Of Good Guys and Bad Guys, Generals and Gangsters
Game Design and Theory
Quite a few years ago now, Electronic Arts published a game called Patton versus Rommel, about a hypothetical matchup between two of World War II's greatest generals. In reality, Patton and Rommel never faced one another - Rommel was invalided home to Germany with injuries before Patton arrived in Normandy. In the tradition of most wargames, you could play either side - take Patton's army and try to fight your way into Normandy, or take Rommel's and push the Allies back into the sea.
If you took Rommel's side, you were obviously playing in support of the Nazi regime. The game didn't address the moral question that this raises; it was a straightforward wargame about troops and tanks, battle and maneuver. Wargames tend to avoid social or political issues to concentrate on purely military ones. Each side is fighting to achieve its objectives without any reference to their motivations or the rights of the situation. Risk is a nice case in point - every player is trying to take over the world, but none of them has an agenda or a political ideology. It's a simple, symbolic wargame.
As game players as well as developers, we're quite used to thinking of games in these morally neutral terms. Some of our critics in Congress and elsewhere, though, aren't familiar with gaming culture, and they're starting to ask some very hard questions about exactly what it is we're asking players to pretend they're doing. Accordingly, I thought I'd take a look at some of the ethical questions associated with the roles we play in games. I don't intend to address the question of whether violent video games cause violent behavior, but what it means when we choose a side to play on.
Nobody questions the moral decision involved in choosing to play the Romans or the Carthaginians in a game about the Punic Wars, but with the Germans in World War II, the issue is not so clear-cut. We need to think about it not least because there are still large numbers of misguided people, among them disaffected teenagers in Europe and America, who secretly or openly admire the Nazi regime. When we give people the opportunity to play on the side of the Nazis, we paper over the appalling choice that this represents with two justifications: 1) it now belongs to a swiftly-receding past; 2) not all German soldiers were Nazis, and it was possible to be an honorable German soldier without endorsing genocide.
For the moment, I don't think the first justification holds water. Yes, the Second World War does belong to the past, but it's still the comparatively recent past. There are literally millions of veterans of the Second World War still alive, not to mention civilians who suffered in a large variety of ways. For some the war caused sorrow and bitterness that can never be healed. It will only go out of the world when those people finally die.
We can in reasonable conscience play any sort of game about the Punic Wars that we like; they belong to a past so ancient that there's no possibility of a personal connection. The Crusades are a little more problematic; after all, the religious intolerance that instigated them continues to rend the Middle East today. The Crusades are remembered and retold rather differently in Syria than they are in France. Still, they have definitely passed into legend, and nobody alive today can claim they lost a close relative. But the Second World War is much too recent to make light of. It needs to be treated with sensitivity and respect.
What about the second justification, the question of honorable German soldiers? For good or ill, military men have always been granted a special moral status. Robert E. Lee was not hanged like a common criminal after his surrender at Appomattox, but John Brown was after his failed insurrection at Harper's Ferry. Robert E. Lee was considered a general leading an army; John Brown, a civilian leading a gang. This distinction comes about because soldiers take an oath to fight for their country, right or wrong, and because we respect that oath. Soldiers are not allowed to make ethical decisions about the merits of their cause; they pledge to fight when ordered to, period. In exchange for this surrender of their right to make a moral choice, we grant them a special status when obeying their country's orders, at least up to a point. You may or may not agree with it - a civilian killed by a bomb in a war is just as innocent, and just as dead, as one stabbed by a mugger - but like it or not, it's a fact of history.
In light of this, consider the character of Erwin Rommel. He fought for the Germans in the Second World War. He was supporting one of the most profoundly evil regimes that has ever existed. His brilliance as a commander cost thousands of Allied lives and prolonged the war, which also meant prolonging the genocide. It was obviously the duty of any Allied soldier to put a bullet in his head at the first available opportunity.
On the other hand he was not, in fact, a member of the Nazi Party. He did not believe in murder for political reasons, and he routinely ignored execution orders that Hitler sent him. So far as anyone knows, he did not commit any atrocities or war crimes. He was involved in the plot to overthrow Hitler, although he was not aware that it included assassinating him, which he would not have approved of. When his role in the plot was discovered, he committed suicide in order to prevent the almost certain butchery of his family.
What are we to make of Rommel? He fought for his country to the best of his ability because it was his sworn duty to do so. This duty was not to Adolf Hitler as an individual, but to something larger, his fatherland. He was a patriot, and military patriotism is required to be blind. Rommel epitomizes one of the tragic ironies of war, a good man serving a bad cause. Robert E. Lee is another classic case. There are undoubtedly similar men in Iraq and North Korea today.
It is the fact that men like Rommel exist that provides the moral justification, such as it is, for taking the German side in wargames today. You can pretend you are an honorable soldier obeying his country rather than a sadistic racist thug killing for kicks, which is all that most of the Nazis were. In fact, although the Nazis called themselves a political party, their organization and methods in their early days more closely resembled a criminal gang.
One of the things that's beginning to disturb me is the increasing frequency of games about gangsters, games in which the player takes the role of a criminal. I think this is qualitatively different from playing a general of the Wehrmacht. It is not possible to be an honorable gangster who just happens to serve the wrong side through an accident of history. Gangsters are not upholding a sworn duty to anybody. Gangsters are only working for themselves or at most their gang; they serve no higher purpose. Their only aims are money and power by any means. Even wars are fought by rules, after a fashion, but gangsters acknowledge no rules.
I've never been able to understand Hollywood's fascination with the Mafia. It seems as if we're subjected to an endless parade of books, movies and TV shows about the Mafia, all determined to demonstrate that under the surface they're regular folks with their own lives to lead and problems to face. I'm sorry, I'm not interested. Let's be clear about this: these people are filth. Their business consists of keeping women enslaved as prostitutes, selling crack to hopeless addicts, running protection rackets, corrupting entire industries, stealing, extorting, beating, torturing and murdering. There are millions of regular folks who make their livings and face their problems without becoming ruthless brutal criminals, yet for some reason scum like the Mafia are held up as people worthy of our attention and even sympathy.
Similarly, I begin to understand the frustrations of the police, who risk their lives dealing with gangsters, or gangstas, on a daily basis on the streets. They're competing with a flood tide of media that portray gang membership as a life that offers sex, drugs, money, power, and respect. Even the danger and death are made to seem cool. What's not shown are the victims, the ones who pay with money and fear and their very lives. The entertainment media have become a willing, even enthusiastic, PR machine for gangstas. Against such powerful propaganda, what chance do underfunded schools and police outreach programs have?
I think it's a mistake to glamorize these vermin, and a further mistake to make them the protagonists in computer games. At least in the passive media - movies, books, TV shows - the audience are external observers, able to draw their own moral conclusions. In computer games we require that the players actively participate in the crimes, identifying with and supporting the criminals. The game determines what's right and wrong, and if you don't conform with its twisted values, you don't win.
Make no mistake: I'm not in favor of censorship. Furthermore, I think the jury is still out on the question of whether playing violent video games engenders violent behavior in children. But when we create a role for a player to play, we're not asking him merely to watch gangsters, but to emulate them: to act like them, think like them, adopt their values. Even if it's only a fantasy, it's a pretty sick fantasy. How far are we prepared to take this? Should we ask people to emulate serial killers? Rapists? The architects of the Final Solution? To those who would say, "Relax, it's only a game," I would reply, yes, and Mein Kampf was only a book. It's no use pretending people are unaffected by the things they read and watch and play; history demonstrates positively that they are.
If we as game designers are to have a conscience, to take responsibility for the things we make, then we must face these questions and provide satisfactory answers. If we are to have no conscience, if we don't care how we make our money, then we are in effect co-conspirators of the gangsters ourselves. It remains to be seen how long we will go unindicted.