Author: Jonas Linderoth
I stumbled across this video presentation the other day by University of Gothenburg professor Jonas Linderoth on why it feels like games have a difficult time tackling serious subject matter. He explains that the way an object is framed in a game is always a layer removed and abstracted from what we understand that object to be outside of the game. The example he gives is one where kids are playing a game with an old shoe he had provided them, using the shoe as a kind of "ball" where it was important to have possession of it. In the game, his shoe had taken on a totally different significance that what it had before, and in turn, also lost a lot of other context. The kids don't know Linderoth's personal history with the shoe, and the stories that could be told of where it had been and how it fits on his foot. Instead, the shoe has taken on a ludic meaning that sees it as a prized possession and a means to winning the game.
Now, the kicker is to substitute the shoe in the kids game with objects that carry broad historical and cultural weight; Linderoth settles on a Nazi flag as an example. Casting an object that represents thoughts and actions that most people find reprehensible in the role of an important and, in the game context, sacred item is likely to shock and offend. Linderoth explains that the reframing of an object in the game world inherently trivializes it, and it's up to game designers to provide proper framing to convey the meaning they're going for while also recognizing the limits of virtual representation. While I think Linderoths use of the phrase "getting away with it" pessimistically assumes designers are out to slip one past the censors, his given paths to healthy solutions are nonetheless valid.
One of those solutions is satire, which has been popping up quite a bit as it relates to Grand Theft Auto V. What happens when segments of players don't buy into the explanation they've been given as to why they should be OK with the ludic meanings attached to certain game objects? What happens when someone calls BS on your game as satirical commentary? I suppose what happens is there's a certain level of backlash, but in the case of GTA5, the overwhelming wave of critical praise, consumer buy-in, and in-game expanse swallows up the push-back. Perhaps that will change as we get further and further away from the buzz of GTA5's launch, but it also feels like the impact has already happened and the damage done.