it’s because it’s something outside the norm of how they would act in real life, to go down the rabbit hole and see what it's like on the other side”. Many are simply getting their money’s worth, unless it’s a simulator most people aren’t willing to fork over cash to play a game that emulates their real life entirely. Most of the people who play these games are no different from moviegoers who watch violent films. This is why video games follow a three-act plot structure just as films do. After the setup, there is the conflict and then the resolution. For fans of video games, if they engage in violence during the conflict stage they will experience greater feelings of empowerment, excitement, and status than they would without it. This violent conflict leads to a more gratifying resolution for gamers, inciting a stronger sense of achievement, mastery and heroism. Since the purpose of entertainment media is to enhance positive emotions, the more the game makes you feel, the better.

However, in recent years as games have advanced to look more and more like real life, the realism of the violence has been a cause for concern. Many often claim that it corrupts people, desensitising them to violence. “I’ve never taken games too seriously. But as games continue to look more life-like, I think the incorporation of morality is necessary”, says Jason, a self-proclaimed casual gamer living in Ashford. Decades ago when you were playing Space invaders in the arcade, the moral corruption of video game violence was an afterthought. Pixels shooting at pixels was hardly a cause for concern, but now with characters that look life-like developers must consider the humanity of their games as well.

So, many modern-day action-adventure games opt to include a morality system within their games. “I think it’s important these days, for all the violence in games like Red Dead Redemption 2 you’re still meant to feel like the hero of the story. So, I think it makes it more realistic”, says Max a student at the University of Brighton. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the hit western-themed action-adventure game released in 2018, based on the famed wild west era in 1899. It was made by Rockstar, the same developer behind Grand Theft Auto, which is arguably the most violent and controversial game series to this day. With their latest title, Red Dead Redemption 2, they opted to counterbalance the game’s violence with morality mechanics; a progressive decision that encourages players to sometimes play ethically in their games. Which as Max mentioned is “more realistic”, and as games become more “life-like” it truly does make for a better experience. Red Dead tracks the morality of the actions you have your protagonist take using what they call the honour meter, with good actions prompting a + and bad actions prompting a −. So, for all the dishonourable violence involved in the game, you are also encouraged to have a moral compass. “The clue is literally in the name. As you play the protagonist Arthur Morgan, you try to redeem yourself from being a gunslinging outlaw to being a genuine human being,” says Jason. On Arthur’s journey to redemption, you could choose to carry out various acts of goodwill, such as stopping to help a stranger in need. You can choose to save a person bitten by a rattlesnake by giving him your precious medicine or keep it for yourself.

Red Dead Redemption 2 protagonist: Arthur Morgan

Players need to feel like “the hero of the story” and not the villain, which is why video game violence is usually accompanied by acts of heroism. The incorporation of these morality mechanics in violent games has a track record for bringing about great titles, many of which were critically acclaimed. Take the interactive drama horror game, Until Dawn, a game in which you assume control of eight young adults who have to survive on a Mountain. “I feel like Until Dawn was probably the best example of a great game with a morality choice system, it seemed that almost every choice given to the player would impact the outcome of the game”, says William. A sentiment that was clearly shared by the BAFTAs as they presented the creators of the game with an award. Other games such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and The Walking Dead opted to couple its violence with morality and choice mechanics, they then went on to win the game of the year award. The existence of video game violence is an important factor in a game’s success as an entertaining piece of media. It presents players with satisfying heroic emotions, and when employed alongside morality and choice mechanics it sees a substantial amount of commercial success. But due to the fact that the most iconic games incorporate mature themes like terrorism, sex and drugs alongside violence, nearly all games get denounced as a bad influence. But, unbeknownst to many games could positively influence people as well.

Until Dawn: Dialogue choice

On February 11th, a history lecturer at the University of Tennessee announced a brand new method of teaching on Twitter. A methodology so unorthodox that it might literally be one for the history books. While incidentally, American history has always been taught through academic texts, Professor Olsson took it upon himself to innovate. According to the professor, they will be “exploring the historical reality” behind Red Dead Redemption 2. News of this has raised eyebrows and posed many questions in the Twittersphere, and rightly so, video games on many occasions have been blamed to teach nothing but violence. Especially ones such as this that centre around gunslinging. They even recently took the blame for two deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio in 2019. With American politician Kevin McCarthy stating that they “dehumanize individuals”. What McCarthy failed to mention is that only certain categories of games did this, shooters like Call of Duty for example. Action-adventure games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 make a conscious effort to tell human stories. Ones that are relatable and as such make it possible to learn something.

Back in the day when a teacher wanted to incite you with interest in a topic, they would roll out that old dusty television and show you a documentary. What Professor Olsson is doing here is no different, in fact, it might even prove to be even better. In order to get his students invested in American history, Olsson plans to show short segments of the game that touch upon various historical motifs. “Though often historically inaccurate, the games skillfully broach a number of crucial historical issues in the 1899–1911 period”, says Olsson. The game’s depiction of these issues would merely serve as a creative way to prompt his students to discuss them in greater detail. These historical issues included the “Settler colonialism and the dispossession of Native peoples’’.

“I don’t doubt video games’ power to be an educational tool. They are used every day from a primary school level to a medical level for things like therapy”, says William, a game designer living in Liverpool. Research from Censuswide shows that around 49% of UK school teachers are now utilising video games to keep their pupils engrossed with their online learning whilst in lockdown. “It’s not unusual for a game to be used for educational purposes. I personally loved the early Assassin’s Creed games as they had touched on segments of history which I then went on to research”, says William. A statement that proves history-based games like Assassin’s creed are more than capable of inciting genuine interest in a subject. The early Assassin’s Creed games are largely based on Renaissance Rome, with real historical figures appearing in them like Leonardo Da Vinci. So not only could you learn about historical motifs, but historical figures as well. Various important lessons could benefit from utilising segments of video games that feature these themes or figures. What’s more, is since video games articulate them quite well and often recreationally, they could act as effective touchpoints for students to learn with genuine interest.

Getting students invested in such a way could prove to be instrumental in the future of education. In fact, 62% of UK teachers believe that gaming will have an important role as a resource in the future of education. In light of this, Olsson’s approach to utilise Red Dead Redemption 2 as a starting point to encapsulate historical issues doesn’t seem so crazy after all. “Whilst it is odd that Red Dead is being used to teach on a university course, it does demonstrate what America ‘could’ have been like”, says William. Olsson’s gesture here promises to be a very fun yet innovative way to learn the tropes of the American frontier, without the hassle of reading through bible-sized academic texts. So, despite the concerns of many, video games are more than capable of being a good influence and it with them yielding such positivity in both the UK and the US the future promises to be bright. Of course with most technology, there is always much debate over whether it’s beneficial or detrimental to our society as a whole. But, with games becoming charitable and educational assets the former is becoming much more plausible than ever before.