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Independent games plagued by half-baked social activism

In an article I wrote two years ago, I praised video games for their robust storytelling potential as an artistic medium. I love ganes, and I take them seriously. That’s why it’s so troubling to see the independent games community be cannibalized by pretentious social activists.
For these activist developers, addressing or mentioning a certain theme or issue is enough to cement quality, and little thought is given to how game mechanics can be used to maturely address those subjects with nuance or dignity. Sadly, these cobbled together polemic games get heaps of praise from the community.
“Auti-sim” a free independent game designed by Taylan Kadayifcioglu bills itself as being socially important. As its name indicates, it’s meant to simulate what it’s like to have autism, specifically autism accompanied with sensory hypersensitivity. It seems like this would be a great way to give neurotypical people a glimpse into what it’s like to have autism–a dose of perspective. Sounds great right? The developer seems to think so. Underneath the game it says that “Participants described the experience as visceral, insightful and compelling.” I played “Auti-sim” and can assure you it is none of these things.
Gameplay consists of you walking around a crudely rendered playground dotted with your classmates. If you approach another child, you’re assaulted with loud noise that steadily becomes deafening. Most of this loud noise is other children repeating the alphabet to themselves and radio static. This is meant to show players what auditory hypersensitivity is like.
Visual hypersensitivity is not neglected either: if you spend too much time near other children on the playground you start to see static fuzz, like on a broken TV, build up on the screen. Clearly, this is exactly what having autism is like.
It’s shocking to me how much the games community has lapped up this garbage. The game’s primary purpose is to give insight into the perspective of someone with autism, but it does this in the most facile and superficial way possible. Good indepedent games like “Antichamber” and “Hotline Miami” showed beyond any doubt that games can represent what it’s like to be overwhelmed by one’s senses with subtlety and complexity. But subtlety, of course, takes skill and thoughtfulness, things that these social activist developers rarely exhibit.
I wish “Auti-sim” was just one example of these poorly realized games, but it’s just one of dozens and dozens. Another standout example is a game made by Zoe Quinn, “Depression Quest.” It’s a kind of choose-your-own-adventure game, where your character who suffers from clinical depression has to make choices that could lead them to recovery or even more suffering. The premise sounds interesting, but the concept is executed upon with such intellectual immaturity as to completely undermine the point.
When you’re presented with a choice to make, all of your options are made clear to you. The bottom-listed option is almost always the best one for your character’s well-being, and the exact severity of your character’s depression is always written out explicitly (very depressed, severely depressed, mildly depressed, etc.). Sounds exactly like depression right? Being able to see all your options before you clearly, with completely unambiguous understanding of how bad your depression is. “Depression Quests’s” condescending, poorly fleshed out take on depression also garnered lots of media attention in the games media.
There’s a reason these heavy-handed, pretentious games are able to win so much attention from audiences. If a mediocre author writes a filmsy story about some lofty social theme it’s usually ignored, because anybody in the world could do the same thing.
But because game development is still viewed as an extremely hard thing to do, it’s impressive when someone makes a video game that features social commentary, especially if the development team is small. And of course, games journalists and critics eager to prove their medium’s legitimacy as an art form jump all over these half-baked, pretentious representations of serious issues.
If you, like me, care at all about games as an artistic medium then you should demand more from these developers. At the moment, lipservice is all serious issues tend to get. Good social commentary requires dignity and nuance, something these games sorely lack.

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Independent games plagued by half-baked social activism