My son is deep underground, searching a metal cavern that predates human civilization. He’s walking halls created before the dawn of history. In front of him, a giant trapezoidal door slides open, admitting him to the next chamber. Pistol shots ring out. A fellow soldier–crazed by the horrors he has witnessed–is firing wildly at him.
My son quickly snaps off a shot from his weapon, a bizarre alien contraption he’s picked up that fires out explosive purple needles. One of the strange projectiles sinks into the shell-shocked soldier and the pistol falls silent.
This is one of the few moments in the storyline of the Halo video game franchise in which the player is invited–though not obliged–to kill a human character. Generally in the story, the player is pitted against various alien nasties intent on wiping out humankind. The most pervasive of these alien foes belong to a consortium of like-minded extra-terrestrials known in the Halo universe as The Covenant, a theocratic alliance who have been bent on the extermination of all life on Earth for the ten years since the original Halo game’s release.
Recently, author Jane McGonigal celebrated the apex of this simulated military struggle for mankind’s survival in her book Reality is Broken. McGonigal is a leading voice in a growing movement known as gamification, the premise of which is basically that if games, and video games in particular, are so effective at motivating and engaging us, then why shouldn’t society itself be engineered more like a game. She points to the online community of Halo players, millions strong, as an example of gaming’s ability to galvanize people and captivate their imaginations. In particularly, she applauds an online campaign throughout that virtual community to log ten billion Covenant kills in the third, and concluding, chapter of the Halo trilogy.
“Ten billion kills wasn’t an incidental achievement, stumbled onto blindly by the gaming masses,” she writes. “Halo players made a concerted effort to get there. They embraced 10 billion kills as a symbol of just how much the Halo community could accomplish–and they wanted it to be something bigger than anything any other game community had achieved before.”
To some, it may sound terribly silly, but the fifteen million players involved in this simulated endeavor were not merely hormonal thirteen year-olds bent on frenetic simulated violence. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of gamers is now thirty. Last year the industry’s sales topped twenty-four billion dollars. That’s more than twice the total take from the North American box office. In fact, that number is edging close to the total take for Hollywood from sales of tickets, DVDs, Blu-Ray disc, digital downloads, and even movie rentals, which is only about twenty-eight billion combined.
Video games have been big business for some time, of course. Tech heavyweights like Sony and Microsoft would not have leveraged so much of their resources to enter the market over the last twenty years if they were not. But just as video games become a mainstay of pop culture, they are also growing in their capacity to draw their players into immersive worlds and environments. Take my son’s favorite, for example. The original Halo game was recently rereleased, but after ten years of technological progress, the new version features updated graphics, rendering its 3D world more lush, more detailed–more engrossing. It’s a fitting tribute to the game that was the lynchpin of Microsoft’s effort to win territory in the lucrative video game industry. The company even went so far as to purchase the game’s developer, Bungie, outright before the title’s release in order to establish a “killer app” for Microsoft’s X-box video game console.
Of course, on the surface the game looked a lot like a long line of games that see their players staring down the back of a gun–called first-person shooters. In fact, Microsoft even redirected Bungie’s development to make the game less unique and more like every other game in the genre. What remained distinctive about Halo then was something that most first-person shooters did not expend much energy on before: story.
One of Halo’s predecessors in the genre, Doom, exemplifies the kind of “story” that typically went with these action-oriented shooter games. In Doom, you are in hell. With a gun. You are supposed to shoot monsters. A lot of monsters. There are also locked doors so you must find keys to unlock them. These keys will typically be guarded by monsters. Shoot them, too.
Halo, though, featured actual character development and a plot that harkened back to tropes from a number of venerated science-fiction texts. Yes, actual books. In the video game press, titles are actually criticized now for the weakness of their stories. The medium even garners serious study as an art form and indeed, some games offer worlds so thoroughly rendered that players feel completely immersed, more than any play or poem could ever hope for. Massively multi-player games like World of Warcraft and Eve Online draw players by the thousands into artificial worlds where they can cultivate entire online lives, complete with a personal biography, communities of other human players, and virtual property. 2011’s megahit game Skyrim features a system its creators call “radiant” story generation. After creating a character, players of the game can choose to do anything they would like within the fantasy world of the game. The player can truly feel like an actor in a living novel reshaped at every turn by the reader. Players are freely able to choose their paths through the game by choosing sides in a mythical civil war between locals bents on autonomy and the imperial forces pressing for unity, or not. They can pursue the game’s central quest to undo the machinations of an evil dragon god returning to dominate the world, or they can settle down and chop wood for a living. This openness and the manner in which the game grants the player real choices made it both one of the most acclaimed and most popular games of the year.
Obviously, the growth of this medium has not been without its detractors. Jane McGonigal and others applaud video games’ positive impact on hand eye coordination and spatial intelligence, but science continues to dig around for possible links between violence in video games and real-life aggression from players. The suggestion of such a link has become almost cliché more than a decade after Columbine. After the tragedy, there were erroneous reports that the perpetrators had prepared by making custom levels of Doom modeled on their high school. To be sure, the murderers did enjoy violent video games, though it seems safe to say that were any of the most dire warnings issued after that tragedy at all accurate, society would be suffering more turmoil now that a whopping one hundred and eighty million Americans play these games.
Perhaps then it is not a question of whether killing ten billion aliens will harm us psychologically, but rather a question of what it says about us that we would spend our time this way.
Jane Addams said, “Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.” If we must ultimately define ourselves by what we do, what does it mean about us when what we do is only part of a simulation?
More and more of us are investing more and more of our energy into worlds that do not, strictly speaking, exist. We are doing things without actually doing them.
William Gibson’s prescient novel Neuromancer offered a description of cyberspace by borrowing Gertrude Stein’s quip, “there is no there there.” If there’s no there, then are we there at all when we enter these fictional worlds? If not, does it matter that we kill there?
I have been guilty of untold atrocities myself. On countless occasions, I have dragged the whole of the human race into cataclysmic wars of domination so that my will could prevail over the entire world.
In a game, obviously.
For nearly twenty years, my own favorite digital diversion has been a strategy game series called Civilization. In it, the player, looking down upon the world from a god-like height, moves armies, settles cities, develops new technologies, and generates schemes to raise a civilization from humble subsistence agriculture to the heights of the Space Age. In my defense, I generally play as what folks in the Civilization online communities call “a builder.” I erect cathedrals and universities to enrich the lives of my virtual citizens and generally try to achieve greatness through culture and refinement.
But I have been known to occasionally–in the interests of a lasting, stable peace, of course–start a war. Even to conquer the entire world (it is the surest way to a high score, after all). And I’ll admit to dropping a nuclear bomb in each release of the game, just to see what the graphics look like.
I have always been fond of the quote from Nietzsche warning that, “he who fights monsters must be careful that he himself does not become a monster, for when you look into an abyss, an abyss is looking back into you.” What, though, becomes of our souls if we are making sport, not of hunting monsters anymore, but of also being them?
Video games have only just begun to grapple with these questions. The medium’s Peckinpahs have pushed a few envelopes back with series like Grand Theft Auto which rewarded players for anti-social behaviors, including the callous murders of prostitutes (post-gratification, no less). More recently, the series that eclipsed the popularity of the Halo franchise, Call of Duty had to issue an update that allowed purchasers (and presumably, parents) to deactivate a level of the game in which the player was compelled to gun down civilians in order to maintain his cover while on a secret mission.
I owned that game. I left the level turned off and never played it. I sold it back to the store when my son became more and more interested in action games. I steered him toward Halo instead. It seemed closer to the sci-fi cartoons and space operas that had shaped my own childhood, and ultimately, like McGonigal, I thought it was preferable to be drawing purple alien blood from foes beyond the reach of negotiation than, as in Call of Duty, conducting extra-legal paramilitary actions in which human characters are targets. I talked to my son about the difference, about the violence. I don’t know that the exchanges would qualify as thoughtful conversations, but I think he gets it. I think.
He and I, like society itself, are still trying to sort out what our actions mean in these artificial universes. These days, we play Civilization together sometimes. From the game he has learned quite a bit about history–from the range of Polynesian settlement in the Pacific to the extent of the conquests of Alexander. I show him how I play, and discourage him from using the nuclear weapons. Is it enough? Is thinking seriously about our virtual actions enough of a concession to ethics? Millennia ago, Aristotle was troubled by the simple fact that audiences derived pleasure from tragedy and he sought to account for it in order to vindicate the arts. Today, there is a great deal of research on the brain offering explanations of how these games flip all the right switches on their way to our pleasure centers, but still no Information Age Aristotle to pitch us some new catharsis to make us feel that it’s okay, to assure us that pulling the little plastic trigger is no different than turning the page in a murder mystery, no different then watching the frames advance in a war movie.
It’s not real, after all. Any of it. Even if we are the ones doing it, the ones making it happen.
Perhaps that just makes us finally and completely complicit in the crime of art. The creative imagination of Western Civilization has arrived at a sort of Orient Express where we must each join the story teller by taking a turn at the knife.
When my son reached his moment of complicity and fired that single shot into the crazed trooper deep in the catacombs of Halo, he was surprised. “I didn’t think that would kill him.” One shot, after all, is something most video game characters can simply shrug off. “I feel bad. Can I go back?”
No. We can’t.