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The 'Skyrim' Effect: How Video Games Show Sophisticated Treatment of War, Politics

This holiday season, I’ve been taking a vacation from defense and security news, and have joined the millions of people who buy and play video games in ever-increasing numbers. Indeed, on whichever platform you care to indulge the gamers’ itch, 2011 has been a bumper year.

Given that the dominant themes of mainstream gaming are conflict and violence, it is perhaps inevitable that commentary on this subject tends to focus on the appropriateness or morality of the gaming experience. However, contemporary video games now give a mature and sophisticated treatment to issues of war and politics. As good as any literature, games can teach us a lot about the human condition.

Strangely, misperceptions and prejudice towards the game industry — and the hobby of gaming itself — are proving difficult to dispel. Despite the average U.S. gamer’s age being 37-years, and 43% of gamers being female, this multi-billion dollar entertainment sector is intellectually derided by critics.

At best, it is labelled a shallow light show for adolescent boys, and at worst, a perverse industry that is breeding a generation unhinged from basic morality by casual violence.

Now admittedly, Middle East pounding shoot-em-ups and vicious criminal fantasy romps may not be the highest art form. But recent games have demonstrated the ability for this fast-growing medium to engage with complex political ideas.

Take Eidos’ Deus Ex Human Revolution – a startlingly imaginative detective story that explores, amongst other things, themes of social justice, the complexities of international law, and the Prometheus-like pitfalls of modern medicine.

Or Bethseda’s Skyrim, whose depiction of a civil war deftly avoids the clichés of good and evil and instead paints an ambiguous picture of a society gripped by elements of racist nationalism, imperial hubris, and violent revenge. From public executions to competing demands of treachery, no side emerges untainted from this conflict. This is a particularly moving morality play – as well as visually stunning.

If this moral depth is not good enough, many games are also increasingly relevant to the challenges of contemporary governance. Intrigued by the theoretical complexity of international relations? Try Sid Meier’s Civilization 5, where everything from taxation to religious policy can be tailored by your government in a game of world-spanning competitive empire building.

In fact, from the logic and costs of nuclear deterrence to the challenges of strategic counter-insurgency, computer games have provided thoughtful, well-researched and, of course, entertaining explorations of some of today’s biggest political challenges.

I enjoy my hobby of gaming, though I understand it is not for everyone. Yet, the games indicated above, for me, are as subtle and complex in their depictions of conflict, war, and politics as any novel or film. They are certainly far, far better than much of what comes out of Hollywood.

Most importantly, cheap prejudice or snobbery should not lead us to disregard a medium that can, like all art, offer valuable insights into the human condition. Many consider settling down for an evening with a fine book intellectually edifying. I hope this holiday, many of you will do the same with a great game. 

Photo CreditCicero Bernardo Silva

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