Video games can’t save the world—yet

Good games alone can’t save us.
Good games alone can’t save us.
Image: Reuters/Tom Jacob
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This story is part of What Happens Next, our complete guide to understanding the future. Read more predictions about the Future of Gaming.

Five years ago, the future of video games seemed hopeful.

A new wave of games whispered to players about their own lives. After decades of roaring power fantasies, the industry began to critically explore topics like identity, marginalization, mental health, and economic struggle. Some used sharply designed game mechanics to represent the struggles of everyday life. Others bent their virtual worlds in surprising ways, using digital architectural as allegory. Instead of focusing on space marines, superstar athletes, or avaricious entrepreneurs, games began looking at everyday people.

While the bulk of these independent and alternative games did not find commercial success—and while many mainstream gamers rejected them in an act of fearful cultural gatekeeping—critics and previously under-represented players received them as manna. Society had pined for games that reflected the complexity and diversity of the real world. Now we had them.

There was a shared belief that this moment proved that games could do more. This is what games could be, we seemed to say. It wasn’t just a good thing that more mature, experimental, and diverse games were making a splash: It was a blueprint for how gaming could help shape the broader cultural landscape. Games, the argument went, could save us.

Soon enough, we realized that we couldn’t have been more wrong. And we adapted quickly.

While great writers like Yussef Cole, Heather Alexandra, and Dia Lacina continue to tackle issues of representation, they also expanded their critiques beyond voicing a desire for fictional inclusion. They explored the limits of visibility, asked questions about who profits from selling the stories of the marginalized, and challenged the labor practices behind games that advertise messages of equality. Developers and critics also pushed back on the idea of games as empathy lessons for the privileged.

History itself has also weighed in on our old optimism about the power of diverse art and social gaming. While it is reductive to claim that US president Donald Trump owes part of his success to GamerGate (the online campaign of hate that targeted women and other minority groups), white nationalist groups have been using gaming communities as recruitment pools. Social media skills honed on gaming forums have become useful tools in the spread of propaganda and hate.

To paraphrase a talk I gave earlier this year at the NYU Game Center, making good games isn’t enough to make good in the world. Marginalized game designers spend time and money transforming their lived experiences and political concerns into art, only to have it ignored by the mainstream, and belittled by the #MAGA crowd. Facing this politics of negativity—that is, an ideology that is fundamentally about response and removal instead of the creation of new work—it’s clearer than ever that whatever their communal and personal value, good games will not save us.

A change of tune

When I first gave that talk, a year into Trump’s presidency, I made the case that believing video games could inspire cultural change was not only idealistic, but aloof to the point of privileged negligence. Now, eight months later, marginalized groups around the world face even greater existential threats: the retraction of civil rights protections, the detention of migrant children, ongoing voting suppression efforts, and hateful, right-wing terrorism.

Even in the smaller gaming community, we’ve watched ongoing efforts to address misogyny inside of the industry, the surprise closures of major game studios leaving hundreds without severance or health care, and an ongoing epidemic of “crunch,” which is games industry shorthand for the abusive and harmful labor practices both in major studios like Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games and across the industry in general. The virtual worlds we play in are more diverse and experimental than ever, but we have now seen that this is not enough to address the systemic issues plaguing games culture.

What might be able to do that, though, is something more radical: a bottom-up remaking of the games industry. Before players get to experience a more utopian gaming scene—one in which games regularly provide not only fun and respite, but also the full breadth of fulfillment found in other art forms—we need to solve some problems for the creators. Only once we break down and then rebuild stronger foundations for the people who make the experiences we love can we scale the potential positive effects of those games.

Rebuilding the gaming industry

What does that look like? While the tender state of the current industry is a source of pain, the past year has also offered a glimpse at real, material attempts to push back on the scene’s worst characteristics.

March saw the beginning of Game Workers Unite, a fledgling group that has taken strong first steps towards organizing game developers on stages both local and global. In July, Motion Twin, the developer of hit game Dead Cells, made headlines for their status as an “anarcho-syndical workers cooperative,” and their strong aversion to crunch. And in October, in the wake of new labor controversy, workers at Rockstar Lincoln successfully advocated for a change in an abusive overtime scheduling policy.

Taken alone, these are small steps. But they help us imagine what a radical revision to the games industry might look like. Through a combination of unionization and new legal protections, game developers can secure better work-life balance, greater creative freedom, and combat workplace discrimination and economic precarity. And while pursuing equitable work conditions is fundamentally an end-in-itself, it will also have many knock-on effects for the medium at large, which will benefit players, too.

A reduction in the epidemic of burnout will lead more (and more diverse) workers to stay in the industry and shape it from the inside, offering their expertise and leadership to the next generation of creators. This also means that more developers will also be able to mature as artists, both sharpening their crafts and expanding their perspective and interests long into their careers.

Better worker protections ensure that companies can no longer count on overworking their employees to meet tight deadlines. As a result, we may see a shift in the shape and style of games. While massive blockbusters with 50+ hours of play time may continue to be prestige projects for major publishers, smaller games from developers of all sizes will surge. As a bonus, this will allow independent studios—the kinds most likely to produce those utopian, reality-reflecting games—to remain sustainable by targeting niche audiences instead of a presumed, lowest-common-denominator consumer.

This, of course, is all idealistic thinking. But it is not the naive idealism of my younger self, which hoped that smart technologies and great games could save us. This new utopian ideal isn’t about achieving a single goal, but about the adoption of ethics. This outlook of the future will be achievable only by shifting fundamental elements of the games industry, and creating frameworks that don’t shift with corporate whims. This is a vision made up of real, tangible steps that we can take toward a more equitable world.

To fulfill this potential, though, we need to follow the example of the games we love, and avoid a power fantasy mindset. A more positive future for gaming is not a guaranteed outcome: It will be the result of radical rewiring, social upheaval, and a confrontation of our own complacency. We need to be vigilant, both for the chance to pursue these ideals and for combating threats that will sand down our determination into docility.

There will be opportunities and risks in equal measure, and only the collective momentum of the entire culture—of the developers, the press, and the players themselves—will ensure that gaming matures into something diverse, equitable, and essential.

This story is part of What Happens Next, our complete guide to understanding the future. Read more predictions about the Future of Gaming.