You Are What You Play: Part 2

Scott Farrell Comments:

In this part of his article, Dean reminds us that no matter how “harmless” playing video games seems, the characters on the screen are reflections of ourselves and the ideals and principles we admire. Those reflections should always polish our image, not tarnish it.

Every Game is a Role-Playing Game

gamerI’m aware that I can take this stance against being bad too far. I have no desire to launch a crusade against being bad the way that politicians are crusading against game violence. It is sometimes amusing to see how some people confuse games that are about being bad with games that are “too violent.”

There’s a trend in games toward giving players more choices about being the bad guys. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Peter Molyneux’s Black & White and Fable are premised on the notion that players want to make deliberate choices that skew their characters toward good or evil profiles. Celia Pearce, associate director of the Cal-(IT)2 Game Culture & Technology Lab at the University of California at Irvine, says there’s a big difference between these kinds of games and Vice City, where you have to play a bad character. In these games, she says, “the process of the game really deals with a transformation that takes place within the character.” In fiction, she says, the process whereby a good person becomes a bad person or a bad person becomes a good person intrigues people. In Black & White, she continues, choosing to be a good god or an evil one is not a binary (i.e., black and white) decision. Rather, it arises gradually from your behavior.

“In some ways, I think this is much more true-to-life,” she says. “There really isn’t an on/off switch to morality. The reality is much more complex. You struggle with decisions and then take actions.”

Wolves on the Playground

Moral choices and good vs. evil decisions are themes that adults can handle; and while they have been present in movies for some time, they are only recently becoming acceptable in (video) games, which for so long has been viewed as a kid’s medium.

One of the lessons that comes from being bad is that you can see things form someone else’s point of view. I have to acknowledge that it can be very hard to figure out who are the bad guys and the good guys sometimes, and that ambiguity is the result of a deliberate lesson that game designers want to teach us. Is the superpower always the good side against the “freedom fighter” terrorists? In Command & Conquer Generals, is the United States always better than the Global Liberation Army?

But wherever I can discern the good and the bad, the choice is clear. I want to save people like my brother from the bad guys. I am disturbed that the line between fantasy and reality has become so thin, that games have become so lifelike, and that emphasizing bad characters can send a game to the top of the charts. I don’t hold a grudge against those who can escape from real life completely and assume the role of a bad character.

But as gaming comes closer to delivering realism that approaches real life, or even surpasses it and delivers the Star Trek Holodeck experience, we should think about who we are and what we play. We should think about what character is really good and what is really bad. Rand Miller, co-creator of the Myst series, says that the problem with experimenting as the bad guy is “the safety of it.” He says, “It’s the lesson or learning that seems to be lacking. I can exhibit all the bad behavior without any of the repercussions. That’s the beauty — and that’s the danger. I either get it out of my system or I find that I like it.”

Our choices do matter. We will get more of what we consume. That’s just how capitalism works. Game developers will create games and game characters that you want to play. Consider the economic pressures on companies like Electronic Arts. EA is doing great, but it has a few M-rated games like Grand Theft Auto. Wall Street analysts really want EA to improve its prospects by making more M-rated games. EA either does so or it cedes a growing part of the market to its competitors that will do so.

Remember that games can be two very different things. They can be simulations of real life, or they can be entertaining escapes from real life — but the line between them is awfully blurry. There are consequences in the real world, where blood pools have to be washed away with a hose. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Mother Night, about a good guy who does too good a job acting as a double agent, playing a Nazi propagandist. The moral of the story was, “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about who we pretend to be.”

© 2004 Dean Takahashi

About the author: Dean Takahashi is a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury News and author of Opening the Xbox: Inside Microsoft’s Plan to Unleash an Entertainment Revolution. This article is an excerpt of a longer piece which originally appeared in Gamestar magazine; it is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Also in You Are What You Play

  1. You Are What You Play: Part 1
  2. You Are What You Play: Part 2

View the entire series