A&E

Profs discuss social justice in online gaming

The book “Woke Gaming”

SVSU faculty members want games to explore social justice, not encourage crime.

Melissa Hobart, Sheruni Ratnabalasuriar and Tim Rowlands contributed to the book “Woke Gaming” with a chapter about changing gameplay to explore the issues that are portrayed in games like Grand Theft Auto (GTA) Online.

“There was a really interesting article by Gonzalo Frasca, who was asking us to think about how to sort of turn games on their heads,” Rowlands said. “Could you take the rationale, the goal orientation of games, and make it somehow about social justice?”

Hobart, Ratnabalasuriar and Rowlands made new missions in GTA Online to do just that. GTA Online lets players use the mechanics of the game to create unique missions. Rowlands said they focused on how this would change the gameplay and cause people to think about the justice dimensions of it since all media contains reflections of our society.

“We take video games as sort of this playful realm of myth where we get to actually engage with it and create it and co-create together,” Rowlands said. “When we’re doing it with all this violence and all this crime and instrumental rationality, it certainly reflects our society as a whole.”

The group’s main interest is reworking the game and seeing what that would look like. They created missions that paid attention to social justice, but instead of committing crime, the goal was the opposite.

“It was a just an exploration of what can you do with existing technology,” he said. “As you do that, it gets you to rethink what’s possible and also what the key assumptions that are just embedded in the games we all play.”

Ratnabalasuriar said game developers are trying to get players to be more mindful as they play.

“It’s interesting that in some of those games, the developers are like ‘No, confront some of the stuff that you’re actually doing here,’” Ratnabalasuriar said. “That seems so casual. You should feel viscerally disturbed. … This should be something that you’re concerned by.”

Hobart said that violence and misogyny are just two topics that are at the forefront of the game, but there are also aspects of more covert messaging.

“There’s a lot of stereotypical representation where anybody who does not have white skin is usually the bad guy or the criminal or, you know, living in the slums in the game rather than in the nicer area,” Hobart said.

Though the chapter written by Hobart, Ratnabalasuriar and Rowlands focuses on just one game and one way to analyze themes of a game, the book focuses in general on being mindful in gaming.

“Just be a little bit more mindful in your play,” Ratnabalasuriar said. “Be aware of the different kinds of messages that are being given to you rather than just unproblematically consuming them.”

Melissa Vennix

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