[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).]