ryan.jpg[The Gaming Doctrine is a monthly GameSetWatch column by Richard Clark about the intersection of gaming, religion, spirituality, and morality. This month - how games can use their power to actively involve the player in order to challenge their moral assumptions.]

It goes something like this: You are the hero. They are the villains. You, as hero, are tasked with putting a stop to the villains and ridding the world of evil (inasmuch as the created world allows). This simple goal sums up the basic thrust of ethical consideration within the video game world.

Even open world games that contain a variety of morally opaque battles, conversations and side-quests still require an adherence to a larger, morally transparent storyline.

Traditionally, this means that the emotional and intellectual resonance that is experienced at the end of the game is little more than a simple justification and pat on the back for saving the world, the girl, or yourself. Recently, though, this has started to change.

A Changing Ethical Landscape

In Modern Warfare 2, you are a soldier with a simple goal to follow orders. In Bioshock, you are given few choices other than carrying out the objectives of a mysterious voice. Red Dead Redemption places the focus solely on John Marston’s drive to see his family, at the cost of all else. Braid tasks the player with seeking out a lost significant other, equating her with a helpless princess.

We are encouraged to take up these tasks with aplomb, shooting, investigating, questing, and puzzling to the very end with a certain amount of confidence that we’re on the right track. In a sense we are very much on the right track, making progress through kills and completed quests. The game rewards us, makes us feel good about ourselves, our skills, and our ability to take orders.

That is, until we realize that these games are not exactly like the games of yesterday. The revelation in Braid isn’t that the Princess is in another castle. The shocking thing about Bioshock isn’t the degree to which the villains are willing to go to ensure their own ends. Instead, the moments we remember in these games are those when we discover our own moral uncertainty. Maybe this goal we’ve been chasing - that we so believed in and had been striving for - is not the right thing after all.

The Medium's Unique Power

We could call these moments “twists” and reduce them to mere plot devices that are borrowed from popular cinematic moments, but that is doing the medium a disservice. In fact, the typical plot twist alone, told merely through interspersed cut scenes, will often fall flat and leave the player wholly unmoved. This is almost certainly the case with Alan Wake’s ending. By most standards, it’s a heck of a twist, but because it ignores the mediums’ strengths and attempts instead to recreate the classic cinematic “twist ending,” it falls flat.

These surprise endings are most successful not when they merely surprise the player, but when the player is complicit in some larger discovery or mistaken assumption. In other words, a game is most powerful when it challenges us directly. Who we are and how we react to the game’s various outputs can be taken in by the game, mirrored and questioned, often with stunningly memorable results.

If I am playing a game, I am playing it because I want to be a part of what is going on. So, when I feel as if I am viewing a relatively decent film plot-line and merely doing all the work for the main character in between scenes, I get antsy. When the game unveils its’ inevitable third act and asks me to gasp in surprise and wonder, I do so primarily out of duty and expectation. Do I enjoy the game? Probably. But do I remember it? Ask me five years from now, and unless the game excels greatly in some other noteworthy way, I’ll ask what on earth you’re going on about.

But if I am given a certain amount of ownership not only of demonstrating a skill-based mastery of a game but of making value judgments and ethical decisions within the created world (whether or not there is a choice-based mechanic built in to the game), then that experience is elevated far beyond that of a mere game.

It is that personal involvement and resulting impact that makes a game seem more significant to us. They meant something to us because they allowed us to be a part of them and because they are a part of us. We weren’t merely playing a game; we were living our life through them. It’s those games that become our classics.

A Range of Techniques for Moral Challenge

Games can accomplish this goal in a variety of ways. Some games choose to lull us into a false sense of security toward our own natural assumptions and then question or contradict those assumptions openly toward the end of the game. For instance, in Bioshock we are accosted for blindly following orders after the game uses every technique known to the genre to gain our trust in the first place. We did what we were told because we had seen these tropes before. We trusted the mediums’ storytelling and gameplay standards to guide us toward certain victory. In the end, the game betrayed our trust, but not without leaving a lasting and welcome mark on our psyche.

Games have done this in the past, of course, but only recently have they started questioning our motives and moral assumptions in ways that can be seen as valuable as opposed to harmful.

Mortal Kombat sticks with me because it was the game that shocked me with an act that (at the age of ten years old) I wouldn’t even think to imagine: ripping your enemy’s spine out of their body. Previous fighting games had operated on the assumption that knocking your opponent out was enough. Mortal Kombat challenged that assumption, and because of that it remains a part of me years later, for better or worse.

This technique is commonly referred to as “shock value,” and unfortunately it’s what games are often known for above all else. It’s important to remember that we are shocked not simply by the presence of blood, but by an affront to our nature or view of the world. Games shock us because they confront our assumptions. This is what games in the 90s were known for amongst the general public, and that tradition continues today. Now, the industry’s opponents use these examples as evidence in court in favor of censorship.

Shock value doesn’t need to be harmful or negligent in nature, however. Bioshock’s finale, or Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian,” while not perfect, at least accomplish the task of asking us to rethink whether we really have as strong of a hold on the truth as we think. By the end of “No Russian,” our assumption that pragmatic “ends justify the means” sort of thinking can be faulty at best, and disastrous at worst. In both of these games, we’re awoken out of our thumb-twitching stupor to reconsider ourselves, without being explicitly preached to or instructed.

Of course, “shock” isn’t the only way games can cause us to question ourselves. The beauty of Red Dead Redemption is the subtle way the game questions our priorities. The passive nature of John Marston, the relentlessly unlikable characters he serves throughout the game, the beauty of the undisturbed environment, and the drawn-out surprising ending all serve to nudge the player from valuing one thing (action, death, destruction) to valuing another (family, beauty, mundanity).

It’s these more subtle opportunities to reevaluate myself that I find most impactful. I find myself mulling the game over long after I am finished, and I identify with the failures and faults of the character himself in ways that I don’t do in more overt games.

Still, whether it’s a subtle shift in tone or a last-minute twist of the storyline, games have a unique opportunity to engage players in ways other mediums can’t. When we allow ourselves to do the work of the hero while also seeking after the villains we open ourselves up to a world of discovery in terms of ethical, moral and philosophical questions.

The gaming community has a reputation for being thoughtless automatons, waiting around for the next Call of Duty so they can “pwn” their friends. Still, I refuse to believe that playing through Red Dead Redemption left the average gamer with anything less than food for thought, and I suspect that most, like myself, reevaluated for themselves the very concept of what makes a hero.

[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 (@deadyetliving).]