Support for fatherhood in strange places

Wired.com has an article about a new trend in video games: fathers as heroes.

Recently, we’ve seen major games starring characters like a workaday father on a mining operation saving up money for his family (Lost Planet 3), soldiers driven by love of family (Medal of Honor, Dead Space 3) or men acting as surrogate fathers for lost little girls (The Walking Dead, I Am Alive, The Last of Us). In each of these games, the goal seems to be to take videogame storytelling beyond the average cookie-cutter action heroes in order to dig at deeper emotions and motivations.

“People will do absolutely anything for their families,” said Sean Vanaman, lead writer on the Walking Dead videogame. The episodic game series has won critical acclaim for its portrayal of two main characters, Lee and Clementine, who both lose their entire families as the game begins. The player controls Lee and must constantly make decisions as to the fate of young Clementine.

“It was interesting to me give the player a pair of protagonists who were, for all intents and purposes, orphans, and allow the player to be the force that grows them into a family,” he said.

In a society that increasingly devalues manhood and fatherhood, who’d have thought it would be video games to ride to the rescue? But then I’m not surprised. I believe most boys and young men have natural tendencies to protect and provide. All they really need are women who appreciate that–something in increasingly short supply. If they don’t get it from society, they’ll find it somewhere else. Savvy game designers know to supply what their audiences want. When saving the world gets to be dull, why wouldn’t saving your family be one of the alternate options?

The trend is also effective in marketing, it seems:

In a wildly successful (and extremely graphic) advertisement for the horror game Dead Island, a family is shown besieged by the undead, and the father is ultimately forced to throw his young daughter out a fourth-story window after she’s turned into a zombie.

Young fathers took to social media in large numbers to discuss how awful it made them feel, and how painful it was to watch. That might not seem like the kind of feeling you want associated with your product — but then, it was a horror game after all.

Though it began as an obscure project from an equally obscure Polish developer, Dead Island became a highly anticipated title largely thanks to the popularity of that ad. This trailer ultimately had nothing to do with the plot of the game, but Dead Island still went on to sell over four million copies.

I saw that ad. It haunted me for days. It was painful to watch. I nearly wanted to play the game in the hope that I could somehow find a way for the dad to not experience the ultimate failure: not only not being able to protect his loved ones, but actually, if unwillingly, contributing to their deaths. That he wasn’t much longer for the world either was no consolation. It’s hard-wired. We men know that if someone should die first, it’s us, fighting to our last breath so that our families might live.

What does the article attribute this trend to?

The obvious explanation would seem to be that gamers are getting older and thus more mature. But this point of view is wrongheaded and “infantilizes the players,” says game designer Vander Caballero. He says that players have always been open to stronger stories. It’s game developers, he says, who are doing the maturing. They’re developing a stronger desire to bring meaning to their work.

That in itself is interesting, even outside of the topic. Hollywood seems to be devolving, giving us movies that feel more and more like video games, while video game developers are giving us more games that feel like movies. Video game production values continue to rise, and it’s not just the graphics. The plots themselves are gaining more depth over time.

On the other hand, in Hollywood’s favor, there’s Taken and Taken 2, two odes to fatherhood in which Liam Neeson plays an ex-CIA agent who takes matters into his own hands to save his daughter and family from bad guys. But then again, it will take more than two movies to counter the plethora of Hollywood gross-outs featuring fathers as failures. And nearly every series and commercial on TV these days.

Finding good role models of fatherhood is not easy these days. It would be ironic if the last bastion of positive male role models turns out to be video games.