Video Games as a Transitional Justice Policy

In January 2024 FORTH presented their paper “Video Games as a Transitional Justice Policy: Overview, Concepts, and Research Directions” at the Ethical Games Conference. This online event focused on the exploration of ethical issues in video game design.  

The paper’s main focus is the significant role of memorial museums, an increasingly popular type of museum focused on preserving the memories and stories of people who have experienced atrocities (Cretan et al., 2019). By recording these perspectives, these museums aim to create empathy and facilitate transitional justice. This transitional justice mechanic is “the second most valuable form of state reparations after financial compensation” (Selimovic, 2013), as it contributes to memory-making by enabling museum visitors to learn about the stories of individuals who survived hardship and injustice. 

The paper also stresses the role of video games in fostering empathy, which echoes that of memorial museums. Video games can enable players to step into another person’s shoes and gain insight into the difficulties that disadvantaged or minority groups, such as refugees, face (Bogost, 2011; Gowler et al., 2019). However, despite video games’ popularity, their potential for memory-making has not yet been explored by researchers, and a clear methodology for developing games for memorialisation has not been developed.  

The paper argues that guidelines for the curation of museum collections can be applied to the creation of video games. Museums tell a story through a careful arrangement of artefacts and invite visitors to activate their senses in a journey of exploration (Savenije & de Bruijn, 2017). Similarly, video games encourage players to explore the virtual world and utilise objects and spaces as a means of conveying emotion (Anderson, 2019). However, the successful development of such video games requires a platform for collaboration between heritage and memory studies experts and game developers. 

Because memorialisation games are built around sensitive topics which are often contested between different cultures, the authors of the paper paid particular attention to ethical caveats that need to be considered to avoid potentially misguiding an otherwise well-intended initiative. For example, game development partnerships should avoid sensationalising atrocities and trauma, which is akin to what is called “dark tourism” (McDaniel, 2018). Memorialisation games have several goals; players should be reminded of the responsibility to remember the past, encouraged to seek further knowledge about historical events, be invited to contemplate the temporality of life, and develop empathy for the victims and the suffering they have experienced (Fisher & Bolter, 2018). However, it is critical that game developers do not exaggerate pain and suffering for thrills and chills.  

The paper also discusses the power of game developers to control the politics of memory, and which voices they choose to empower when depicting the past. They have the power to change the discourse and direct the player’s attention to certain elements of the narrative. Therefore, it’s very important that developers understand and respect that power and contextualise the different predicaments, roles, and actions of people in contested historical moments (Lundedal Hammar, 2020). Further, video game developers should make careful design choices when portraying sensitive topics to avoid retraumatising people with similar experiences. Finally, there are specific policies and sensitivities that game developers need to be aware of around the depiction of material that must be respected, like the fact that depicting certain symbols in a country may not be allowed (Pfister, 2019). 

FORTH concluded the presentation of their paper by stressing the significance of careful planning and execution and validated quality criteria, as well as the need for a framework that defines guidelines for creating games with the potential to induce empathy and achieve memory-making. 

FORTH’s paper was recently published in the journal Games: Research and Practice. You can read it here. 


Author: Stefania Stamou, ICS-FORTH

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Research Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.