Friday, September 27, 2013

Video Games and the State

I'm a voracious reader, I read like 5-20 articles before doing almost anything else in the morning. Or I listen to Morning Edition as I work out. Anyway, I stopped at three articles today because I felt compelled to write something.

The article in question is "Video Games are Making Us too Comfortable with the Modern Surveillance State" by Michael Thomsen and published in The New Republic. It's a great piece and I encourage you to read it, I'm fairly critical of it but that's because it's a great read. (Good writing should invite criticism, scrutiny, and commentary, not deny it).

Anyway, please read Mr. Thomsen's piece, it's really great, and I'll go over some things that occurred to me after the break.
I think the most glaring omission from Thomsen's piece is his omission of Splinter Cell as a series and Blacklist specifically. By his own admission this is due to the fact that he simply hasn't played it. Kill Screen recently ran a piece calling Sam Fisher the NSA's real life version of Batman which is frighteningly accurate. Consider what Sam Fisher is, he's the guy that we're currently debating about as a nation, someone who goes above and beyond the law in order to protect the interests of our nation.

The connection between Sam Fisher and Batman doesn't end there. Thomsen argues that modern video games (an overly fluid term) present us with over simplified versions of real threats and allow us to dispense justice with few repercussions. In effect, all video games have you fighting some kind of straw man. Someone who is unequivocally bad. I take issue with this idea for a few reasons. Fiction, as a whole, has been dealing with straw men like this for a long time. Are there games that have morally ambiguous heroes and villains? Yes, look at The Last of Us or Killzone: Mercenary or Mass Effect 2. Does Thomsen talk about them? No.

And that's kind of sad. He doesn't address it so I will. Moral ambiguity does the opposite of what Thomsen argues, instead of disarming our fears it ratchets them up. Ambiguous characters and actions ask us to balance short and long term goals. They call into question things that we believe to be true about our world and our lives. The breakdown of universal goods and bads causes us anguish instead of catharsis.

Sam Fisher's actions in Blacklist are never morally ambiguous because the game tells us that they are not, that Sam must do the things he does in order to save lives. You don't question your killing power in this context because it's easy to kill. Killing accomplishes your goals faster than any other means. This is a functional choice, not a narrative one, something else that Thomsen misses but ultimately supports his argument. Because it accomplishes Sam's goals faster the player may begin to believe that this is the optimum solution to the terrorist problem.

Civilization has, until recently, had the same problem. Making war with your enemies was the quickest way to win the game. For years the primary goal of science was to support the military industrial complex. This was never the goal of the game but became a functional reality of it. Now features such as culture and religion make other solutions not only viable but successful. Though war is still a functionally legitimate path to victory, diplomacy may prove more effective at accomplishing long term goals.

Consider the balance of long and short term goals in the original Bioshock. Little sisters could be harvested immediately for larger gain than if the player were to save them. However, if the player does save them they would receive a much larger return on investment in the long run. In the immediacy there is no good reason to save them, the game is simply more difficult in the moment. However, because the player does not initially know that saving them will provide a long term benefit the choice is not one of equal utility like Civ but one of utility versus altruism.

Thomsen's point is very good, implicating players in these systems is more likely than not to have them align with those systems. I just don't think his examples are the best. It's not what these games are about that make players more comfortable with surveillance its giving them the tools and them proving those tools are the best means for accomplishing the goals of creating a safe environment. In effect, when all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.

Thomsen's concerns are very important. Games ask us to identify with actions in a way that film and literature don't. They do more than implicate us in the act, they make us accessories to them, full participants in worlds we willingly join in. However understanding that games do this via functionality is also important. A professor of mine often reminded me, we must be aware of the language we are using and that is using us. Video games are powerful tools and as such we must always be aware of the games we are playing and that are playing us.

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