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Maybe You Aren’t Always the Hero: A Defense of Unsettling Games

Editor’s note: The following article is not an official endorsement of any of the video games mentioned. Please do your own homework in determining what games are appropriate for you. If you are a parent, we recommend checking out Common Sense Media and Taming Gaming

When the morally-conscious person starts playing video games, they tend to gravitate to the hero-stories. They save the world, the princess, the hostage, and they feel good about what they’ve done. Then they move on to games that offer them choices. They are offered a choice between saving a bus of nuns or killing kittens. They do the right thing. Later, they are offered a choice between saving one man or saving an entire community. They do what they believe is the right thing. It is a struggle, but they accept that hard decisions must be made in order to do good—to be good. To do the right thing.

These hero fantasies and early attempts at moral choice in games were good for our sense of self-righteousness. Dialogue wheels and ethical choices provided a certain lip-service to moral realism and ethical complexity. But a certain amount of perspective makes it obvious that even the most complex moral systems with the greyest of grey areas only reinforce a certain falsehood about human nature: that we are capable of making decisions in a logical, binary manner, and that it is within our capability to live a life of quiet perfection in the face of corrupting influences.

Sometimes it’s hard to know if the net gain of our contribution to society is anywhere close to the net loss we’ve wrought.

When I play these games, I am a pure, innocent character in a world gone wrong. I feel good about myself, because I am making right the many injustices around me. My hands are hard at work making everything great again. When all is finished, I see villains vanquished and survivors celebrating. I lean back and marvel at what I have accomplished: because of me, Eden is restored, for now.

Playing a game like that is one long exercise in projection. The game projects my missteps, my wrongful motives, and my sins onto characters outside of myself. I look down the barrel of a gun, and I shoot the wrongdoers in the face. It’s cathartic, it’s energizing, and it’s a lie.

Even without excessive violence, the lie is ever-present. Games often strive to make us feel good about ourselves, proud of our ability to change the world in just a few swift and calculated movements. They drive that cliche into our minds: it’s us against the world. It’s us against the bystanders, the non-believers, and the self-interested villains.

In the real world, none of us goes untouched by the problematic natures of our fore-fathers, our culture, our world, and ourselves. In our self-aware moments, we realize this and vow to fight, not against the evil forces in the world but the evil within ourselves. We vow to treat those around us with grace and kindness. We vow to pursue justice and to reject evil. We vow to do the right thing. We resolve, once and for all, to remedy ourselves – in doing so, we will come one step closer to healing the world.

But this is impossible. We have bad days—we lash out at those we love most, and we ignore those who need our attention. We give in to numerous temptations, lapses of judgment, and obsess over trivialities. We all do our part in making the world a slightly worse place, even while we try desperately to do otherwise. Sometimes it’s hard to know if the net gain of our contribution to society is anywhere close to the net loss we’ve wrought.

It’s no surprise then, that we gravitate toward blatant hero-fantasies, desperate to forget the ensuing domino-effect of every careless word and thoughtless deed we’d committed throughout the day. In these games, the cause and effect is simple: rid the world of evil and save the innocent. In more linear games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it is virtually impossible to do anything wrong. In games like Mass Effect and Skyrim, the choices are clearly laid out, and temptation is merely cognitive—every choice is made in a logical fashion and is filled with import. Either way, a crucial component of the human condition is conveniently ignored. These games have their place as an occasional breath of fresh air, but they fall short of the greatness that comes with telling the truth.

Papers, Please

So perhaps we need to give more thought to the potential value of the games that rub us the wrong way: Papers, Please’s refusal to let us save its world; World of Goo‘s subtle involvement of the player in a conspiracy to victimize a whole population for the needs of a lesser cause; Far Cry 2‘s callous ambiguity and insistence that we simply shoot first and question later; The Binding of Isaac‘s determination to shove our face in the excrement of self-righteousness gone wrong.

These are the games that we feel uneasy playing, but to ignore the truths they illuminate is to turn our back on the fact that whether it’s because of misguided good intentions, entitled self-righteousness, or careless thoughtlessness, our mistakes result in pain for ourselves and for others. The greatest games are less about forgetting that truth and more about facing it.

Christianity Today's Branded Content and Partnerships Manger and Freelance Podcast Producer. He is co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture. He also hosts the "No Chill Enneagram" podcast. He resides in the Chicago suburbs often playing video games and being the father of 2 kids and husband of Jennifer.

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