Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Morality in games

There was a push some time in 2005 or something, back before EGM morphed into an online-only web 2.0 hell website in the midst of Ziff Davis' collapse, for games to have real moral choices. I’m not sure exactly what the genealogy of the idea is, but I’m sure it had something to do with some influential speech by a dev suggesting that games by virtue of presenting players with choices could be presenting moral choices on top of the simpler resource allocation choices. A few games already did this. Deus Ex was famous for not only providing multiple (sometimes as many as six!) paths toward an objective but also providing dialogue options (as many as four! Truly a cornucopia of free will here) that indicated that you felt some moral way about some dang thing. Dialogue choices and occasionally their consequence were featured in nearly every adventure game to date.

But this push was new. This push was driven by an animus, a need to demonstrate games as a viable art form or as something with as much entrenched respect as movie had at contemporary times. The fact that games pulled in more money than movies was irrelevant. Lots of things pull in more money than movies. People buy more Pepsi products than all of video games put together. No what video games wanted was respect. So how do we get respect? How did the movie industry get respect? By empowering directors to make things like Rosebud or Gone With the Wind or the Wizard of Oz and continuing the tradition with challenging, complicated films like Full Metal Jacket or Memento. Games needed to leverage some kind of unique angle to make something that big crowds of people could enjoy but also the critics would like and respect and start referring to the industry as “growing up” or “maturing.” That angle was choice and moral choice specifically (and not, y’know, clearing out the old boys club the industry is).

Enter popular titles like Bioshock and Fable and Mass Effect. Shit was on like Donkey Kong and all of these games gave you as many as three alignments to choose from. You could be an asshole or you could be kind of not really an asshole but still an asshole if you think about it. Each of these games presented situations like some kind of ethical dilemma, and then made certain that the dilemma was obvious. Kill the little girl and drain her fluids or save her from her insanity? Beat up the townsfolk or generally be law-abiding? Rescue the last of an alien species that poses no threat to you or eliminate it?

What happened? Why are we looking at binary or trinary choices as though they have any relevance to the complex and extensive religious laws set down by god/the universe? Morals got translated into a system. Problem is, morals aren’t a system. Despite whatever odd ideas of karma persist, there’s no direct link of causality from your behavior to the world around you. Morals are a code, a series of discursive principles, a set of amorphous rules that are developed and ingrained by the cultures you’re a part of. Ya go online and people be talking like “we gotta keep the internet free from the corporate overlords who want to shackle it up and ruin our shiz! Down with cispa/pipa/sopa/drm/riaa/mpaa/dmc/etc!” and where do ya think they got those ideas from?

Hackers. Anarchistic hackers. Hacking itself is anarchistic, you know. Fighting the rules of the system expressed in the computer devices you purchased from that system. Anyway so morals got injected in games and before you know it there's a dozen middle aged white guys in suit jackets and jeans telling other slightly older white men that the way to the future is "Meaningful Choices." It seemed pretty true. All of the games I've mentioned have made oodles of cash and inspired insipid hordes of sycophants to claim the day of game legitimacy is here and all critics who claim otherwise are verboten. The meaningful choice distinction spread to other games as it was pretty easy to stuff a graphical progress bar in there and initialize a variable for evility but it continued to miss the point.

Anyway anyway the animus that produced this has continued despite the industry making nice and publishing more nuanced games. Today the "make games a legitimate artform" push is multifaceted, with criticisms ranging from the feminist to the pacifist and what sold a boatload and earned a game a spot next to a Team Ico title no longer flies in the face of the discerning modern critic. Games must be better! Today we release Bioshock Infinite, the third bioshock game and a long-awaited production by Ken Levine. It's basically just Bioshock with racist american nationalists instead of amoral randian objectivists. And it takes place in the sky instead of the sea. There's nothing new about it whatsoever.

But no! The critics are abuzz! The game is too violent for its message. The message is too trite for a work of art. Even the mechanics are under fire for being too Haloey. In its underlying premise it's still a first person shooter, the safest form of game designed to appeal to the widest gaming demographic. It's still a product.

Can games be art? Of course they can, they already are and always were. The question is and always has been: "Can games not be products?"

Some links about this issue:

http://storify.com/avi4now/jonathan-blow-on-halo-like-shields (jonathan blow is a d-bag warning)

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