Stories have great power, regardless of the medium with which they are told. Reflecting on the impact that creative works can generate, on the values they can convey or on the lessons that can be drawn from them is therefore an effort as important as it is stimulating. And this is precisely what the Video Games & High Culture initiative has been trying to do for five years now, with an ambitious project that officially started in 2018 and which annually brings together illustrious guests to talk about the potential connected to language. videogame.
After the 2022 edition of Video Games & High Culture, dedicated to the relationship between war, culture and video games, we had the opportunity to talk with Fabio Belsanti, CEO of AgeOfGames and one of the main organizers of the event. A stimulating meeting, which led to the writing of this article: happy reading!
War, video games and culture
The incubation time between one edition of Video Games & High Culture and the next is generally quite large, but this year the news has replaced the organizers in the choice of the theme to be addressed. With the completion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war quickly turned into the ghostly protagonist of the appointment with Video Games & High Culture 2022.
Now in its fifth edition, the event has assigned itself a challenging task to say the least: to explore the relationship between video games, war and culture, thanks to the reflections proposed by a wide selection of international guests. Among game designers, philosophers, historians, writers and university professors, the city of Bari welcomed a whole day of round tables aimed at investigating what role video games play – and could play – in addressing such a complex issue as an armed conflict.
A concept already problematic in itself, by virtue of the many definitions and declinations that today can be associated with the term “war”. From the trenches to the fragile post-Cold War equilibrium, in a whirlwind of violence and death that from time to time can take the name of civil war, asymmetrical conflict or proxy war, it is in fact increasingly complex to offer a univocal definition of “war”.
What is certain is that the ongoing invasion of Ukraine has completely reshaped the international relations of the 21st century. The overcoming of its borders by the Russian armed forces has brought the war back to the European continent, at the gates of a European Union which, despite many difficulties, continues to represent an anchor of stability in a stubbornly anarchic international community.
How to tell the war?
In light of global circumstances, questioning the methods available to the various media to tell the war is a commendable initiative, capable of turning the spotlight on concrete and relevant food for thought. An operation that during Video Games & High Culture 2022 has made the multiform relationship that links armed conflicts and videogame entertainment the protagonist.
With the technological evolution and the spread of new means of communication, the “battlefield” has been affected by a double and paradoxical trend. On the one hand, increasingly precise and advanced weapons, the use of drones and the widespread phenomenon of outsourcing of military activities have allowed the armed forces to “move away” from the places of war. On the other hand, the new forms assumed by armed conflicts and increasingly widespread social networks have despite themselves “brought” civilians – often destined to become “collateral victims” – to the reality of the conflict.
Today, population and soldiers can only paint war on the basis of antithetical points of view, destined to find representation within every story of the war phenomenon, including video games. From the Call of Duty series – which brought King Kong and Godzilla to COD: Warzone with Operation Monarch – to small independent gems of the caliber of This War of Mine, Valiant Hearts or Papers, Please, game designers from all over the world they are confronted daily with the need to represent war, death and violence in their titles.
A spectrum of approaches and perspectives that Fabio Belsanti also partially leads back to a dichotomy between the AAA industry and the Indie universe, although the latter now includes profoundly different creative realities within it. Where big budgets often translate into simplistic representations embodied by frenetic first-person shooters, completely independent teams have the tools and creative freedom to create more articulated and truthful representations of war scenarios, or deeper discussions of issues such as death, violence or revenge.
Yet achieving a balance between these opposing ideals is not impossible. On this front, a particularly virtuous example is represented by The Last of Us: Part II, a very high budget AAA that has been able to offer space to the discussion of extremely complex issues, from the post-traumatic stress syndrome to the destructive cycle of revenge, forcing the players to experience the feelings and reasons of opposing factions on their own skin.
An approach that deserves to be replicated, we would say, but is the public really ready for such an evolution in videogame communication? At our mention of the epic of Ellie and Abby, Fabio Belsanti recalls the numerous and sterile controversies that accompanied the launch of The Last of Us: Part II.
Then there are issues that due to their cruel nature are complex to deal with, not only in the video game, but in any audiovisual medium. Are genocides, torture or ethnic rape dramas that can find space for a conscious and effective treatment within a videogame? A stimulating question, which involves not only screenwriters and game designers, but also the supervisory bodies. What could be the reaction of entities such as PEGI or ESRB to this type of content today? In the course of our conversation, the CEO of AgeOfGames said he was disappointed with today’s modus operandi of these institutions, unable in his vision to generate a real debate within the gaming industry.
Video games are politics
Despite the undeniable complexity of the issue, the 2022 edition of Video Games & High Culture has found a good response from the public among the experts. Now in its fifth edition, the event has been able to count on a network of relationships of which Fabio Belsanti says he is extremely proud and satisfied.
The multidisciplinary approach of the initiative, which aims to involve both game designers and historians and neuroscientists, has in fact captured the attention of many authors over time, from David Cage (on Everyeye we recently published a rich interview with David Cage) to 11Bit Studios (Frostpunk; This War of Mine), which gathered in Bari to discuss from time to time the relationship between video games and literature, capitalism, education and, as already highlighted, war.
Strong of great ambitions, the Video Games & High Culture project looks optimistically at the next editions, in particular at the possibility of extending the duration of the event. In fact, such broad and articulated themes can hardly be explored in a single day, however intense and full of meetings and round tables.
While reflecting on the possibilities of future development of Video Games & High Culture, Fabio Belsanti highlights the need to recognize the fact that “the video game is politics”. We are obviously talking about a high and extended conception of politics, understood as a mirror of a society, its history and its values, as well as its contradictions. To date, there is indeed a certain reticence in part of the videogame universe to describe their works as “political”. A theme for reflection that periodically re-emerges in the sector (there was a lot of talk about it, for example, on the occasion of the launch of Watch Dogs: Legion or Ghost Recon: Breakpoint), generating a debate that, however, has not yet taken on really large dimensions.
Imagining a sort of “Developer International” that could encourage such reflections is for Fabio Belsanti a goal that is too ambitious for now, but certainly full of suggestions. The roads that can lead to a more “political” world of video games are however many, highlights the CEO of AgeOfGames, and they speak an incredible variety of languages.
Even productions capable of addressing a wide audience are in fact able to convey reflections and tease the exercise of empathy. Among the examples cited by Belsanti, for example, Kingdom Hearts stands out, among which many profound themes manage to find space, such as friendship, nostalgia, death and the value of bonds. “The answers we will find in the medium – he reflects – will also be the mirror of the companies we will create in the future”.
Video games and school
During our conversation with the creator of Video Games & High Culture, the educational potential of the video game was also called into question, to date – according to Belsanti – not properly exploited by the institutions and the school system. The interactivity and the countless variations that the medium can assume make it perfect as a tool capable of conveying knowledge and skills, even in the face of an extremely heterogeneous audience of students in terms of age and interests.
A potential that the CEO of AgeOfGames tested first hand during the realization of the ScacciaRischi project, implemented in collaboration with the Puglia Region and INAIL. The initiative brought a video game of the same name to the Apulian classrooms, aimed at raising awareness among students on the issue of safety at home, at school and in the workplace. Welcomed with enthusiasm by the students, ScacciaRischi proved to be an effective tool also during the Covid-19 emergency, with specific contents aimed at educating the very young about the importance of prevention and containment measures, with a communication line that avoided however to leverage fear.
The excellent feedback offered by this and other experiences in schools leads Belsanti to describe the absence of the videogame from the classroom as a “failure of
institutions “, while he highlights how the didactic value of the medium is too high to be ignored by the public sector. The reflection quickly goes beyond the Italian borders, even reaching the point of hoping for a dedicated European program, a sort of” RAI of videogames “that could eventually find asylum within the EU initiatives. The potential of the videogame in the educational field, concludes Belsanti, is in fact such that it cannot be blindly delegated to the private individual, even if animated by noble intentions: think for example of the Discovery Tour of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla or the use of Minecraft for educational purposes. On the contrary, the inclusion of the videogame medium in the school world should be regulated and encouraged by the public sector, with the definition of precise guidelines. In a structured context, one could even imagine calls for the development of educational video games open to large companies in the sector, including the aforementioned Ubisoft and Mojang.