With the Wild Success of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Where Are All the Games for Change?
Following the launch of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on Xbox One and Xbox One X, indie developer Ninja Theory announced that they are to donate $25,000 to $50,000 to a nonprofit dedicated to mental health in the case that they sell enough copies of the game. The sheer amount of research conducted by Ninja Theory before the release of the game last summer and their desire to serve those dealing with mental illness has been remarkable, contributing to the original success of the game and the imminent optimism surrounding the newest reboot. Hellblade is one of the first successful mainstream games we’ve seen to tackle a real-world issue and dedicate a percentage of sales to a meaningful cause, which prompts an important question we desperately need to be asking: where are all the other games for change?
Despite the willingness of people to vote with their dollar to support causes that promote positive change, there is a huge gap in the mainstream market for video games that highlight social, civic, environmental and humanitarian issues. While games of this sort do currently exist, they are simply small indie operations that lack the budget to innovate and advertise on a platform with high audience reach. It is paramount in this day and age to examine this gap because we live in a world with an incalculable amount of struggles: from clean water access, to war and genocide, to gender and sexuality rights around the world – we need to be working towards a better future for everyone in need.
The world needs more empathy,and more people who will engage with issues beyond themselves to try to balance the quality of life for everyone on the planet. Video games have the power to bring attention to these issues tremendously – not only does the gaming industry rake in billions of dollars in revenue from its colossal consumer base each year, but well-made games have the capability to build empathy in an extremely meaningful way by bridging emotional connections between the players and the characters, environment, and stories.
Many people would be more than happy to know that their payment towards a new game was going to a worthy, charitable cause, and in fact, this would probably only be a selling point. Countless companies and corporations have embraced philanthropy as a way to use their platform to represent those in need of support. In the fashion and beauty world, brands such as TOMS and Soapbox offer someone in need a product or service every time a consumer makes a purchase. OutofPrint, the literary merchandise retailer that now belongs to Penguin Random House, gives bibliophiles the opportunity to boast their favorite books on T-shirts and uses the same one-for-one model to donate books and money to literacy programs around the world with each purchase. There are countless companies dedicating their profits to charitable causes, and they are going gangbusters. Is this because they make good products? In part, yes. But there is another reason that more and more companies are popping up with a philanthropic cause built right into their mission statement: because we love knowing that our dollar has been used to make a difference in the world.
The closest we’ve been able to get to this was with Hellblade, which dropped last summer from the same team who gave us DmC: Devil May Cry. Hellblade had a larger audience at its inception due to the success of DmC, and managed to sell 500,000 copies within its first three months of release. The theme of Hellblade centers on the main character’s struggle with psychosis. Using binaural audio and striking visuals, we are placed in the shoes of a character who hears disturbing whispers constantly finding their way into her head from every direction, and are left to navigate through a frightening and isolating world. The game received mostly positive praise across the board and was commended for how it tackled the difficult subject of mental illness, though some still felt discontent with the execution.
Still, Hellblade shows us something important: that mainstream adventure games with a sensitive educational or philanthropic mission actually can make their way into the library of the typical gamer, and that they can turn a pretty big profit doing so. So where are all the rest?
Games For Change
A critical thing to acknowledge is that we do presently have a chunk of games out there directed towards real-world issues, but their popularity is far from ubiquitous. Currently, there is an organization called Games For Change, which calls upon professionals and students in the industry to create games devoted to bringing different social impact topics to light in the pursuit of education and change. The organization was founded back in 2004, and has an annual festival in addition to different game developing challenges and competitions throughout the year. Their website has a sizable collection of titles that showcase games themed around humanitarian issues, healthcare, war, mental health, climate change, and so much more.
Among the games currently featured on the site is Beyond Eyes, an adventure game offered on both desktops and consoles that puts you in the perspective of a blind little girl named Rae who journeys to find her missing cat. The game is indescribably beautiful, with the world being presented as she senses it in a style that looks like watercolor paint spreading when it touches paper. The trailer alone will tug at your heartstrings and connect you emotionally to the main character and to the story the game endeavors to tell. Beyond Eyes provides significant insight into the life of someone dealing with a serious disability, building empathy towards those dealing with blindness by showing us the beauty and strength of the lives they are able to lead.
As moving as the game is, Beyond Eyes earned less than half of its crowdfunding goal when developer Team17 posted the project on Indiegogo a few years ago and did not receive much attention upon its release. One of the most unfortunate takeaways from this case is that Beyond Eyes stands out among the other games featured by Games for Change due to its higher production value and more mature appeal: and still its audience reach was limited. Many of the other games available are simple, more childish ones that appeal more to educators than typical gamers. For example, there is a wonderful graphic adventure story game called Against All Odds, a game designed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that has you live through the experiences of a refugee. During the very first chapter of the game, you are asked to sign a series of documents asking questions such as if you will willingly give up your right to vote and if you think homosexuality is a sin. Should you sign on the line that says “no,” you will be hit on the head and a few drops of blood will splatter on to the page.
The game is eye-opening but simple, and can be played in a web browser, as most of the games in the Games For Change archive are designed to be. There are also mobile games such as Liyla and the Shadows of War, which is based on true events and tells the story of a young girl surviving through the war in Gaza in 2014. These two games are examples of significant interactive experiences that allow people to empathize with those living through the devastating consequences of war and displacement, but again, they are not ones you will find in the average gamer’s collection, next to Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. Rather, they are games that were either specifically designed to be, or can only be considered as, tools to be used in a classroom setting.
Due to their lack of a budget or a comprehensive marketing campaign, these games reached limited audiences. However, there is a recent example that further demonstrates how people are willing to vote with their dollar on games for change. Missing: The Complete Saga is an RPG created by Indian artist Leena Kejriwal about the millions of girls forced into sex trafficking, where the player experiences firsthand the life of a child surviving in a brothel and the nightmare she endures. Kejriwal has been working with several NGOs for the past few years to raise awareness about the issue and make the game as accurate and constructive as possible, and it saw wild success on Kickstarter when it managed to raise $50,000 for its cause.
Missing: The Complete Saga’s model for humanitarian impacts made by game purchases.
Between Missing and Hellblade, we can see that there is not an insignificant interest in games that confront social issues and aim to help others through awareness and monetary support. People are extremely excited about Hellblade, just as they were when it debuted last August. Those people are not the ones who comb through the pages of the Games For Change website or scour the internet looking for a game to self-educate with. The majority of those people are just normal, everyday gamers who are intrigued by the story, combat and overall appeal, and they are the same people that would likely buy another high-quality game if it also set out to tackle a difficult subject or help the planet in some way.
We desperately need more games like Hellblade and Beyond Eyes to come out. Games with the mission to educate or incite change can be just as exciting, story-driven and action-packed as any other. I want to see a AAA game of the likes of The Last of Us or Mass Effect that also happens to have an underlying, real-world implication that provokes thought and brings attention to a topic that deserves awareness.
The world needs more people with empathy, and video games just might be the way to affect that. We’re all already playing games – why not make some of those games that can change the world?