Not everyone’s into football/soccer, and that’s fine, but for those of us who are, the World Cup is, undoubtedly, the most highly-anticipated event in the footballing calendar. Every four years, the World’s greatest players gather in the same place, and we get to watch a veritable festival of the beautiful game (plus, sometimes, England games too) played out over four glorious weeks.

EnglandBut, with the joy often comes agony, and this year England were dumped out of the competition unceremoniously, and even by our somewhat low standards, embarrassingly early. That, right there, wasn’t overly joyful, if I’m being honest.

So in these kinds of situations, after the initial pain and humiliation, what can one do to soften the blow, and restore some much needed pride and self-worth?

Well, if you’re a gamer, there’s always the option of retreating from the ignominy of the real world, and jumping head-first into a virtual one.

Which is exactly what I did, and within hours of the England plane touching down in London, I had fired up the PlayStation, and was happily righting all of their (numerous) wrongs, via the magical world of FIFA 14.

Having spent a lot of time impotently shouting at players to do x, y, or z, or more often, not to do a, b, or c, I was now in direct control of the players, and, even if I do say so myself, they were kicking ass and taking names in a way they’d not even come close to doing in reality. Even though I was actually at the last England game, so arguably less impotent than I would have been watching it on TV, every time one of my desperate shouts of ‘try scoring, fella’, or ‘you probably shouldn’t just give the ball away, mate, it’s not a great plan, is it?‘ fell on deaf ears, I grew increasingly frustrated. However, when I told the same player to ‘try scoring’ on FIFA 14, he did, and it’s pretty hard to argue that’s not infinitely better, right!?

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this either, and it got me thinking about how we often use virtual worlds to soften the blows of the real one. Moreover, as games become more advanced, and more complex, they’re actually allowing us to play through decisions and scenarios in a way that no other medium can allow.

walkingdead02Whenever games feature in mainstream news, it’s usually in a fairly negative light: they’re ruining the kids, they’re overly violent, morally corrupting etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. But, what seldom gets mentioned, is that they’re also an extremely useful tool through which to explore important, and often profound questions, and that they can give us a sense of control over situations which can prove illuminating, interesting, and not for nothing, therapeutic.

On the latter point, many’s the time I’ve had a pretty shitty day, and decided that I’d blow off a bit of steam by shooting some zombies in the face. Bada-bing-bada-boom; job done; stress relieved.
And, on the former points, games have become superbly complex in terms of presenting us with genuinely intriguing architecture for exploring morality, the impact of decisions, and what can happen should we make them recklessly. Games like Fallout, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, and hundreds of others, are showing that not only are games fun and engaging interactive media, but that they’re also interactive tools which are ultimately helping us to deal with the real world, and our place within it.

Factor in the world of MMOs, and this is multiplied, as we interact with others, and develop communities, systems, and moral codes, which are often distinctly better than the ones that exist in the real world. They tend to be more organic than real-world ones, and consequently fairer, and more democratic than them too. Sure, there’s usually still the option to use big-ass swords and whatnot, but it’s usually done so within a genuinely innovative context, where the risks involved in violence-for-violence’s sake makes even this a complex cost-benefit analysis.

Moreover, as Rich Keech pointed out in this excellent piece, games are, when they’re actually studied, gradually losing the stigma that tabloid, knee-jerk news stories have lumbered them with, which is great, but I’d argue that they should also be seen in the context of what good they can do for us.

VH CharactersFilms, TV and books, for example, can explore morality, and are rightly praised when they do so, but it’s a passive exploration, and we merely observe as it plays out before us. Games, on the other hand, require us to actively engage in it all, and then live with the consequences of those actions. We all know that a lesson learned through experience is massively more important and memorable than one learned by somebody else telling it to us, so I think it’s high time that games get the respect and plaudits they really deserve.

Indeed, as the first generation of people who grew up with games are, for the most part, now parents to the next, I genuinely feel that we’re all going to benefit from them passing on their love and understanding of the medium. Gaming communities transcend barriers of race, religion and culture, and they’re bringing people together precisely because they focus on what unites that community: a shared love and understanding of games.

BrainFar from creating the zombified, violence-obsessed generation so many tabloids predicted, I genuinely think that instead, games have created millions of engaged, active citizens, who have acquired a unique and valuable set of tools with which to approach the complex and varied issues that present themselves in the real-world of the 21st century. And to be honest, I think it’s about time that games, and gamers, got some credit for that!!

Plus, I just beat Uruguay 14-0 on FIFA, so, you know, there’s that too…..