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Opinion: (Virtual) Reality Is (Just As) Broken
Opinion: (Virtual) Reality Is (Just As) Broken
March 28, 2011 | By Richard Clark

March 28, 2011 | By Richard Clark
More: Console/PC, Design

[Gamasutra contributor Richard Clark discusses how all games bring out the worst in us, as a "powerful way to illuminate our own individual shortcomings" -- and why that's a good thing.]

Video games don't lack for portrayals of heroes. It seems like every other game puts us in control of a brave and heroic protagonist, bent on facing off against an unmistakably evil oppressor.

We take joy in power fantasies because we are convinced in our own minds that we're doing the right thing. We save the princess, kill the bad guy, and set the captives free. If only there were more heroes like us.

You're welcome, world.

But how often do we sincerely feel the weight of doing something heroic in a video game? How often have we taken pride in a courageous act, felt happy for those who we have saved, or felt the satisfaction of bringing justice to an unjust situation? Forget crying: how often have we raised our head high while playing a video game?

It's not common, because we know the truth. Those courageous acts were self-motivated. We wanted better weapons, better power-ups, and more points. We wanted to win. We wanted to beat the game. We did good things, because the game rewarded us for it. We saved the princess because she was inevitably in the final castle.

We were glad when a sequel to Super Mario Galaxy was announced, even if it meant the princess would most likely be kidnapped yet again. We rejoiced in the act of bringing justice to evil doers, but we didn't rejoice in the justice itself. We don't take an eye for an eye. We take a head for an eye, then we explode the body into a thousand little pieces.

Maybe Jane McGonigal was right about games having the ability to bring out the best in us. After all, gaming requires a number of crucial character traits like patience, focus, and enthusiasm. But I also know this: games excel just as well, if not better, at making us acutely aware of our dark side.

The non-gaming public and press like to hold up ethically-dark games as an example of how our culture is locked into a downward slide into the moral abyss. Maybe they're right about that descent, but it's not caused by the occasional video game that depicts unpleasant and unethical activities.

In fact, it's these games that take an unflinching look at our own depravity and its many consequences, that give us the perspective we need to understand the seriousness of our own state, both individually and culturally.

Consider those games that seek to present us with a true hero. Half Life 2's silent protagonist, Gordon Freeman, represents a noble cause to be sure. But what kind of a hero runs around smashing open crates that belong to others while people are trying to explain something of great importance to him?

When it's most evident that we are a part of a story that's bigger than us, we turn sociopathic, destroying everything we can get our hands on and haphazardly shooting things across the room with a gravity gun.

We can get away with this. So we do.

So, even Gordon Freeman, one of the most iconic and revered game heroes, is horrifically flawed. We can blame this on technical limitations, a lack of narrative imagination, and all sorts of other things, but the truth remains that a hero who takes it upon himself to singlehandedly kill hundreds of men for the sake of a cause, and who is uniformly celebrated by anyone he doesn't kill, is going to have social and moral hangups. It only makes sense that he has an inflated sense of self.

Yes, games struggle to present us with a hero that is simply and truly good, but that's because they should. Unlike film, we associate the protagonist in a game with ourselves, consciously or not. While film encourages us to watch and wonder at the courage, skill and ease with which our hero takes on the enemy, games force us to sit through the boring and discouraging parts: failure, frustration, and the self-seeking scavenging process.

Die Hard is all thrills, guns and justice. Half Life 2 is an extended march through an oppressed landscape that lacks the resources for an easy victory. You meet people who make demands on you rather than the other way around. You fail constantly. In other words, Half Life 2 is a little bit more like life.

Of course, film has been known to explore the depravity of the human heart in its own way. Still, it's easy for the viewer to respond with either revulsion or admiration at the filmic anti-hero, neither of which call attention to their own solidarity with the protagonist. Video games, on the other hand, have a unique ability to drive the point home by allowing the world of the player and that of a flawed hero or anti-hero to slowly merge throughout the game.

And games can do this better, by embracing the awkward relationship, by scripting non-player characters to react in horror and frustration to our foibles, and by leveraging the inevitability of the player's self-centered actions throughout the game. Once games acknowledge the flawed nature of the human being, and by extension, the nature of the player, a game can be a powerful way to illuminate our own individual shortcomings.

So let's embrace the worst of the worst, if only to drive home the consequences of such a state, and the similarities between ourselves and these antiheroes. We're lazy without explicit motivation, we leave others to suffer without the motivation of guilt or the possibility of honor, and we're starved for revenge and chaos, not justice.

We're sorry, world.

[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@deadyetliving).]

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Maurício Gomes
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Whoa, awesome article.

Andrew Traviss
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This is probably the most insightful thing I've ever read about games. My hat is off to you, sir.

Moses Wolfenstein
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Well played sir, well played. I haven't gotten to Reality Is Broken yet, but I've heard enough McGonigal over the last few years to have this persistent gnawing awareness of how she frames gaming to illuminate the prosocial aspects and obscure elements that don't support that picture. Personally I think we'll be better able to leverage those prosocial aspects by being honest with ourselves about the complexity of the phenomenon including the seedier bits.

Toto Jojo
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yeah honesty... most likely the path towards greater understanding.

But I don't agree with the fact that people don't associate themselves with a protagonist they see in a movie.

I think I associate myself more with a character in a movie than in a game, because as you said, the goal in a game is to win, or to get "more", and just that, no matter who we are, the bad or the good guy. While in a movie, I mostly watch them to nourish myself of the feelings that it gives me.

Brian Tsukerman
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Excellent counterpoint to Jane McGonigal's statements. I especially hope that games in the future do incorporate NPC reactions to character decisions to a greater degree, since I find that the often flat and robotic interactions (i.e. repeating dialogue) contribute to my tendency to act sociopathically in a game.

That, or years of playing RPG's has convinced me that walking into an NPC's house to take any belongings in chests is my right as inevitable savior of the entire world.

Moses Wolfenstein
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also, in regard to the part about HL2 and walking into people's houses, this:

As a great man once said, "Zombie goasts, leave this place!"

Steven Conway
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Great article Richard.

But I believe there's something to be said in defence of our sociopathic behaviour; we simply do not "believe" in the fictional world of the game as consistently, and often as deeply as in other media. We are aware all too often that it is "just a game", as we understand the objects around us (the crates, the monosyllabic NPCs) to be jarring signifiers of gameness (much like archaic, obtrusive GUIs and HUDs), and thus we lose our sense of roleplay and instead revert to a ludic approach - smash crate, get power-up.

Michael Walbridge
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There are a lot of games that really illustrate the principle of the player's dark side rather than good: Far Cry 2, Metro 2033 for starters. Left 4 Dead of course reveals to other people what kind of side you have when you're in a bind (more often it's going to be a Richard type of self rather than a Jane one).

MMOs, MOBAs, and anything that is competitive multiplayer can bring it out too. Tons of examples.


Richard Clark
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Guys, thanks so much for the kind words. If you're interested, I wrote a much more personal reflection of the same kind of issues here , with Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 2 in mind:

Christopher Engler
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Sometimes I think players that do ransack random NPCs of their possessions aren't allowing the medium to tell its intended story. They're consuming the game rather than letting the medium suck them in. Oblivion is a game where I tried not steal or kill indiscrimately. I waited to be attacked before I attacked, and I avoided tracking down and killing foes with more powerful weapons simply because I felt my character would find that behavior wrong. I'm sure the game took a lot longer because of this, but in the end, I really enjoyed the journey. Those that fly through a game just to finish it miss so much of the fun.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Absolutely. I believe we should try to make games with more, er, ethical fidelity -- but at the same time it is up to the gamer to experience the game the way they want. I usually look at NPCs talking to me, so the example of busting crates while someone is trying to tell me something important probably won't happen to me (I'll wait until afterwards, but I still want what's in those crates!)

I remember stopping to think in Heavy Rain after the pretend-swordfighting scene. I went to town on my characters' son trying to follow patterns and "win" at all costs because it's been ingrained in my head to excel when I have a controller in my hand, but afterwards I felt a little sorry for dominating him on his birthday and let him win on my second run through. Yes, I felt sorry for ruining an imaginary kid's fun.

What's the point of playing a game though if you aren't going to use a little imagination?

Sylvester O'Connor
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Great article. Although you left out Knights of the Old Republic 2. Kreia felt very real and it was funny as how you would do things around the world and she would always give you an answer that made you think. If you gave money to a begger, she would explain to you how you made his life worse because he didn't earn that money and that others that seen him get it would try to take it from him. So in retrospect, I thought I was helping but I actually made matters worse. And they actually showed you how he got shot.

I think it depends more on how much an individual immerses themselves in the game world. When I play games, especially RPGs, I handle them like one would Dungeons and Dragons. I place myself as the individual within the game world. So although it might not be real, I engage with it like it is. Afterall, that is why I love video games. I have associates that tell me how fun it was to blow up Megaton in Fallout 3. I have played through the game 3 times already and have never been compelled to do it just to see what the results would be. I actually felt guilty for thinking that I should try it. Maybe I am overthiking but really, I think games are only as good as people emerge themselves in it.