Video Games Control Culture, and Moral Choices

Video Games Control Culture, and Moral Choices

Yet another entry in the video game culture wars is Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

It’s the latest in a series which features a dystopian, cyberpunk setting whereupon the protagonist must, in one way or another and for one reason or another, contend with secret groups and conspiracies like the Illuminati.

Mankind Divided picks up two years after it’s predecessor, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The year is 2029, two years after the events of Human Revolution and what’s known in game as the “Aug Incident” wherein humans with cybernetic implants suddenly lose control over themselves and become lethally violent for unknown reasons.

In secret, the affected “Augs” actually received implant technology designed to control them by the Illuminati. This is however abused by a rogue member of the group to discredit augmentations entirely.

The Illuminati successfully covers up the causes of the incident, condemning the augmented as outcasts from normal society in a new state of “mechanical apartheid.”

It’s the kind of setting and story fraught with intrigue, secrecy and questionable moral choices; in a dystopian, cyberpunk universes like Deus Ex, there aren’t a wealth of choices for a player or character to feel good about.

However uncomfortable one might be watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a video game that makes the player/audience member grapple with tough choices – and internalize the consequences of those choices in a safe, simulated environment – moral uncertainty is a storytelling staple.

Fortunately the last people in the world anyone wants to come to the “rescue,” has.

“Devs say it’s up to players to decide if internment camps are good or bad?! No. The question itself is political!” writes Jonathan McIntosh, self-styled “pop culture detective” and producer for Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency, the YouTube series notorious for questionable fundraising practices, breathtaking intellectual gymnastics and lies of omission to spin and perpetuate far-left, politically correct, anti-gaming/gamer narratives.

Mcintosh is the producer for Anita Sarkeesian, whose influence is dangerous to underestimate.

Macintosh unleashed a string of tweets condemning the idea of moral choice made available to players by game developers.

“Game developers like to pretend their narratives, scenarios and mechanics are politically neutral but that’s never really the case,” McIntosh continues.

Ian Miles Cheong covers this more directly in “Now SJWs Want Video Game Developers to Force Players to Make the ‘Right’ Moral Choices.”

This isn’t meant as a critique of Cheong’s article, but more of a corollary and concurrence of sorts.

Long gone are the days in which video games were mere pixels chasing pixels for the sake of beating a high score.

Video games are now arguably the most immersive storytelling medium made available by current human technology, with augmented and virtual reality poised to further cement (if not enhance) that status for the foreseeable future.

While many still trash the medium as fit only for children – or adults stuck in a long, drawn out adolescence – video games make a lot of grown-up money.

There’s a clear market for video games, however little social capital gamers have.

But while the dollars and cents are one of the primary ends of producing games like this, such a task tends to be much more difficult absent a story, unless the objective is a Candy Crush knockoff.

This is why imagination matters and why tireless rebukes against ceaseless attacks by pearl-clutching church ladies or blue-haired social justice warriors are necessary for the preservation of human liberty regardless of medium.

The late Christopher Hitchens said to the effect that literature can offer better moral lessons than scripture.

Whether anyone agrees with this or not, he isn’t exactly wrong.

He cites The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky as an exemplar in Chapter 16 of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell, me the truth.

My favorite citation is one particular speech in “A Man For All Seasons”.

The play portrays the 16th-century Chancellor of England Sir Thomas More as a man of principle for refusing to endorse King Henry VIII’s divorce from from Catherine of Aragon for failing provide an heir so that he can marry Anne Boleyn.

I’ve always received this particular “Devil Speech” as a lesson in the value of human liberty, awareness of unintended consequences, limited government and the rule of law:

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast. Man’s laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the wind that would blow then? Yes. I give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

There’s also the “Trolley Problem” thought experiment.

This exercise in utilitarian ethics requires you to imagine an out-of-control trolley hurtling down the tracks.

You stand at a track switch with a choice to make:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill five people
  2. Throw the switch to divert the trolley saving the the five, but consequently killing one on a different track

What do you do and why?

This thought experiment takes many forms both serious and silly.

Would you torture a child to make all of humankind happy, whatever that might look like?

Would you knowingly, deliberately kill one person to save five?

Would you cut down all the laws of the land to strike out at a hated political enemy knowing those laws (in part) protect you from the passions of others as well?

This is of course all speculative, but as life imitates art people side with cutting down their own laws for the sake of political correctness and expediency.

Thought exercises can have very practical applications.

Such moral questions can be infinitely stimulating and don’t require an overpriced and undervalued philosophy degree to pose, ponder, or argue.

Deus Ex also attempts this with the use of contemporary language such as “mechanical apartheid,” and “Augs lives matter” to communicate a component of moral agency in video games, genre or politics notwithstanding.

One of the characteristics that separate literature and TV/film from video games is that in earlier storytelling forms, the author dictates what the reader experiences through however they tell the story.

Video games let the player act out the story itself, making all of the relevant moral decisions.

Some games penalize the player for making morally questionable decisions.

Grand Theft Auto players learn this quickly by the time they’ve racked up their sixth star – the most aggressive in-game police response to the player’s by-then multitude of “crimes.”

McIntosh isn’t the first person to fan the flames of moral panic over video games. Instead, this represents another entry in a long line of ostensibly benevolent totalitarians who make political and ideological careers out of dictating what people can enjoy for themselves, shaming those who do.

Such teleological visions of human imagination are always clear, chilling threats to human liberty.

With the cultural equivalent of the Stasi pounding at the door, it’s important to celebrate the common sense freedom to enjoy whatever media you like and never hesitate to tell those who say otherwise where they can go.

One of the most precious gifts we have is the ability to imagine whatever we like and, barring any obvious criminal activity, express that in whatever way we like in general, and through mediums which employ fiction in particular.

The proto-totalitarian demand that such expressions conform to certain strict ideological should be resisted, at almost all costs.

Jacob is a U.S. Army veteran and journalism student at Sam Houston State University. Always a fierce free speech advocate and cantankerously anti-authoritarian, the Houston native is also a Texans fan even at 2-14.