Monday, 28 March 2016 00:00

Lazy Moral Justification in Gaming

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Let’s clear the air for a moment: Violence feels good. 

Violence is visceral, satisfying, and it’s simply human/normal to take pleasure in exerting force over others. That is, it’s “normal” in the context of a simulation, where there are no long-lasting negative effects or guilt associated with it. Violent video games capture both the feeling of being skillful and powerful, coming together to satisfy some primal forces we tend to keep restrained thanks to things like ethics and law enforcement telling us that it’s wrong. I get it, and I’m not here to judge you for it. 

What I am here to talk about is how this love of violence shapes the medium and the stories which are told. Violence is a pretty dominant thematic element in most games. Regardless of format, be it First-Person, over the shoulder or top down, there is a killing simulator for everyone. Beat-‘em ups and Fighting games provide a more hands-on approach to destroying your enemies. GTA, Saints Row and Sleeping Dogs open your world to a variety of violent acts and put you in the shoes of a career criminal, including such hits as running people over, flying aircraft into other aircraft and people (in the case of the glorious ending to Saints Row 2), conventional shooting, stabbing, maiming, and head explosions via mind controlling octopi. Both traditional RPGs and Action RPGs tend to include at least a little stabbing, not to mention the incinerating or electrifying options brought to the table with an elemental magic system. From Albion to Tamriel, we delight in the destruction of others. Even Nintendo’s Kirby partakes in cannibalism! 

But killing isn’t enough for us, is it?

Most people want to feel like the good guy of their story or at least have some token good option. Link is the “Hero” of both Time and Hyrule as he eviscerates his enemies with his Master Sword that is trumpeted as “evil’s bane” and the Dog in Call of Duty doesn’t majestically act for the side of evil. With the exception of Hatred, Dungeon Keeper, Manhunt, and a few other games in the Villain Genre, people tend to want at least the option of being a hero. This makes plenty of sense, as it can be hard to come to terms with putting 60 hours into creating a sociopathic killing machine. Putting aside for the moment the question of whether or not there is a true objective good, let us agree that designers want you to feel as if there is one and you are its champion. The reasons behind this probably warrant a follow up article but the TL;DR is “because it makes the player feel super great about what they are doing.” 

Finding a way to satisfy both our bloodlust and moral sensibilities is kind of a challenge. Keep in mind that many games don’t just ask us to shoot hordes of non-sentient goo, but other living beings who could theoretically operate with us under the social contract. The ubiquity of heroism and violence, even across genre lines leads to some pretty repetitive thematic elements in stories. Here are, in my opinion, the main four: 

  • You are better than “that guy.” 

Whether it’s Pagan Min, the pink-suited sociopath of Far Cry 4 or Handsome Jack, the (ahem) “eccentric” CEO of Hyperion from the Borderlands series, game developers need to create characters more vicious, bloodthirsty and mentally out-there-than-socially-acceptable to make you the player look tame in comparison. Given how many sentient people you are expected to shoot, the depravity and evil of these kinds of villains is especially extreme when compared to other mediums. Pagan Min stabs a man with a fork at dinner, after licking your mother’s ashes off his fingers, and that’s just the soft stuff. Jack scoops out people’s eyeballs, or so he claims. These are just the fun, eccentric villains, which doesn’t even count the Lord Fairfax's’ or Gannon’s’ that litter the videogame world.  That way, we get less villains who we can empathize with and more who are straight-up absurd. If you are upset about a lack of Walter White grade villains, this is the trope to get upset about. 

  • Fight for all that is good 

This trope has the player upholding some sort of virtue. In Skyrim, the Stormcloak/Empire war lets you choose to support religious freedom and self-rule under a racist warlord, or unjust religious imperialism from a racially tolerant empire. Notice how The Empire refers to it as the “Stormcloak Rebellion” (sharply “bad” language) and Stormcloaks refer to it as the “Great Uprising.”(“Great” is, well, “great” right?) “Uprising” is a rather positive thing, as well, evoking the triumph over an oppressive rule. 

Either way, you are choosing to kill a lot of living, breathing people in the name of your cause. When your judgment is clouded by the evils of Star Wars Empire, it’s easy to forget that Stormtroopers are people, too, and yes, that includes the Clone Troopers. One feels justified in Assassin’s Creed as The Templars want to create order through control and it feels pretty awesome to support an ideal like freedom. However, when the “good” faction are the The Assassin Brotherhood, you know that the concept of “good” being presented is a bit outside the mainstream. 

The deeds we're expected to commit in game for freedom, justice, or to save our nation are appalling.

Call of Duty has been condemned by the Red Cross for having players break international war crimes as part of the game mechanics as detailed in the video below:

(“Game Theory: Call of Duty, Modern War Crimes” by The Game Theorists)

The problem with this tactic is that people doing horrible things for good reasons are still pretty horrible. I mean, Chairman Mao wanted to get all of the dirty imperialist Westerners out of China. While the West was pretty damn dirty and imperialist, this doesn’t necessarily justify the Great Leap Forward. You, as a consumer of games, should demand better plotlines so you might be a real hero instead of a vicious warlord.  

  • Utilitarianism 

When the fate of the world is in your hands, it’s hard to say no. In Bungie’s Halo, you have to protect Earth, even if you are killing sentient beings The Covenant. Far from being a simple alien-race-you-need-to-kill, they’re shown to have reasoning skills, tool-building abilities, and, yes, they can shoot you back. Same with the Humans, Turians, etc. against the Reapers in EA’s Mass Effect

When the stakes are high, it’s natural to feel justified jumping to extreme measures. The problem with this is that the more often you see it, the less effective it is. While saving the world the first time, you may feel like it really matters, but after playing several iterations on that theme and dealing with the stakes raising shenanigans of sequels, it loses its luster. A quick trip to TV Tropes found 21 separate franchises which use the “Save the World” trope alone! This doesn’t include the Sci-Fi variants like “Save the Galaxy.” Many of those franchises have five or more games in them. I don’t need to do the math to realize how worn out that idea truly is, at this point. 

  • I defend myself and my clan, or at least take vengeance 

Sometimes, someone kidnaps or kills your sister/girlfriend/wife/child and it’s justice time. In BioShock Infinite, are you not fighting to rescue Elizabeth? Specifically, rescue her from Comstock -- an “evil” bigoted uber-religious prophet -- simply to wipe away Booker's accrued and oft-mentioned debts; a decidedly selfish reasoning. As the story goes on, Booker is seen doing terrible things with little regret, slaughtering countless people throughout Colombia all in the interest of protecting Elizabeth to safely deliver her out of the city. Yet, our “hero” is killing racist bigots that are attacking him at the behest of an equally racist and bigoted leader. 

Compare this to Aiden Pierce, the protagonist of Watch_Dogs whose quest for revenge begins long before the game itself. Taking on the role of The Vigilante, Aiden travels through the city to right wrongs with a handgun and steel baton at the ready, all because his criminal activities caught up with him, inadvertently getting his niece killed in the process. Now, you can approach the game however you wish and never kill a criminal, but it’s not slaughtering that makes Aiden “evil.” Through the game, it occasionally has you to do terrible things in the interest of the “greater good” and providing the tools to fight “evil,” including hijacking people’s webcams in their homes, listening in on phone conversations (many to track down a criminal), stealing from bank accounts, and killing opposing hackers. 

What is Aiden’s goal? To kill the people behind the people that accidentally killed his niece. Because of his own actions. In the process, you just happen to accidentally save people. In the end, even the “good” have an agenda. 

When someone reaches into the most precious part of your life and plucks away the things or people you hold dear, it is only human to feel violated. That feeling of weakness makes it all the more satisfying when you absolutely destroy whatever made you feel that way. This is why the trope works. From the death of Aerith in FFVII to the end of Red Dead Redemption, putting loved ones in peril undeniably raises the stakes. The problem with this is that we’ve had a lot of loved ones put in peril at this point, and it’s old. Can’t I just have an awesome, competent sister like Coco Bandicoot?! 

I’m making a fuss because these ideas are kind of worn out. In the same way that another Nicolas Cage book-turned-romantic comedy (think “The Notebook”) doesn’t appeal to the majority of people reading this, another world ending calamity which only you -- The Player -- can avert is just old hat. So enough bitching from me, let’s talk about some solutions! 

I (almost) never will advocate that any time of game shouldn’t be made.

What I do want is more money and hype thrown at some more adventurous projects. These fall into two major categories: games which deal with violence in morally mature ways, and games which port the cathartic mechanics to do more interesting and appealing visual things. 

In the first category, we could see fresh interesting stories where people are forced to deal with the consequences of their cathartic violent release. Spec Ops: The Line was interesting. Metal Gear Solid had some interesting things to say about war, as well as the clever design with Psycho Mantis (who didn’t freak when their memory cards were being read?!) With as deep and primal a topic as violence, there are so many poignant things a game could do.  I would love to see a variant of the Trolley dilemma, or the Milgram Experiment and have a digital iteration of that put into a FPS. Perhaps a game where you control a drone on an assassination mission, only to see the terrorist overlord playing with his young children? Do you still carry out the mission without feeling? The moral implications of violence are too interesting not to not do justice, and it could be commercially successful. The Last of Us, while falling into the category of protecting your own did so to subvert utilitarianism. That was not only morally interesting, but it won multiple Game of the Year awards. Let’s keep them coming! 

Another fun idea is to create games with similar mechanics but different stories and imagery. (I would love to play Team Fortress 2 from the point-of-view of the Pyro for example.) What about a game with the joyful movement of Bayonetta which was just about dancing? What about shooting paint, like the first level of The Unfinished Swan? Let’s play a game about being a courier and having a smart message delivery gun while on rollerblades! With Rockets! Why not? Maybe you can airdrop packages instead of bombs? 

While that sounds kind of silly, so is Team Fortress 2. Yet it is a finely honed experience where the joy and silliness are just as reflected in the mechanics as in the flavor. I want more games which do what Sunset Overdrive was trying too hard to do. If we want deep, moody emotional stories, we can sink into our ethically dubious melancholia and think about how our violence impacts the world. If we want to shoot things in a skill based tactical way but not be so dark and edgy, the realm of the absurd is bursting with options. 

Until we stop pre-ordering the same old thing though, it’s never going to change. The future of games is up to you. Let’s do what we can to make sure it’s not boring.

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Molly Shove

Molly aka Pixie has been saving the world from imminent destruction since childhood. Her first escapade was possessing the body of crash bandicoot in his self titled game, and she's been hacking, slashing or in the case of persona, making angsty teen dating choices ever since. Molly realized she had both a writing and gaming problem after writing a 12 page philosophy thesis on free will in games, which is mostly just a love letter to bioshock.