Recent computer games and individualism

Published: Wednesday 15 August 2007

a student group in Iran has recently produced a computer game that is a clever mix of the standoff over their country's nuclear programme, the mystery of missing diplomats in Lebanon and Iran's traditional animosity against Israel. Players must save captured Iranian diplomats and nuclear scientists from the clutches of us and Israeli abductors. The successful ones kill the us and Israeli soldiers, steal their laptops which hold secret information before liberating the scientists and the diplomats.

Computer games have come a long way off from the times when bizarre ogres or fantastic--almost Tolkiens-inspired--characters ruled the roost. The classic Tetris or the fantastic Tomb Raider could not be imagined as realms outside the computer--Angelina Jolie notwithstanding. But today computer games are no longer exclusive entertainment territory. Realism has become an important selling point for the game industry. That means not merely realistically rendered detail but a world with much resemblance to the outside universe sound, physics, and most importantly, character behaviour. Like the Iranian game, the pure, plot-driven action very often comes attached with heavily politicised stories. Many commentators note that this marks a distinct affinity to films. But computer games are different in that players become actors; socially-minded films can only dramatise their politics, but computer games are interactive.

Interactivity, however, is a much-abused term. The games promote individualistic philosophy. A player's actions determine a game's outcome. Those in thrall to the medium say social simulation is educative. It, perhaps, is. Today, a gamer can get to know about the West Asian crisis, the mess in Darfur, about tsunamis and a host of real-time issues in a way that those enamoured by Tomb Raider could not. But then fighting a real-time war is not about the heroics of one soldier, managing crises is not about one's acumen. To be fair a lot of the games are nuanced enough to recognise that. Darfur is Dying, for example, has a host of characters from a family of eight to gun-totting militia. But gamers hold the reins, always.

Empowered by virtual rules, they can dispassionately test political assumptions. But the simulated civic tinkering will topple no banana republic, upset no financial market and cause no real person to suffer. It will however test the virtual skills of a lot of mouse potatoes. Let's see how many are sensitised.

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