A while back I promised to write some posts about Christianity and video games and I never did. Given the recent media controversy about the airport terrorist scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, this week I started feeling guilty about not having done what I promised, so here is one such attempt at such a post. I don’t own Modern Warfare, so I cannot comment on that too much, but I do want to talk about video games and the ethical decisions that we are sometimes asked to make in them.
Video games have changed drastically over the years. They have gone from being relatively simple (i.e. Pong–hitting a ball back and forth, which surprisingly can still provide some entertainment), to being quite complex–not just in how difficult they are to play but also in the complexity world they create. Though there are still many mind numbingly simple games out there (most of which can be bought for Nintendo Wii), there a number of new and innovative games being released every year.
Some games are worth playing simply for aesthetic reasons, these are rare, but games like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus are worth picking up just to experience the beauty of the world found therein. However, there is another trend in video games (not that new, it can be traced back to the first role playing games) to make games in which players are presented with moral choices. They can choose to make righteous decisions or they can choose to make selfish, evil decisions and face the consequences of either. Probably the most popular recent game where this is the case is Fallout 3, though the Fable series is well known for incorporating this dynamic (I think Infamous follows this trend). I don’t have Fallout 3 or Fable II (though I do still have Fable for the original Xbox), so I won’t discuss either of those games, but instead I will address how this plays out in my favorite spy game, Splinter Cell.
I recently bought Splinter Cell Double Agent for Playstation 3 (Its been out for a while now, so now you can get it cheap!). The game posses a great number of difficult moral choices. In the game you go undercover to bring down a terrorist organization that is trying to overthrow the U.S. government in some malicious ways. You have to accomplish missions for the terrorist cell while reporting information to the NSA and in the process, the game gives you freedom to determine how much you will sabotage the terrorist’s evil ends. Every decision you make affects how much the NSA and the terrorist organization trust you. If either of them lose too much faith in you–game over.
I found this incredibly compelling as I first began to play the game. In the first several missions you are able to please both the NSA and the terrorists without too much trouble. But recently I had to put the game down because I was presented with a terribly difficult moral decision to make and I just decided to put the game down cause I couldn’t decide the right thing to do. Let me explain.
In the mission I am currently on, I had to go and plant a bomb on a cruise ship. Fortunately you are able to fake a fire on the ship so that most of the passengers evacuate. However, the Mexican Coast Guard is privy to a terrorist threat, so many of them remain on board. As you plant the bomb, you also record the disarming code so that you can disarm the bomb before it goes off.
At the end of this mission you are given 3 options–(1) disarm the bomb and take a HUGE hit in how much the terrorist organization trusts you or (2) disarm the bomb and blame it on another member of the terrorist organization who will then be killed or (3) let the bomb go off as it would not kill any Americans, only members of the Mexican Coast Guard. Very interesting question.
1. You disarm the bomb and face the consequences–this will make the next mission incredibly difficult as you will be on very shaky ground with the terrorist organization–it is not “game over” but its close.
2. You disarm the bomb and blame it on someone else. Interestingly enough though, the person you can blame it on is the only terrorist with redeeming qualities–she is the one person who was opposed to planting the bomb and one that perhaps could be turned away from terrorism and perhaps even help you take the organization down! On the other hand she is a member of a terrorist organization and blaming it on her would save you from losing an incredible amount of trust and blowing your cover.
3. You do not disarm the bomb, let it go off and kill several Coast Guard soldiers. This is after all just a game and not real life, why not do the thing that will make the game easier for you? (not advocating this, just asking the question).
This moral conundrum surprised me, I didn’t expect to be so conflicted about a choice in a video game, so I just quit playing–it is a game, it is not real, so I have that option. In life, however, though we will probably never face a moral dilemma on this level, we will face difficult moral decisions and we cannot quit, we will have to make a decision of some sort and face the consequences whatever they may be.
I have decided to pick the game back up, I now know what I am going to do. I have settled in my mind what the right course of action is. What would you do? I want to see if this generates any discussion first, but later, I will post in the comment meta what I am going to do. This whole situation, I think was actually an interesting exercise for me in moral decision making. So feel free to share your thoughts about ethics, video games, etc. in the comment meta.
In short there are some games out there (few though they may be) that make us think about difficult issues. As a family pastor, I would would be careful about letting your children play games like Splinter Cell: Double Agent, but nonetheless it presents us with some interesting questions that are worth asking and worth thinking through.