Nationalism in Gaming

August 19, 2008 § 3 Comments

As a British gamer it’s sometimes hard to shake the feeling that interactive entertainment much prefers our neighbors across the pond. I’m not referring to the issue of everything games related costing more over here (which unfortunately I can understand) but more to do with the fact that every single game features an American protagonist or (if set in the real world) is located in the US of A (or else some developing nation ready to be “liberated” by US forces).

It should be said right off the bat that I’m not anti-American. As a nation it’s done much to progress the gaming medium. After all it was in America that consoles were first developed, and nowadays (in par due to its population) most of the videogaming world’s developers are based there. My problem however arises when I’ve been forced in every single game to essentially “become” an American. Nationalism is something that a good many of people, including myself, feel to at least a certain extent. When we’re dealing with a passive medium with film or music, America’s overwhelming presence doesn’t bother me in the slightest – the stories and emotions being displayed are those of the creators, and as a result it would be downright fake of them to assume the identity of anyone other that their native people. When it comes to games, it’s a different story entirely especially in cases when you’re encouraged to create your own character (think Mass Effect, Skate etc.).

When we refer to Sam Fisher for example, he may assume an identity of his own in cutscenes and backstory, but for most of the player’s experience with him it is they that assume his persona, in the virtual realm at any rate. I’m not watching him sneak into a heavily guarded terrorist outpost, I am him, the ever watchful puppeteer deciding his success or failure. Surely his nationality develops his character in relation to the game’s message? Couldn’t the potential stories told by digital entertainment be much expanded with forays into other countries, and indeed, other cultures.

This Americanism, for want of a better word, extends far beyond protagonists in gaming to setting – perhaps the root of a character’s design. In saying this I mean that a games setting will largely influence the country of origin of the main character, for example it could make sense for a British male lead to live in Australia, it just doesn’t work as well as an Australian lead would (sorry Yahtzee). As a side note, I don’t believe any game has ever been set in Australia, please correct me if I’m wrong. I want to be able to have the virtual experiences that I share with Grand Theft Auto 4 to be set in a location closer to home, a location I can perhaps relate to more than a fictional New York or Miami.

At the same time though, like the issue of games costing more in the UK, I can understand why developers take the obvious decision to feature American protagonists or American settings in their games. The United States of America is the largest developed nation on the planet, and as such contains the largest proportion of the gaming population. You need your audience to connect on some level with the character they play as, and letting them share their accent is a good way to help achieve this.

Perhaps I’m overreacting to this. Perhaps seeing as I’m part of a largely silent majority this observation will go unnoticed, developers eager to capitalize on a much larger territory. This is true, I’m sure it would make much more of a difference if sales were to suddenly grind to a halt in the USA than in the UK but I still see it as a significant problem when there’s such a focus in a medium on one country. British developers are making games with an all American cast, something which would not be tolerated in film for example.

Just some food for thought whilst I boil to death in France.

Peace out

Jon

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