Television will rot your brain. Heavy metal makes you worship Satan. Dungeons & Dragons will make you a homicidal lunatic. These are all claims I have heard growing up, and the people who said them honestly believed them. Of course, television has also brought us “Sesame Street”, heavy metal has introduced millions to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Dungeons & Dragons has taught many lonely, lonely young men how to do math. (They’re still lonely, though.)
As Ian Bogost et al note in their article “Documentary”, “[c]ontroversy is nothing new for video games – it is a medium that has been accused of inspiring prurience, brutality, and sloth for decades.” This puts video games in excellent company, particularly as they attempt to make the difficult transition from entertainment to documentary. However, despite all of the strengths that video games bring to the genre, there are certain inherent qualities to video games that have to be taken into consideration along the way, qualities that may be more easily masked than in other mediums.
As N. Katherine Hayles has suggested, “print is flat, code is deep”. This “flatness” applies equally well to film. Video games have an underlying structure that, while they may seem to offer more freedom of control in a given environment, still do not reflect the real world. The programmers make the rules, and those rules can shape the outcome either blatantly (such as with Kuma\War, wherein the player’s actions are tightly constrained to reflect John Kerry’s account of events), or subtlety (such as with JFK Reloaded, wherein the game physics define the possibility of “making the shot”). By shaping the outcome in this way, the programmer has the option of shaping the narrative despite any protestations of objectivity (such as Kuma’s insistence that “the players can decide for themselves”).
Another way that games’ protean nature allows them to differ from more traditional media is in presenting procedural reality. Rather than creating a specific situation with established characters in a linear story, a situation is created with a rule set that players engage with and make their own decisions. This gives the illusion of freedom and a lack of bias, but invokes Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s argument that “we must read both process and data.” How the character interacts with the scenario is dictated by the rules as they are provided, and choices are constrained both by the data given and the processes set forth. As an example, the game Peacemaker involves several sets of variables that include potential points of bias. How each “leader” is programmed to respond to a situation, the resources given to work with, and even the intermediary goals can be opportunities to shape the overall narrative, as well as the fact that the only available solution is a two-state solution.
While video games have great potential as documentary, they are no more or less objective in nature than their predecessors, and it is important to be aware of the ways that they will be manipulated, by their creators, their supporters, and their detractors.