Can a Modern Setting Avoid Modern Problems? (TSW)

Funcom’s The Secret World had an open beta over the weekend, and although I wasn’t personally invited I did have the opportunity to speak with a number of folks about their experiences. A lot of the stuff I heard about the gameplay was.. cautiously positive. People seem to enjoy some of the more unusual mechanics, like only having one active quest at a time, but I’ve seen a lot of dissatisfaction with the character choices and animation.

The most interesting feedback to me, though, were the folks who found the setting and content to be problematic. The Secret World is one of the few (the only?) large MMOs to be set in present day Earth. The factions are The Dragons, The Templars, and The Illuminati, and that theme of conspiracy theories and shadow governments permeates the whole game’s setting. In theory I’ve been pretty interested in (finally!) getting away from elves and dwarves and playing some modern stuff with blue jeans and handguns, and on the surface lizardmen and cults and contrails and the like seem like great material for a game world setting.

In practice though, the game content seems pretty problematic on a number of fronts. For example, let’s look at Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s description of the opening video for The Dragon faction:

“In Seoul, S. Korea, our heroine is kidnapped and dumped in a van, driven wildly through the streets, until she’s eventually dumped out. [...] In an extremely sexually charged scene, as the player lays helplessly on the bed as this mysterious lady crawls over us. [...] ‘When our minds are empty, we are receptive to the truth,’ she mutters, before slowly slinking down our body, until her head is just off screen, and rather close to our ladyparts. And then the cunnilingus begins. No, seriously.”

Huh. Now, to be fair the degree of any sexual assault or coersion in the video (note: slightly NSFW) is somewhat open to the interpretation of the viewer, but clearly there is enough to allow for a very unpleasant conclusion.

And that’s not the only problematic content. One friend felt pretty uncomfortable with the way churches and preachers were portrayed. Another talked about how they were saddened that their character joined what is basically a terrorist organization without any option for player agency or anything beyond “do as you’re told”. Yet another felt weird about the frequent appearance of the Iron Cross and other symbols that have taken on extremely unpleasant connotations in North American culture.

I’m not interested in addressing the validity of any of these statements. All these people genuinely felt uncomfortable, and that is authentic enough for me. Instead, what interested me was the idea that an MMO set in modern day Earth will by its very nature be problematic for much of the audience.

I think one of the benefits of fantasy / science fiction MMOs is that we can play them without necessarily bringing the burdens of modern life with us. By default, my wood elf does not worry about rape culture in Norrath. People can make a human with brown skin in SWTOR and not ever have to think about how it might affect the way other internal characters might treat them. To be sure, players themselves can bring in these real world issues, but they’re not inherent in the game world. (This is also why people can feel upset when these elements are introduced through mechanics, such as Ji Firepaw’s gender sorting.)

It’s harder to shut out undesirable elements in a fake world when it looks just like what’s outside your window. (Zombies and monsters aside, of course. Hopefully!) You’re not just killing the evil Archbishop Benedictus with your orc friend in the basement of a giant tower dedicated to dragons (as in WoW), you’re killing a dude who looks like your priest in a church that looks like your church for corruption that sadly puts you in mind of the ways real corruption happen.

Is it possible for an MMORPG to have a modern setting yet avoid making people uncomfortable with real life parallels? I don’t know the answer, although if I had to guess I’d say, “No”. And that isn’t always a bad thing — there are a lot of great artistic works based on modern times and modern problems. However, after a great deal of thought I think I have to confess that I don’t necessarily want games to push my boundaries on real life issues. Usually when I sit down with a game, it is specifically for fun and recreation.

For a couple of years now I’ve been griping about the stereotypical fantasy setting in MMOs, and just how over dwarves and such I am. However, after this weekend I’m thinking I should start being specific about futuristic or science-fiction settings. The modern world and all its problems are real enough for me offline, for now.

Author: Jessica Cook

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5 Comments

  1. I was at a steampunk con this weekend and went to a panel on steampunk and social justice issues hosted by this blogger http://beyondvictoriana.com/ and this blogger http://silver-goggles.blogspot.com/ , and they had a lot of fascinating ideas about how their futuristic/past-tastic steampunk settings can be used to accommodate transformative political visions.

    It was, I think, a cool example of “being more specific about futuristic or sci-fi settings.” The dangers of reproducing Victorian racism, classicism, sexism, etc were at the heart of their concerns.

    Was an eye-opener to the problems of non-fantasy (sorta?) settings, which I hadn’t been familiar with.

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    • A real Steampunk-style MMO would be AMAZING, imo. Especially if it seriously played around with historical realities and themes (instead of just using a ‘corsets and tophats with gears glued on’ aesthetic.

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  2. I liked the setting having been a little burned out by fantasy settings (really does it always have to be swords, armor, elves, etc?). I like SWTOR despite the resemblance to WoW gameplay and despite the shallowness of the endgame.

    What concerns me the most is the somewhat clunky combat. You essentially end up pushing a few buttons in order while mobs smack on you. There’s less strategy than in SWTOR or WoW. I hear it gets better at higher levels but I think there’s an serious issue at the heart of the gamplay.

    SW has a wonderfully created environment and atmosphere that sucks you into the realm of belief. But the decidedly artificial combat draws you out. I see kernels of good interactive combat, there’s mobs that send visual tells for their moves where you need to dodge. I hope to see an improvement in the release.

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  3. It’s somewhat interesting regarding the evil priest thing, since I remember that being a popular 32-bit plot. I suppose there is a difference between FFT’s priests and ones depicted today, but that seemed to be a pretty common JRPG thing overall.

    Anyway, good post.

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    • The ‘sinister (catholic-style) priest’ is a common theme in Japanese games; it’s in anime and manga as well. For some reason, the trappings of the catholic church (especially cathedrals) tend to = vampire/evil/creepy vibes more than it signifies anything of religious significance.

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