here is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” Oscar Wilde writes at the beginning of Dorian Gray. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
Wilde preached that ethics are irrelevant in art, but he didn’t practice it.
Instead of ending the book an unrepentant sinner, Dorian Gray resolves to change his life, and then meets a sticky end as punishment for his sins. Art untethered from ethics quickly sinks into nihilism, which is not merely immoral: It’s also boring. Nihilism, however, has become a default position for too many contemporary artists.
Video and computer games are not immune from its influence.
Interactive entertainment is the cinema of the next generation. Although games are still maturing, they exert a powerful and inescapable influence on the culture. They are, without question, a creative medium drawing together the talents of graphical artists, actors, designers, storytellers and programmers to create a cohesive, functioning piece of entertainment with its own purpose, tone and view.
Like movies, they are neither good nor evil. They are merely what their creators make them. Few scale any great heights of moral incisiveness, although games like Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) and Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) certainly climb pretty high. Some sink into staggering lows of sex, violence and cruelty. Most dwell somewhere in between.
Two best-sellers — Grand Theft Auto IV and Super Mario Galaxy — show us the highs and lows this new medium can achieve.
The Grand Theft Auto series is a bit of a paradox. The games are both exceptionally well-made and utterly repellent. Their brilliant, go-anywhere, do-anything simulation of a living environment is shackled to inexcusably nihilistic and vile content. Thus, it turns Wilde’s dictum on its head: The entire series has been both well-made and immoral.
Grand Theft Auto IV takes both of these qualities even further. It tells a familiar tale of an immigrant named Niko who comes to the big city and soon finds himself enmeshed in the criminal world, working as a driver, enforcer, bagman, thief, drug mule and murderer for various lowlifes.
It treads similar ground as Scarface (1983), but lacks that movie’s restraint, good taste and refinement. You spend hours upon hours committing appalling acts in grimy environments with awful people. The cumulative effect is numbing.
Yet all of this is set within one of the most amazing achievements in the history of gaming — Liberty City itself. GTA created the “open city” game, wherein a gamer can explore an entire city at will, performing jobs, playing darts or pool with friends, or just watching the traffic pass by. Based loosely upon New York, Liberty City is a living thing, filled with people going through their days. Stand on a random street corner and you’ll see the old lady toddling home, the crazed bum with a pot on his head, two people arguing over a minor fender-bender. The sun rises and sets. Umbrellas appear as a sudden rain washes the streets.
Niko is injected into this environment like a virus. The game’s defenders will protest that you can choose a relatively (very relatively) moral path, in which Niko is a kinder, gentler thug who sometimes lets people live and goes on innocuous bowling dates. This is clearly not the heart of the game, since the vast majority of Niko’s missions involve violent crime.
Although players can travel by hailing a taxi, taking a train or waiting for a car service, the default method of transportation is stealing a car, even if it means dragging a passing driver from her seat and kicking her senseless.
There is no incentive to choose the “right” path, and ample reward for choosing the wrong. “Right” and “wrong” simply don’t exist.
In almost every situation, a choice that would be “wrong” in the real world is “right” in this world. This isn’t moral relativism. It’s moral inversion.
Unless a policeman sees you do something wrong, you’re not punished. And if he does see you do something wrong, you can just kill him and run. Police are the bad guys.
One of the most extreme elements of the game is its depiction of sex and violence against women.
The creators could have made it dangerous or prohibitive to murder women after using them for sex, but they didn’t. They made a choice, and it is a choice that speaks volumes.
Warren Spector, one of the best game designers in the business, expressed the frustrations of many when he said, “Grand Theft Auto III … was a stunning accomplishment as a game design. And it was wrapped in a context that completely, for me, undid all the good they did on the design side. At this point, GTA is the ultimate urban thuggery simulation, and you can’t take a step back from that. … I am frustrated that the games in the GTA series, some of the finest combinations of pure game design and commercial appeal, offer a fictional package that makes them difficult to hold up as examples of what our medium is capable of achieving.”
Hype and Hogwash
This is the problem in a nutshell, and the gaming press has done an appalling job of addressing it. Reviews are (correctly) praising the game’s design elements, and utterly ignoring the grim and amoral context in which those elements are set. With games under fire for violence, they are afraid to even acknowledge that there may be a problem with the content of Grand Theft Auto IV. Defenders claim there is no difference between GTA and The Sopranos, for instance. This is hogwash. The Sopranos is a drama in which the viewer is a passive observer. In GTA, the character is under your control: The choices are yours. And by comparison, The Sopranos universe has a moral order: a sense of actions and their consequences that is utterly lacking in the world of GTA.
The problem is not even the violent content. Explicit violence drives many games without raising this kind of objection. To pluck a recent example at random, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is first-person shooter (FPS) in which players lead a team in various counter-terrorist, hostage rescue, and bomb defusing missions. The game is graphically violent, but the violence has a context.
The player isn’t striving to climb the ladder of a criminal underworld while being rewarded for constantly breaking the law. The player is a hero.
Games are wish-fulfillment, offering fantasies of power in a safe context. What does it say about our society, and ourselves, that the most poplar game in the world right now does not offer players the chance to be a hero or even an anti-hero, but a criminal lowlife?
We should aspire to better fantasies.
Passing from darkness to light, we come to Super Mario Galaxy, a game of overwhelming brightness and joy.
Mario’s latest adventure sends him soaring through the entire universe in a quest to rescue his Princess Peach. The little Italian plumber bounces, spins, jumps, runs and flies through 50 small galaxies, each containing one to seven little planets. Some planets are elaborate self-contained puzzles, while others are dazzlingly imaginative challenges, such as racing on the back of a skate (the stingray kind) on a water track suspended in space, or flopping through a pill-shaped planet with constantly shifting fields of gravity.
Descriptions, however, can’t capture the simple “joy factor” of the game. Everything about Mario Galaxy—all its little touches and characters, its wild imagination and casual cleverness — brings a smile to your face. Sure, there are plenty of threats and challenges in the game world, but compared to the grim violence of so many games, defeating polka-dotted piranha plants while dressed in a bee costume is like a cool breeze.
When Mario shrinks to access a hidden room, or grows to stomp through an obstacle, or dresses up as a ghost in order to float through a wall, he’s living out every childhood fantasy, for both kids and adults.
Thomas L. McDonald is
of Games magazine.
We Got Game
Earlier this spring Thomas L. McDonald approached us to express his interest in reviewing video games for the Register. Well, we know a beat that needs more coverage when we stop and think about one: Did you know video gaming is now a $10 billion a year industry? Chances are that, if you’re a parent with kids at home, you’ve pumped more than a few coins of your own into this ever-expanding, high-tech arcade. And chances are you’ve done so while feeling unsure how to separate the good from the bad and the merely bad from the patently evil. This is where Thomas can help. He has been writing about games since 1991. He’s a catechist in the Diocese of Trenton and a member of the American Chesterton Society. And he’s a husband and father of two budding game aficionados. (He’s not to be confused with the Tom McDonald who, along with wife Caroline, writes about the married life in our Family Matters section.) We welcome reader feedback on this new monthly feature at firstname.lastname@example.org.