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Cole Gleason

Ph.D. student at the Human-Computer Interaction Institue at CMU. I work on accesibility technology for the blind.

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Why do game designers (and players) love a futuristic dystopia so much? As we have been discussing stories lately, it has made me think more about the themes of games I play and the other media I consume. I’m a bit of a geek, and love sci-fi stories, but I sort of hate how few utopian science fiction stories there are out there. Why don’t game designers create more?

Examples

I wanted to list a few examples from different mediums to set the mood:

Video Games:

  • Bioshock
  • Portal
  • Half Life
  • Jak and Daxter II

Movies:

  • Star Wars
  • Blade Runner
  • Soylent Green

TV Shows:

  • Firefly
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Black Mirror

The only really standout utopia to me is Star Trek, and even that is just “Hey, we figured out how to not create a starving underclass in our futuristic society!”.

Conflict is Key

We all know the key to a good story is some conflict, struggle, and tension. It just so happens that dystopias provide a lot of this! Maybe there is an oppressive army with mind-reading technology, maniacal robots, or something similar. These create a lot of external conflicts for the protagonist to overcome. As a bonus, the game designer can write the main character as mostly good or even a little in the middle, morally, with such society serving as such a stark contrast.

I say these are no longer interesting, in general. Overcoming the robot army or smuggling some cargo past the high-tech surveillance of oppressive law enforcement is a simple external conflict, but it is overdone and boring. Give me more rich, difficult problems to grapple with! What kind of stories can we write about positive technologically advanced societies?

One reason I love Star Trek is that the stories often deal with human conflicts that have no easy solution, or are about exploration. Send me on a diplomatic mission to Mars! Let’s terraform a planet and explore the galaxy. There is human conflict other than “sneak around, kill bad guys, shoot guns from your spaceship”.

Dystopia as a Mirror

One of the key reasons to use a dystopian setting is to take a current aspect of the world and play it out as a negative trend. What if wealth inequality doesn’t only exist, but is staggeringly worse? What if fascists have planet-destroying weapons? What if corporations become nations?

I’ll admit that these are good uses of dystopias, as we all use Big Brother as a reference to surveillance due to the ubiquity of 1984. But frankly, the genre is overdone! I’ve had enough grimy spaceships, corporate overlords, and wealth inequality in games. What if it was our game was a bright, shining mirror? Can we see some positive examples of what human society could achieve in our video games?

Global poverty is at an all-time low, what does that look like in 100 years? We eradicated smallpox, what’s a utopian story about getting rid of more diseases?

Make Your Players Happy

I struggle to pick up games, or any media, with a dystopian theme these days. As much as I love sci-fi, after reading the latest news on Twitter, I need a pick-me up at the end of the day. Games like Stardew Valley or Civilization let me feel accomplishments by building things, yet the story (usually) doesn’t leave me anxious while playing. I’d love to see more great utopian stories out there exploring unconventional conflicts.