Do I think games are inherently trivialising? No.
Do I think power fantasy is inherently trivialising? Yes.
A power fantasy is, but definition, an experience where the player acts as an idealised expression of themselves. The player characters’ actions are, in this sense, the player’s actions, and the player’s expressions of opinion are one and the same as the player character’s, only expressed through a fantastic (as in unrealistic) set of tools and abilities which the game gives you. It provides “fun” by providing an affirmation of the player’s desire to do certain things they couldn’t do in real life.
While that sort of thing has a place (especially in the hands of people who find that sort of self-affirmation out of reach for reasons medical, political, or geographical) and it can play a serious role as a serious, or even therapeutic experience, it must be designed with the understanding that if the player character is presented with a choice, then the player is being presented with a choice, and the player should feen “satisfied” in choosing it for the sake of their own self-affirmation, whether that choice is justified to the player as “just” or trivialised as being a decision that doesn’t reflect on the player as a human being.
Not every game is a power fantasy.
Personally, I’m writing a series which is, to a major extent about atrocity, the nature of the “war crime” and abuses of imperial power, and two of the major themes are about how people who consider themselves good and decent end up becoming monsters and how monstrous actions might seem necessary, or even just in the right light. I think it’s a vitally important lesson to learn, because the second we segregate people like Hitler and Stalin, and Mao, and Idi Amin (and yes, Andrew Jackson) from the rest of humanity as “inhuman monsters who we could never be like” is the second where we open ourselves down to going down the same road as they did, in the name of necessity, or self-defence, or justice.
However, I can’t be ignorant of my power as an author to shape opinion. The narration can justify the player character’s abhorrent actions and beliefs to the player in a way which might frame them as just or necessary, but as an author, I have a responsibility to ensure that while the player character might be able to use those justifications to sleep soundly at night, the player will not be able to, and this is why I couldn’t write Sabres of Infinity or Guns of Infinity as a power fantasy: because the player needs to be aware of the sort of creature their own creation is becoming.
Ultimately, I find that writing atrocity is about three separate “voices”. The first is the environment to the player character, a description of context, not through the omniscient eyes of a narrator, but through the warped, constrained views of the player character. The second is the internal voice of the player character, which filters that context through their own worldview and creates justifications for why a person might think what they are about to do is necessary or just, or even merely the least-worst of multiple options.
I maintain this blinkered, self-righteous view just long enough to edge the player into acting, before yanking away the curtain and showing them the consequences of their actions. I try to do it subtly, but when I present the consequences of something horrible that the player’s done, it’s rarely through the player character’s eyes, but through mine. I show them the consequences of their actions, and I compare them to the justifications they used, and with descriptions of broken bodies, and dying screams, and faces contorted in suffering, I silently ask them if they still think their actions were justified.
In short, I run them through the Third Wave Experiment. Ultimately, I want the player character to feel that their actions were justified or necessary, but I want the player to be full of self-loathing,
I’m not sure how well this works. I’ve personally found myself physically shaking while writing some of these scenes, and I have gotten feedback saying that players have had some serious thoughts after going through some of those moments, so it must be affecting someone. I understand that someone might get the wrong idea from it, and I understand that reflects poorly on my skills as a writer, but I also understand that the world needs to remember, especially now, that we all have the capacity to be monstrous, and at least this way, their self-loathing will be over the destruction of fictional lives, and not real ones.