The third-person shooter genre of video games is largely populated by lead characters for whom violence and aggressive self-interest is both a means and an end – but are they heroic individuals, or slaves to a system?
It may not be obvious from reading them, but there is a process behind the writing of these columns. Every month, I comb review websites searching out games which, though I might not necessarily enjoy playing them, I know I will be able to write about. This month this process has taken me into a realm I seldom explore, that of third-person shooters. Third-person shooters tend to differ from first person shooters in so far as their protagonists are usually more fleshed out. They are on-screen the entire time and so game designers feel obligated to give them a personality. Somewhere between Batman : Arkham Asylum (2009) and Gears of War (2006) I realised that I felt quite intensely alienated from the characters I was supposed to be controlling. We had nothing in common. We simply were not clicking. There was no spark. There would not be a second date.
I am not a furiously intense and brooding tough-guy filled with rage and driven to eye-popping bouts of gut-wrenching violence by an all-consuming desire for revenge [O RLY? 😉 – Ed.]. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is. Then it occurred to me, what kind of image of humanity do these games contain? Why is that image so popular? Who, if anyone, benefits from it?
I’ll begin by having a look at the main characters of some of the most popular games to emerge in recent years.
Kratos from theGod of War series is presented as a rebel who operates in the universe of the Greek gods but without accepting either their authority or their rules. For example, he is initially an assassin for Ares but then he decides to kill Ares. This having been accomplished he takes Ares’ position as god of war, but he abuses his position to such an extent that Zeus strips him of his powers. Kratos then promptly decides to kill Zeus. Kratos is a character who both rejects the established order and is entirely dependent upon it for his conception of self. Were it not for the existence of gods who encourage mortals to become assassins by granting them special powers, he would most likely have wound up mouldering on a Greek battlefield.
The same paradoxical nature afflicts Marcus Fenix, chief protagonist of the Gears of War series. Fenix seldom voices any emotion other than anger and he defines himself purely in terms of his effectiveness as a soldier fighting against an alien invasion. However, Fenix has nothing invested in the society he is fighting for and, at the beginning of the first game, he is in gaol – suggesting that while he is happily defined by his position in a violent system, Fenix does not like to follow orders. Much like Kratos, Fenix presents himself as a rebel to the established order, but his rebellion is not characterised as a rejection of the system. Instead it is expressed as an anger at his apparently lowly position in it. As such, both Kratos and Fenix are rebels who are driven not by an ideological desire for change or a moral commitment to a fading status quo. Instead, they fight out of a desire for self-advancement.
This distinction is exemplified in the video game adaptation of The Godfather. Whereas the plot of the film and the book revolve around a young man’s slow acceptance of a life of violence and crime, the video game version has you play a junior member of the Corleone family who kills policemen, other gangsters and tortures shop-keepers and club owners into paying protection money. There is no room for self-doubt or rejecting the system, only learning to bend the rules in order to climb the ladder as quickly as possible. The only restraining factor upon any of these brutal characters is their families.
Alex Mercer from Prototype is initially presented as an animal. A genetically engineered freak who eats people and who attacks humans and monsters with equal ease as long as it results in him gaining more experience and more health points. It is only when Alex regains knowledge of his girlfriend and family that his life acquires something approaching a moral dimension. The same is true of the nameless character in The Godfather who picks up (and then promptly loses) a girlfriend, and both Kratos and Fenix seem to owe their sociopathic natures to the loss of their respective families.
The depiction of humanity in these kinds of games is undeniably misanthropic. It presents man as little more than a beast: a blend of Hobbesian savage and PCP-fuelled homo economicus who can unleash unspeakable and unrepentant violence in service of his own desires, but who would never seek to question either the system he is a part of or his ultimate involvement in it. Bizarrely, the only thing that can contain this fiend is the love of a good woman – begging the question as to whether getting laid regularly might help Kratos and Alex Mercer cut back on the killing and people-eating.
Of course, this is only a small selection of games and their depiction of mankind is exaggerated by the fact that games necessarily involve a psychopathic degree of detachment by the player. After all, the people on screen are not real and why play a game if not to win? If you are playing to win then it only makes sense that you would follow your own desires with ruthless efficiency. However, what is disturbing about this misanthropic vision of humanity is that, while it may be accurate, it is presented as a state of being that is almost heroic.
Great works of literature have often argued for the ultimate savagery of the human condition : Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) featured children who turned violently against each other in the absence of humans, while Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) suggested that, beneath the veneer of morality provided by civilisation, life is terrifying in its lack of sentiment or inhibition. Both Golding and Conrad’s visions of the state of nature flow from Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) and, ultimately, Saint Augustine’s City of God (426), which suggested that man was born into inherent sinfulness. A state of moral decay that could only be escaped by grace. This idea of an inherently base humanity is almost diametrically opposed to the view espoused by thinkers such as Rousseau or Marx who saw human nature as fundamentally good but somehow debased by civilisation. However, what all of these views of humanity have in common is a sense of sadness at the state of the world and a desire to change it and the nature of human existence for the better. Of course, not everyone shares this view.
Thomas Frank’s famous essay “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” lays out the ways in which the 1950s counter-cultural ideals of rebellion and dissent have been taken up not only as means of encouraging consumerism but also as the ideals of the corporate upper classes. Suits are no longer grey men with slicked down hair and a desire to fit in. Instead, they paint themselves as free-thinking individualists, forever challenging the status quo and breaking boundaries. In effect, the baseness of humanity has been transformed from a bug to a feature. Making loads of cash for your boss is now a supreme act of self-expression. Working long hours in order to secure a bonus which you then spunk on a pair of over-priced running shoes is the basis for a new code of the urban samurai. We are encouraged to see conformity as dissent; self-advancement as social progress; greed as altruism. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.
Characters such as Kratos, Fenix and Alex Mercer are a strange combination of modern values and ancient ones. They merge the submissive individualism of the 21st Century West and project it backwards onto other conceptions of human flourishing such as the warrior codes of the feudal and antique periods. However, while these warrior codes were little more than a moral gloss for brutality, they frequently contained elements that betrayed the intense conservatism of the warrior castes. Knights would have respect for the church and those further up the noble pecking order, and even Vikings bought into the ideals of hospitality. In effect, these characters are imbued with a moral code that represents the worst elements from various conceptions of human flourishing: it is individualistic but in no way non-violent, it is conservative but in no way imbued with a sense of noblesse oblige and it is violent but without accepting any kind of moral limitations upon that violence.
What is worse is that it is easy to see the social utility of these kinds of characters. They condition us into a conception of human flourishing that presents the most base forms of slavery and moral cowardice as heroic acts of individualism. They prepare one for a life devoted to climbing the greasy pole with no hope for escape. They encourage us to view our friends and neighbours as just as ruthlessly self-advancing as us. They even give you the opportunity to blow off some steam by killing people in a fantasy environment… and, if these games are right and this is what humanity has been reduced to, I think we’re all going to need that kind of release valve.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]