Allegory in Video Games

Posted by on Feb 18, 2010 in Story, Video Games | 17 Comments

Evan Narcisse wonders why there aren’t any good video games that are also good allegories:

I don’t think it’s a big stretch to look to pop culture as a source of allegory. After all, the myths that we now study in college were originally everyday entertainments, spread by word-of-mouth and changing with each re-telling.

For my money, there are two answers to the question of why we don’t see allegory in video games:

First, people don’t find what they aren’t looking for. The amount of time spent analyzing literature in classrooms (and hell, on these Internets) dwarfs the amount of time spent analyzing the stories in games. The amount of time spent doing the latter approaches zero.

Second, for an allegory—”a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one”—to be effective, it ought to be layman’s work to interpret the thing. If it’s too difficult to divine the meaning, you’re talking about a code instead. The nature of games—that their storylines are flexible—is at odds with allegory. You wind up with a house of mirrors built on shifting sand. At best, it becomes a Rorschach test.

I buy this, though, wholesale:

I don’t play a lot of games that remind me of man’s inhumanity to man or the way hegemony self-perpetuates. And they could. Hell, they should.

I’m just not sure “allegory” is the tool of construction we should be looking for.

17 Comments

  1. Brennan Taylor
    February 18, 2010

    Don’t you think Bioshock had something to say?

    Reply
  2. Jeff Tidball
    February 18, 2010

    I’ve never played Bioshock.

    Which sort of points to another general difficulty with serious critical analysis of video games at this point: It’s hard to pin down a canon that we can all agree is important enough to analyze in a serious way.

    I gather, from what people say about Bioshock, that the failing is mine in that case (and I’m cool with that), but check out the comments in the Narcisse piece. There are people jumping out of the woodwork with example games from left field, right field, and the next field over.

    But regarding Bioshock, I’m happy to take your word that there’s something going on there.

    Reply
  3. Queex
    February 18, 2010

    The interactive nature of games means that unless there’s buy-in from the player, emotional depth won’t be apparent- one particular facet of not finding it if you’re not looking for it.

    That buy-in won’t be present if the player is ploughing through the game to win it, or already has preconceptions that games are shallow (the latter isn’t a swipe at people who say games don’t have artistic merit, just an observation as to how they’re often played).

    Games are a different medium, and will be better suited to some artistic devices than others. For example, games could touch on man’s inhumanity to man, but they have potential to do so much more effectively through demonstrating the player’s inhumanity to man.

    (Two examples I can think of off the top of my head- Nuclear War and Planescape: Torment)

    Reply
  4. Jeff Tidball
    February 18, 2010

    Reminds me of a commentary piece I read a while ago, “Why We Need More Torture in Video Games.” A worthwhile read.

    Games are excellent vehicles for helping people inhabit complex, difficult situations. They’re also extremely good at illustrating consequences: If you do X, then Z and L will happen; if you do Y instead, then C and Q result.

    Reply
  5. Jason L Blair
    February 18, 2010

    The nature of games—that their storylines are flexible—is at odds with allegory.

    If allegory exists inside a particular game, you are likely to find it in its systems and mechanics, not in its story.

    Reply
  6. Royce
    February 18, 2010

    I think there are games out there that are deep and have quite a bit to say, if you look for them. The first that come to mind for me are Daniel Benmergui’s games at Ludomancy.com. These are games that were, for me, true experiences, not just gameplay.

    Reply
  7. Jeff Tidball
    February 18, 2010

    I think that, for example, Passages was an experience game. It spoke to something deep and something human, and I found the experience of playing it very moving. But I’m not sure it had something specific to say, the way, say, Animal Farm does. I don’t think it was an allegory.

    Reply
  8. Royce
    February 20, 2010

    I see your point, Jeff.
    I wonder if gamers would put up with a game where the characters clearly stood for something else: “Well, it’s obviously supposed to mean this! Lame!”

    Reply
  9. Seth Ben-Ezra
    February 20, 2010

    To follow up on Jason Blair, there’s a book entitled Persuasive Games by..um…that one guy. He talks about games as being employed as procedural rhetoric. Again, though, not allegory.

    Reply
  10. Will Hindmarch
    February 21, 2010

    Persuasive Games is by Ian Bogost.

    Reply
  11. Royce
    February 21, 2010

    I’ve been thinking about this more, and I think the reason that we don’t find allegory in games is because it is replaced by simulation.
    Take, for example, Animal Farm. Instead of telling a story directly from actual history, George Orwell disguised history in an allegory. The story was like something from history, but it was dressed up as something else.
    In games, if a designer wants a player to feel what it was like to be in a different situation, the solution is simulation, not allegory. Why play a game that is an allegory of something else when you could play a game that is a simulation of that exact thing?
    Does this make sense? Am I way off the mark here?

    Reply
  12. Jeff Tidball
    February 22, 2010

    You’re definitely making sense, Royce. I don’t think you’re off the mark at all.

    I do think there might be something you can gain by playing an allegory than playing the exact thing, but the simulation tool definitely looms larger and more effective in the game designer’s toolbox than it does in the novelist’s toolbox.

    (Specifically, I suspect that allegory can be a sneaky back door to making the players confront some reality or set of ideas that they’re completely inured to as they appear on their face. Which, I guess, is also sometimes [always?] the point of a literary allegory.)

    Reply
  13. Chuck
    February 22, 2010

    For something to be a true allergory, it must do more than present a single hidden meaning — really, all the pertinent elements within must add up to that meaning, but be representative of it in a fairly obvious way.

    That’s the thing about allegories. They’re meant to be fairly obvious.

    Video games being allegorical will be tricky, because that means so many elements — the gun you use, the enemies you fight, whatever — must be representative symbols building to the whole message.

    That’s tricky. Worse, it might not be that fun.

    If there’s one game that really smacks of potential allegory, though, I think it’s “Braid.”

    I don’t think Bioshock is an allegory. It has deeper levels and deeper meanings, but that doesn’t count as “allegory.” Not in the strictest literary sense.

    — c.

    Reply
  14. Seth Ben-Ezra
    February 22, 2010

    That’s the one. Thanks, Will.

    Reply
  15. Matt Colville
    February 24, 2010

    I don’t think there’s a Canon, per se, in the sense that Harold Bloom would mean, but there’s certainly a short list of games that are ‘relevant.’ Bioshock is absolutely on it.

    I think, and I am not alone, that Mass Effect 2 represents a quantum leap forward in storytelling in games, and if the proof is in the pudding, we should look at the sales numbers, because I suspect ME2 is on the way to becoming the best-selling RPG of all time. In other words, it’s the CRPG made mainstream.

    In spite of this, I have no sense of Bioware’s point of *view* and this is something I’ve noticed other devs trying to express. There is a story, it is good, the characters are good…but to what end?

    Anyway, check it out. 😀

    Reply
  16. Trilly Chatterjee
    March 1, 2010

    I would have weighed in on this way back, but sadly my computer got the winter bug and was out for a month. Sucks for me. I’m glad someone mentioned Passage. That is a nice example, but to my mind felt closer to a digital art piece than a game.

    The intersection of games, stories and meaning as we understand it is something I’ve always been fascinated with. Sometimes, just the idea that meaning exists as something that can be spontaneously created, variously interpreted and readily shared gives me tingles.

    I share Narcisse’s optimism with regard to the potential for games as a vehicle for allegory. I certainly don’t think there’s anything fundamental to games that prevents it. Contrary to Narcisse, I also think that there are games that ask questions about human nature (though sadly none jump to mind immediately, they’re clearly a minority).

    However, the term ‘allegory’ suggests a level of subtlety and profundity that many games struggle to reach. For a game to be allegorical, IMO, its gameplay would have to provide (in addition to the usual demands of an entertaining game) an inherent, uniquely interpretable symbolism or meaning, beyond what it literally represents. I mention unique interpretation simply because I wondered – if an allegory could have several distinct interpretations, could it truly be considered an allegory?

    Also, one could say that games have been used as allegories for centuries, throwing in chess and Go as allegories for war – unimaginative, but I think valid (unless I’ve missed the point entirely).

    In a recent three-part BBC series entitled Games Britania, the fashion for allegorical board games of the ‘roll dice, move spaces’ variety that emerged in mid-to-late nineteenth century Britain was covered in some detail.

    In these instances, the games design and mechanics would occasionally be purposefully constructed to reflect the ideals and ideologies of their creators – lessons in life played out in the comfort safety of the family home.

    All too often, however, the allegorical content was none too subtlely grafted on as an afterthought, to boost sales of this increasingly prevalent board game sub-genre.

    I think this is something the creators of video games should be aware of, should they attempt to use games as allegories. Is the allegory represented by the mechanics of the game, and are its meanings clear within the game’s context – or is it simply there as conceptual window dressing, grafting hollow profundity onto an already complete package?

    Reply
  17. Jon Harrison
    November 17, 2014

    Interesting to see everyone’s thoughts here. I am currently using video games as allegory (I call this “allegamy”) to teach business & leadership lessons on my website and podcast – ClassicallyTrained. I am also writing a short book on the concept.

    I agree that video games have great potential – there would need to be a lot of thought put into the game, and the key would need to be how the allegory is unpacked. I think the experiential component of games is an asset in allegory, not a complication – it is by participating that self-efficacy and empathy can be gained, would be lend to even greater understanding of the allegory when revealed.

    I appreciate this post and everyone who has commented.

    – Jon

    Reply

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