Friday, February 26, 2010

The coming exodus from politics?

I have been musing lately about the state of Catholics in politics. From the recent scandals surrounding the CCHD funding of pro-abortion and homosexual causes to the recent advocacy of torture by certain sectors of the Republican Party, I wonder if it would be prudent for Catholics to take a step back and reassess the current political makeup.

There was a time when a Catholic felt comfortable within the Democratic Party. The party's social justice platform on a lot of levels squared quite nicely with the Catholic social justice thought. Catholic bishops and priests marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King. The Church's history of advocacy for workers' rights during the Industrial Revolution again played into the politics of the time.

In the 60's however the Democratic Party embraced abortion as part of it's social justice framework. Rather than abandon the Party, several prominent Catholics abandoned the Faith, and several theologians and clergy aided this effort to create a rationalization for the abandonment of the right to life.

Since that time rifts opened between the social justice movement and the new and emerging pro-life movement. As the politics split on the abortion issue, so did the Catholic population. The social justice advocates abandoned their stance against abortion (or regulated it to the back burner), and the pro-life faction drifted toward the emerging conservative movement.

Over time the moral views of the factions drifted farther apart. The Catholic Left all but abandoned the sexual ethics of the Church in favor of social justice causes focused on the poor. The pro-life, pro-sexual ethics faction formed an uneasy alliance with the political conservatives. Often incorporating the small government movement with pro-life causes.

In more recent years under the Bush administration the issue of torture arose out of policies that came to light during the Iraq War. While some policies, such as retention in foreign countries that allowed for torture were nothing new, the public defense of policies such as waterboarding was a new phenomenon. The pro-life faction in large part ignored or defended the Bush Administration's policies.

Today the politics that have split the country down the middle have split the Church congregation as well. Social justice is pitted against pro-life. Solidarity vs. Subsidiarity. The right to health care vs. the right to live. Catholics are presented time and again with choosing one intrinsic evil vs. another, and trying to end one by supporting another, even indirectly.

It is time to reevaluate if the involvement in politics is worth the split that has resulted. What are the gains we've made? What have we lost? Were the gains worth it? Where do we go now? In an increasingly secular society that pushes a view of humanity that is twisted and false, the Church, clergy and laity, will need to reassess their own involvement in the realm of politics. "For what is it worth to gain the whole world, and lose your soul." There may come a point where we have to choose between our political rights and our souls. To choose to live in this world, or to choose to be faithful to God, and choose exile in the public sphere.

This is not to say to withdraw from society altogether. But that as the secular degradation progresses, we must be cautious in what we support, and vigilant in opposition to the intrinsic evils in this world. It is time I believe that the Church in America must reevaluate where we stand in regards to the current culture, and what we can do without cutting ourselves off from the Source of Life.

As it was said, "We are neither Democrats nor Republicans, we are monarchists." Remember that in all things we must surrender not to a Republic or a Despot, but our true King. He is the one we serve first.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pro-Reform, but not this reform

It is a curious tendency in today's politics to conflate opposition to a particular action or policy of the government with rejecting the principle that the policy is supposed to address outright. That the rejection of a bill in Congress to, say, reform federal welfare is to be against welfare reform in principle.

It is thus the curious tendency of those who support the current health care bill(s) in Congress to label those who oppose the bills as wanting to keep the status quo. That the current bills before the legislature are the only way to fix the current mess that is the U.S. health care financial system.

However that is not the case. In fact I think it may be one of the few things that all Americans agree on is that the financing system is in desperate need of reform. Whether you are Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, etc. you are under the thumb of a horribly inefficient and costly system. The quality of the care itself is second to none, yet you may go bankrupt by breaking a leg. Such a system cannot be sustained.

It is however the HOW that we are currently arguing over. What the current debate shows is a clash of political ideologies. Private market vs. state run. Centralized control vs. private ownership. Single-payer vs. private financing. Those on both sides of the fence know that with 17% of the economy on the line, who wins the debate over health care will more or less ultimately decide the course of America's political operating philosophy in this country for years to come.

As a small government conservative I have grave doubts about the ability of the U.S. government to control costs without restricting care. I also am skeptical of the ability of the national government to manage the financial system of 300 million people with the diversity that this country possesses. Other countries with far less geography and differences in culture experience great problems in state run care. This is not to say that there aren't benefits to a centralized system. But given that Western Europe's problems with state run care (France, England) with their spending of 11% of their GDP on average, state run care is far from a panacea. Thus while I acknowledge the problems we have I don't feel the current legislation is the way to go.

I am all too aware, as most of the opposition is, about the problems in the current system. But the unfortunate tendency to label those who disagree with us and stuff them in an ideological box so we can dismiss their argument is far too easy these days. If we are to solve the health care financial problems we will need to come up with a solution that we can all be comfortable with. The political left and right have the right to have a say. I am thankful that the wisdom of the founding fathers has shone through again and that sweeping changes cannot happen in this country unless both the minority and majority have a voice.

For homework today I suggest an excellent article about why our system is neither a free market or state controlled system, but a horrid hybrid of both. I welcome all comments and discussion provided that they are conducted in a spirit of charity.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Civil War really was about slavery (who knew?)

In my youth I learned that the Civil War was about slavery. That Abe Lincoln and the North fought to free the slaves from the South. It was a nice tale.

Then in my sophisticated youth (as sophisticated as a teenage boy can be anyway) I learned that the Civil War was about states' rights. That the North and South disputed the amount of sovereignty that the federal government had. Slavery was there, but on the peripheral.

I wonder how much of my sophisticated view is true though? As Catholics, we are called to see that this world is as much a struggle about good and evil as it is about practical things. Slavery was always an issue. It nearly cost us the country, and because of it this country faced the bloodiest war in American history.

As a political conservative I happen to believe in state sovereignty. The South did as well. But in its quest to hold on to a horrendous evil, the South used state sovereignty as a legal shield. They tried every means to hold on to this evil, and in the end lost everything. Their homes, their local authority, even the slavery that they fought to protect, their "pecurliar institution and cherished way of life."

I can't help but think of how the health care reform debate would have gone had not the main proponents had not insisted on the horrible evil that is abortion. The proponents of health care reform insisted on including abortion funding despite 76% of the country not wanting it. In what appears to be the end, the proponents have lost their super-majority, the debate, and even the abortion funding.

It is true that there were other factors contributing to the defeat of the health care bill, but I can't help but wonder if, just like in the Civil War with slavery, that abortion was ultimately the downfall of the bill. The Church's Social Justice teaching holds that any compromise on the right to life under the guise of "social justice" becomes a lie, and ultimately fails to further the cause of social justice. It appears to me that we have a very clear case that trying to advance "universal health care" by sacrificing the unborn has only served to undermine that goal.

This is not to say that this country doesn't need health care reform. But as the South did by using a real principle (states' rights) as a means to preserve a great evil, so too have the abortion advocates used the real need for health care financing reform as a means to advance a great evil. And in doing so accomplished neither.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The problem of morality in video games Part IV : Situational ethics

This is the fourth in a series pondering morality in video games and the problems that come with this new factor in the entertainment industry. This article contains spoilers for the following games:


If you do not wish to know more about the game in question, please refrain from reading further.


Consider the following situation: You are a superhero with powers such as super agility and the ability to scale walls at a lighting quick rate. You are facing a super-villain who has no ethical limitations. He just detonated a device that has shattered the city you live in and the government has quarantined the city. This super villain has also captured the following:

1. Your girlfriend (as in serious relationship, not like you like you relationship)
2. Five doctors who are needed to help the sick and wounded in the city

You are only able to choose one to save, either the girlfriend or the doctors. Which do you choose?

Such is the moral dilemma posed by the best seller Infamous, a game where you play the role of Cole MacGrath, an ordinary guy who finds himself with super powers relating to electricity. The game's production values are excellent (visuals, gameplay, control, sound, etc.) Yet the world is gritty, people are suffering in the city after a terrible explosion, and everyday is a fight to survive. Therefore several extreme situations and difficult moral choices are common in this game. Related to this is the "morality rating" that dictates the access of powers that you can learn later. Be the hero of the city and you gain access to powers of healing and disabling your foes. Become a villain and receive access to powers of destruction.

The above situation occurs near the end of the game and like many others before it forces your character to make a difficult moral choice. Save the love of your life at the expense of the lives saved by the doctors? Or sacrifice her to save the doctors and in turn help the people of the city? The game rates the saving the doctors as the "good" choice, identifying you as making the "good" choice. Saving the girlfriend (while futile since the villain kills her anyway) is the "evil" choice.

The problem with this view is that it assumes a utilitarian view of humanity. It is for the "greater good" that while the girlfriend is sacrificed, the doctors are saved, and therefore more people can be saved. This however is an erroneous viewpoint. If one believes that every human being is truly unique, then every life is of infinite value, and the lost of that life is an infinite loss. Thus the girlfriend's life is just as important as the doctors' lives or of those they will save. To view people through the lens of contributing to society is to put a relative value on the life of a human being.

Another problem with this situation is the assumption of motivation. It is "selfish" to save the girlfriend because, well, she's your girlfriend, and as such the player is acting out of a selfish desire. Perhaps the player thinks it is possible to save both? Perhaps she is the closest person, and therefore saving her is more of a possibility? The presumption of motivation damages the ability to evaluate the "good" or "evil" of a particular action.

Sadly, games boasting of moral choices that attach a view of "good" or "evil" often have an unstated moral viewpoint. This moral viewpoint, either wittingly or otherwise, is expressed in how the game evaluates "good" and "evil" actions. Sometimes they are clear cut (killing civilians is wrong, saving civilians is good). But other times, such as the above situation, reveal at best an incomplete or at worst an incorrect view of humanity and a consequentialist/utilitarian viewpoint of humanity.

The problem created by the situation reveals a consistent and understated problem with current video games and their inclusion of morality. The correctness and consistency of a moral viewpoint is a very important factor to any story for two reasons. First, the moral ethic is the backdrop for why the hero/villain undertakes the actions and forms the ideas of why the person is a hero/villain. A consistent moral ethic is absolutely essential in order to understand what makes a hero a hero vs. a villain. The second is that people learn about morality through stories. It is why we tell them. It is why we read to our children. One must be cognizant of the moral lessons in the stories that our children are exposed to.

At this current stage of morality in video games I will attempt to argue that far from malice on the part of developers, the inconsistent or simply wrong ideas about morality stem from simply not thinking about a consistent moral ethic in their games. In the next few posts we will look at some games and how their stories show the moral philosophy (or not) that underlines the stories in the games.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The problem of morality in video games Part III: The progression of video game moral themes

In my previous post I briefly explained how the video game industry has evolved around the same pace as the technology (computers) have. Because of this rapidly evolving industry, there are outdated ideas of video games and in a lot of cases a lack of respect or thought toward the ideas and moral ideas that games convey today. In this post we will look at early video game morality (such as it existed), and then compare to more modern games.

Early video games more or less did either fell into two categories with regard to morality: the simplistic adventure where the objective was to survive hordes of enemies to get from point A to point B. Most games were linear, objective oriented, and story and world creation served merely as backdrop to the adventure and objectives. Early games didn't encourage much moral thought about the morality of stomping on a Goomba's head, saving the princess, or killing Dracula.

Even in such primitive origins however there were exceptions. Golgo XIII, a Nintendo game based off of the popular manga series, dealt with themes that one could find in a James Bond film, complete with easily seduced informants. Even with dealing with mature themes however much was implied, not shown. Very little in the way of bloodly violence or sexuality/nudity were present (at least in the U.S.). While such games were often outside the mainstream, they were the same simplistic linear scheme, often leaving a player to simply play out a role rather than influence the moral narrative.

As gaming grew up during the '90s so did the themes. While still limited in scope, moral dimensions began to develop in games as story elements and game worlds became more immersing. However, even this development was constrained to more adventure/role playing games, where the moral path was set and players simply played out the role they were assigned. Still, the moral themes dealt with in such games (war, death, loss, life) showed a trend toward more developed story narratives.

In today's world of video games we have come even further in the development of narrative and the ability to give players choices in how the moral narrative plays out. The development of story telling has grown in leaps and bounds, creating fleshed out story lines and development of characters. Another development is the expansive worlds which allow for a diversity of moral choices that affect how the story is formed. To list but a few:

Assassin's Creed series: A sci-fi series detailing the life of Desmond Miles and how he lives the lives of his ancestors through a machine. Deals with conspiracies, religion (in a negative sense) and the lives of fictional assassins.

Fallout 3: A post apocalyptic Washington D.C. where you play a wanderer searching for his lost father. A variety of moral choices, ranging from giving water to a beggar to saving or blowing up a town with an atomic bomb.

Dragon Age: Origins: A fantasy role-playing game where you play as a Grey Warden, a character whose destiny is to save the world from darkspawn, a race of monsters bent on destroying the world. Involves religion (specific to the game world), situational ethics, sexuality and violence.

Infamous: The semi-futuristic world of Liberty City is bombed using a package delivered by your character, giving you electricity based abilities. Choose to be a hero seeking salvation for the city, or a villain and seek revenge. Deals with life and death, survival scenarios, and choosing good or evil actions/missions.

It is in the context of these games (and others) that we will examine the current state of morality in video games. From these examples and others we can get see how morality is expressed in the medium as well as the limitations that video games currently suffer from.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The problem of morality in video games Part II : The computer model

In order to understand the difficulties inherent in adding morality to video games it is important to understand how the medium has evolved over the years. Those who grew up or think of video games in the vein of the original Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. have an '80s concept of video games. Both the technology and industry have evolved over the years, and with that evolution the games themselves from presentation to content have expanded and matured (a term used very loosely).

A computer (or console, which is essentially a gaming computer) for the sake of this discussion is basically a math machine with what is called Boolean logic. To those who know computers this is an oversimplification of sorts but for this discussion it will suffice. 1's and 0's. True or false. This is the nature of Boolean logic, and a computer's natural function knows very little beyond this. We refer to this as the "digital world" as opposed to our analog world, where things become more complicated than on-off. It is this machine that we attempt to "model" the world though software. Video games are no exception. But even this realization shows how the medium (the computer) renders it difficult to model complex real world ideas such as "morality."

Video games and computers have gone hand in hand since the existence of the computer. From text-based games to one of the first visual games "Pong," the games have grown with the technology. The first video games that are familiar to the older generation reflect the state of technology at the time. Often games such as "Donkey Kong" would push computers to their limit, and represented the full potential of the computer running the game. Even the original Nintendo gaming machine, while revolutionary at the time, were still very limited in their computation power. With games such as Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and Frogger being the standard bearer for video games it is little wonder why most regarded video games as primitive and simple.

Of course computers have evolved since then, and with them the video games running on them. Gone are the restrictions of memory and processing power. The ability to render lush 3-D worlds and create complexity in video games is less limited by technology than in the past. Indeed most computers today have a specific part of the computer hardware devoted entirely to visual rendering, better known as a video card. This is not to say that technology is no longer a limiting factor, but more and more the true limits on video games comes from the imagination of the developers.

As the technology has evolved, so has the industry that creates video games. Once a small outfit on the verge of bankruptcy, Nintendo is now one of the giants in a multi-million dollar entertainment industry. With corporate giants Sony and Microsoft as direct competitors, the resources that are used to develop video games is staggering compared to only 20 years ago. For example, the development budget for the game Wing Commander 4 was 12 million dollars, a staggering number for 1995.

It is also worth noting that just as the video industry has expanded, so has the fan base. One the purview of technology enthusiasts, video games are becoming more mainstream every day. With the release of Nintendo's Wii console, using motion sensor input from a player moving the Wii remote to simulate motion such as swinging a tennis racket, the industry is pushing more and more into the mainstream market, and attempting to reach out to those who wouldn't normally buy a console. And not to be outdone, Microsoft and Sony are to release their own versions of motion sensor capturing peripherals.

As one can see the potential for video games today is staggering. With the technology to render entire virtual worlds, the resources of Hollywood, and an expanding market, the sky is the limit on what the future will bring. As the industry is still evolving and maturing, we can only wait to see if video games enter society on the level that movies do.

Now that we have the background for the discussion, in our next installment we will look at the problems of morality and the challenges of incorporating morality into video games. Afterward
we will look at how technology and morality intersect in the video game industry and the unique challenges that developers face when incorporating morality into video games.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The problem of morality in video games Part I

One topic that has come up every once in a while on gaming forums is the moral content in video games. Given the success and increasingly diverse world of video games, the moral content of video games is becoming more and more of a concern. From such games that teach lessons such as "Crime does pay" like in Grand Theft Auto, to the Da Vinci Code like atmosphere of Assassin's Creed 2, the content of video games is more of a concern of parents than ever before.

Clouding the issue even more are uninformed critics of games where the "objectionable" aspects of video games are blown out of proportion. From misconceptions of the context of a game that provides many moral choices, such as the recently released Dragon Age: Origins, comes this piece of, let's call it "incomplete journalism". The problem comes in that the article fails to acknowledge the diversity of choices in the game. This is but one path in a variety of choices that a player can encounter.

I intend to examine over the course of several posts the difficulties that morality in video games presents, from perspectives such as technical, moral and theological. I hope that by analyzing this growing form of entertainment that we are able to get a clearer picture of the evolving state of the video game industry and provide helpful analysis as to what questions to ask when evaluating the moral content of a game.

Overkill you may ask? Perhaps, but while I've seen parents who won't take their children to see a R-rated movie but will buy for their child the latest Dante's Inferno. It's this moral confusion that I hope to clear up and being to raise awareness of today's video game content, but for good and ill.