Science Fiction, Play and Empowerment


Whether you’re globetrotting through Call of Duty blowing up landmarks or cantering across the desert in Red Dead Redemption you can guarantee that at some point you’ll end up in a gun fight. CoD is straightforward; you bead down your rifle, pick off as many insurgents as you can then get back behind cover. Red Dead is more stylised, slowing the action down so you can pick your shots with superhuman precision and watch the blood fly in spectacular slo-mo.

The joy of CoD is in playing soldier; militaristic pretensions ooze from the game’s heavily jargonised dialogue and commitment to authenticity, so playing the game feels appropriately lifelike. RDR on the other hand is more fantastical. You play to feel like one of the legendary gunslingers from Western movies, who display the unreal marksman skills that you possess in game.

It’s all about play. Games give you all the weapons, tools and skills you need to manipulate and toy with the action. The battles in Call of Duty take place in broad, varied environments so you can play with your approach. Struggling against the enemies in front of you? Find a sniper rifle, get to higher ground and pick them off from afar. If you find yourself outnumbered in Red Dead Redemption, you can flip on Dead Eye and joyfully blast varmints to your heart’s content. It’s down to you. The more tools and abilities you’re given, the more you have to toy with.

Science fiction games are exceptional in this regard. Malleable as they are, games like Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption are nevertheless limited to the weapons and equipment of their respective contemporary and historic aesthetics. Science fiction blows a game world open. Combat is still largely weapon based, but the gunplay is combined with an otherworldly ability or power that introduces a whole new dimension to battling. Bioshock’s plasmids let players burn, freeze and electrify their enemies. You can lift objects telepathically or unleash swarms of phantom hornets to engulf clusters of foes, making them easy targets while they swat away the insect horde.

Now, rather than just shooting at enemies, you can play with them. The biotics in Mass Effect, the Nanosuit in Crysis and the power ups in Metroid are all variants on this extra level of playability. In the science fiction game, extraordinary features like these are simpler to contextualise. Equipment doesn’t inherit any real world restrictions, lessening the presence of rules that could threaten to suffocate player expression.

By adopting a sci-fi aesthetic, developers inherit the same boundlessness that defines the core concept of play. Though creators of non-sci-fi games are still able to accommodate play in a variety of contextual ways (the aforementioned huge scale fire fights in Call of Duty) the science fiction genre is a useful shortcut when it comes to circumventing expectations. Sci-fi developers can go wild and play with everything in the game, whereas creators of something more grounded have to labour under certain levels of reality.

Your method of killing aside, the sensation is the same; you’re winning. Whether you’re hacking guards to pieces in Assassin’s Creed or playfully bopping mushrooms in Mario, games are empowering. You get to blast away at your opponents, top your health up with medi-kits, blast away some more, die, restart and do it again until you’ve cleared the level. Your empowerment stems from the fact that you’ll either win or stop playing the game, in which case  you’ve still made the decision; it’s in your power.

It’s within the capacity of science fiction to take empowerment to a new level. The superpowers and hyperbolic weapons that are bestowed upon the player allow them to completely dominate enemies, rather than merely dispatch them. The BFG 9000 from the original Doom is a good, early example, a weapon so awesomely powerful that it can liquidate whole groups of demons in a single blast. Now the player is completely overpowering their enemies, rather than fighting them head-to-head. They are, in a literal sense, empowered.

It’s this empowerment that makes computer games escapist. In the game world, you aren’t Joe Bloggs trundling into work for the daily grind; you’re the hero, the centre that all the game’s action revolves around.

Games like Starcraft and Mass Effect, with their huge, sprawling gamescapes encapsulate this perfectly. They do not inherit any of the real world’s limitations, in the same way that the player does not carry over any baggage from their day to day life. Games always empower players through immersing them in fantasy, but science fiction, a genre commonly set in some otherworldly location, renders this fantasy all the more visible. The sci-fi game, through its absence of real world markers, never reminds the player of their real life obligations and limitations, making their sense of empowerment all the more complete.

Generically, science fiction takes place outside of our own world. Play depends on your imagination and your willingness to experiment, as does the creation of a science fiction text. Few other genres inherit such broad potential by default. Computer games are not exceptional in their capacity to spark our imaginations, but formally, they are unique in their tolerance of experimentation and subversion. In the sense that both give the imagination creative precedence, science fiction and computer games are innately colligated.