Years ago when I was studying in Beijing, a teacher asked my class a question about morality. If we were in a burning building with two people trapped under debris, and had enough time to save one, who would we save? Would we save the person with the advanced degree in science or the peasant farmer? The implication of this question was clear: it is better to save the person who can potentially contribute more to the advancement of humanity than it is to save the person who can contribute less.
Naturally our class hemmed and hawed about answering this question. Clearly, this prompt was designed to cast a light on a perceived difference between Western and Chinese ethics. Ultimately, we decided that there was no way we could make a conscious judgment of someone’s worth to society in such a chaotic and dangerous situation, but the question stuck with me. Was it true that the Western focus on individuality actually hurt society at large? Or is this desire to respect individual life, regardless of that person’s impact on society, actually beneficial to society?
After spending so many years away from the US, I see the value of both opinions. On the one hand, for a society to be successful, individual sacrifices must be made. On the other hand, is it not far more meaningful for the individual to volunteer to make such sacrifices, rather than having a greater power make those decisions for him or her?
I have not come down firmly on one side or the other. I dedicate my life to advertising, not to questions of philosophy… and yet, here I am talking about the subject on a video game website. Why? It seems that video games have already made the decision between individual rights and society’s stability. That is to say, in order to be good, one must always respect individualism.
But this isn’t a satisfying conclusion, particularly as games emerge as a greater form of art.
Among the most recent generation of games, a definite pattern has emerged among big titles that suggests that Western developers place a value judgment on conflicts between individualism and society’s stability.
Here are some examples:
- In the Assassin’s Creed series, the protagonists belong to the Assassins who value personal liberty above all else. The series’ main antagonist, the Templars, believe in the primacy of leadership to guide (sometimes forcefully) the people. If blood must be spilt to ensure the strength of leadership, then so be it.
- In the Mass Effect series, players are often given decisions that demand choices between respecting individuals and making sacrifices. Players who choose to act forcefully in the name of the greater mission (i.e. preventing the end of the universe) are labeled as “Renegades.” Those who wish to preserve the dignity of those around them are labeled as “Paragons.”
- In Fallout 3, the Enclave is a primary enemy which seeks to establish order in the Capital Wasteland through the destruction of all genetic impurities caused by radiation. Although the Enclave’s methodology is indefensible (why destroy genetic impurities when you have the technology to bring order to chaos through other means?), the group’s greater intentions are never properly addressed. It is assumed through the narrative that a scrappy bunch of scientists and soldiers have the moral high ground.
Not every game follows this pattern of assigning greater moral value to respecting the individual over the group, but enough games do this to make me wonder what the implications are for cultural examination. The greatest implication is that our society definitely believes that individuals should not have to sacrifice themselves for the greater good unless the volunteer to do so. Once a volunteer indicates his or her willingness to die for a cause, that person becomes an instant hero. But if a leader makes that decision for his or her people, then that leader becomes an instant villain.
As I write this, I am nodding to myself. Of course a leader who sacrifices his people is a villain! But then I remember my cultural heritage and my conversations with my Chinese friends about Mao Zedong. When confronted with the fact that Mao allowed millions of his own people to die through famine, these friends are quick to note that without Mao sacrificing those millions, millions more might not have had the opportunity to benefit from industrialization. It’s a common story across Asia; in other places such as Taiwan, despots forcefully pushed the nation toward economic prosperity—a prosperity that may not have materialized if the pesky voice of democracy had any sway.
Games touch upon this conflict to varying degrees. In another essay, I talked about Fallout 3’s DLC, Broken Steel. In that DLC, players are given the choice between facilitating a slave rebellion and forcing the slaves to continue working as the leaders develop a cure for a disease that has been ravaging the population. This is one of the clearest examples of the individualism vs. group conflict, but the game clearly places a moral judgment on the decision. If you work to help the slaves, you are given positive karma. If you help the masters, you gain negative karma. Rather than allowing the player to confront the moral ramifications of stopping development of the cure, the player is simply rewarded with karma and the adoration of the slaves, who will all presumably die from the disease.
I think this trend is a problem in video games and not because I believe in the primacy of the group over the individual. As I said, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that individuals should be moved around like pawns on the world’s largest chess board. After all, we don’t get to pick who is making those judgments on our behalf. If some unknown force decided that I should die for the benefit of all, I’d instantly rebel against the idea because I’d have no context for my proposed sacrifice.
The problem with the trend toward valuing individualism is that the narrative almost becomes a given once we realize what the main conflict of the story is. The rebels will almost inevitably beat the evil empire. Once the morality of a game’s narrative is tied to specific player mechanics, this issue becomes more pronounced as players may be rewarded for taking a “good” path or an “evil” path. If the individualistic path is always good and the group stability path is always bad, then good and evil become predictably defined.
Sometimes exploring video games allows us to understand the culture under which the game was developed. This is certainly the case here, but in addition, we have also found a problem that is holding the medium back from proper maturity. In order to move forward as an art form, video games should encourage greater discussions of morality and philosophy. This goes beyond writing a good story and letting gamers experience it. The key here is to give players agency in exploring the nuances of philosophy and affect the plot in a meaningful way. Otherwise, little separates video games from good film or television. Video games should lean on their interactive elements for a new level of artistic expression.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone! Here’s hoping 2014 brings you happiness and health!