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  • Writer's pictureMatt Allmer

Bridge the Divide: Games Are The Counter-Punch To Cultural Division

Updated: Dec 15, 2023


A protestor sign the reads "Since we're here… LARP anyone?"

Main Quest: Bridge The Divide In Society

Humans have not evolved to manage the world we created for ourselves. This is a statement often used to describe the Information Age and it's 100% true. However, despite our inabilities, we’re not going back to the hunter-gatherer life that better suits us. So, we're left to wonder how to solve the challenges of our newly-formed digital world.

As we look for answers, history doesn't appear to offer much help. Never have we faced the level of change, intellectual challenges, and fundamental unknowns at this scale. Echo chambers, algorithmic bubbles, toxic anonymity, vexing sensationalism, overzealous identity politics, irresistible clickbait, fallacious misinformation, and esoteric trolling, are all unexpected expansions of free expression. Unrestricted and inescapable mechanisms for enabling division and polarization far and wide. Ideology takes precedence over factual knowledge and an intolerance of discourse further divides us.

It’s clear a course correction is needed but what’s not clear is everything else: what does a correction look like? How do we know it won’t make things worse? What options do we even have? Let's start with the basics.

If viewed at a fundamental level, history is helpful. Look back, and identify what has consistently brought people together: music, food, laughter, and play. It’s that last topic, play, that has an immense potential to not only generate shared experiences across dichotomous demographics but present polarized content in a way that is willingly received by the opposing perspective. It's important to note, the intention is not to change someone's mind through self-righteous themes. That's a fool's errand. Instead, it is to simply offer an interesting experience that would otherwise be unavailable.

The Key Unlocks The Next Level

By crafting interactive experiences from a different point of view, games have a unique ability to facilitate intergroup contact and reduce prejudice. Simply put, games can bridge the divide in society. For example, a game might require playing a role with a social, cultural, or political background that is purposely antithetical to the player. This is called "perspective-taking". Experiencing things from a perspective different from your own. Papers, Please is a common example. You are a border customs agent who chooses either the rule of law or the empathic burdens of ordinary citizens. Suddenly, a player with a staunch law-and-order worldview might realize it’s not as black and white as they wish it to be. However, this only scratches the surface. Imagine a VR game where you are confined to a wheelchair, navigating a world designed for people who can walk. Perhaps an interactive political drama, filled with choices that challenge intellectual and emotional bias. The possibilities of experience taking are endless.

Another way games can help overcome polarization is by focusing on common goals. Players working toward common objectives can bring people together and help bridge a divide. By providing a shared experience, games facilitate communication, cooperation, and understanding among groups that might otherwise conflict with or avoid each other. In Eve Online, there are massive battles planned and orchestrated entirely by the players. While this might seem like the kind of interactive conflict we want to discourage, keep in mind Eve Online has players worldwide who fit into many opposing social demographics. This is an opportunity for people to realize they have something in common with ideological rivals and can enjoy the same things together.

Obstacles In The Way

Papers, Please is nearly ten years old, and yet it is still rare for a game to possess an intellectual maturity that elevates perspective-taking. Similar ethical games have followed like Life Is Strange and This War of Mine, but the craft hasn’t come close to reaching its full potential. Taking up this mantle is no easy feat, but it is the perfect venture for a market that has reached demographic maturity. Approximately 41% of gamers in the US are 36 years or older. Perspective-taking innovations like a political game genre, or a high-budget drama game, are inevitable.

Another obstacle stems from the mindset that games are risky. Put in practice with other reservations, this mindset morphs reasonable concern into excuses that cultivate the fear of offending people. Ironically enough, this fear is a reason why the industry is seen more as an instigator than a peacemaker, and it’s due to the failure of adhering to a target audience. The business of game development sings a deafening song of appealing to as many as possible. The purpose of a target audience is to intentionally match the product with a very specific audience. However, too often game dev leaders entertain the false hope for bonus demographics. This lack of creative discipline leads to avoiding or rejecting the hard questions. What's needed instead is the courage to take a product where it calls rather than where it is wished and hoped to be.

Other fallacious concerns include the fear of preachy content, or exuding a self-righteous tone. Again, with courage, these are solved through the pursuit of authenticity and the determination of transparency; traits that have proven, time and time again, to overpower any attempt to polarize outcomes or efforts. They neutralize ill intentions and allow the fun and worthwhile engagement to take center stage.

Scratch The Surface

The obstacles preventing games from countering societal division all share a common factor: attempting to conform ourselves, our products, and our content to fit an artificial and impersonal digital world. We must discover ways to comfortably and confidently inhabit the civilization we've created. Games have a remarkable ability to create shared experiences that transcend borders and cultural boundaries. Embracing this potential is the crucial first step toward identifying clearer solutions. Let us embrace our inherent nature and harness it to create a more inviting and less intimidating digital world. It might feel like we are hopelessly lost. The truth is, the path is familiar and has always been there, and we are just now rediscovering it: our humanity.

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