Viewpoint; The Absolution of Responsibility

I can’t quite believe I can actually make this point through gaming and games in general, but as this is a gaming blog it only seems fair I attempt to do so. I’ll make the political point at the start and be done with it; the current fiscal credit crunch we’re in is as a result of several decades of breaking down individual responsibility. Governments borrowed heavily, and as the boom years of the late nineties and early noughties continued, we were all encouraged to borrow more than we earned, and not take responsibility for our actions. More credit replaced the credit we already had, consolidating and paying more for arguably less. Governments across the world did much the same thing, and now they face a serious issue; they can’t keep passing the buck anymore. There is no-one left to take the blame. And yet they all do, all self-interested and taking the easy route by blaming their predecessors, their neighbours, anyone but themselves.

This has become a widely accepted fallacy in the world today, and videogames have of course reflected this perfectly. When it comes to moral choice, sure. There is good and evil, but rarely is there any actual responsibility for the individual action, just more to cover up already made mistakes. When it comes to Call of Duty and Battlefield, war crimes are undoubtedly committed in their virtual worlds, but the overall end result is meant to justify the means; we don’t see individuals hauled up into the Hague to answer why they felt their actions were reasonable in the circumstance.

Choices are made, and this extends deep into the industry. When it comes to things like piracy, neither side can claim moral superiority. The pirates are of course stealing other peoples hard work – this cannot be justified in a legal sense, otherwise it would open the doors to a wave of thievery and thuggery both online and offline, where they can absolve responsibility based on moral judgments or financial states. There is no real reason in this day and age to pirate – your life will not end if you don’t play the latest release, which you can pick up in eight weeks time often for half the cost. But equally, the publishers and developers who create DRM and means to combat piracy cannot claim a moral stance either; their work is actually crippling them financially, fighting a battle that will naturally deteriorate over time anyway. The price of gaming has been static for nearly two decades whereas the value of money has gone down. Equally, punishing the innocent buyers with restrictive barriers and codes will do more damage than piracy ever could.

Both sides in those instance claim they have a moral imperative to do what they do. But neither side wants to accept that their actions have serious and long-lasting repercussions on the average consumer – they simply stopped caring about that, because to accept that would be to accept responsibility for their actions, and that is not something either side wants to do.

When it comes to game storylines, responsibility is often conspicuous in its absence. Whereas games like Braid made you realise slowly you were the bad guy, and other games like Prototype make you realise that your character is actually a massively evil piece of work, there is still no sense of responsibility to these actions. In Prototype, the game throws more and more enemies at you and you view them as nothing more than a challenge at best, and an irritation at worst. There is no sense that that guy you just consumed may have a loving wife with three kids that he’s struggling to support – you just see him, and think “Om nom nom!”. There is no sense that the world around your characters, the NPCS, have lives of their own. They are there to fill the world, to be your playthings, and without identities you care less and less about them. You just see them as toys and obstacles, and perform around them, with them and sometimes on top of them as you wish.

I do not wish to sound like I am some pious beacon of morality because, in truth, I enjoy a good shooter and MMO and action game as anyone else. The difference is sometimes in how you perceive the world around you; those hundreds of NPCs walking around the streets of the city below you. What are they? Faceless identikit cannon fodder, or people going about their everyday business which you are about to ruin by jumping twenty floors on top of one of them? Enemies with personality – are they just two-dimensional hate figures, or have circumstances driven them to such actions? I mean, Sephiroth from FF7 was evil, but he was driven there with the truth of his creation – he was a puppet who became the puppeteer. Alfred Ashford from Code Veronica – he was certainly devious and evil, but he was always the second favourite in his family. Forced to be the submissive in his relationship with his sister. His upbringing must have seriously screwed him up (to which I can relate very well) – his evil ways are tempered with a very human, very complicated backstory. One of which most simply choose to ignore, as suddenly they are faced with a moral and ethical question – is their action really justifiable in the circumstance?

Responsibility can extend out to parents who buy games for their kids – many of which blame the games, rather than their own lack of education on what they are obviously buying themselves for their little darlings. To politicians who try to pin the rise of societal ills onto the rise and popularity of video games, without questioning the higher tolerance threshold we assign to soaps, TV shows and music, much of which is laden with how cool violence is, how people get away with crimes and how to beat others, or members of the fairer sex.

Society today has been built on an absolution of responsibility; that within reason, we can do whatever we like as it is our human right to do so. But in terms of a society, this has created a serious and endemic problem of segregation, intolerance and general violence. The riots in the streets of the UK last year; people forgot they were part of a law-abiding country and many seemingly and otherwise law-abiding people felt they could break the law, and simply said “Well, everyone else was doing it!” as though that, somehow, made their actions okay.

In games, in media, we simply prefer to blind ourselves to the moral and ethical quandaries that games try so desperately to raise; where games seek to challenge and provoke our human nature and hold a mirror to society, we simply choose to ignore it. Because we don’t like to be faced with the idea we are responsible for our own actions – that we have a choice, and our choice matters. Our voice matters. Our opinions matter.

We have become as faceless a mob as the mass of NPCs that walk around these virtual cityscapes – without identity, without a voice, without responsibility. It isn’t until we are confronted with the repercussions of our actions that we are forced to confront ourselves, and our choices. And even then, the natural societal instinct is to blame it on something that either cannot fight back – or simply, is just conveniently placed to blame.

It is important that games continue to try and hold that mirror up to us. For the world to change, for the current economic crisis around the world to lift, society itself needs to change and accept that they are all individually, as well as collectively, responsible for their own actions. That we do have a voice, and the ability to change things, if for once we just turn around and confront the issues at hand, rather than skipping around them gaily throwing flowers around and singing nursery rhymes.

Games are getting better at making choices matter. It’s a slow road, but it is one the industry is on. But it is us as people, as society and as human beings to pay attention. That we control our destiny; that there isn’t some Templar conspiracy, or a network of Vampires running the biggest companies in the world, or that the CIA or MI5 or whatever have a zombie virus ready to launch that keeps countries in line and do what they are told.

We have gotten to where we are via the absolution of responsibility. We all agree that we want to fix the world, and society in general. But that cannot be done if we continue on with the absolution of responsibility – because until we do, we’re not confronting the real issues in the world.

That until we do, things can only get worse. And that applies across the board, to everything in the industry and across the world.

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