When I was in elementary school, I played a whole lot of Starcraft and Warcraft II. I also played the LEGO Star Wars and Indiana Jones video games. In these games, while I enjoyed playing through the levels and accomplishing objectives, I also took a certain pleasure in idling and enjoying myself just by watching soldiers milling about their posts. After every victorious round of Starcraft or Warcraft, instead of going to the score screen, I would always click “continue playing”, and just build up my base to cover the entire map. I’d train up as many units as I could, and order them to patrol around my base. In the LEGO games, I spent many hours in Free Play mode (where you can play as any character that you’ve unlocked) dressed up as a Stormtrooper, Darth Vader, a Luftwaffe pilot, or a Russian spy, so that the enemies would see me as one of their own and I could just hang out with them.
This was further perpetuated by the dozens of easter eggs in the LEGO games which more humanise the enemies. For example, in the 6th level of LEGO: Indiana Jones, there’s a door which (if I recall correctly) can only be opened if you’re playing as a German soldier, and inside this door, some enemy soldiers are holding some sort of celebration, with balloons and cakes and all that sort of stuff. Similarly, in the second LEGO Star Wars game, in one level on board the Death Star, there’s a secret room accessible only to Imperial troopers or officers, where you’ll find a bunch of Stormtroopers relaxing in a hot tub.
I bring this up because I recently decided to try out Dungeon Keeper. Not the mobile port, but the original. (Well, the Gold Edition, actually, but you get the idea.) Assuming that you’re unfamiliar with the game, it’s a real-time strategy in which the player is in charge of a D&D style dungeon, and must orchestrate the defence against so-called “heroes” who would destroy the dungeon and loot it for treasure. The main substance of the game is not so much in directing battles as they occur, but rather in preparation. The majority of the game consists of digging new tunnels, fortifying walls, enticing new minions to join your ranks, and training your warriors.
Due to this, a large part of the game is simply watching your minions mill about and prepare, while you consider the layout of your dungeon and the like. There’s something about this which I find mesmerizing – like the Pipes screensaver from some of the older versions of Windows. This interest in watching a military at work outside of combat has largely influenced me to this day, and is certainly one of the reasons that Empire: Total War is among my favourite strategy games. While the gameplay is relatively hands-off and slow, there is the benefit of watching regiments of uniformed men marching about in even formations.
Perhaps I’m reading into this more than is reasonable, but the LEGO games, since I played them at such a young age (although I am still quite young), really cemented the idea that “hey, maybe the ‘bad guys’ aren’t actually bad.” After all, they need their R&R just as much as anyone else. Marching around in that plastic suit and being shot at all day, I can hardly blame them. This brings me to a point which I hadn’t planned in advance, but now that I consider it, I think it’s certainly noteworthy: The LEGO video games – at least the two I’ve been talking about – really contain some valuable lessons which ought to be learned at a young age. Perhaps being given the option to play as the “bad guys” is really an important thing to have. However, I don’t want to be misinterpreted, so I’ll reinforce that being allowed only to play as the bad guys is really far from ideal. The benefit is not in seeing the other side’s perspective, but in seeing both sides’ perspectives.
So, I’ll wrap this up with one final thought: Video games are – or rather, can be – an effective way to teach a child one of the most important abilities: seeing things from another person’s perspective. It’s one thing to point at the Galactic Empire or Nazi Germany and say “these are evil people; they are the villains,” but it’s an entirely different and, I’d say, better thing to say “these people had a different idea of what’s right and wrong. We generally agree that they were wrong, especially those in charge, but the majority of them were ordinary people like any other, just forced into unpleasant circumstances.”