Games have an incredible potential as ways to tell a message just as easily as they can entertain, but the actual creation of a game that is capable of handling its source material with grace while providing a vehicle for players to form opinions is difficult, and, ultimately rare. There’s a few crucial considerations when it comes to raising a point in games that few people keep in mind.
First, when trying to get a message across in a game, you have to be careful with regards to the political climate. I’m not trying to say that sensitive topics can’t be discussed, but rather that it’s very easy to send the wrong message with the content you have in your game. Of course Dragon Age’s fantastical racism comes across as wrong, but nobody’s defending racism here, and it just looks like EA’s trying to compare religion and conservative values as being directly opposed to freedom and equality (what with the oppression of mages and elves and such). Likewise, it’s a very shallow point. Skyrim does a marginally better job with the Thalmor and the worship of Talos; as far as I can tell nobody actually likes the Thalmor, but they’re much scarier and more convincing, even though they’re pretty much just Nazi elves. More convincing is the conflict between Ulfric Stormcloak and the Empire, with Ulfric expressing some xenophobic tendencies which prove that he’s far from being a heroic leader. When working with a topic like this, it’s important to be aware of what expectations your audience comes into the experience with; EA’s known for being more than a little left-leaning, and they have some fairly prolific activist writers, so when they write something we know it’s going to have a certain perspective, while Bethesda presented their universe much more objectively; where Dragon Age tried to say “Look at how horrible this is!”, Skyrim simply says “This is what’s happening in Skyrim.” and let the players decide what to do, and because of that it really succeeds as a platform for considering the issue instead of simply being a rant about the horrible nature of human prejudices.
More importantly, however, is to consider how it’s presented. In order to explore important issues in a game, players need to have a choice more meaningful than “good” and “evil”. One of the best ways to do this is to explicitly avoid the mechanics that are supposed to be used in allowing these decisions; what I’ve typically found is that a good/evil scale works really poorly. Switching to an ambiguously moral scale, such as Mass Effect’s Paragon and Renegade are somewhat better, bu t I’ve found that the best experiences I’ve had with this sort of thing come from games in which there is no explicit way to determine if what I’m doing is right or wrong; in Fallout, for instance, which really played a huge role in providing the framework for future morality systems in games. However, one of the interesting things about Fallout is that it doesn’t really care about the player’s Karma all that much; unlike, say, Knights of the Old Republic and other BioWare games where things explicitly depend on where you fall on the good/bad alignment scale Fallout actually has few if any long-term penalties for being good or bad, rather looking more at what the player’s character might do in, say, “cutscenes” (for instance, killing the Overseer) rather than really forcing them down certain paths or choices. In games where being good or evil determines things beyond simply the player’s sense of satisfaction from the game, we often see a decrease in satisfaction, because players have good intentions when they do things that the game designers didn’t want them to do (for instance, Fable giving “corruption” for eating meat).
Another important thing about raising a point is that you have to provide information and background. The Deus Ex series does this incredibly well, because it looks at transhumanism in a way that players have likely never heard it discussed, looking into the background, timeline, and ramifications of people being able to augment themselves so that they can out-compete everyone else; which obviously has advantages for combat applications but also has a notable impact in society. Cyborgs need drugs in order to survive, which are very expensive, and as thus need to be able to outperform people, which they have little difficulty with, but frequently reach the point where they’re barely human as a result. Immediately a dramatic tension is created without relying too much on players’ prior knowledge, but it also looks at various nuanced elements of play; it presents a complex set of challenges and decisions. For instance, a war game might point out that even though the two forces on the battlefield right now may be “good” factions, one may be allied with a faction that is unambiguously evil (consider modern terrorism and civil wars in the Middle East), which leaves in implications for after the war.
To present an issue in games, you need to consider the way in which your audience will receive it, contemplate it with depth and a viewpoint that lets players make their own decisions, and go into detail on the events so that players can come up with their own opinions, allowing them to invest in the matter.