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

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.

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.

Violent Video Games and Linearity: What Our Choices Can Teach Us

If thrust into a game where the choices aren’t mine to make, violence (even horrifying violence) ends up making a statement about what that game’s creators are trying to express more than it makes a statement about me the player being forced into a role. […] I don’t believe that game violence causes real world violence, but I do believe that it does little to prevent it. And games with meaningful (and potentially distasteful) choice just might do better because they stand a chance of making the player think about what they’re doing on screen.

So writes a developer for the game Dishonored, a maybe-you-play-stealth-but-maybe-you-kill-everyone game from late last year. The game was well done, and I’ll talk about how I decided to play it in just a bit, but for now I want to tease out this statement about linearity.

For the uninitiated: what he means by ‘linearity’ has to do with choice in any particular game. Some games are ‘open world,’ and thus you can go where you please. Skyrim is an example of such a game: you need not follow any particular path. There are stories available, and you can follow them, but you’re free to do what you will, even if you never hear the story the developers created. On the flip side of this you’ve got ‘linear’ games, which the majority of games fall into. Everything from Halo to Call of Duty to nearly every Mario game puts you in one place, tells you to go to another, and there are very little chances for exploration (either of the virtual landscape or the narrative). Perhaps you can choose which weapon you yield, or you can look for secret warp tubes, or some other such bonus, but for the most part, these games already know what you will be doing, you just have to do it. They land much closer to the ‘watching a movie’ side of the spectrum than the ‘exploring a new world’ side.

And then there are games that sit squarely between these two extremes. Dishonored is one, but so might the Mass Effect universe, or the Army of Two sequel, or any number of games with ‘moral choices’ thrown in. The missions themselves are relatively linear (“Go from point A to point B, accomplish these objectives, kill or disable this person,” etc.), but involve choices that shape the narrative. Dishonored gives you a ‘chaos’ rating, based on how many people you kill (or don’t), and that changes not only the world, but it influences the ending you receive, and how characters react to you. Mass Effect has a bit of a static ‘Paragon’ vs. ‘Renegade’ (read: ‘lawful’ vs. ‘rebellious’) system, though other choices may alter intergalactic politics.

These choices, the ones that change the narrative or emotive experience of a game, are precisely what allow us to use games as a medium for exploring our own ethical intuitions. Particularly when a game imposes some set of morality, the way we react to those judgments can tell us a lot about the way we work through ethical dilemmas.

Take, for example, the Mass Effect series. While I didn’t always agree with the ethics of the ‘Paragon’ choices, it led to many discussions with my friends about what a moral choice would be, given the situations we found ourselves in. One particular mission in the third game (spoiler warning, if you care about such things), involved dealing with a rogue separatist movement of a particular species. The species was robotic, and so shared one mind, though this group had a code glitch somewhere along the way, and had broken off from the main species. Your mission was to go and ‘fix’ this group, and you had two options. One option was to reprogram them, with the help of a member of the primary species, in order to bring them back into the fold. This involves the least death, but seems tantamount to brainwashing, at least in our eyes. The game reassures you that this particular species does not see consciousness the same way that we do, and so such a rewriting is more like a purging of the flu virus than anything else. The other option is to simply kill the other group: finish the war, destroy the separatists, and move on. Purge the species, if you will.

The ‘paragon’ choice was to rewrite the species, though to some that felt plainly evil. Many felt that it was far more evil to completely change and alter thought than to simply kill something for being genuine. On the other hand, without more information about how consciousness actually functions in this particular species–which is clearly distinct from the human individual experience of consciousness–perhaps such a moral choice may be more difficult to make. When I chose the ‘paragon’ options at the beginning of the mission, my character objected to the rewriting of a species. The member of the species on your team explained that for them it was not the same as a brainwash, and attempted to justify it. In the end, the ‘paragon’ option was to defer to those more knowledgeable than yourself, even if the option seemed wrong based on your own understanding of the universe.

But my point here isn’t to work through the moral implications of rewriting a species’ thought patterns that may-or-may not have what we think of as individual will. The point is that this game provided a unique space to think through this issue, whether or not I wanted to. Not everyone did so, obviously: some followed ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ thoughtlessly, while some took a pick and choose method to their in-game morality. But for those of us who prefer to allow our entertainment to inform our thought, or at least inform us about our thought, the mission (and many others) sparked something unique.

Dishonored attempts to give players a similar choice, though perhaps it is less complex: do you kill all those who stand in your way, or do you spare them? As far as how I played the game myself, I attempted to explore how a character in that situation would act.  A bodyguard who had sworn his life to protect his queen, and who had likely killed many people for that purpose, probably was not unfamiliar with killing, even if he always did so in the line of duty. And so initially, I killed as few people as possible, as I was simply trying to restore my status. But as I assaulted the strongholds of those who were responsible for removing me from my place of honor, my character became more violent. He killed more, though sought only to kill those he felt were deserving. Sometimes guards, but primarily the higher-ups, or individuals that were clearly evil.

That should tell me something about myself. For starters, it means that I’m hesitant to put myself into the place of a game character, at least without lots of qualifications. My own morality system is quite different from the character I played, and I found myself far more interested in telling a compelling story than I was with upholding some sort of action. I felt like director rather than a character.

It is this sort of reflection, this sort of learning, that video games enable us to engage. Of course, other forms of media and entertainment can act as a moral compass, telling us which way our intuitions lie. But the choices inherent in many games, and even the lack of choices in a medium that could very well give us choices, enable a different sort of interaction than film or books, which usually only offer the option to continue or stop. For some, the best way to play a game may not be to play it at all, but at least those of us who do play can often choose how we play.

Tutorials in Video Games and in Film

Every now and then, I stumble across a blog that is doing work I find intrinsically fascinating, but that seems either relatively unknown or is covering a topic that is relatively untapped. I’m a fan of philosophy, and a fan of gaming, but rarely do the two meet. Someone recently linked to an article over at Ontological Geek, which simultaneously left me excited and concerned. After perusing the site, it’s been added to my list of blogs, because there are a lot of solid articles. It’s worth checking out.

But on to the point. The article I initially read suggested that tutorials are unique to gaming, and proceeded to detail a variety of ways games can introduce you to their basic mechanics. A video game, after all, is not the passive experience of a film or a book. You must act, and:

It is the responsibility of videogames to teach us how to play them.  Before the game can even really strut its stuff, it has to play the role of teacher, and show us what plastic-thingies do which murdery-kill-ma-bobs.

The author, Aaron Gotzon, goes on to list four ways games do tutorials: the manual (think old games, like the original Mario games), the overlay (Batman: Arkham Asylum/City, Dishonored), the fourth-wall breaking (Spyro, Starcraft II), and the integrated tutorial (Starcraft, Fallout 3). He prefers the last, and rightly so, since it tends to keep the game feeling like a game: characters treat you like you are new to what you are experiencing, because you–the character, that is–are actually new to it. In Starcraft, you are a brand new commander, while in Fallout 3, you are a toddler, and then a child, learning the mechanics of the games.

Video game tutorials however, as much as they do interest me, are not quite so unique as the author thinks.

It’s true: we don’t have instructions on the front of every book: “hold the book this way, turn the page when you finish reading the text on the page, when finished with the book, start over or loan it to a friend.” You don’t see a “how to sit properly” tutorial before a film, even if you do have the instruction to turn off your cell phone. We don’t have a way to learn the mechanics of reading a book or watching a film, primarily because we don’t need them. Maybe your parents taught you to read a book (how to hold it, which way the text goes, etc.), but it is likely you were never taught how to watch a movie (or how to watch someone play a video game, for that matter).

But films do have ‘tutorials’ of a kind, even if they aren’t quite so hands-on. A lot of movies provide a ‘tutorial’ situation, to teach us the consequences of behaving in a certain way within the world. In Looper, for instance (no spoiler here), we see a character suffer consequences for an action that ends up driving the plot of the film; if we hadn’t seen this, we wouldn’t have grasped the significance of the character’s later action. Likewise, consider The Matrix, where we have not just all sorts of explanatory prose, but scenes where Neo is learning the limitations of the world (much like a tutorial), and we are learning with him. It’s passive, and distinct from games in that sense, but it is still reminiscent of the tutorial levels we all love to hate (usually).

If you abstract further away from interaction with a world, introductions to books can function in a similar way. Our expectations for a book can shift when we leave the marketing and endorsements on the back cover and step into the author’s introduction. Here we not only get an outline, but perhaps a bit of an interpretative tool: the author tells us what he or she means by some of the more technical jargon, and gives us a scope for the work.

Descriptions are hard, though, and it is difficult to discern a distinction between an introduction and a tutorial. The latter implies some sort of hands-on experience, while the former, well, introduces you to characters and settings. If we consider tutorials in the context of games, they are all about the mechanisms of the game (press x to not die, press a to jump, etc.). Perhaps in a film, something that instructs us about the mechanics of a world–as opposed to just a setting or a character–could be called a tutorial (Looper‘s ‘tutorial’ could fit here).

Note that if we hold to this sort of view, we aren’t forced to include a ‘tutorial’ in every single film or book. If a movie operates on conditions similar to that of our own world, or within genres we already understand and can recognize without the need for world-specific-descriptions, then a tutorial becomes laborious at best. Likewise, this should apply in games. Tutorials in certain games are completely optional (Deus Ex is a good example here), even if the first mission still eases you into place. This is rarer, since you still need some sort of way to know which buttons do what, but that could conceivably be reduced in certain genres by standardizing controls (especially on PC games), at least by default.

All in all, a tutorial that does not take away from the experience is ideal, and films that have tutorials have done so in a seamless way, such that we hardly even notice the narrative tricks are there to teach us. I love when games embrace something unique and run with it, and hopefully games will only get more creative with their methods for teaching us how to play them.

“Wreck-It Ralph”: Video Games on the Big Screen

Wreck-It Ralph is a movie that simply couldn’t have existed five years ago. Well, maybe it could have, but it wouldn’t have been successful. There’s been a culture shift, related to both gamers and more broadly to the internet age, that allows movies like this to exist and succeed. The film is filled to the brim with references to a ton of famous games, some as a parody (“Hero’s Duty”) and some directly, like Q-Bert. The tale isn’t terribly unique, nor is it one with a lot of surprises. The fun is in the references. Continue reading “Wreck-It Ralph”: Video Games on the Big Screen

Teaching with Portals: Why Gaming may have Educational Value

If you are a gamer, at least one who is not exclusively tied to consoles, this last week was potentially painful. It was a blissful sort of pain, though, since Steam’s now famous Summer Sale happened. Many gamers flock and buy what would constitute tons of discs worth of entertainment, were it not entirely digitally based. Valve, the company behind Steam, can barely keep up with the server strain, and with good reason. A number of people picked up Portal 2, a game I’m more than familiar with. But the game is starting to pick up, well, a bit of steam within the educational community. Continue reading Teaching with Portals: Why Gaming may have Educational Value

Thoughtfully Gaming

I’ve written about the usefulness of gaming at least once before, and I was primarily arguing that happiness should not be our final determiner for our actions, particularly in choosing which games we play. I mentioned that games can provide us with a unique world to discuss a variety of issues, especially questions of morality. This holds true, but it presumes that gamers are gaming thoughtfully. This isn’t always the case, unfortunately, but it is something Christians should hold themselves to, if they decide to game. Continue reading Thoughtfully Gaming

Microsoft vs. Apple: Things Just Got Interesting

Okay, I admit the title is a bit misleading: the ‘war’ between these two tech giants has been interesting for years. The developments over the last week, however, warrant some commentary.

I’ve already argued that our mobile and desktop experiences would be converging, and it seems that Microsoft and Apple have both made big moves towards this just in the last week. Microsoft has unveiled what they are calling “SmartGlass,” which functions as an answer to both AppleTV and Nintendo’s Wii U tablet controller. Microsoft is fighting a battle on two fronts, in this case, but it gives them a unique chance to combine different services in an unprecedented way; if Microsoft can turn the Xbox 360 (or its follow up) into a competitor for Apple TV (such that it is used by non-gamers, as well), and then integrate both its Windows Phone 7 (and by this fall, WP8) and its Windows 8 Desktop platforms in a simple and useful way, then I can only see success.

But there is a trick to this, of course. You don’t want to force people to purchase an entire new ‘library’ of tech just to get some benefits. Including iOS connectivity with the SmartGlass is smart, and probably necessary at this point. Microsoft needs to leverage the fact that tons of people are using Windows on their desktops: if they can convince people that an Xbox will enhance the experience they are already having, in addition to giving them something new (gaming, streaming onto a TV, that sort of thing), then expect a different future.

Here’s the thing I find most fascinating: as someone gets more entrenched in a particular ecosystem, it seems less and less likely that they will make the switch. Once I’ve got a Windows 8 computer, perhaps a tablet, an Xbox, and a Windows Phone, anytime I go to upgrade, I’ll likely want to stay with what works well with the rest of my system. Of course, iOS integration for SmartGlass makes a difference here, since an iPhone could interact with this whole system, at least somewhat. We’ll see how comparable the experiences are, however, once the service comes out this fall.

My biggest takeaway from E3, however, is that I was underwhelmed with Sony. I’m hesitant about Nintendo’s Wii U, for a variety of reasons, but at least it is something I haven’t really seen before. Microsoft is pulling in their power from other markets, but Sony just seems to be coasting right now. Maybe that’s enough, since they can always fall back on television and other electronics sales; Nintendo is banking on gaming, and Microsoft is banking on a fully integrated digital system. I’m not really sure what Sony’s solution should be here, either. They’ve stepped it up in the mobile gaming world, yes, but I’m less convinced that they will have long term success. I hate to say it, but I actually am starting to think that world will be dominated by the likes of iOS, WP7/8, and Android. Lack of physical input aside, people are already carrying these devices. For everyone who has a smartphone (and kids are getting them younger and younger), this solution makes a lot of sense.

Apple held their WWDC conference yesterday, and we are seeing the combination of various iOS devices. If you own an iPad and an iPhone, they will connect seamlessly, which is a smart move. Further, OSX is beginning to look more like iOS, to the point where my previous sentence may apply to it, at least partially. Apple, too, is investing in their own cross-platform ecosystem. The price of entry is high (have you priced Apple’s computers?), but the integration has already proven powerful; we’ll see if Microsoft can match it this fall.

Image via Flickr.

Numerology, Critical Thinking, and Hope

It has been almost a year since the rapture should have occurred, at least according to Harold Camping. Lots of people were convinced by his arguments, and there was at least one couple that sold their property and took a vacation with their life savings, since the rapture was coming and they wouldn’t need their earthly possessions after that. This was convincing, to some, I suspect because their hope blinded them to the realities of the arguments. That isn’t to say that hope is always blinding, of course, simply that there are times when our hopes can lead us to believe things that are plainly antithetical to rational belief. Continue reading Numerology, Critical Thinking, and Hope