The Elevated Gaming Experience: Dystopic and Utopic Worlds

A core piece of what makes video games appealing is their ability to simulate a believable (different than realistic) experience that is somehow elevated from real life. This can be done in a number of ways relying mainly on the framework of either a utopian or dystopian game world. Or more simplistically, worlds where you can get a game over or worlds where you cannot.

 Animal Crossing, 2012

Animal Crossing, 2012

For instance, an example of a Utopian world would be Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing is what you would call a social simulation game, in which most of the gameplay revolves around interacting with the residents of your town in order to build your town up, decorate your house, fill up the museum and be generally charmed for however long you end up playing. Bad things can happen to you in Animal crossing. You can get stung by a bee or fall into a hole and be momentarily inconvenienced while you wiggle your  analog stick until you pop back out. I, the mayor of my town, have been AWOL for the last two years and if I were to return, everything would still be running as if I had never left. There's no way to backslide in Animal Crossing, save for the disappointment of your beloved neighbors moving away, there is no danger. Other games that function similarly include, Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, Tomodachi Life, any number of samey-life simulation games on mobile devices and many others. This category can also include games where when you die you incur a small penalty but, are able to continue on, such as Starbound, Minecraft, Terraria and other similar games.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the dystopic worlds. These games provide a elevated experience by increasing the amount of peril dramatically. Think any game where something is trying to kill you and you die somewhat permanently. This category includes games like Super Mario Bro's 3 and other games where when you die you have to re-enter the level. This subcategory runs the gambit from Final Fantasy, Skyrim, Assassin's Creed and beyond.

 Fire Emblem, 2003

Fire Emblem, 2003

And then there are the games where death is permanent. In these games when you die, or when a player controlled unit dies, they are dead forever. Rogue-like games rely upon this concept of permanent death and starting the game over from scratch every single time and has become wildly popular and on the flipside XCOM, Fire Emblem, Darkest Dungeon and Jagged Alliance all rely upon the mechanic of putting the player personally responsible for the lives of their units. Recklessness or a disregard for their lives results in losing them forever. 

The category of the dystopian and utopian of game world are indicative of two of the main strategies by which video games connect with users, mainly, by tapping into either the human desire to feel the thrill of peril without the danger or the feeling of success without fear of backpedaling.  By learning  the basic ways in which developers structure their games, we can learn to identify the human vulnerabilities they seek to exploit in order to create an emotional connection. When we are aware of why we feel connected to something, we are also better  able to examine it critically. With a little self awareness, gamers could become a far less defensive community, which would ultimately push us farther in the battle to improve video games and the communities surround them for everyone.