Tuesday, 20 September 2011

In Defence of Video Games - Artistic Merit and Socio-Political Relevance

Video games remain frowned upon in mainstream society. Like any emerging art in its day, they struggle to break into popular recognition as art at all. That we widely consider they are only "for kids" only chinks at the surface. Admit you like them, and your employer may sack you. Suggest they make serious aesthetic contributions, and people may laugh at you. They are even scapegoated for serious violence and terror, from school shootings in the US to last month's English riots.

I oppose this paradigm. As art is subjective by definiton, I do not expect to suddenly convince many skeptics, but here are ten examples from my own journey of why in my opinion, video games may exhibit as much artistic merit, or even social-scientific relevance, as the utmost in literature, cinema, music or visual arts; indeed, few art forms offer the same opportunities to combine all these into an overarching and interactive experience far greater than the sum of its parts.

All these examples come from my own journey, with the specific scenarios among those I found most potent in their respective work, while representative of its overall power.
To those whom it may concern, be aware of potential spoilers in this post!

(And excuse the formatting errors. I'm not exactly good at this.)

1) Bioshock (PC)"Would You Kindly"
'I am Andrew Ryan, and I am here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? "No," says the man in Washington, "it belongs to the poor." "No," says the man in the Vatican, "it belongs to God." "No," says the man in Moscow, "it belongs to everyone."
'I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose...Rapture.
'A city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city, as well.'

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the most potent videogame moments knows this one well; may feel shaken at its very mention.

The bulk of this game has you struggling through the underwater city of Rapture, a self-interest, free-market paradise-gone-horribly-wrong much inspired by the Objectivism of Ayn Rand. As such the story directs you to find and subdue its maddened founder, the (brutally) idealistic and unmovable Andrew Ryan. Eventually you encounter him in his office – at which point the game goes into a cutscene in which, in a shocking exposition of the player character's story, it turns out your character was mentally conditioned all along, compelled to obey any order associated with the trigger phrase "would you kindly"; at which point he uses it to order you to kill him, still stuck in the cutscene with no control over your actions as you watch yourself beat him to death with his golf club regardless of what you want to do – all as he defiantly pronounces his defining principle: "a man chooses, a slave obeys".

The effect cannot be replicated in mere words, and was painstakingly designed. Andrew Ryan chose to go down on his terms, not yours, and his final, ultimate insult to the player is a massive mind-screw. In this one-minute sequence seethes so many levels of challenges to your values, your society's values, your identity as a person who plays video games, and your condition as a human being, that it would be impossible to properly cover them here; a thousand essays could be written to analyse it, and probably have. Videogames are unique in art for typically giving you choice, control, agency within the work; but into your guts this sequence propels the alarming question: are you really in control? Or are you a slave, sleepwalking through life or the game alike, doing what you are told, what is expecting of you, following your railroad with no way to leave that path?

And if so, why? Why did and do you obey without question, accept what authority or structure would have of you without stopping to think about why you do it, and whether it is right? And so control is taken from you; if you don't use the choice, there's no point it being available at all. "A man chooses, a slave obeys."

From videogames to every institution in everyday life, this event has resonance; the sort which locks itself among your mental and intellectual reference points and demands you consider its relevance time and again. And from where I stand, its significance is starker still: for so many horrors in this world come from that terrible invention called obedience, and its usurpation of human ethics. In this day and age, as humanity faces crises which for the first time threaten it on a universal scale, it is more important than ever that we question everything we are expected to follow by our twisted social paradigms, with their whisper into our souls we cannot hear but cannot resist: "would you kindly".

2) Pikmin 2 (Nintendo Gamecube) – Cuteness, ecological depth and a Japanese social perspective

"When I look at the president, I can't see myself climbing the corporate ladder. To be a manager, you've got to be an inhuman, heartless villain. This trait allows them to flog their dedicated workers without mercy and still sleep at night. I feel that same merciless cruelty radiating from this metallic altar. I wonder if it was once used for dark, unspeakable ceremonies. Or perhaps it was once the desk of a corporate boss. We'll never know..."

"Sometimes it's difficult to tell if a treasure is natural or manufactured. The ship has concluded that this treasure is natural, but I'm not so sure. The ship sulks and gripes for days if I disagree with it, so I'll keep my opinion to myself."

"This must be the fossilized remains of an enormous land-dwelling creature. I was unable to piece together the entire beast, but it certainly had a massive head! It's obviously quite different from the Pikmin and other creatures I've encountered. Perhaps it's an extinct creature that couldn't adapt to changes in its environment."

A charming contrast to the previous example, this is perhaps my all-time favourite game. Within it are combined so many different elements of excitement and engagement with the mind and the heart: a strong ecological theme in what is first and foremost a real-time strategy game, in which you play a treasure-hunting captain on a mysterious planet suspiciously resembling Earth, directing armies of creatures called 'Pikmin' of different colours and abilities to fight predators, change the terrain and salvage treasure for your hoard. In doing so Captain Olimar hopes to dig the frieght company he works for out of a monstrous debt, but only by relying on the Pikmin can he complete necessary tasks too mammoth to accomplish alone.

The civilization from which your captains come is on a much smaller scale than ours – hence how the scenery resembles ours but far magnified, and the treasures endearingly mundane objects from everyday life like batteries or sardine containers, only enormous (the first quote above concerns a manual fruit juicer, and the second a whistle) – but no indication is ever given as to where we humans are, whether we existed at all, or if we did, where we have gone. As he reflects on the treasures, Olimar and his amusingly full-of-itself ship AI occasionally twig how they hint at some strangely absent civilization; but that is as far as humanity is touched upon. Perhaps this is an Earth long after an unsustainable humanity's extinction, by when it has recovered its natural balance and is carrying on without us?

There is such richness in this game's experience that it must be played to really appreciate it, but I will touch on just one more humourous aspect: the Japanese social commentary that emerges time and again from hard-working, life-for-the-company Olimar's reflections in his log, the ship's sassy attitude, and the bumbling and rotund shacho (company president) who spends the first half of the game bombarding Olimar with daily emails describing his terrified attempts to evade the loan sharks, and the second venturing back to the planet as a playable second captain, in the search for the previous assistant captain who was left behind. It feels like a light-hearted but poignant satire of modern Japanese business and family life, so masterfully reflected in these characterizations and relationships. This game is a delightful aesthetic experience.

3) Advance Wars: Dark Conflict (Nintendo DS)International Relations for people put off by the barbaric paradigm in actual International Relations

'Our world is destroyed...
After the meteors struck...
...the land blazed...
...the earth shook...
...the oceans boiled...
90% of mankind is gone...
Dust covers the earth, blotting out all traces of sunlight...
What will come next?
No one can answer that...
But among the destruction, there are survivors...'   

'You traitors understand nothing! You don't see that war is caused by the fact that other nations exist. I shall be the first person in history to unite the world into one nation! It is natural that rival nations fight. I will be the one to end all war.' - Admiral Sigismundo

'As long as there is life, there is hope...the world we knew is gone, but we must not give in to despair. Peace will return. The sun will return. The life we had will return. This faith is what drives me to continue seeking survivors to help.' - O'Brian

'I have been able to witness man's true nature. I have seen people fight among themselves as their food supplies ran out. I have seen whole villages panic at rumours of disease and famine...I have observed it all. Out of a simple, pure curiosity...'
'You are clearly no logician. I will have to speak in simple words. Any morals or values which impede progress must be done away with. Otherwise we end up with hideous, self-righteous people like you...' – Stolos

The latest in a series of one of the most successful turn-based strategy games in the world offers a depressing premise: most of the world's population has been killed by meteor strikes, and civilization has been devastated. From the wreckage rise survivors each faced with establishing meaning in a ruined world; and each must choose how he or she attempts to do so.
The 26-mission story follows a band of protagonists on this bleak journey, encountering a range of characters and factions representing the full spectrum of attitudes towards how human beings and groups thereof do or should relate to each other. This is a textbook on International Relations as much as a game – and a balanced and reflective one at that, putting all these people in different situations that challenge their positions. How unlike the actual International Relations discipline, birthed from particular Anglo-American patriarchal agendas loaded with ideologies and interests, then hijacked by pessimistic Positivists who have reduced the discipline to effectively a dogmatic cult, with little capacity in its current state to understand or improve our world?

All the odds are against the protagonists, led by the idealistic (and ultimately tragic) captain O'Brian, unhsakeable in his faith in human good despite all the examples he faces of their possible deprativites; and the pragmatic Lin, an honourable example of those who call themselves "realists", skeptical of human motives but with a sound ethical compass and great practical competence. As such, these viewpoints are tested by events and difficult decisions again and again, as the group struggles to rescue and protect as many survivors as possible.

This proves as necessary as it is difficult, as a rogue's gallery of villains are equally determined to prey on humanity's remnants. Opportunistic bandits with no ethical scruples; bloodthirsty nationalist warmongers who view the devastation as the perfect opportunity to conquer what's left of the world and reshape it in the image of their egos; a corrupt mayor continuing to play politics while he hoards supplies for himself and his clique; and a powerful private military contractor and scientist, for whom the world and all left in it are but a laboratory and specimens on which to perform his callous experiments, screwing with the tormented minds or volatile personalities of heroes or villains alike – just for the fun of studying their reactions.

I find this last most fitting: for it is indeed the positivist pseudo-scientists, and influential interest groups with utterly amoral agendas, who have gutted International Relations as a discipline. So if you're studying it and new to it, start by playing this game. Seriously. It offers a more vibrant and balanced perspective on how interests, identities and power play out between large groups of people than anything spawned from the depths of IR's mouldering cursed zone.

4) Ōkami (Nintendo Wii)

'Amaterasu...Gaze above you and take in the condition of the sky. Since your untimely departure from our midst, the world has succumbed to devious and vicious beasts. They have ravaged our fine and bountiful country of Nippon...but never have the circumstances been worse than they are at this very moment. Please use your powers to banish the darkness and punish those who would do us harm.'

Here is art most approaching the most common understanding thereof: a beautiful visual experience. Ōkami is a canvas come to life, in which you play as the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu in the form of a white wolf, on a journey through classical Japan and its many legends and folk tales, to bring the light of the rising sun upon the demons and monsters menacing the land.

This is an epic saga, spanning the fields and towns and forests and cities and oceans of Japan at its most iconic, helping people in trouble and vanquishing monsters and evil spirits all the way. Practically every character, location and theme is rooted somewhere in the long Japanese cultural experience, to the extent of what impressed me most: the part of the journey that leads to the harsh, cold lands of the north, and the brave, hospitable and enigmatic people who live there: a deliberate homage to the Ainu indigenous people. Their treatment through history is one of the less honourable segments of the Japanese story, and thus the overt reference to so sensitive a subject is a worthy act. I would love to explore this further: what potential might video games offer in addressing such difficult topics, mending wounds that in some cases may be centuries old, and promoting new peace and reconciliation through our common humanity?

Much of Ōkami's unique artistic flair comes from the Celestial Brush, Amaterasu's most powerful tool. At the touch of a button, you can bring up a canvas to literally draw your divine interventions onto the screen. Mend waterwheels and washing lines, circle wilted plants and watch them blossom with a fecundity of explosive beauty beyond description; draw swirls and call forth wind, direct water and fire and lightning to where it is needed, and wield your brush to counter the strengths and exploit the weaknesses of monsters. This art invites us all to be its artists, in a breathtaking celebration of Japanese heritage.

5) The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo Wii) – 'Shadow and light are two sides of the same coin.'
'Tell me...Do you ever feel a strange sadness as dusk falls?
They say it's the only time when our world intersects with theirs...
...The only time we can feel the lingering regrets of spirits who have left our
That is why loneliness always pervades the hour of twilight...'

So opens a modern instalment of an epic role-playing game series, perhaps the most legendary and venerable of them all. The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo's flagship titles, spanning fifteen games over twenty-five years across all of Nintendo's major platforms. My exposure began in its Nintendo 64 era, over which it presented me one epic experience after another, from Ocarina of Time (aka The Greatest Video Game Ever, and an incredible blessing for ocarina sales) to the haunting surrealism of Majora's Mask (who can forget that moon?). But here I have selected a more recent instalment, with its own unique thematic weight.

This work explores the duality of light and dark. It came to mind on one of my recent writings, when I was considering the importance of light in a British Museum artifact, a plate showing the ancient Sassanid king, Shapur II:
'I find (the) light-dark dichotomy provocative. Where did its spiritual correspondence with good and evil come from? When you think about it, it certainly does not mirror the impact of real light and real darkness on human life. Light may show you your way, but too much will blind or burn, as any human can discover by staring directly at the sun or touching a fire. Darkness may hide scary beasts or inconveniently-placed rocks in your path, but without it we might never sleep, nor catch a glimpse of the stars and experience firsthand the spectacular splendour and scale of the cosmos. Humans everywhere throughout our journey have relied on a balance of light and dark and an excess of neither, and still do today. In view of this, to tie it to so crude a moral spectrum seems bizarre.'
(Ai Chaobang, Commentary on the British Museum's 'History of the World in 100 Objects, June-August 2011, p.46.)

So does it turn out, over the course of Twilight Princess, that the alarming invaders from the Twilight Realm are not of a place that is evil because it is dark; rather it is a surreal and peaceful kingdom, destabilized and thrown into turmoil by a psychotic usurper, and so it is that as Link, the hero of all the Zelda games, you fulfil a quest to assist its rightful ruler, Midna (the eponymous princess), to defeat the evil king and (as usual) save the world. I should admit that I have my own, separate reasons for rejecting the equation of light and dark with good and evil respectively, but this game's stark scrutiny of this theme may be challenging to some.

The character of Midna is also (in my opinion) one of the best designed I know of. Cursed into a reduced and onerous form by the usurper king, she remains determined, calculating and mischievous as she perceives in Link – also cursed into the form of a wolf – an opportunity to take back what was hers. They form an odd but often heartwarming cooperative partnership through the adventure; yet despite Midna's high-political drive and mastery over the formidable powers of twilight, Link's selfless example gradually influences her, and in the course of the story she becomes less aloof and sarcastic, more sensitive to their interdependence and that of the worlds of light and shadow alike. She avoids all the tropes conventionally associated with women in fiction, especially those representing our horrible gender paradigms; yet remains a character of hard-hitting complexity in her own right.

So respect the darkness – it is a beautiful thing.

6) The Secret of Monkey Island (PC) – "You fight like a dairy farmer."
Deep in the Caribbean...

This is the game that invented insult-swordfighting, a piece of genius representative of a game packed with some of the sharpest wit in dramatic or humourous writing in any medium, ever. Along with some of the other Lucasarts classics, Monkey Island became the staple game of my childhood: indeed, it was released in 1990, over twenty years ago, yet remains as potent in memory as the finest of any works since produced.

The examples so far can stake claims to artistic merit through powerful exploration of weighty themes, awe-inspiring visuals or incisive commentary. Monkey Island, while visually and thematically engaging, owes its distinction to language. Every line of dialogue, every conversation, every exchange, is packed with as many avalanches of witty brilliance as you can concentrate into combinations of words; and then some – and bear in mind too that these lines are without voice acting, which perhaps only amplifies their effect.

The aforementioned insult-swordfighting exemplifies this: one of the three initial trials which the protagonist Guybrush Threepwood must fulfil in his quest to become a pirate is to defeat the Sword Master of Mêlée Island, which requires a long sequence of bouts with lesser opponents to develop your skill. To outfight them, however, requires you outwit them: catching them off guard by surpassing them in exchanges of quip and repartee. Once your tongue is sufficently sharpened you seek out and challenge the Sword Master herself, who with spectacular unfairness, uses an entirely different set of insults of her own, to which you must figure out on the go how to match the responses you've learnt.

This game is the very meaning of classic. Notwithstanding every advance in game design technology since 1990, none have replicated a brilliance in story and character development through sheer mastery of language as did Monkey Island, and few have equalled it This work is quite simply incomparable; unique. There are infinite forms of masterpiece, but there is and will only ever be one Secret of Monkey Island.

(Star Control II in 1992, another of my favourites which deserves far more recognition than it got, actually similarly relied on a masterful script despite being a very different kind of game – and is even downloadable now for free, if you look up The Ur-Quan Masters).

Oh, and in case you haven't worked it out, the timeless retort to "You fight like a dairy farmer" is: "How appropriate. You fight like a cow."

7) Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Nintendo Wii) – Audi famam illius
Audi faman illius.
Solus in hostes ruit
et patriam servavit.
Audi famam illius.
Cucurrit quaeque
tetigit destruens.
Audi famam illius.
Audi famam illius.
Spes omnibus, mihi quoque.
Terror omnibus, mihi quoque.
Illeiuxta me.
Ille iuxta me.
Socii sunt mihi.
qui olim viri fortes
rivalesque erant.
Saeve certando pugnandoque
splendor crescit.

We go from language, to music. Video game soundtracks may attain epic standing in their own right, and when I obtained the latest instalment of Nintendo's all-star fighting game, I little expected that such a score would serve as the entire experience's defining constant.

You can listen to it here.

This was the music which along my study of the writings of Cicero around the same time, gave me a new appreciation for the beauty of Latin, after twenty years of being absolutely crap at anything to do with it. Correct: one song in a video game inspired a curiousity which years of lessons in school could not. (Why that might be is a subject for a different discussion!)

This music and situational remixed versions recur throughout this game, especially in the story mode, a long adventure in which Nintendo heroes from over the decades eventually band together, to battle united against a sinister force of unspeakable power from beyond comprehension. Hmm...might that sound like humanity's own situation?

8) Little King's Story (Nintendo Wii) -
'Once upon a time, there was a timid young boy who was lonely. One morning, before him appeared a family of pesky rats.
"Hey, wait!"
"Uh oh. Where am I?"
Deep in the dark forest, the young boy discovered...a magical gold crown! From the day he put on that mystical crown, they say the boy became a magnificent king – and all men and animals one and all, they say became his loyal followers. And so somehow, in some such way, the young boy was no longer lonely.'

And so begins a cutesy, cartoony kingdom simulation, that unfolds into a devastating satire on power, greed, conflict, society, class, nobility, world domination, religion, science, the relationship between rulers and subjects, gender, inebriation, gluttony, philosophical introversion, polygamy, television and the press, the end of the world, and every example of mad idiocy or folly humanity has exhibited to about the most comprehensive scale and mortifing depth as any creation since Gulliver's Travels.

Just as that work has had its satirical vigour robbed from public view by those who butchered its image and presented it as merely some children's tale of tiny people, Little King's Story is more than it appears – much more. Beneath its adorable veneer, your quest to manage and expand your kingdom thrusts in your face some of the most difficult – and daring – questions humanity has faced. What does it mean to be great, to be noble? Why are you conquering unifying the world (would you kindly), and what gives you the right to? Do you carefully manage the compositions and deployments of your loyal subjects, or conscript them, overwork them and tyrannically hurl them at enemies like mutant animals or vegetables or dragons? What of the blatantly unhinged priest who beats on his head with his own drumsticks, or the desperate astronomer convinced that the sky is falling? And all this to a soundtrack made entirely of rearrangements of classical masterpieces, from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake to Beethoven's symphonies, Carmen to Rigoletto, so ingeniously applied that it is as though these classics have found their perfect contexts at last, after hundreds of years of searching.

This is an eccentric game that rewards the player who likes to think, who critically analyses what he or she encounters – and then alarms that player with what those thoughts have led to. Look upon the madness of humankind, and be reassured that we may still be considered cute.

9) Super Paper Mario (Nintendo Wii) – Crimes against love
"Timpani! What did you do with her? I must see her!"
"Still your tongue, Blumiere... Can't you see you've been duped by a dirty
 human? You have brought shame to my name...and to the entire Tribe of Darkness!"
"And so what if I did? That doesn't matter to me! She's my entire world!"
"Well, then it will interest you to know...that she no longer resides in this
"What... What do you mean by that?!"
"This is the price those who resist their own fate must pay, my son."
"She... No... It can't be so!"
"Someday you will see, Son. Our kind and humans must never mix."
"Blumiere, my son, don't! Even your ancestors could not handle that dark book...If you open it...there's 
no telling what might happen!" "I do not care, Father! A world without her is empty. A LIFE without her is empty. 
Speak, Dark Prognosticus! Teach your dark history! I await your command! BLEH HEH HEH! BLECK!" "Blumiere... What have you done?" "Silence! The first prophecy beckons. I will erase every inch...of this blasted world!" "Blu-Blumiere! Don't do this! Blumiere!" "Blumiere is no more! I am Count Bleck! And no one shall stand in my way!"  

Stars do not cross lovers – only societies do. Those are the most shameful societies of all. Deep stuff for a Mario game? The most famous videogame character in the world is  well-travelled, but here is one excursion which delves into darker realms than most of the  bright and colourful worlds we associate with Mario. 

Count Bleck, the main antagonist, is presented initially as your typical aristocratic world-destroying maniac, with his top hat and cloak and cane and band of minions. But as the story progresses, as you direct Mario in an adventure to save the world – the sort of thing he is of course well used to – it becomes incrementally clear that Bleck – or Blumiere, as we should properly call him – is more than just some evil count. It is not malice that drives him, but sorrow: through gradual flashbacks and revelations, we learn that he fell in love with a woman from outside his tribe, and a beautiful relationship developed – until something happened, by which they were forced apart in the cruellest of circumstances. Shattered in grief and rage, Blumiere takes control of his tribe's most terrible secrets, and commits himself to a goal to which he can know no alternative: to utterly erase the universe, rather than live in a world without the one he loves, a world where such terrible cruelty can happen. 

Appalling as that goal is, there is no escaping those tragic overtones as the destruction draws ever closer. It reaches a crescendo in the final struggle through Bleck's castle, drawn entirely of white lines on a black background as the void impends on the world, accompanied by a heart-crushing musical score of pure tragic conviction and inevitability. Love, the end of the world and an unbearable load of pain; themes do not come more forthright than that. Did I mention this is a Mario game? 

The most pernicious villain of all is not the broken Count Bleck. It is not even his treacherous advisor Dimentio, the jester with an innocent smile, a speech style  overflowing in elaborate similes, and a concealed sadistic delight for destruction 
only admitted at the end, when as Bleck glimpses hope and redemption, Dimentio robs the scene and appears as an abomination as the game's true final boss. No, the direst criminal, the truest abomination, is one who never appears in the game in person, and whose role plays out solely through a few seconds' worth of textual memories. It is Bleck's – or rather Blumiere's – father, who disapproved of his son's relationship with Timpani, decided that the will of society overrides love, and banished Timpani from the dimension by force. 

In this mindset, he reflects some of the direst wrongs in our world. All our societies, our communities, our religions and politics, know the sort. In most all lands of Earth, there are those who appeal to traditions, or dogmas, or their own paranoid and selfish egos, to justify interefering in the love of those who wish to be together. How many excuses? Different ethnicities; different religions; different classes; sexual orientations society loathes for no reason; I will not single out any one society here, because all our societies do it, and it is a corruption of our species rather than one that belongs to any one time or place. To my mind, and experience, crimes against love are the vilest in the world – worse than murder, although in context such things as murder may well count as crimes against love too. To be killed is to die; then to be free, spared further suffering. To be wronged in love is to die every moment of your life thereafter, again and again, for eternity. 

And so I would assert that in destroying Blumiere's relationship, his father bears direct responsibility for every harm against the world his son went on to do: up to and including the narrowly-averted omnicide. Not that it in any way justifies it, of course. I assert this because, having experienced comparable assaults on love, I am confident that were I in Blumiere's position, I might in my resulting madness reach exactly the same conclusions. 

Do you find that provocative? Just one more example of how videogames are quite capable of plumbing the depths of the toughest ethical quandaries. Many of us know the unspeakable horror of broken love; our societies have derived over a thousand corrupted ways to rend our hearts. This game is a stark reminder to those societies of what they reap when they harm one of the most fundamental forces of life in the universe – and an inspirer of courage in wounded loving souls, reminding them that in the end, love must always prevail. 
10) Warcraft (PC)The Tragedy of Kael'thas Sunstrider
'The Scourge devoured our ancient homeland of Quel'Thalas. The once-proud bloodline of my people is nearly spent. The few of us that remain now call ourselves blood elves, in homage to our murdered people.'

'My demise accomplishes nothing! The Master will have you! You will drown in your own blood! The world shall burn! [screams]'

For me, this series is the big one, most of all its contemporary pinnacle of MMORPGs, World of Warcraft. I would not consider it the "best" game I have encountered, but it is certainly the one which has impressed the greatest influences on my journey, by far.

MMORPG stands for "massively multiplayer online role-playing game." It is a comprehensive virtual world, in which millions of people worldwide play together to engage in intricate questlines, social experiences and epic battles against foes from the mundane to the godly. If it was a state, it would rank about 70th in the world by total population, and contains dynamics and dimensions of real-world social, economic, political, anthropological and psychological relevance – among many others. My own experience of it is complex, very much like one's experience of a country or community: memories superb and terrible, and just about everywhere in between.

This is a world, not a game. Chapters, articles, essays and books have been written on it; aside from its influence on my most important writing-in-progress, I myself have penned a play, a satirical war investigation report, a short story, and a chapter in the afore-quoted British Museum commentary discussing World of Warcraft's archaeological significance in the story of humanity. (These are unpublished and probably must remain so commercially, due to copyright issues, but anyone interested and trustworthy could be permitted to read them.) So there are literally countless epic moments, storylines and experiences I could cite, but I have chosen one which to this day I consider among its most profound.

Very crudely, because there's way too much background to cover it properly here: the High Elves of Quel'thalas experience genocide by the armies of the undead Scourge, directed by the demonic Burning Legion to wipe out all opposition ahead of their invasion of the world of Azeroth. Their prince, Kael'thas, rounds up the survivors and leads them south, renaming them Blood Elves in honour of their slaughtered compatriots; only to experience murderous racism by the Alliance alongside which they have fought before, similarly decimated by the Scourge (humans and some other races, but it's mainly the humans who subject them to this bigotry). The elves are assigned impossible missions, which they only complete with assistance from the Naga (another story in themselves); upon which they are sentenced to death, but the Naga reappear to break them out and help them escape to Outland (yet another story in itself). Hunted, persecuted, tormented by history, and suffering worsening withdrawal from their magic addiction since the Scourge destroyed their Sunwell, there follows a long series of events in which through influences, failures, betrayals, mistakes and corruptions, Kael'thas gradually loses his ethical compass and (arguably) his sanity, to the point where he appears as an antagonist in World of Warcraft's first expansion. But his defeat in Tempest Keep was 'merely a setback'; and one in which we discover he has gone so far as to ally with the Burning Legion, the very demons ultimately responsible for the genocide of his people, in expectation that they could provide the magical energy his people are addicted to. Corrupted beyond recognition, he makes his final stand in the Magisters' Terrace, back in Quel'thalas on the Sunwell isle, in a last-ditch plot to bring the Burning Legion's commander into the world through the Sunwell itself and usher in a second attempt by the demons to extinguish all life.

As a world, more than a game, the story is too complex for such a synopsis to verge on doing it justice. A multitude of characters and factions are involved throughout, each with their own personalities, agendas, journeys and histories worthy of analysis in their own right. Yet Kael'thas's decline is a story arc that troubles me to the core: for as it developed over the years, I realized I was watching one who began with the noblest and most courageous of goals – the endurance and revival of a decimated people – become steadily corroded by the realities of operating in a world too gripped by injustice, until in the end, he too was a part of the monstrousnesses from which he once sought to protect his people.

This journey verges on Shakespearian. Our own world knows it well: such has befallen so many of us, century after century, who stared into the abyss and found the abyss staring back into us – and could not look away in time. It is as looking in a mirror: my own direst fear is not death, nor failure, but that in my hatred of those who would do harm in this world, I might become the very manner of monster I so wish to see humanity free of.

The tragedy of Prince Kael'thas is a warning to us all that power does not corrupt, but merely gives us the opportunity to be what we choose – and that choice is one of which we must never lose active, vigilant, reflective consciousness. Never, ever, should we automatically assume ourselves to be right.

So may we doubt, that video games can and have made significant contributions to humanity's journey? That beyond artistic merit, they are entirely capable of engaging us on our great pursuit of understanding the universe and what we are within it, as profoundly so as any of their equals in literature or other established media?

I could offer more examples which didn't make it in here for no other reasons than space. The masterful union of physics and aesthetics of Super Mario Galaxy. The environmental diversity and brilliant construction of the bounty hunter's lonely experience in the Metroid Prime series. The pinnacles of humour in the alien diplomacy of Star Control II. The strategic depth of Command and Conquer. This could go on forever, but mercifully, I have other writings to complete, some of which are actually part of my Master's course assessment.

I'm in no doubt though: whatever insights I might manage to cobble together on such subjects as climate change resilience, peacekeeping, international law and so on – none would be quite the same without what I've learnt from video games over the years. So next time you see someone playing video games, think carefully before casting judgement: he or she might just be learning how to save the world.

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