09 February 2011

Games, evil and heartless version

ideological communicators?. I'm kind of amused that Assassin's Creed decided that the worst thing in the world was some evil corporation and the Citizen's United decision, but the sort of "evil libertarian" theme from things like Bioshock and some others was also getting a little tedious. So far as I know, we're not all heartless immoral beings and most libertarian philosophy draws from things like Hayek or Adam Smith's theories on the underlying moral order and fabric of a society and that tampering with it too much through government heavy-handedness doesn't quite produce ideal results.

More interesting is this question

I've definitely found that the most interesting games, the ones that I will tend to replay often, will use aspects of presenting you with real game choices with real consequences in the game. Dragon Age and Mass Effect, and to some extent the Fallout series, all allowed you to make decisions between helping or ignoring, or even actively harming, characters in the game. Generally the game gave you greater rewards, along with long-term advantages, if you helped, cooperated, and aided where you could, and often made the game more challenging if you took the "dark side" path of indiscriminate slaughter and mayhem. Few games do this well. The Civilization series tends to do this pretty well, offering different avenues to victory, and complex choices over what sort of government policies to use to pursue that victory. With advantages and disadvantages to each, sometimes merely being that you locked out other choices, as with actual life, there's a scarcity problem (in terms of time) that locks out the use of resources for all possible avenues of advancement and gain.

Maybe this appeals to me because it very much mirrors a sort of utilitarian calculus, with choices having tangible, often measured and weighted benefits and costs, and that sort of economic brain is what I've already been using to examine social policies in the real world, and often seeing substantial costs that are ignored because they exist only in unfavored political minorities (the drug war or campaigns against access to birth control are among these), or are so widely distributed in cost that they become virtually invisible costs offering substantial benefits only to small subgroups (farm subsidies are the most classic of these, but there are many such interest politics chasing economic rents in the same way).

One of the appeals of a game like Fallout was that being "good" often meant being tolerant, and indeed, engaging willingly and freely with ugly and despised in game groups. The game is partly designed to give the player an us-vs-them feel, and to thus easily side against ghouls and mutants and other hideous post-apocalyptic beings. But they're also recognizably human in their wants, and their objectives, and the advantages in game of cooperation with these hideous deformed beings are realized in trade, in experience, and so on. Mass Effect has the same elements with various aliens.

In real life, sympathizing with out-group peoples, and tolerating their experiences and choices, provided they present you and others with no real harm, leads to a more interesting and diverse set of experiences for yourself. The food is better, the music, the art, and the conversations often richer. Indeed, one of the reasons I occasionally engage with social conservatives on their often odious political views is to try to understand the underpinnings and motivations. The people involved made these active choices. I am curious to understand why. It is of course rare that such people can speak to some factual basis for their fears of homosexuals, of Muslims or immigrants generally, and so on, but it is at least diverting to have to engage the arguments that are raised and slap them aside with doses of reality rather than to exist solely in the echo chamber (as they often have). Perhaps the play style of such people in games like these would be very different. Or perhaps they would not find such diversions of complex game mechanics very interesting in the first place. But it's an interesting question why many games are designed with heartless and evil actions bearing no game consequences.

For instance... I find it odd that Left 4 Dead makes it so that killing the weak members of the squad allows them to come back to the game with more health. It's an odd game mechanic that gets exploited all the time on the highest difficulty settings. It probably wouldn't be very much fun to be dragging around a near corpse in game of course either, but it's still an odd counter-morality that gets spawned. Since I usually find it hard to be heartless and cruel for malicious and useless purposes in these games, or to do things which have a distinct evil feel or at least don't present as cost-effective benefits (drug use in Fallout usually comes down this way), I kind of wonder why people are worried so much about morality being warped by children playing GTA or WoW or some other immersive game, or just plain shooting people in Doom. (I really wonder that when looking at charts of violent crime since the 80s, and seeing a huge drop off since GTA came out).
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