Video Games are Useless Without Characters

Video Games without characters are useless. Well, perhaps not useless, but certainly less useful than the article Ian Bogost wrote for The Atlantic seems to think they are. Here’s why.

Bogost argues that the games which are most important are those that allow the player to examine and manipulate a simulated system – games like The SimsSim City, and SimHealth. He asks whether “[a] games’ role in representation and identity lies not in offering familiar characters for us to embody, but in helping wrest us from the temptation of personal identification entirely?”. I cannot decide where this sentiment lies on the scale between naive but well meaning, and dangerous and ignorant.

Placing the rise above self identity as a goal is dangerous. Ignoring identity does not solve problems of inequality, it exacerbates them. Homogenizing identity does not improve culture, it erases culture. These are problems which can be seen clearly. But it can only be seen clearly from the perspectives of the identities that Bogost encourages us to try and ‘rise above’. This is my biggest problem with his argument – a game which only allows us to have a top down perspective may teach us to manipulate the systems of the real world, but they do not teach us how we should change those systems.

Bogost fails to account for the fact that these top-down system simulators cannot effectively build empathy with the player. In system manipulator games people are reduced to statistics, and are made infinitely replaceable and homogeneous, to allow exploration and replayability. In this process we lose sight of the value of the individual, and the perspective of those who are hurt by our actions. Civilization V may teach us the benefits of a strong, centralized, collectivist government, but it is Papers Please which shows us why we don’t actually want one.

3 thoughts on “Video Games are Useless Without Characters

  1. I really find your comment about empathy to be very interesting. I do empathize more when the game focuses on a few main characters. I find it interesting how Papers Please can display a dehumanizing regime, yet still manage to make me feel empathy for some of the characters.

  2. This is one of my favorite posts because it argues for the importance of characters, even in games like The Sims. I admit, I do play The Sims, and I do find the characters valuable and important to me, able to identify with them even as I control/torture them all the time. Our identities, even within these games, are important. On cannot just forget that characters have lives inside of these, even as we make them do what we want. We cannot help but see the world from their perspective, and try to better it (because, what is the point of video games if not to help out the characters we play as?).

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