Moral Gaming: The Importance of Decent Games
As any gamer ought to know, video games posses a remarkable trait that makes them unique among every other storytelling medium, and that is the ability to let their audience fully interact with their story, characters, and setting. Films and TV shows sometimes break the fourth wall, and there are some books that are marketed as “choose your own adventure” stories, but none of these media are built on the idea of giving the audience complete control over how the story unfolds. In essence, games are designed precisely for the purpose of having the player be the one who tells the story. Only by stepping into the shoes of Master Chief or Commander Shepard are we able to see their respective stories play out. This is a truly novel power that video games possess, and while it is undoubtedly a feature that should be praised and put to good use, it is also one that is at times abused by game developers to the point where one has to wonder if their moral sensibilities are being degraded.
Most modern games tend to function on a linear path of storytelling; while we are invited into the world of the game, most of the big events are already planned out for us. Role-Playing Games usually offer the player moral challenges that can make the game’s story branch off into different directions, but for the purposes of this article I’ll focus mostly on linear storytelling (Kevin Wong’s article on Morality in RPGs is a great look at how morality systems function). Though there is a certain constriction that occurs when playing a game in which all the events are preordained, we are always given control of a character that acts as our avatar in the game world. Moreover, the character is usually proactive and up for any task that is placed before them. The problem arises when the character, the task, or sometimes both are out of alignment with what we consider to be right and wrong.
It goes without saying that most people are good people, or are people trying to do good. But video games are a rather delightful temptation to step into the world of bad people and see how things look from their perspective. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series is, like all games, a fantasy in the sense that it provides the player with the ability to do things that they’d never be able to do in real life, or at least things they couldn’t do without repercussions. This inherent impunity is something that attracts a number of gamers, and rightfully so. Games function by offering us an escape into other worlds that aren’t available to us so why shouldn’t we have some fun when we visit one. In principle, it sounds like a hoot, and more often than not it’s also a hoot in practice. But it seems to be a peculiar desire to want to step into a fantasy world like Grand Theft Auto where murder, mayhem, and crimes of all sorts are praised, and moreover, are the only way to advance the story.
Grand Theft Auto V is a marvel of game technology; the map is gargantuan, the AI is remarkably responsive, and the story itself has its fun moments. But this is also a very ugly game that asks the player to perform egregious acts in order to ensure progression of the story. The most infamous mission in the game -perhaps the most infamous in the entire Grand Theft Auto series- is the one entitled “By the Book”, in which the player is asked to torture a character until he divulges information about an assassination target. The only choice that the player has to make during this mission is the choice of torture method.
It should be noted that while the developers provide the player with a rather repulsive assortment of items with which they can torment the helpless man, they do not provide the player with the choice of refusing to go through with the torture. Had they done so, this mission could be defended as being an integral part of the story where Trevor (the character performing the torture) experiences an honest moral dilemma. Instead, Trevor (and therefore the player) goes through with the torture no matter what, and then afterwards muses about the disgusting nature of torture, right in front of the victim no less! This false tug of the heart strings is the cheapest of ploys that serves the dual purposes of absolving the character and the player of all wrong doing. Of course torture is bad, the player will think, I just went through with it because the game made me, but I didn’t really like it, honest. This sounds eerily similar to the “Nuremberg defense”, which amounts to little more than, “I was just following orders.” Plus, there is the added stigma of growing attached and sympathetic towards these villainous characters. Sure, from an outsiders point of view the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto V may be a reprehensible lot, but once you start to play with them and experience their lives, there is the temptation to be okay with these characters. Characters, who by the way, have no qualms about torturing people, as well as murdering and assaulting any number of innocent bystanders.
One may say that this is an extreme view of video games and that the mission shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, the characters don’t really exist so why should we get our undies in a knot when one random NPC is tortured. And it is true that since this occurred in a fictional world, then no actual crime was committed so there is no need to treat it like one. But the argument that we shouldn’t care about it because it isn’t real falls apart when compared to other mediums; we care about our favorite characters in film, TV, and literature, so why shouldn’t we care about our favorite characters in games? In fact, it may be more important that we care about the characters in games precisely because of their interactive nature. In movies, we are nothing more than observers, but video games require us to take an active role in their universes. It would be sad to see Jon Snow abandon his honor and torture someone, but in the end he’s the one doing the torturing, not us. In the case of Grand Theft Auto V, however, Trevor is controlled by the player, so they are just as culpable in the action as Trevor is.
And above all, it just isn’t imaginative. Every day, we hear stories about meaningless acts of cruelty perpetrated against our neighbors. Why should we be reminded of those sort of things by partaking in a simulation of them? The word escapism means more than just being allowed to do things you can’t; it means entering a realm that can only be accessed through our imaginations and creativity. In that sense, not only does Grand Theft Auto V suffer from faulty moral mechanics, it’s also a fairly shallow form of escapism. Given the choice between staying on earth and being allowed to murder people at random or being able to travel through the stars to defeat an evil alien force known as the Covenant, it seems that a lot of gamers would actually prefer to do the former. To each his own, but in the end there’s little argument as to which game series functions more on creativity.
Now, it isn’t just a matter of violence. Grand Theft Auto V is by no means the first game that revolves around gunplay or action set-pieces, and there is no doubt that it’ll be the last. The difference is how those shootouts are grounded in the story. On the opposite end of the moral spectrum from Grand Theft Auto are games like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. Nathan Drake, the heroic star of Uncharted is mischievous, cocky, and a bit violent, but he also possess that which the characters in Grand Theft Auto V don’t: a moral compass. There’s lot of car chases and gun-play for sure, but they are all performed by a guy who we’re actively rooting for and want to see succeed. If Nathan has to gun down someone, it’s because they were threatening him or someone he cares for, which is hardly a charge that we can hold against someone. Is this a romantic set up that borders on being morally simplistic; absolutely. But sometimes a good guy fighting for good things is needed to give players a measure of escapism while ensuring that that escape isn’t to some crime ridden city where all they do is add to the crime.
If Uncharted is too black and white for you, there are still a myriad of games out there that offer you the opportunity to be a complex hero that’s more gray in terms of morality. The Metal Gear Solid series, BioShock series, and even Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption are games that center around anti-heroes trying to better themselves and do what’s right. Even Santa Monica’s God of War franchise manages to find a measure of gravitas in its story that ensures us that we aren’t playing a game that rewards evil acts. Kratos is a bad guy who basically destroys the earth and humanity along with it in order to achieve vengeance against the gods of Olympus. But God of War was always meant to be an action packed adventure that fused itself with elements of classical Greek tragedy. Kratos isn’t rewarded for the bad things he does, and in the end every person he murders only serves to cast him further into madness and depression, and only by the end of the saga does he commit an unselfish act in order to redeem himself. In this sense, God of War is a cautionary tale about the corrosive nature of pride and greed that teaches players to lean away from such temptations.
Take a moment to realize just how special video games are. It bears repeating that no other art form has ever been able to offer the level of interactivity as video games do. The closest thing that we could ever get to being Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones is by playing make-believe with our buddies. In respect to video games, you don’t have to pretend that you’re the protagonist; you are the protagonist. That’s the defining feature of video games, and it’s always a bummer to see some developers use that power to present us with games that just aren’t good, not in terms of quality but in terms of content. If we wouldn’t do the things that Trevor and his cohorts do in real life, then I simply can’t understand why anyone would be fine with doing it in a video game, which basically acts as a direct link to our imaginations. If your idea of fun is to prance around murdering digital projections, then you’re free to do so. More than that you’re free to do that without having to worry about people labeling you a psycho, because you’re probably a decent person overall. But why cast yourself as a villain when you have so many opportunities to be the hero?
What do you think? Leave a comment.