Video games: it’s the implicit choices that are the most disturbing

Posted by: James on: Saturday, 21st January, 2012

God of War 3 jumped the shark. No, that’s not right – it got in the water with the shark and then, with a brutality that would make Gears of War fans wince, it ripped apart that shark and did seriously inappropriate things with its guts.

GoW3 was a while ago, but I’ve just watched the Darksiders 2 trailer and it brought that same feeling of shame: the one that makes you ask why exactly you’re beheading the monster and then gouging out its eyes. Aren’t I supposed to be the good guy? Well not in either of these cases: no, you’re not. But not only are you not going to be the good guy: you’re not going to be any kind of guy that you could possibly respect or wish to emulate, and that’s really what I want to talk about.

In GoW, you play Kratos, who starts off with very clearly defined parameters for his insane bloodlust – namely that he has been tricked by the gods into murdering his own family, and he is seeking revenge. Eventually the knowledge of his actions will bring him right to the edge – I mean literally, to the edge of a cliff, where he will try to commit suicide. He starts out as the bad guy, this much is true, but there is some kind of reasoning behind his killing and the plot (there is one) explores this great betrayal in quite a consistent manner.

By GoW3, the reason is gone. Kratos, it seems, has become a psychopath who (spoiler alert) kills literally everybody he talks to, with the exception of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, who is of course, good for a shag – which I count as murdering the possibility of positive female stereotyping in the medium.

Kratos. Chucking the toys out of the buggy.

He doesn’t need to do it: he just does. Even in ‘justified’ kills there is pointless, unjustified violence, culminating in a scene where the player has to repeatedly press a button to make Kratos pound his fist over and over again into the bloodied head of his father, Zeus, causing the whole screen to gradually turn red. GoW is famed for violence, but playing the third instalment made me seriously uncomfortable – and it’s not just because I’m playing a ‘baddie’.

I think role-playing in games is fun; role-playing as a morally ambiguous character is even more fun – in fact it’s morally instructive! Playing Fallout 3 on my second playthrough, I decided I was going to play a really horrible person who would have the Wasteland running in fear. To this end I became a slaver. The way you do this in Fallout is you have a supply of explosive collars àlà Battle Royale and you slap them on someone’s neck and tell them they have to run all the way to the nearest slaver colony or that collar will explode. I found it surprisingly hard to do. I mean, I was just about okay with the enslavement thing, but if something went wrong with the collar or they were attacked on the way to the slave camp, I would reload that game – I didn’t want to kill them, and that wasn’t just because I wouldn’t get my reward from the slavers either.

Edwin from Baldur's Gate: evil can be fun.

So evil characters are interesting – in fact I think if you’re a stand-up kind of citizen, they represent one of the only real opportunities for role playing. Anyone can play as a ‘paladin’ (Lawful Good: Saviour of the Wastes: Idolized, Paragon of Virtue etc.), but to think about how a character who is radically different from yourself would really react – that’s interesting and challenging in a way that so few things are.

It’s a point that ‘Yahtzee’ has made time and time again, however, that games with moral choice elements have in practice only two choices: absolute saint or world’s most inconceivable bastard. The problem is that the saint option is always the one with the easy explanation: ‘look – the orphans are in trouble: let’s help’. The equivalent evil action is not ‘let’s ignore the orphans’ or even ‘let’s help the orphans, but then convince them to vote against their interests at the next election’ – it’s ‘let’s burn the orphans and shit on their corpses’.

Unnaturally black and white choices include Bioshock’s device where you can choose to either save the ‘little sisters’ – mutated children – or harvest them to add to your powers, and games like Infamous, where if you make a mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ decisions you end up being rewarded for neither.

The problem with the polar choices of good vs. evil is that the purely evil instinct just isn’t very common in the real world (which is for the best). It’s a fiction, but it’s a fiction that doesn’t really belong in interactive fiction because it’s too evil. Radiolab’s most recent podcast, The Bad Show, explores probably the most chilling type of ‘badness’ that you could ever possibly imagine. In fact it’s so bad that even if you could imagine it, as a well-adjusted person, it would be impossible to actually empathise with it. This is the ‘badness’ of an unrepentant Garry Ridgway, the Green River Killer, who, at the climax of the episode, fails to explain why he killed 71 women in the 1980s and 1990s. He can’t explain it. He had no reason. It’s the kind of evil that you can’t get inside the mind of, and yet the choices that we’re so often given in video games are either be an angel, or be this kind of cold-blooded psychopath motivated by ‘just because’ reasoning.

But actually I’m not concerned with the holes in moral choice in gaming: I’m more interested in the games where you aren’t given that choice at all – and here I’m looking at games that don’t sell themselves as role-playing experiences: games like God of War 3 and also games like Call of Duty. Now I’ll admit to being very foggy on CoD’s plot, but I don’t see that that makes my standpoint any weaker: CoD is simply a war sim. It’s a shooter: you play a soldier and you shoot other soldiers. Now I’ll preface this next comment with the fact that I’ve played all the way through CoD 4 and then halfway through the multiplayer prestige mode – it was an intensely gripping and, I think, enjoyable gaming experience.

Now, however, I’m wondering why I played it and whether I think people should play it. And again, another caveat: I hate it when people say that violence in video games leads to violence in reality – it’s bollocks. What I do want to say is that when I’m playing CoD I don’t know why I’m playing. If I analyse the content on my screen I realise that it doesn’t matter from whose perspective I play (in multiplayer the game will assign you a random army uniform) – all I’m doing is trying to kill the people on the other team for points.

CoD makes a kill really satisfying *shiver*

The thing is that all games are a type of role-playing experience, whether implicitly or explicitly: you’re not really leader of an empire, but you can play Civilization and give it a go; you’re not really a racing driver, but you can enjoy the fantasy in Gran Turismo; you’re not really a rock star, but in Rock Band we’ll do our damnedest to convince you that you are one.

What I’ve realised only very recently, is that I have no desire to role-play a soldier. And unless some element of reality is removed from games like CoD and Battlefield, that’s exactly what you are playing – a soldier in a conflict that comes far too close to being a reality. Just as I don’t want to role-play a psychopath as in God of War 3 because I find the head-space disturbing, I don’t want to role-play someone whose job it is to kill other people, because I don’t think anyone should be paid to do that, let alone enjoy it. When I look at Call of Duty now I can only imagine two types of people who could possibly thrive in the setting on my screen: one being someone that is certain to the point of being brainwashed that in killing they are doing the right thing; the other being Garry Ridgway.

2 Responses to "Video games: it’s the implicit choices that are the most disturbing"

Only just read this one. I understand your point but Call of Duty is a different beast altogether. You are in a sense “role-playing” a soldier. But you are simultaneously sitting on a couch enjoying the audiovisual experience taking place in front of you. I think the difference is the level of realism and interactivity. If you were playing with a futuristic VR headset, holding a fake gun, the experience would be far more intense and far less enjoyable. I think the majority of people would be terrified were they put in a realistic war sim. As it is, you don’t jump everytime a bullet flies past your head. Rather you take aim and shoot the bastard in his generic, pixelated face. I don’t necessarily approve of the reaction but I think it is probably going too far to suggest that this violence is something in which brainwashed people feel justified, or are the equivalent of a serial killer. Rather they are able to separate themselves from the “realistic” death and await the inevitable respawn to jump back into the experience.

As a final note, quoting my buddy David Cronenberg, “Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion.”

I definitely hear you on the Cronenberg. I wouldn’t want to suggest that this is something that should be censored – I’ve left the idea of censorship out of the post because people should really be able to do what they want to do in the virtual world. I just think that there are some things that I’ve realised I don’t want to do even in virtual reality.

I disagree with the level of realism making the difference: I think if you had a headset and a lightgun and a holo-suite, you would end up with a really intoxicating experience and actually I’d say the closer to reality it came (stopping short of actual bullets) perhaps the more intoxicating. When I first played CoD I was shitting myself all the time – bullets really could come from anywhere – it’s the most nerve-wracking game I ever played (at least before you learn the maps), but I think intoxicating is the right word. I got into this weird mental space where I’m not sure I could be said to be ‘enjoying’ playing but I was addicted: I got incredible satisfaction out of it, but it’s only now that I’m reflecting on why I got that satisfaction and whether it was a good thing. N.B. It’s a very different experience just playing friends – it’s like you know the rules somehow. When you’re playing multiplayer against generically-faced players who are actual people somewhere, I think the dynamic changes.

I won’t ever say ‘get this filth off our shelves’, but I will question what makes us pursue certain experiences.

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A fairly loose blog about the places I go and the things I think. May also include left-leaning social commentary derived in part from video games.

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