I've been really interested by Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent post on Serious Gaming. He's writing directly about the American black experience and the presence of slavery in gaming, but includes (emphasis mine):
I know this won't happen anytime soon--no gaming company would risk it. But there's a lot of juice out there. I'd love to see a Total War type game, that seriously took on the Civil War, for instance. With slavery included. But one reason why it won't happen because "serious people" believe games to be idle time. Any game that engaged the black experience would be immediately accused of trivializing it.
It's been proven true over and over again that gaming has much the same problem that comics always have: a large subset of the population believes that the medium exists entirely for the benefit of and consumption by children, and has a huge problem with actual adult, mature, or serious material being presented. And I don't just mean sex and violence that wouldn't be appropriate for young'uns; I mean actual, mature, serious storytelling and topics.
Except we know that a huge number of gamers are now in their 30s. They got an NES for their birthday in 1986 or '87, or used an Apple IIe at about the same time, and never looked back. Now they're (we're) adults -- the responsible, contributing-to-society, tax-paying kind -- and they still love gaming. Many of them (us) are married or parents or both.
So is there any valid reason that a 30-year-old who likes reading books that address serious topics and watching movies that address serious topics wouldn't also enjoy the occasional game that addresses serious topics? Yes, there's the whole "escapism" argument, and sometimes, that's fine. I don't watch Spaceballs looking for an in-depth analysis of, well, anything. But there's a whole arena of documentary film and serious narrative film out there that does exist to impart a message, or to educate the viewer.
When we think "educational" games, we think Oregon Trail or Lemonade Stand or Math Blaster. In other words, we think kids and school -- and we don't associate much merit or high production values with the genre. But Coates is right: there's a lot to be learned, for a serious gamer, in many well-assembled modern games. And they could go deeper.
Is there enough of an audience out there to create an ROI for a "serious" AAA title? Good question. But I'd argue that in this era, an indie studio could put together a fairly robust, serious title.
If there was some kind of "Underground Railroad" game that used mechanics like those in any stealther (Thief, for example), would it be trivializing the story, or enhancing it? If an RPG truly addressed gay characters, or racial minority ones, or the problems of sexism... would we learn anything, or would it just be another set of mechanics that need to be learned and triumphed over?