This article is dedicated to those affected by the Boston Marathon Bombings, the victims of the Texas fertiliser explosion, the homeless people in Chicago and the charities who help them, people who may have experienced tragedies in recent flooding incidents across the US, and indeed everyone around the world who has experienced some kind of tragedy in the world in recent months. It was written days after the Boston Marathon Bombings on my flight back from Chicago to London.
As I fly at an altitude of around 35,000 feet, returning from a holiday to the US that has been overshadowed by events in Boston and Texas, I can’t help but think about the real tragedy of a loss of human life. These people had friends, family, and others who either loved or depended on them day after day. From the outside looking in, it is a sombre experience; but there are costs to living that while they are nowhere near as violent, have repercussions that really make you ponder about the outlook of life.
“What does this have to do with videogames?” you might be wondering. After all, how many times have we seen characters recovering from a major crisis? Heavy Rain certainly springs to mind, with main protagonist Ethan’s entire world collapsing in front of him after the sudden death of one of his sons. His wife divorces him, forcing him out of the design business he was successfully running, and indeed moving out of the family home. Things get even worse when his other son is kidnapped, leading him on a journey where choices have brutal consequences, but the realistic depiction of divorce and a broken family unit after the loss of a child is something real people have to deal with for a lifetime.
The Walking Dead has its moments where a real sense of loss not only affects the cast, but also the player. Each time you make a difficult, snap decision on who to save is important to the outcome, not just for the characters but for the story. It’s highly unlikely that the dead will rise to consume us all, after all we’ve seen more zombie movies or played games with zombies in them to act as a kind of survival guide; but replace zombies with an epidemic of a deadly virus – something that infects people before cruelly taking their life away. In just a blink of an eye, someone you care for so much is gone.
Dealing with the consequences of events like this are tough on anybody. We do see tragedies done very well in RPGs such as the numerous deaths in the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series’, but what about something more domestic. Something that is not played up for drama beyond its original event like say – homelessness or a severe storm causing a widespread flood?
I bring this up because while visiting Chicago, I saw skyscrapers that made me feel like I was standing on the shoulders of giants. There were iconic buildings, relics stored in various museums, and food that filled the air with delicious aromas. However, I also saw things that brought me back down to earth with an almighty thud. Homeless people who either were or weren’t war veterans, trying to get by one day at a time on discarded coins, filled the streets. One resorted to lying by saying that she needed change to get her car out of the parking lot nearby. But nothing prepared me for the sheer desperation of one man so down on his luck that he was eating out of a public bin. Not a dumpster round the back of a restaurant or superstore, but one where everyday rubbish is thrown away.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, a severe storm-swept by the region the day before I left the city. The ensuing flash flooding not only stranded people going to work or school in at least five inches of dirty water, but also must have taken their toll on the homeless population. To my surprise though, the very next day I not only saw the people in their droves out on the streets, but also the homeless. I even saw some citizens help an old, disabled, and homeless gentleman to a place where he could get some rest and food.
Looking at the beggars, downtrodden and needy in videogames however and we just see obstacles, much as we treat them in real life. Pushing them to one side in Assassins Creed because they insist on pressing you for coin, inadvertently causing guards to pay attention to you, is just a phase in the bigger picture. Grand Theft Auto might feature the homeless, but more often than not they’re under your wheel thanks to some reckless and remorseless driving, or knocked out because you just beat them with a bat after they punched you. It’s amazing how such a big social issue is brushed aside like a mere afterthought.
But luckily there is a brighter side to all of this. Many RPGs involve side quests that allow you to be that Good Samaritan. That cellar infested with vermin that just won’t go away? Fear not dear peasant! Your wine stocks and pantry are safe with the hero of this fable! Your child has wandered off on his own and you cannot find them? Do not fret, for the hero will seek their whereabouts… while on his way to slay the dark overlord of course! City management games also deal with these to an extent, with the SimCity games for example challenging you to return your suburbs to their former glory.
We still have a long way to go before we’re saving everyone from their troubles and strife, but as technology improves, the more we will see videogames in parallel with the real world. Understanding is key to help resolve the problems of our fellow-man, and while other media forms will continue to do a better job at this in the long run – there is a place for games to do the same. While we will never see game characters ring up a homeless persons charity to set up a regular donation, we can at least see helping our common man in times of need become a little more common in the future.