What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of gaming? Being the change, you want to see in the world? Is it making a statement on society? Probably not.
You probably don’t even think there are any socially conscious video games among all the noise of Grand Theft Auto and first-person shooter classics that glorify violence.
Most people don’t think of video games as a visual art form that tries to impact the world. We think of games as a fun escape from society, not something that’s trying to teach us about it or make a difference.
That’s not always the case. Video game creators are artists, just like film directors and creators of more traditional media. They often have something to say about the world we live in and use the canvas of their gaming platform as a way to get that message across. Socially conscious video games are all around us, whether you realize it or not.
How Do Video Games Affect Society?
Video games have been notoriously blamed for many of society’s ills. It’s the games, not the culture, that makes young men prone to violence. Games are responsible for the rampant gun violence we deal with in the states, not systematic poverty and a lack of options. Violent video games are responsible for a whole host of problems.
However, if you actually read the studies on the behavior of gamers, you will see that this isn't true. Games help relieve stress and give people an outlet. They offer social engagement and interaction, which is especially important in times of pandemic. Although games are blamed for all of our problems, they are rarely the cause of any of them.
In fact, many games are trying to make a statement about society and help players see the world differently. These socially conscious video games are designed to make gamers think about the state of the world and how we can make things better.
15 Socially Conscious Video Games
Socially conscious video games are all around us. Some of the most popular gaming franchises in the world are socially conscious. Would you believe that some games in the Legend of Zelda franchise are actually trying to make a statement? Did you consider that games about a dystopian future are actually about the current state of our world and what might happen if we continue down our current path?
Some might be strikingly familiar, as being socially conscious is a bonus in an already epic franchise. Others are indie games designed specifically to send a message to consumers. Whatever you are into, there is a socially conscious video game that you will enjoy.
1. Papers Please
In Papers Please, you play as a border control agent. Your entire job is to review people’s passports and visas and decide whether they should be allowed into the country or sent home.
However, it’s not that simple. The game takes place in a fictional dystopian that’s always embroiled in political conflict with its neighbors. The rules constantly change, making the immigration officer’s job harder and harder. Should you let in the refugee that doesn’t have every form signed correctly, or send them back to their country to be thrown in jail? These are some of the choices you have to make in this game.
It’s clear to see how this game delves into the social issues of globalism, immigration, and political strife. It was first released in 2013 by Indie game developer Lucas Pope, who won multiple awards and nominations for this work.
2. That Dragon, Cancer
That Dragon, Cancer, is a game about cancer. Developed by the parents of a young boy, Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of one, the game creates an interactive experience for players to immerse themselves in the very real experience of living with a loved one with such a heart-wrenching diagnosis.
The game was originally created as a way for Joel’s parents to cope with the stress and uncertainty of his condition. However, after he passed away, it was revamped and became a way for them to memorialize him. Although the story surrounding the game is sorrowful, it tackles grief and loss issues in a way that many art forms are unable to compete with.
3. To The Moon
To the Moon is a game that explores mortality and the idea of living a life without regrets. Imagine a futuristic technology that is capable of creating false memories. This technology is dangerous, though, as these memories often interfere with our real memories, making it difficult for users to identify fact from fiction. Because of this, it’s only used on dying patients, allowing them to believe that they fulfilled their lifelong dreams on their death beds.
The goal of the game is to fulfill a patient’s dying wish of going to the moon. You’ll have to travel through his mind to unlock memories and determine where this wish came from. In the process, you’ll go on an emotional journey exploring love, loss, and the things that life is all about.
4. Life Is Strange Series
There is a lot to unpack in the Life is Strange series. The story follows a girl, Max, who has the ability to travel back in time. She can change things or stop things from happening, but many of those changes have drastic consequences.
The overall theme of Life is Strange revolves around choices and their consequences. However, the game tackles a multitude of other social issues as well. The actions that Max tries to change include difficult topics like bullying and suicide, but each of these interactions is due to the overarching misogyny on full display in the game. Life is Strange depicts the very real circumstances many young women find themselves in when first venturing out in the world – being seen as too “easy,” being drugged, being photographed without consent.
As Max struggles with what choice to make and how to deal with the consequences of each choice, she also tries to rescue other women from these misogynistic situations. The choice to make the main protagonist female should not be lost on players. A male protagonist would make the game fall into the hero/savior trope, but showcasing a woman caring about and helping other women helps dismantle the stereotype that women need a man’s protection. It shows that women can be strong on their own.
5. Horizon Zero Dawn
Speaking of female protagonists, Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the best examples of a socially conscious video game with a strong female lead. Although this is one of PlayStation 4’s top-selling games, Sony was initially concerned that people wouldn’t want to purchase it due to the female lead. The game developers won that fight, and an icon was born.
The story follows Aloy, a young girl with an unknown past who lives in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by killer robots. In an open world setting, she battles these machines (which for some reason are mostly dinosaur-shaped) while also completing side quests and trying to discover who she really is.
Horizon Zero Dawn is unique in that it’s one of the only video games to feature a female lead as a character of destiny. Most of the “chosen ones” in games are male, but Horizon Zero Dawn breaks those barriers and shows that women can also be destined heroes.
Splatoon isn’t a game you’d expect to see on a list of socially conscious video games. Although most people play in multiplayer competition mode, the game also has a single-player story mode filled with social commentary and a robust backstory.
The entire world of Splatoon wouldn’t be possible without the social commentary. This shooter takes place in a world where humans are extinct due to our own hubris. A nuclear test gone wrong, rising sea levels, and constant warfare caused our ultimate demise and gave way to the rise of the mollusks, who now fight turf wars with ink. It’s easy to draw parallels to the current state of our planet when exploring the world of Splatoon.
7. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
The entire Legend of Zelda franchise is socially conscious without trying to be socially conscious. Its female characters are strong and drawn like real people rather than gratuitous sexual objects, and many races throughout Hyrule live in peaceful harmony.
However, the second release for the Nintendo 64, Majora’s Mask, takes the social commentary to the next level. It covers themes relating to depression, the impact of illness on one’s friends and families, and feelings of loss. Also, it also explores finding ones’ place in society. Do we follow the life script that our families had in mind for us, or strike out on our own and forge a different path, despite all the pressures around us? These questions are genuine for many of us and are not often explored in video games.
Nobody would have thought that a silly game about a string of yarn would hit on so many important social issues. At its core, the story is about love, but also how humans have a knack for moving away from the things that we love for the sake of material gain. There’s also a sense of environmentalism and the idea that humanity should value the beauty of nature more than we do.
You play through the game as a yarn piece, Yarny, who travels through an elderly woman’s memories trying to find love pieces. Yarny travels through happy memories, which tend to be those set-in nature, and unhappy memories, which are the ones set against an industrial backdrop. Deforestation, toxic waste, and other environmental realities come into play in many of the bad memories you need to travel through. The different emotions on display in these different types of memories reinforce the idea that people are happiest when they are in harmony with the natural world.
9. Persona 5
Persona 5 is actually the 6th installment of the Persona series. It follows Joker, a teenager who forms a group of like-minded friends to help rid humanity of their darkest desires. Not only do you battle the most corrupt aspects of society, but you also build relationships and friendships along the way.
Persona 5 explores the root causes of humanity's pitfalls. What causes people to become abusive or corrupt? Can that be cured? In the game, the answer is yes. Joker and his team work hard to steal the root cause of corruption in people’s hearts, known as their “treasure.” In doing so, they hope to build a better place to live, free from the greed and selfish desire of people’s shadow selves.
However, it's not as simple as it seems. Is the “treasure” actually part of being human, and does giving it up result in a loss of freedom? What is better, freedom and autonomy, or a perfect world? These are some of the questions that Persona 5 seeks to answer.
10. Hellblade: Sensua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade: Sensua’s Sacrifice viscerally tackles mental illness. In the game, you play as Sensua, a warrior on a quest to rescue her lover from Helheim (the afterlife of Norse mythology). Sensua suffers from psychosis, a mental illness that causes hallucinations and delusions. The interesting thing about Sensua’s portrayal is that she’s a hero who also happens to have a mental illness. Her psychosis does not define her personhood. She represents a positive depiction of the mentally ill in a media that usually places the illness first and personhood a distant second.
This game doesn’t stop at the positive portrayal of people struggling with mental illness. It also offers a harsh commentary on the way society treats the mentally ill. Many of Sensua’s most serious problems arise not from her psychosis, which she has learned to live with, but the way she is treated because of it. Her father doesn’t understand the illness, believing that it is a curse. He not only killed her mother over the same illness, but he also isolated and abused Sensua. This is an excellent allegory for the way the mentally ill are treated in society.
11. Binding of Isaac
Binding of Isaac is an interesting game. I struggled with whether or not to include it on the list due to its questionable content. However, as the main theme surrounds a very important topic that many people hold very dear to their hearts, I decided to include it, even though Nintendo decided against porting it to the Nintendo DS for the same reason.
The Binding of Isaac tackles the issue of religious dogma. The game’s main plot is based on the biblical story of the same name. The title character, Isaac, is thrust into a world of puzzles and dungeons as he’ tries to escape his mother’s knife, as a voice told her from above that she needed to kill her son to prove her faith.
Edmund McMillen designed the game, and the religious backdrop is based on his own personal experiences with family members of different religious backgrounds. Some used their faith to inspire, while others used it to condemn the arts and media that bring people joy. As you can see, the game's subject matter is questionable and will probably be offensive to many. However, these are important discussions to have overall, which is why I decided to include it.
12. Papo Y Yo
Papo Y Yo is a sad tale about a boy, Quico, who must come to terms with his alcoholic and abusive father. In the game, Quico escapes to a fantasy world where he meets the playful Monster, who rages whenever he eats frogs. As it turns out, Monster is a metaphor for his father, and throughout the course of the game, Quico has to learn to accept that he can’t fix his dad.
The game captures the essence of addiction and the multitude of lives it affects in various ways. You have the child who feels responsible for his father’s behavior and hopes to cure him, but also memories of other lives that have been affected. In one heartbreaking scene, it’s revealed that Quico’s father ran over a pedestrian while driving.
Quico seems to be a metaphor for all enablers. Most addicts have someone in their life that enables their addiction, either by blaming themselves or thinking that they can cure the addict if they just proved their love. In reality, it rarely works out that way. Addicts don’t change unless they want to change, and another person can rarely make them want to.
The story itself is even more heart-wrenching because children of addicts don’t have the option to leave. How will Quico grow up, move on, and overcome the trauma he endured at his father’s hands?
13. Spiderman Miles Morales
Spiderman Miles Morales was one of the first and most anticipated releases for the new PlayStation 5 console. As a stand-alone game, the Spiderman franchise's newest release follows Miles Morales, a mixed-race teenager who appeared in the original series as one of Peter Parker’s friends.
The fact that Miles is mixed race, African American and Puerta Rican, is a huge deal in a sea of white DC superheroes. But the best thing about it is that he’s not portrayed as a “black superhero.” He’s a superhero who happens to be a person of color. This game and his character have done a lot to promote inclusivity in not only gaming but also in nerd and comic book culture as a whole.
As a final note to how socially conscious Spiderman Miles Morales is, the game includes a tribute to Black Lives Matter. The game was in the final stages of development in 2020, just when the movement reached its peak. Developers added a tribute at the end of a series of side quests in the form of a giant mural commemorating Black Lives Matter.
Skyrim is one of the biggest video games of all time. An installment in the Elder Scrolls series, it sold over 30 million copies on its own across multiple platforms (Xbox, PlayStation, and Microsoft).
Best-selling games can often include deep hidden messages. Skyrim takes place in a country torn apart by civil war, and the underlying message is that the war is pointless. It doesn’t matter which side wins – neither will make the world better. People are fighting their friends and families, killing them, dying by their hands, and for what? Nothing ever changes.
If you want to read really deeply into it, you can see it as an allegory for the wars in the Middle East. The US has been embroiled in those wars for nearly twenty years now, and what has it done for us? Are we any safer or better off for it? Was the entire point of Skyrim to force us to ask ourselves those questions, or are we reading too much into it?
15. Star Trek
The Star Trek franchise spans movies, television shows, computer games, console games, and even mobile games. This series has been around for over a half-century, but its core message has always been the same: inclusivity.
Star Trek has always been about respect and understanding between cultures, genders, sexualities, and races. The original show featured one of the first interracial kisses on television, which the actors basically forced on the network.
The games are no different. The best example is Star Trek Online, a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Originally only released for Windows in 2010, it made its XBOX and PlayStation debut in 2016. Although a fighting game at heart, Star Trek Online mingles alien cultures with online play as a literal and metaphorical bridge between imagined and real demographics.
Embrace Gaming as a Socially Conscious Art Form
Socially conscious video games can be found throughout the industry. They are produced by the biggest names in gaming, and they are pet projects of indie game developers. There are far more socially conscious games than those that appear on this list. Most games are likely trying to say something about the world; it’s up to the player to absorb the message and decide for themselves what to think about it.