jackal.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - how a better portrayal of enemies and evil within the game world can improve the overall quality of a game.]

You've got to fight someone. That's been the de facto mantra of console-dominant video game scene since the days of Mario, and it speaks volumes about the nature of games and their focus. They are just as much about their enemies as they are about their heroes, and they give us opportunities to think through one profound question: what would a person have to do to become my enemy? In other words, what makes me need to kill, hurt, maim, or attack a person or thing? What makes them evil, and is it enough?

The uncomfortable undercurrent of that line of questioning is the assumption that fighting something inevitably solves the problem. It's a claim that few of us would be comfortable with when made explicit, though our culture makes it implicitly on a constant, unrelenting basis. Political campaign speeches, action film climaxes, television season finales, and video game combat systems all exist primarily because of this assertion.

We know better. We know that violence often begets violence, that revenge is often empty, that killing a human being should be a last resort rather than one option among many. And yet, these things resonate with us because we want to believe that solving our problems could be that simple.

We want to convince ourselves that some binary solution, however unpleasant and destructive, might solve our problems, the problems of our loved ones, and even the problems of the entire world. It's a foolish desire, but it's the reason these games resonate so much with us. When we are presented with people to kill or dispatch in some way, we frolic in a playground of combat possibilities.

Combat Needs an Enemy

This all sounds perfectly horrid, and anyone with an axe to grind can (and does) use the above case as an argument against the medium. Video games thrive on conflict and violence is simply a mechanic to make a game fun. Still, Mario demonstrated that this doesn't have to be an inherently bad thing: we are seeing now that the kids who grew up shooting fireballs at turtles were not mentally affected in any real way by inundating themselves with constant violent images and mechanics.

A more interesting question, though, once we accept the inevitability of violent gameplay, is the question of who our struggle should be against. While jumping on the heads of turtles seems harmless enough, the stakes seem to rise significantly when games become more realistic and as they seek to make themselves more and more relevant to modern day concerns such as war, poverty, and abuse of power. We've heard the claim over and over again, but it is both true and germane to this discussion: video games are growing up. As games and their players mature, so must our enemies and our concept of video game evil.

Many games are content to remain merely games, a goal which may not be particularly ambitious in its’ own right, but does result in some marvelous results. Play in and of itself can be an honorable and noble end, and games like Super Mario Galaxy and Little Big Planet demonstrate the necessity of keeping them around. In these games, the opposing figures are purposely otherworldly and impossible to relate to our own lives.

This world and its enemies bear no resemblance to our own world. They are merely pawns in a chess game, meant to represent obstacles rather than sentient beings that wish us actual harm. They are in on the game as much as anyone else. They play by the rules. Bowser is merely a jovial bully. He steals the princess because he knows he’s supposed to, and when Mario and friends are playing baseball, he lets his kids go play as well.

The benefit to all of this is pure, unadulterated fun. They present us with no real moral qualms, because they avoid loaded images and controversial hot topics. We would be rightly criticized for reading too much into a Mario game if we claimed that it was actually meant to be a case for some political or cultural perspective (though it could be a fun thought experiment, and it’s certainly worth looking at the cultural assumptions within the game).

First and foremost, Mario is a video game character. Plumbing is very much a secondary part of his life. Peach is primarily a goal to reach and secondarily a love interest for Mario. Bowser doesn’t really try too hard to accomplish his goal of taking over Mario’s world, and he and his minions do not even consider themselves to be much more than worthy obstacles for Mario’s journey.

Realistic Enemies Lacking Realism

Recently though, as games have given more leeway to realism as a factor, they have sought to include more realistic and, as a result, more recognizable and culturally loaded enemies in games. As first-person war games led the charge, we began to fight against enemies who we were told were simply evil humans. Like a summer blockbuster, games gave us permission to root for their demise because it told us they were bad.

This suspicion was confirmed when they shot at us. Modern Warfare 2 drew attention to the importance of this form of confirmation when it refused to offer it to us. In the now infamous airport scene, the people we were meant to shoot at didn’t shoot back. They ran away, begged for their lives, and helped one another. It was clear: these were not enemies. And yet, at the very moment armed forces arrived to take us out, we felt infinitely more comfortable killing them: they had signed up for this.

What became clear was that games like Modern Warfare and its ilk had trained us to take out everyone who stood in our way, no matter if our purpose was noble. Just as was often the case in the popular action film, the ends justified the means. Anyone who didn’t understand that was merely a coward who would very quickly find themselves staring at a “Game Over” screen.

The concern isn’t that video games will make us worse people as a result of this dynamic. After all, we understand that for the most part it’s a result of the perceived necessity to keep a game fun and simple at all costs. Most gamers are at least smart enough to recognize that this is how the game world works, but that the actual world differs greatly. Nonetheless, the onslaught of games with this perspective seemed constant, and until recently it didn’t seem like games would ever move beyond the simple black and white posturing of the summer action film.

A More Thoughtful Treatment of Evil

A far more interesting and helpful alternative is a more involved consideration of the nature of evil: games can provide us with obstacles, enemies and goals while also confronting us with the complexities of evil. The games that have done this already are all the more memorable because of it. Far Cry 2 starts off like a standard first-person shooter with open world elements, until you progress through the story and realize that the guys you are shooting only differ from you in strength and power, not ethical viability. You are, and are becoming, just as bad as the guys you are meant to kill.

Alan Wake pulls off a frightening and personally arresting atmosphere in which we relate to and fear for Alan (despite his supremely unlikable characteristics) because of the enemies, which are actually projections of his own self-doubts and limitations. In Limbo, the boy comes across people who appear to be just like him, and they are. They fear the unknown and use one another to accomplish their objectives.

A thoughtful approach to the opposing forces in a game doesn’t dilute the experience, as some may argue. It merely enriches it, providing the player with food for thought and an opportunity to become even more immersed within a world that seems more like our own. It creates opportunities for players to discuss the questions that are implicit within the game world. In short, it gives games staying power, on the store shelf, on the shelf at home, and within the minds and hearts of the player.

[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@christandpc).]