There’s a lot of talk about how videogames are yet to have their Citizen Kane, and how when this game is released, we will be elevated to the same degree of cultural relevance as film and literature. But, recently, I’ve begun wondering if that’s really what videogames need.

Citizen Kane is a feat of cinematographic mastery, but there are many games out there that use visuals, game mechanics, and narrative elements successfully.

Star Trek, on the other hand, while perhaps not as technically impressive, has cultural and future relevance. Each of the serials, from the first one in the 1960’s, explores themes and situations which echoed events of our world which were relevant at the time. The money quote, from Roddenberry himself, is:

[By creating] a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network.

Another good one is:

Roddenberry intended the show to have a progressive, almost radical political agenda reflective of the emerging sexualized counter-culture of the youth movement. However, his efforts were largely thwarted by the network’s concerns over marketability. Star Trek showed mankind what it might develop into, if only it would learn from the lessons of the past, most specifically by ending violence.

Much of the current discussion on videogames focuses on finding the medium’s own voice with which to tell engaging stories, tying the mechanics of the game to the themes and plot. And while I agree that this is important, I believe it is also increasingly important to move away from the teenage power fantasies of violent domination of faceless enemies, and look for new stories to tell. To continue with the TV references, AAA titles seem to have fallen into the same rut as the A-team, where the formula of the game/show follows a formulaic pattern, with only the slightest variations in settings and situations to differentiate one episode from the next. To use another Wikipedia quote:

[…]a recognizable and steady episode structure. In describing the ratings drop that occurred during the show’s fourth season, reviewer Gold Burt points to this structure as being a leading cause for the decreased popularity “because the same basic plot had been used over and over again for the past four seasons with the same predictable outcome.

The major reason why I believe we should aspire to the Star Trek of videogames is that with videogames we can do more than just show people what the future could be like, we can put them there, let them see the sights, interact with the people, and experience what could be. We can craft all manner of utopian and dystopian alternate realities, and craft our games around these ‘what if?’ scenarios. The Fallout series is a great example in that the setting shows us what could have happened if we hadn’t reigned in nuclear escalation, if diplomatic relations between the nuclear superpowers had broken down and spiralled into, to use another quote, all-out thermonuclear Heck.

Apart from being relevant in the subject matter and themes it covers, Star Trek, as illustrated in the two quotes above, also faced similar problems to those we now face as game developers: funding and censorship.

Censorship is perhaps the thorniest of the two. While it would be great to develop a game with poignant social commentary on all manner of relevant issues – unless we are very careful, or apply massive doses of saccharine –  to subjects like sexuality, gender violence, bigotry and other current social woes, our game will be whacked over the head with the AO rating, which tends to be the equivalent of  a death sentence in the current day and age. There are ways of circumventing the retail ostracising of such a game, but unless major download services like Steam and the like welcome such titles chances are such a game will see limited distribution, commercial failure, and set us back quite a number of years. The other issue, funding, is an equally formidable obstacle. With the global economy in it’s current, sorry state, is it possible to obtain funding for what is essentially a title aimed at a vapourous ‘mature’ audience that may or may not be offended by the content matter?

Despite these obstacles, I feel that to be socially relevant, and gain mainstream acceptance, we need to put the space marines and the big guns back in the toy box, and delve into the conflicts that we as average Janes and Joes have to face on an everyday basis. Conflict, the main engine of narrative and games, takes many forms. It is these forms as they appear to use on the streets of our cities that we must harness in order to appeal to those we share them with.

The game that allows us to overcome these two obstacles will, in my mind, as big a milestone for videogames as Citizen Kane was to movies.