[“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how videogames benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This week, he elaborates on some adjacent thoughts expressed by GSW's Chris Dahlen earlier this year to suggest a new video game genre: world games.]

The Mess

Remember that big Resident Evil 5 controversy, that one where the gamer community felt serious growing pains in the racial tolerance department?

Wait, wait, wait! Please don’t stop reading! This is not another column about race in video games, so calmly move your mouse away from the back button. This week I just want more games, more free games. RE5’s slip up is an opportunity to discuss a missing game genre: “world games.”

And while the RE5 case has shown many commentators don’t like to dwell on tough subjects--look at GamePolitics.com’s continual coverage—this topic of world games should be universally welcomed. After all, this column is not intended to slap gamers on the wrist, or preserve games as art, or even call for a revolution in how we comment and interact online.

This is a column by a gamer who wants more games, varied games, as many games as he can get from the world over. And I think everyone will agree, more games with unique perspective will not only be great for us as players, but will undoubtedly evolve the industry’s creative backbone.

Look, some of us said things we shouldn’t have said, some of us were quick to reprimand rather than to educate, and some of us just sat helpless on the sideline. But, to our chagrin, most of us (read: me) were quick to congratulate our goofy group.

We’re growing, I thought; we’ll get new views, new perspectives from this debacle. We’ll discuss them. And best of all, we’ll give a voice to those gamers and creators that rarely have one.

Resident Evil 5 takes place in Africa, so who better to comment than Africans? Or who better to make a game about the continent’s economic and agricultural devastation—equally, which better to discuss their own voodoo folklore—than Africans themselves? As Virgil Thompson said of Porgy and Bess, "Folk lore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself.

But these questions never came to fruition in our conversation, which instead devolved into a debate over who’s more racist: those players who shoot black zombies, or those analysts who spread racism like it’s Beetlejuice--simply repeating its name conjures the hateful monster. I can’t say either side has played nicely. And, sadly, this clusterfuck will rage on forums until the game’s release.

As I promised, let’s leave the flames for the forums, and make lemonade from this sour situation. Here are my big questions: What do we get as gamers by encouraging and purchasing foreign games? Where are the video games from Africa—specifically South Africa and Nigeria, which have developed relatively sizable video game markets? And, most importantly for us, where are “World Games?”

Where are games wholly un-American, un-white, and unprivileged? Because it appears one of our greatest prejudices, as gamers, may not be against other peoples, but their games.

Play American

The RE5 controversy is a chance to discuss what games need: a new, worldly perspective. Netflix delivers a variety of subtitled films, and iTunes will gladly fill your hard drive with World Music, but where do gamers go for culture—well, besides Japan?

While I hope potential world games would be welcome, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. co-creator Oleg Yavorsky argues a different opinion. In a recent interview he had this to say about the icy American welcome to his game’s more European narrative:

“It's always our intention to make games for as broad an audience as possible, but we've never had problems with getting Europeans to understand our games, and we have had problems with North America and Asia. It's just a different cultural mindset that makes our local topics less interesting. I hear it discussed a lot that European games struggle to find an appeal in North America, for example, just because they're based on different settings and characters, with different stories being told.”

Though Yavorsky clearly has more first hand experience than this writer (and I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him out) he has simplified the issue. Sure, games with foreign stories have struggled to connect with American audiences thus far, but two barriers have interfered: financial security and a cultural foundation.

Many American publishers are afraid to give a game that abandons a traditional (American) narrative the promotion it requires. To win a market unfamiliar with a product more promotion is often required, but titles like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. usually receive less than their American counterparts. Even with the necessary promotion, these new stories may intimidate American gamers.

Portals, the World Foundation:

Regarding a cultural foundation, Yavorsky goes on:

“Most of our successful games were based on big historical elements, such as with Cossacks. Cossacks were pretty well known in Europe, so ultimately that game was more appealing to a European audience than to other audiences. I hear it discussed a lot that European games struggle to find an appeal in North America, for example, just because they're based on different settings and characters, with different stories being told.”

Americans have a unique historical and pop culture knowledge, which has been spread to foreign nations via Hollywood, the Internet, and, most importantly, previous games. If Americans have developed an understanding of Japanese culture through a Squaresoft lens, then many gamers across the world experience Americana through the eyes of Activision Blizzard, Atari, and EA. We lack this pre-history, this cultural understanding to immediately understand, let alone enjoy “world games.”

Expensive production costs, complicated programming, and global promotion are the unfortunate side effects of next-gen gaming that prevent competition from small companies in smaller countries. Therefore, indie games might be the ideal medium, then, to lay the foundation with little financial ramification. YouTube has made it possible for children in Iowa to get their news from BBC1, their sports from torrents, and their entertainment from fan-dubbed Japanese game shows.

Just as independent theaters welcome foreign films with arms wide open, internet portals like Kongregate could offer a space for foreign games that can feed us funny, emotional, or shocking snippets, each so brief that the good may be aggregated to the top and the bad, quickly experiences, and painlessly ignored.

Also, portals like like The Sims Carnival offer free, simple to use tools. These programs are ideal for cultures that lack money or places to train aspiring game auteur. A combination of these two resources, a site where players are not simply divided aggregated by category, but on both a national and global level, allowing players to search the best games by country. On top of these wants, this portal needs to be cheap, accessible by cheaper computers, and easy to learn, but extremely malleable.

What’s this dream cost? A whole lot of money.

All About the Euros

That’s a big demand to make. Many aspiring game auteurs simply lack the money, hardware, or training to create games. Some readers may find it illogical to argue for charities used to promote game craftsmanship in poverty stricken areas, and, well, they’re right. Many more people across Africa need clean water and medical relief than they need games or the privilege to create them.

Yet, art has been used throughout history as a vessel for controversial, political revolutionary, and, just possibly, world changing messages. Painters, poets, and documentarians have brought change with their works, and with videogames as many Americans, Japanese, and Europeans main mode of entertainment, games with a message may be the best way to raise awareness for major causes.

Would you be more inspired to provide help to child soldiers if we felt their plight through a virtual first hand replication? Or would these games devolve into trashy FPS exploitation. Though I fear the later, I can’t help, but believe even the most crudely created game by those who experience these atrocities will speak volumes more than the Darfur projects for an MTV contest. And that’s not to knock MTV for pursuing the right thing.

In fact, please allow me to backpedal and return briefly to Virgil Thompson. There are definitely places and situations where people lack the ability to communicate their plight in certain ways. It’s ludicrous and ignorant for me to assume children in Darfur are equipped or should even be expected to design a video game. This is a case where MTV's work deserves the praise it gets.

Rather, I’m discussing a middle ground, not just for poverty stricken countries, but for nations that simply have trouble getting their mainstream entertainment to viewers across the globe. I’ve gotten worked up over the social change these games might bring, but on a smaller scale, world games will allow for our culture to experience other cultures vis-à-vis how they entertain themselves. For example, when was the last time you played a game from Yugoslavia or even Greece?

Gamers often do amazing things together. We solve petty crimes, we help one another in times of need, and we (read: Cheapy D) foster truly awesome causes, like Cheapy D.’s and Kevin Stewart’s campaign to donate games to soldiers in Iraq. Why not make this world game portal work?

Help Wanted

So, please take this column as a help wanted ad. I want to raise money, find the appropriate tools, and, eventually, promote the content created by users across the world. Sponsorships from major sites like Kotaku, 1UP, and even MTV (come on Totilo, who doesn’t loves tax write offs?!) offer the promotion and funding necessary for a project like this. Partnerships with EA/Maxis and Kongregate could make the portal reasonably affordable as a graft upon their already extensive networks.

With "staycations" at an all time high, many American gamers won’t have an opportunity to check out the world first hand. Instead, they’ll resort to escapism and spend summer break locked in an air-conditioned den, eyes glued to their HDTVs. They’ll surely visit many strange cultures. Maybe they’ll tour NYC with their friend Niko, or study modern American warfare with Snake. Perhaps they’ll line up early for this year’s Madden football (the American kind) or dig through their catalogue of tough talking, earth saving, democracy spreading space marines.

Hopefully though, some of us can take the time to nurture voices the world over. And maybe then we’ll know more about the Cossacks, about Africa (not just the continent as a whole, but each nation), and we’ll know more about ourselves. Maybe we'll set a foundation for the next videogame blockbuster from India, or Thailand, or Brazil.

Anybody game?

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at HardCasual.net. By day, he produces theatre and television.]