Who doesn’t want a better world? Games have the power to let us see, build, and imagine something different than we currently inhabit; in other words, how can games imagine better futures? In this month’s roundtable, the Sidequest team asks what games are doing that, what games are failing, and the pitfalls to consider.

What games that you’ve played encourage you to think about a different future? Why?

Melissa Brinks: Molleindustria‘s Democratic Socialism Simulator! I won’t go into it too much because I’m supposed to write something about it, but it was really amazing to see how many of these fictional voters actually agreed with democratic socialist policies, even when their values weren’t actually aligned with democratic socialism. Ask those same people if they’d identify as a democratic socialist and they’d likely say “hell no,” but they still agree with certain policies. Yes, they’re simulated voters and not real people, but it still made me feel optimistic about the potential for change—at least in the space of Democratic Socialism Simulator, we have more in common than we might think.

Zainabb Hull: That’s super interesting and inspiring! I would love to give Democratic Socialism Simulator a go soon, even if only to spend time in a space imagining socialist policies coming to life.

At the start of lockdown, I played Kind Words, which creates a small, compassionate space for players to send anonymous words of encouragement and solidarity to one another. It fosters empathy, guiding players to focus on points of connection and to withhold judgement, an approach that I believe enables us to imagine more radically compassionate and communal futures.

I also appreciate the way that Animal Crossing encourages slowness, something that makes me feel less alien in the world as a disabled person, although the game cannot imagine an actual anti-capitalist world, so it has its limits!

Elvie Mae Parian: Animal Crossing has given many people a glimpse of a near-utopia-like world as a source of escape in this otherwise volatile time period, where nothing feels safe outside of the bounds of the Switch’s screen. In many ways, people are living their rhetorical futures through it in the present sense. I think the discourse around an otherwise peaceful game exists because the gaming community has been conditioned towards certain dynamics as to what “goals” and achievements are in games. It’s challenging to suddenly have a game telling you there are no high-pressure stakes or deadlines while confining you in a very slow-paced system that makes you do tasks that can only progress day-by-day in real time. It’s not surprising there’s controversy over how to “properly” play a game that is telling you to imagine, for once, a system that is not pressuring you to work to survive.

I think the discourse around an otherwise peaceful game exists because the gaming community has been conditioned towards certain dynamics as to what “goals” and achievements are in games.

The Pokémon franchise also presents a world where real dangers exist and can be tackled somehow through the kinship of magical creatures. Nature seems to always take over for humanity’s errors as the two worlds coexist in perfect harmony that benefits both the human ecosystem and the Pokémon themselves. It’s interesting how pollution is easily remedied by… well… transforming into more Pokémon. But with every new game, the mythology of the world gets more and more muddled as to how such a world got to this status point and continues to function on a sustainable level. The problem lies in that it doesn’t really offer resolutions as to whether or not this idealized vision of a harmonized world is attainable.

On the other hand, Mythic Ocean is interesting in that it doesn’t offer a world created by means of peace, but posits that destruction is inevitable and necessary to be able conceive a new world. The game puts the player in the authority of determining what this new world will be, depending on who you help in the community and choose to uplift, knowing the end will eventually come. It presents an interesting moral dilemma over how compassion may heal some but hurt others.

Zora Gilbert: Though I have some beef with the book, The Veil pushed my friends and I to think very concretely about a future, though perhaps not a different one. Cyberpunk is inherently futuristic, but when done well it is an extrapolation of our present and, to ape Le Guin, ultimately as descriptive as it is extrapolative. The Veil pushes people to explore ideas of transhumanism and augmented reality—a future where the digital is laid over and even as real as the physical—and my friends and I chose to build a world that considered a possible end to the currently-rolling snowball of urbanization and climate deterioration. But our world also was without transphobia, and people had infinitely more access to accessibility aids or adaptive devices. It wasn’t utopic by any means, but it was a future where prejudice and discrimination at the very least fell along different axes than they do in the here and now.

In another vein, Spire is a game all about making change in a corrupt and broken society. The society is, uh, high elves and drow, but the very heart of the game requires that your characters dream of a different tomorrow. Spire doesn’t make me think very much about different futures for myself, but it forces me to exist in that questioning mindset. How will my actions affect the world? Is it a gesture, or will it make meaningful change? How are those things different?

Do any games do a good job of imagining things like policing or other forms of law enforcement in new or, at least, less systemically broken manner? How do they achieve that?

Melissa: Generally speaking, no. Games are a product of the societies they’re created in, and most societies have a carceral mindset, and therefore tend to replicate the same ideas of punishment and crime rather than imagining something different.

In AAA video games, that’s nearly inescapable. In indie games, you’re more likely to find games that challenge the status quo—again, Molleindustria does this very well.

But I think there’s even more freedom to be found in tabletop gaming, where players might use a particular set of rules, but are always free to break them. In tabletop, you’re not bound by programming; if I think a rule is bad or useless, nobody can stop me from throwing it out. Video games tend to put up necessary walls, whereas tabletop games, by virtue of being entirely controlled by the players, have paths underneath or over those walls whether because they’re designed in or because it’s easier to forge them. Not to get too metaphorical on you, but leaving space for that degree of imagination can itself be an escape from the carceral mindset.

Zainabb: I agree. These days, I try to avoid games that feature policing as a primary or constant narrative device or mechanism—that could mean any game where you play as a cop, support cops, or are constantly running away from cops. This gets tricky though, given how policing narratives and narratives of punitive justice are baked into our culture. I think it’s really interesting to consider how game mechanics can replicate these narratives too, by punishing the player or encouraging the player to punish others, even if there’s no cops in sight.

Spidey crouches on an overhang, surveying the aftermath of a crime scene. Fire trucks and ambulances ring the buildings; across the road, a glass display window is shattered. The achievement text reads: "Trophy earned! Crossing the Thin Blue Line." Marvel's Spider-Man, Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2018

Yeeeesh, yeah, this is not it.

I would love to see video games that explore different models of accountability and justice, perhaps through worldbuilding. I agree with Melissa that tabletop games are more inclined to allow players to imagine and enact alternative models, or to break away from mechanical systems of law enforcement as needed. I want to see more games that directly tackle the biases, oppression, and violence inherent in state-sanctioned crime and law systems; more rebellions, more dismantling, more renegades, without stories settling for the idea of “a few bad apples” within the system.

Melissa: Oh! While I haven’t played it myself, Io Ascarium’s review of Bloc by Bloc has some really great insight into game mechanics that are absolutely radical by design. This is less “imagining a different world” and more “imagining a response to the world as it exists now,” but the fact that the goal is to win against the police is a pretty great twist on the typical game.

Elvie: There are certainly a lot of games out there that challenge the notion of policing and surveillance, such as Papers, Please, the Orwell games, and Do Not Feed the Monkeys, but all of them focus on the aspect of how bad these things are without providing a proper alternative look at what those worlds would be like without those machinations. I think this rings true to our own reality as the discussion around these issues continues to be complex. It unfortunately seems like games that prod radically new commentary around policing are just titles where they don’t even exist to have a conversation around, period.

But I also would like to add on agreeing that many tabletop roleplaying game models offer the flexibility to reimagine worlds without these systems, even if it means breaking the games’ systems themselves. Pen-and-paper collaborative play has more wiggle room than what there is to offer in the linearity of a video game.

Zora: As much as I love a tabletop game and encourage people to embrace an abolitionist—or at least decarceralized—mindset in their play, I hesitate to say that TTRPGs do policing well just because their players have the flexibility to not do it poorly. Our imagination as players is inherently bound by the world we exist in, and the world suggested by a game’s book or rules can and do reinforce our habits. The freedom to reject those suggestions is a freedom, but it doesn’t mean the game itself is encouraging or responsible for the reimagining.

And beyond that: what if the only way to imagine law enforcement well is to simply remove it entirely?

Why does it matter if games do or don’t imagine a better future?

Melissa: There are some times when I play a game and I don’t care about how it feels about the future—Overcooked, for example. But there are other games, games that want to be taken seriously, that I feel like have… if not a responsibility, then at least a strong reason to consider what their portrayals of the future are saying about their values. I don’t want to go on and on about The Last of Us because goodness knows enough things have been said about it already, but that series’ vision of the future is bleak, and it’s worth asking why. When we look at the future and see human destruction, warring factions, and the struggle over resources, we have to ask why. Why, as a question, it leads us to look more closely at the values that exist today. In a post-apocalypse, why are these people fighting one another rather than grouping up, especially when sociological research suggests the latter to be the more likely response to catastrophe?

That’s not to say you can’t have a post-apocalyptic world full of strife, but rather that you should have a reason why that’s the case. Even in a world as stressful as Mad Max: Fury Road, you have groups of people banding together for a common cause—you have exploiters like Immortan Joe using power to oppress people, but you also have the Many Mothers.

Asking “why” doesn’t just create a more interesting, more believable story—it also reveals truths about the world that we inhabit. Why don’t people band together right now? Oppression, capitalism, fear are a few reasons. When we imagine a future, we should also imagine how, if at all, those things change, and how that affects the people who inhabit this new world.

I believe it’s necessary for art and media to represent struggle, particularly the struggles of the oppressed, but we also deserve beauty and joy, visions of a future where our struggles are not what defines us, where we don’t assume injustice and violence are inherent within humanity—or necessary to create narrative conflict.

Zainabb: Yes! Honestly, I think any game that is remotely interested in our real world, past, present, or future, or real experiences that real people have, needs to be asking questions about how and why it will represent and reimagine our world. For me, even party games like Overcooked, which rarely prompt me to question our society and its future, will throw me out of the room completely if I’m playing all-white or all-abled characters. Even in a game like that, it’s important to feature a diverse cast of characters because it’s taking place in a world we’re familiar with: characters cook, compete, emote.

It’s wild that I can think of more video games that have prompted me to be critical of the worlds their developers have constructed and inhabited than I can think of utopian games or games that explore themes of cooperation, mutual aid, empathy, solidarity, or a future where marginalised people are no longer marginalised. I believe it’s necessary for art and media to represent struggle, particularly the struggles of the oppressed, but we also deserve beauty and joy, visions of a future where our struggles are not what defines us, where we don’t assume injustice and violence are inherent within humanity—or necessary to create narrative conflict. As Melissa said earlier, I think tabletop games do a much better job of constructing cooperative and more personal mechanics that foster a sense of community and mutual support. Even in tiny acts, such as using safety tools, players can practice the skills needed for a more positive, inclusive, and fair future.

Melissa: That’s a really good point about avatars, Zainabb. Even games that don’t really have anything to say about the world still can and do say something by virtue of what they do or do not include.

Companion’s Tale is a really nice example of a game that lets you imagine a radically different society. The players embody the companions of a great hero, using a map they create throughout the game as well as different prompts to flesh out the hero’s story as the game progresses. It can be silly or it can be quite serious, but because it’s a game of collaborative storytelling, it’s possible to use the moments of struggle in-game to imagine something better for the future.

Elvie: In imagining a better future, there also needs to be a reexamination of the past. Good Society has tools and disclaimers put into place to whether a group playing a game should examine “historical accuracy,” such as observing gender-based roles from the time period and settings based on Jane Austen’s works. The game’s text also makes it clear that because Austen didn’t write about racism with the same depth that she did gender, Regency-era racism doesn’t apply—players are free to play as any race they like without fear of experiencing racism. At the end of the day, the race of the characters has no impact on the actual system, unless players choose to play it that way.

A message from Good Society's rules, which says: What About Race? Gender is a central theme in Austen's work, so it's important to discuss your group's approach to the gender power balance. Race is not. Austen's work is not about race, and doesn't grapple with racial prejudice. For this reason, we take the approach that in the world of Good Society, racial prejudice does not exist, and characters may be of whatever race they choose without incident. Good Society, Storybrewers Roleplaying, 2019.

Games need to examine why they present things the way they do, as they are just as informed by our own real-world biases. I don’t think it is groundbreaking when fantasy racism is presented as yet another easy conflict to give players this wish fulfillment to triumph over evil. GMs have the responsibility of asking themselves why such things are necessary when there are other means of creating problems. Is there any relevance as to why this group of people is poorly treated? Or are you just following the text’s origins, verbatim, when it has nothing to do with your recontextualized setting? Video games like VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action and Coffee Talk want to provide this idea of safe havens existing in otherwise imperfect futures, yet queerphobic issues and more parallels to fantasy racism arise in both games. So is the conclusion being drawn here that these problems will never be resolved no matter where you run to?

Zora: Like I said before, our imaginations are limited by the environment we exist in, which is built by the people we talk to and the media we consume. The more better futures games imagine, the more better futures we’ll be able to imagine, be they through critique or excitement. I don’t think any game will change the world, but a drop in the bucket is worth something, and developers of every kind of game have a responsibility to consider this.

What do games that imagine different futures have to be mindful of?

Zainabb: As with imagining different futures in the real world, developers need to ensure they’re thinking beyond a system or idea alone, to include diversity of people, experiences, and values. There’s nothing less inspiring than a socialist future with no Black or brown people in it.

When we imagine different worlds and ways of being, we do so from our own positionality in our current world. If you’re constructing a leftist utopia but all your reading comes from Marx and all your organising pals are white and abled, your utopia will inevitably be someone else’s (read: someone marginalised’s) nightmare. Do your learning, especially the work of queer Black feminists, and understand that these imaginings are always ongoing. They need to include the most marginalised, the most criminalised, and the most forgotten. We don’t need to imagine every single aspect of a future we have not yet lived in, but we should consider which steps we are taking forward, and pay attention to which people we most easily forget to bring with us.

Melissa: I agree wholeheartedly. I think imagining one single person’s ideal vision of the future is inherently limiting. Say my idealized future involves a lot of community gardens, which is true. If I focus only on that when designing a game, I’m leaving out a lot of questions—who performs the labor? Where do we get the soil, the seeds, et cetera? What if people can’t participate in a community garden—are they not included in my vision, or is there space for them, too? We have to ask these questions or our imagined future becomes just another place of exclusion.

It’s pretty damn near impossible for one single person to imagine a totally inclusive future that’s beneficial for everyone, but as Zainabb says, there is already plenty of work we can refer to to help us shape our vision. Even better, collaborate! Working together to create something beautiful is also my idealized future. Accept that sometimes you’ll mess up, but also know how to make adjustments, respond, and do better next time.

There’s nothing less inspiring than a socialist future with no Black or brown people in it.

Elvie: In imagining a better future, there also needs to be context to whom that future is for as already so perfectly elaborated. As much as I like Horizon Zero Dawn, the game deserves the flack it gets over presenting this post-apocalyptic world through the avatar of another white protagonist. For a game that draws a lot of elements from Indigenous cultures, why are they not centered here? And certainly a lot has already been said about The Last of Us, but both of these titles fantasize a specific narrative that envisions the world after its end being rebuilt by throwing marginalized groups under the bus while only centering on white people. I believe Far Cry New Dawn satirizes this particular issue to an extent, but I have not played the game so I can’t comment further on that.

A lot of these works need to ask the hard questions that they’ve been avoiding in conceiving these ideas of an inclusive paradise, versus inadvertently creating someone else’s continued nightmare and oppression.

Zora: I read a really brilliant thing many, many, years ago (I no longer even know where to start looking for the source) that essentially stated that sci-fi or futuristic stories have two choices when it comes to issues that plague us today: either fix them, or address them. Otherwise, the story is essentially accepting the issue as a natural part of human society. That, I think, is the fundamental thing that games have to be mindful of: what are they assuming is immutable? What do they not perceive as a problem, and thus do not address?

Like Zainabb said, the only way to not fuck up terribly in this way is to do your learning, and to learn from wide sources. And, when you do inevitably fuck up, to acknowledge it, learn more, and do better next time.