Editor's note: Brian argues that there is a strong connection between the public's disinterest in academic subjects — most notably history — and the general consensus that RPGs are a niche genre: If people don't care about their own origins, why would they care about an invented history? -James
Programmers originally designed video games as complex diversions intended for geeks, but the release of the infamous virtual paddle-battle known as Pong altered their future. With a simple Magnavox Odyssey Tennis clone, Atari shifted video games' appeal from hackers to bar patrons and soccer moms worldwide. Ever since the '70s, the indusry has seen games that have appealed to hardcore gamers or casual gamers exclusively, and sometimes titles have even appealed to both market segments.
Hundreds of games belong in each bracket, but one particular genre rarely leaves its hardcore confines. The role-playing game has typically appealed to hardcore gamers due to their tolerance for complex statistics and immersive worlds. But I've got another reason RPGs rarely reach the mainstream — they often draw from academic subjects like history that people typically find boring.
Despite living in a complex world full of incomplete records and archaeological wonders, few people care to learn about it. Most of the Earth's nearly seven billion people see history as an amalgamation of dates and names, when really, it's about learning from our predecessors so we can improve the future.
People generally choose to see the world in black and white terms instead of examining how we reached our current state because life is easier that way. Our national media and government choose to depict Middle Eastern terrorists as inhuman and irrational because the public needs nothing further to define them as enemies.
They also describe U.S. soldiers in simple terms — they're heroes working to spread democracy throughout the world. Regardless of your take on this approach, it's clear information outlets aren't conveying certain important information — probably because most people wouldn't care even if it was available to them.
Most people are happy viewing the world in simple terms where society defines one side as the enemy and depicts the other as benevolent. It's a shame; few people realize that Middle Eastern "terrorists" have motivations that are just as substantial as those of the West.
Perhaps Americans would better understand the Middle Eastern terrorists' cause if they were aware of how the U.S. government and the countries of Western Europe installed and defended dictators in nations such as Iran and Pakistan. Or how they subsequently pillaged their resources and left their people destitute. People might also better understand the "terrorists" motivations if they recognized the imposition of Western culture on territories that value their own traditions and religion.
Just as the majority of our world doesn't care to understand current events by examining how we arrived at these situations, most people don't care about the lore in RPGs. When most people play video games, they're looking for an action-packed experience that tests their reflexes; they don't desire a game that uses its stat and strategy-heavy battle mechanics to further a story.
Even if they value a game's story as much as its gameplay, they'll likely miss what makes it special. Most players will recognize a game's overarching theme — whether it's saving the world or a specific territory — but they'll miss allusions to significant historical events.
Nearly everyone who played Final Fantasy 7 witnessed Aerith's death, but few noticed its take on corporate greed, classism, and the destruction of our environment. Likewise, most players of Xenogears recognized Solaris' objective of manipulating the Lambs through the use of their religious institution, the Ethos, but they failed to see how this was similar to Western Europe and the United States' use of Christianity to subjugate other peoples.
Most gamers also miss the numerous references to historical sites and rituals in RPGs. Few players recognize the Kingdom of Karnak in Final Fantasy 5 as an ancient Egyptian temple, and even fewer know that East-Asian Buddhist funerary rites inspired the funeral scene in Lost Odyssey.
Details like these might seem silly to the average player who is only concerned with feats of hand-eye coordination, but to people that appreciate the world's past, these connections are a doorway into a world that no longer exists. To some of us, these magical worlds are the closest we'll ever get to experiencing rituals and ideas different from our own.
History and historical references in RPGs may never appeal to the masses, but does that mean that developers should cast Doom on their companies? Absolutely not. They may need to infuse their games with more action and evolve aging gameplay elements (random battles), but they certainly shouldn't replace historical references and allusions to current events with James Bond-style antics — unless gamers desire a fun, albeit meaningless experience.