Is Play Endorsement? Gaming and Personal Responsibility (Part 2)

Film, Gaming — By on February 4, 2013 at 7:00 am

Part one of this series can be found here.

Most of us naturally think of our characters as an of extension of our selves, at least to some degree. This is more true in the age of first-person perspective games. Even if we don’t think of our characters as ‘us,’ we do become attached to them, much the way I’m told writers become attached to their fictional characters. There are some characters that I definitely associated with myself, particularly in role-playing games, and some that I simply see as an entirely external character (Master Chief of the Halo franchise comes to mind).

And so it gets more difficult to nail down whether or not our play functions as endorsement. In a comment on my article about linearity and choice, fellow writer Mackenzie had this to say:

I feel as though there is a distinct difference between violent video games of the type you describe (wherein you have a distinct choice, and the violence is, I believe, directed against fellow combatants), and a game like Grand Theft Auto, where you are not only allowed but (at times, I believe) encouraged and sometimes even required to kill the innocent in an excessively violent fashion.

We spoke about this comment later, and he argued that some games, like the Grand Theft Auto series, are simply evil to play. The games encourage the player to do all sorts of unscrupulous things (and have always been a source of controversy).

If we were to adapt Brett’s claim about film to this, then all we would need to do to make GTA a series worth making and playing is to prove that the creators of the game intended to depict the world in some truthful way. We’d have to believe that the truth in GTA was worth receiving via interaction, rather than by some other method.

But there’s something different, here, and I think most would agree. While I’ve argued that thoughtfully gaming is absolutely important for the gamer, I don’t think I’d ever suggest that completely passive intake is the same as the active participation found in video games. There’s something different happening, of course, but even more so when a choice is presented.

In a sense, I am the one pulling the trigger in a virtual game. I’m functioning as a participant, a creator or at least actor, as opposed to simply an audience member. In linear games, ones where the creators have clearly scripted everything, I tend to play the role of an actor: I embody a character, run through a scene, and may or may not provide exactly what the director hoped for. In open games, however, I tend to act as a director: I choose what happens, more or less, and sometimes even how it happens. Maybe my character is wholly evil and kills everyone he or she comes across, or maybe my character is a pacifist, avoiding violence and death even if it means never advancing the plot.

The key difference, however, between a director of a film and a player-as-director of a video game is the audience: only the former tells a story for an external audience. Even when I function as ‘director’ of a video game, I only craft a story for myself. Within the confines of whatever game I’m playing, I can only tell the story to myself, sans someone watching me play, or perhaps online games. If my character is evil, I’ve experienced evil in a way that no one else sees. My art is personal, all of a sudden. Perhaps my evil character can teach me about what the creators of the game consider evil, or what they consider good. Perhaps I can even explore my own moral intuitions in the confines of this evil character I have created, but I’ve still only created them for me.

If a filmmaker creates art for the purpose of pointing to a true world, then there must be someone being pointed towards that world. Perhaps art can point the self–and it probably should–but is that enough? Is it enough to tell ourselves these stories, if we do not share them? If we do not share them with others?

This difficulty is one we already feel when we discuss games with each other. I remember talking about the main character of Mass Effect, named Shepard, as “my Shepard,” because his actions were entirely different from the Shepard my roommate had played. Mine had stayed on the straight-and-narrow, at least what the game believed was the ‘good’ path, while my roommate had taken a piecemeal approach to his decisions: sometimes he was the good guy, and sometimes he was the bad guy. Other people played Shepard as a female–commonly known as femShep–which also led to different options and choices.

We all had our own, unique audiences, and so we created our characters for ourselves. My Shepard acted as the hero, without a trace of rebellion. I found him far more interesting than the lone wolf we currently seem to love in film (Bourne is a prime example), since we so rarely see characters who depend deeply on those around him. But my friends saw rebellious Shepards, independent Shepards (to some extent), or some other Shepard I never even heard about. That’s the point, though: my Shepard was mine, and no one really saw him act, outside of myself.

So is play endorsement? Did I endorse the actions of my character, simply because I was the only audience member for his journey?

I think we need to apply the same careful consideration Brett employed for film: if we are seeking to tell a true story, even if it is a depiction of evil, I don’t think play is necessarily endorsement. Perhaps there are some games that should never be played, and perhaps there are some films that should never be seen, but the qualification should perhaps be ‘depiction of something truthful,’ rather than ‘depiction of violence.’ We should know our own limitations–do not partake in something that will cause temptation or sin, if you can help it–but we should also strive to play games that we can learn from, much like we should watch films we can learn from.

A quick caveat, here: I don’t think we can only play games when we seek to learn. You can read a book for enjoyment, and not for the grand ideas placed within it, much like you can watch a film without learning much. Sometimes movies are an exhilarating ride, and that’s enough. Enjoyment isn’t a sin, in itself, though excess is easily classified as a waste of time. So it is with video games. I may learn a lot from playing Mass Effect or Fallout 3, but there’s not much to learn from Plants vs. Zombies, without making some rather uncomfortable (or humorous) stretches. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying it, though, perhaps for the sheer mechanics of the game. We like to master things, and so the skill involved in mastering a game might be enough.


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  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    My exact words were “as close to evil as a “thing” (as opposed to a person or action) can be,” and I think the difference is important.

    Is it possible to play the GTA series without sin? I think so. However, my contention is that the game actually encourages you to find joy in committing virtual sins, for no other reason than to enjoy it. And there is a distinct difference between allowing for sin in order to display a truth, and encouraging sin so that you may take joy in it.

    Modern Warfare 2’s airport scene, for instance, is designed to make the player uncomfortable, to force the player to consider the weight of the (digitized) action. Everything about it emphasizes a sense of consequence and meaning.

    GTA, on the other hand, is what happens when that airport scene is the entire game, minus the sense of weight and consequence, plus hookers. There seems to be a distinct difference in content, in tone, and in the goal and overall effect of the scene.

  • jamesfarnold

    Thanks for the clarification, Mack. Didn’t mean to misquote you. Hope I didn’t treat the idea unfairly, at any rate.

    I’m also inclined to agree with you on the GTA front, I think. So there’s that.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    No problem. Just wanted to clarify my position (which I may have communicated poorly to you in the first place).