There is no need to explain that video games can be a very instructive entertainment – as it has been known for years that a child who occasionally enjoys playing one of the next versions of Civilization will be more likely to perform better on history lessons. On the other hand, someone who spends a lot of time on puzzles in Portal, this way masters their skills in solving logical puzzles. There are, however, areas of development in which knowledge of history or the ability to solve puzzles somewhat pales in comparison – for example, the ability to think critically about historical and political developments. Can games also cope with such a challenge?
Book versus book
While more years pass, it still happens that I put aside the latest blockbusters to play a game almost twenty years old: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Back then I was amazed by the great graphics of the time, the world full of strange plants and creatures… but most of all by the fact that almost all the inhabitants of this beautiful world would try to deceive me. Morrowind, like many other fantasy games, is about a world threatened by a great evil, and a hero who can defeat that evil – the only thing is, I actually had no idea until the end whether my character was actually such a hero, or whether it was just that he was trying to trick me into acting in his interests by all the intriguing powers around me, from powerful factions to local gods.
At some point I seemed to think that some sort of answer to my dilemmas might have been found in books, which are plentiful in the Morrowind realm. The problem, however, is that books are also based on specific conflicts of interest, so each faction involved in the game offered its own vision of major historical and present events, completely irrelevant and contrary to the others. The more I read, the more lost I felt. Like today’s citizens of the world, jumping from one news portal to another in search of the truth, with the growing awareness that nobody can separate the wheat from the chaff for them.
Games are doing an excellent job in addressing such a loss. Firstly, they can place the player in complex, simulated worlds where they can be carpet-bombed with information overload. Secondly, the players themselves must interact in these worlds, and so they must also respond to the information they receive. When such tools are applied to real problems, very interesting projects are born.
In the thicket of history
Attentat 1942 and Svoboda 1945 are two parts of the Czech series of historical games telling about the times of World War II. The player assumes the role of the protagonist, who tries to reconstruct the wartime history of their family on the basis of witness accounts. The interlocutors presented in the film scenes not only evaluate and interpret the facts differently, but also tell different versions of what happened. The series was originally intended for schools, and instead of the clear theses and judgements that are common to textbooks, it offers the chaotic polyphony that it is the task of every historian to master.
This War of Mine, a well-known Polish game about civilians trying to survive in a besieged city, does not try to judge its characters. It urges the player to survive. It is up to the player to decide what to do when survival begins to involve increasingly dramatic moral dilemmas and the question of at whose expense our heroes will live to see the end of the war.
The imperatives of game mechanics (and survival instinct) conflict with the underlying ethical stratum – which of these elements to challenge? Such decisions say more about the history of wars than the most detailed lists of battles and army counts. Although TWoM is set during a fictitious war, it is not difficult to see references to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia or the situation of civilians during the Warsaw Uprising.
A shambles of ideology
Disco Elysium is one of the most important games of 2019, the creation of the Estonian group ZA/UM, which primarily brings together artists and game developers in second place. The protagonist, a police officer suffering from amnesia who is investigating a mysterious murder, ends up in the town of Revachol, the former capital that eventually collapsed after the defeat of the local communist revolution. Revachol is a place devastated by clashes of ideologies, but on the other hand it is also a place where one cannot escape from ideologies. In this respect, Disco Elysium is very reminiscent of China Mieville’s novels, in which cities are sometimes unreal, but the political problems they face relate directly to our world.
The realm of Disco Elysium is, above all, filled with disillusionment – there is no one-size-fits-all ideology here, but plenty of question marks, with which the protagonist, and with him the player, is left alone. Such solitude is not offered either by school or the media – in such solitude you can have a thought.