Games can be gateways to greater cultural awareness, and mirrors to someone else’s world

CaoCaoWhen I was a kid I was fascinated by Monkey Magic (commonly known as Monkey).  I would watch reruns on Saturday mornings, staring at the screen in sheer wonderment, admiring just how different it was from the world I lived in.  The design of the costumes, the demons, the world, not to mention the stark contrast of its heroes to the world of comic books and cartoons, it hit something of a nerve in my brain that practically implored me to read further.  And so I did.  Finding out just how culturally significant the story of Monkey is for chinese buddhist mythology gave it an air of gravitas that no english literature i’d read ever did.  And that kickstarted a life-long fascination with the east.

I was worried when japan started to lose its grip on the industry last generation.  Not because I’m a fan of any particular japanese developer, or couldn’t live without the next entry in the long and storied Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy series, but because the games they developed were so different from anything else I encountered.  There were largely no stories about modern conflicts in the middle east, alternate takes on european history, or games about shooting sprees through modern metropolises with stories thrown in for good measure.  These were the tales of the west, and the east, well that was something a little more dare I say exotic.  Losing that could’ve been the end, for me at least.

You see learning about other cultures and places – both real and imagined – is one of the key reasons I love playing games.  But it’s learning about the world around me that really inspires me and gives me the shove I need to learn more.  It’s part of the reason Jade Empire is my favourite Bioware game, with its fantastical take on asian culture providing a fantastic insight into the regional melting pot that made asian such a historically and culturally rich part of the world.  It’s also why Asura’s Wrath – a thoroughly average game mechanically – held my attention for so long.  The world was so rich with pseudo hindu and buddhist imagery that progressing through its story was a sheer joy, if only just to see the next beautiful cutscene.

If i’m honest it’s that same incentive that keeps me playing and enjoying Dynasty Warriors games.  It’s easy to make jokes about the series’ serial retelling of the Three Kingdoms story, but unless you’ve read a little bit further into it, you probably wouldn’t ever understand just how significant it is for China both historically and understanding the country’s role in the current geopolitical climate.  It may not be my lineage or even yours, but with the rapid onset of globalisation and migration the tales of Lu Bu and company’s galavanting around the Middle Kingdom is as relevant to our collective cultures as the Italian Renaissance, the First Fleet or the decades of Western-led wars in Afghanistan.  And I think Koei’s series is just about the best place to start that journey of discovery – a journey I just about guarantee I never would’ve embarked on without.

Fast forward to this generation and Far Cry 4 is the next great big sprawling adventure.  But it’s not the guns, the charismatic Pagan Min, or stealthily taking out an outpost that caught and held my attention.  Rather it was the fictional Himalayan country of Kyrat, complete with religious and cultural detail, that captured my imagination.  I am lucky to live with someone who studied southeast asian art and artefacts, which I vicariously learnt bits and pieces of through conversation, and witnessing representations of these artefacts ‘in situ’ as it were was more exciting than it should’ve been.  “Which one was this one again?” I asked as I walked up to a stone statue sitting in a cave tucked away behind a waterfall. “I think it’s a kind of representation of Avalokiteśvara” she responded.  After an afternoon of research, I think she was right, and that is the coolest thing about the game.  It’s these little things, both in the latest game and to a lesser extent Far Cry 3, that makes the Far Cry games amazing cultural adventures.  They may not be accurate, and they may be sensational and distilled versions of cultural stereotypes, but the fact that I am compelled to find out is an enormous testament to the strength of the worlds created.  Without them, they’d just be a few bozos with guns, just like every other game about bozos with guns.

In the end Japan didn’t lose its grip on the industry, but even if it did, the willingness for western developers to embrace other cultures would’ve no doubt filled that gap.  And that’s only a good thing.  Sure we’re going to still see games spruiking just how great anglo civilisation is, but only as long as that is balanced or even drowned out by the voices and stories of other nations and people will video games continue to grow, and become the inspiring and culturally relevant artistic endeavours they should be.  Maybe one day without the guns.