Is Play Endorsement? Gaming and Individual Responsibility (Part 1)

This is part one in a two-part series I’m doing on video games and endorsement. Check back on Monday for the conclusion.

Brett McCracken covered the question of depiction in film as endorsement rather expertly–as he usually does–over at Mere Orthodoxy. The question came up surrounding the films Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained last year, and should probably be asked by all thoughtful filmmakers. It’s important that we work through what it is film means when we create it, and the question easily expands to other sorts of art (as Brett rightly points out, when discussing the historical use of violence in art).

His conclusion is simple:

But the depiction of “the ugly” in art as means to bring about reform is one thing. Should artists be given free pass to depict the extremes of ugliness (torture, unspeakable gun violence, hundreds of uses of the “n” word) when their only purpose is to convey a purported verisimilitude to the “reality” of the world in which their story is set?

In short, yes. I believe that insofar as an artist honestly sets out to tell a story that is truthful (to the world in which it is set, to the real struggles of its characters), then it is their right and even obligation to not shield us from the darker elements.

I think he’s right in his conclusion, though I’d perhaps emphasize the “insofar an artist honestly sets out to tell a story that is truthful” bit. This doesn’t seem to be the case with many artists, particularly film-makers, and that can lead to many evil films, not films depicting evil. It can be easy to confuse the two, especially when we emphasize our personal interpretations of film over the director or writer’s intention; even with the free reign Brett recommends for artists depicting violent media, we should still remember that artists can do so very poorly.

The issue here gets cloudy quickly when one of two things happens. The first is simply that a story is told by means of metaphor or stylized representation of some true thing: this is the difficulty that Brett recognized with Django Unchained. He comments, saying: “Tarantino’s Django is a bit of a harder case, because everything about it screams sensationalism and maybe even exploitation. It’s less clear whether Tarantino’s aim here is wholly oriented toward truth-telling (as opposed to merely a stylish exercise in genre and pop culture pastiche), but I’m going to go out on a limb and give Quentin the benefit of the doubt.” While the conclusion may be grace rather than accusation, even a film that deals with the obvious evils of slavery fell under question.

The other thing that can quickly cloud a discussion is when the writer or director has less control over the story actually told. This doesn’t happen too often in film, at least not in a way that we can recognize, but it happens every day in the world of video games. I’ve spoken about linearity in games before, but the more open the world is, the less control the game-makers have over the story that players will experience. Moral choices abound in many games these days, and with good reason: they make for interesting narratives that we ourselves can help form.

And so the titular question: does play constitute endorsement?

Perhaps the most famous moral quandary in a game in the last few years is that of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2‘s airport scene. The game had you playing an American spy, posing as a Russian terrorist. You were attempting to infiltrate their ranks in order to reach and assassinate their leader. The controversy came when they handed you a fully automatic weapon and proceeded to walk through a populated airport, gunning down every civilian they could find. The characters in the game expected you to follow along. You were told to open fire.

There are multiple choices here, including the option not to play. The game warns you multiple times that there is a scene that may be more graphic or controversial than you desire from your war game, and allows you to skip the level, without any penalty. You could also choose to simply not fire your weapon during the mission. This is what I chose, though I’ll admit that I sort of felt like they were going to suspect me and turn on me at any minute. The tension there was real, though not enough to force me to pull the virtual trigger. And, of course, you could open fire, and end the lives of many virtual Russian civilians.

But does pulling the trigger, so to speak, endorse the actions of the character? In other words, do our characters function as expansions of our selves, or do we act more as directors, telling the characters to act in a certain way in order to depict a certain thing?

I’ll explore this question more fully on Monday. In the meantime, add your comments below.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Mackman

    I treat almost all my characters in almost all my games as extensions of myself. I’ve never felt comfortable taking the “evil” route in games that give you a choice. That’s because almost all of my characters do, to a reasonable extent, act as an extension of myself as a dragon-slaying, magic-wielding soldier, or a jedi recovering from some sort of weird amnesia, or what-have-you.

    That said, I know that many people, including Christians and several of my friends, enjoy the occasional round of “become the next Sith lord and plunge the galaxy into an age of darkness and chaos.” In this case, my friends are not (to my knowledge) evil megalomaniacs. I don’t think lack of Force powers is the only thing preventing them from creating an evil empire. The fact remains, though, that they have fun choosing the “evil” option.

    Does such a trend reflect our fundamental brokenness? Absolutely. If we weren’t broken creatures, I don’t think we would have the capacity to enjoy even virtualized brokenness.

    But does it reflect something personally and purposefully sinful in the individual person? Does it serve as a fundamental endorsement of the actions set into motion? That’s where I would really hesitate.

  • jamesfarnold

    Do you extend the same thing to filmmakers? Do we only make films to reflect our own brokenness, or do we do it to reflect the brokenness we see elsewhere?

  • Mackman

    I think it can be both, or either.

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