Violence in Games: unjustified

This third general category of games is a bit more difficult for me to nail down. Games where the player is the good guy using might for right are easy to categorize. Games that don’t attempt to squeeze the violence into the “justified by society” label but do encourage the player to see things from a players point of view are less clear cut, but still categorizable. This third category usually displays elements of the first two, but are perhaps more cynical. They avoid the easy tropes of “cops and robbers” or “allies versus axis” but don’t abdicate moral judgments altogether. They present a world where ethics are in conflict and there may be no single approach to violence that is without blame.

The games that I would put into this category are games like [i]The Witcher[/i] and [i]Deus Ex[/i]. The Witcher takes place in a fallen world. People are selfish, petty, shallow, and liable to turn on their neighbors. Racism and ethnic violence are rampant. In this world your character is a Witcher (perhaps better translated Hexer) or a professional monster hunter. A Van Helsing, if you will. Moral tests come when the Witcher is tempted to stray from the Witcher’s code which calls for working only as a contractor for hire and not getting involved in the affairs of people.

However, this detachment from worldly affairs isn’t a great ethical position to take, since it involves turning an uncaring shoulder on injustice and the suffering of innocents. So, as one plays the game one must choose between being detached and just doing one’s job and interfering in the circumstances of the people around. So, if the player chooses to take sides in an ethnic conflict or a gang war his or her violent actions will lead to the rise of one faction at the expense of another. The problem is, none of these factions are “good” or, viewed from a detached perspective, really any better in the long run then their enemies. One has the choice between standing by and watching injustice done, or choosing sides and participating in injustices.

This may sound bleak, but it does a wonderful job of highlighting what things the player values most. If one can’t stand to see drug pushers poisoning children or racist thugs persecuting minorities, then of course the player takes action. In the game these actions are violent and bloody and lead to violent and bloody consequences. Without the ability to absolve violent actors of guilt by associating with a “good” cause, the consequences of violence are made stark and clear. In a world full of bad choices, the lesser evil is weighted with significance. The Witcher makes one ask “what is the lesser evil” and whether the concequences of lesser evil is leads to a more satisfactory conclusion than remaining detached. Bleak, but thought provoking.

The other game that I think does an excellent job of not trying to justify its violence is [i]Deus Ex[/i]. In Deus Ex, like the Witcher, the world is a bleak place where violence is commonplace. However, remaining neutral or detached is not an option. On the other hand, one does not have the option of just choosing a side and saying that one’s loyalty to the group (family, gang, country, etc.) trumps all other loyalties. Instead, Deus Ex takes the player down the rabbit hole of conspiracy and each time it seems that the true “good guys” and “bad guys” have been uncovered, the game drops another reveal and everything becomes murky again. This process ends up with a similar situation to the Witcher, there are no good guys but the player must choose the best response to a bad situation. This sort of situation reveals more about the choices a player makes than the scenarios in other kinds of games. It is a bit bleak, in that there aren’t many clearly good choices and everything has a cost. This bleakness seems more real to me than the artificial good and evil in some games and more hopeful than the “us versus them” ethics from other kinds of games. It is easy to be good when good is rewarded but perhaps our choices say the most about them when they come at a cost.

Leave a Reply