The eighth chapter of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives reminded me that video games have a remarkable potential for ruthlessness. Or, rather, it reminded me what video games can force (or allow) the player to do. Of course this is something people have written about before: from the very genesis (no pun intended) of video games, moral guardians have questioned the violent nature of “the collision and disappearance of two blocky abstractions (Bissell, page 130).” This has evolved into heated arguments over the ethics of crime-related series such as Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, or violent games such as Mortal Kombat, Gears of War, or Call of Duty. However, even these games shouldn’t be considered naturally immoral: the Grand Theft Auto series only gives you the option of violence rather than forcing it (well, to some capacity), and war-based games might dehumanize the enemy to the point of eliminating moral quandary.
In contrast, some games not only give you the means for excessive brutality or sadism, but reward the player for it. Usually this involves rewarding the player for killing an enemy, possibly through a kill-count, Xbox achievement, or offering an unlockable item as incentive. Other times the games don’t give the player a choice. They simply drop the player in a world, say “go kill things,” and let the chips fall where they will. Furthermore, the enemies might not really be evil, but may instead be victims of forces beyond their comprehension (that, or victims of the player).
For a broad example, let’s look at Kirby. No, really. If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise, basically the protagonist Kirby fights off either King Dedede, Dark Matter, or [insert villain here] by eating enemies, turning them into hats, and stealing their powers.
Sounds innocent, right? Probably not, but here’s the thing: unlike games such as the Mario series, there is little to no evidence that the majority of the enemies work for the villain or villains. The only exceptions are Waddle Dees and Doos, both of which are foot-soldiers for King Dedede, most creatures seem like wild animals or bystanders of no affiliation. Combine that with the presence of ability-deactivated roadblocks such as cannons, special blocks, or even ice, and it seems that the series outright encourages wanton murder. Furthermore, Kirby’s intentions aren’t always noble. In Kirby’s Squeak Squad, Kirby’s sole motivation revolves around a slice of cake stolen by the villains. All that carnage, all that mayhem, just for cake.
Another surprising example of enemy-based empathy can be found in the critically panned Sonic spinoff, Shadow the Hedgehog. Like GTA, the player can choose choose whether to do right or wrong. The choice in question is, basically, whether you attack the good guys (G.U.N. soldiers, other protagonists, chao) or the bad guys (invading aliens, Eggman’s robots). Both factions attack you without provocation, and fighting back against either side will affect which story you unlock.
What’s shocking is that in order to get to the final ending one has to unlock both the good and bad endings, of which there are multiple. This means that, yes, children are encouraged to kill soldiers, often with firearms. The game rewards Shadow for killing soldiers as well: if you kill enough soldiers, or “good guys,” then Shadow can use “Chaos Blast.” This attack unleashes a hell-storm of chaos energy upon nearby enemies. This theoretically makes “Chaos Blast” easier to replenish than “Chaos Control,” which basically speeds Shadow through the stage. While this doesn’t mean Shadow the Hedgehog definitely prioritizes evil over good, it does raise dubious implications about how the game calculates morality.
Getting into games relevant to our class, let’s discuss a little something from the Portal series. While Portal doesn’t have much in the way of enemies, and while GLaDOS is pretty much definitely evil, Chell does run across turrets. Now on the exterior these are cold, unfeeling machines designed to riddle the player with holes. Yet there’s a childlike innocence to the turret units. Whenever a turret sites Chell it says such things as “who’s there?” and “I see you” in a light, playful tone. One could see this as a sort of sadistic mockery, but pick one up. The turret will fearfully ask for help: no death threats, no cold response, only fear. And if you throw a turret to the ground, it will cry in pain as it shoots itself to death. And what does it say after all that? “I don’t blame you.”
Whether or not these turrets are sincere, they make Chell look bad and, theoretically, make the player feel bad. This moral dilemma becomes more relevant in Portal 2, where Wheatley reveals that turrets actually do feel pain. As a result, the necessary murder of the turrets in Portal carries a sadistic side all its own, especially when coupled with the “Friendly Fire” achievement (which is gained by killing a turret with another turret). On the bright side, Portal 2 subverts this by offering an award for rescuing a turret rather than destroying it.
Of course this isn’t exactly all Chell’s fault. After all, it’s GLaDOS who made the turrets this way. Although GLaDOS’s influence doesn’t exactly justify what the player does to turrets, it at least allows for a sharing of the blame.
However, the Splicers from Bioshock have it worse than anyone on this list. Before getting into the game, the player might assume that Splicers are simply Bioshock‘s answer to zombies. In reality, they’re essentially a colony of drug addicts, whose tolerance for ADAM has grown so high (and whose addiction is so great) that they are compelled towards violence and disorder. What’s more, they were promised an escapist paradise, where they would represent the best, brightest, and strongest of humanity. Now they’re hideously disfigured, barely sane (if even that), and trapped in a city away from society. And what’s Jack’s job? To help them? Nope, it’s kill or be killed. And the irony? He uses ADAM to do it. The players kills all of these people with the very vice which binds them. That’s just cold-hearted.
And what about the Little Sisters? When Jack captures the Little Sisters (after killing their Big Daddy, who probably serves as a father figure/sole friend as well as a bodyguard), they squirm and say “No!”. I found this incredibly creepy the first time it happened. Even if you choose to spare the child (which you’re also given good incentive not to do), these is something deeply unsettling about having to man-handle a child like that. Oh, and there’s also the fact that sparing the child isn’t exactly a good thing either: without a Big Daddy to protect these girls, a Splicer will most likely find and kill them, unless someone shows up to offer some sort of intervention. And is Jack going to be that person? LOL, nope! He’s got better things to do than protect the children which’s he’s almost certainly doomed to die.
What’s also interesting about the choice between harvesting and saving the Little Sisters is that it’s supposed to be a test of character. According to Ubisoft game designer Clint Hocking, the game says that “the notion that rational self-interest is moral or good is a trap, (Bissell, page 152),” meaning that players are challenged to act on gut morality over personal survival. However, Bissell points out that “there is no real benefit in harvesting Little Sisters, because refusing to harvest them eventually leads to gifts of comparable worth (Bissell, 152).” By taking away the consequences for not harvesting the Little Sisters, the moral righteousness is negated. It becomes just another way to play.
So good job player! Keep up the slaughter in the name of the game! Or, if you’d like, consider the moral implications behind your character’s actions before picking up the controller.
Bissell, Tom. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Published by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., NY. Copyright
2010 by Thomas Carlisle Bissell.