Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The problem of morality in video games Part V: An incoherent outlook

The following article contain spoilers for the following games:

Assassin's Creed

Assassin's Creed 2

If you do not want these games ruined for you, stop reading. You have been warned.


Most video games do not dwell on the particular motivation for performing actions in a game. Mario does not ponder the morality of stomping a Goomba's head. Link (the hero of the Legned of Zelda series) does not ponder his moral culpability in slaying a dragon.

Some games however strive to immerse us in the world that the avatar we control occupies. They attempt to weave a tale around the actions of the player character to give meaning and depth to the activities performed. Some games go further and allow the player to decide to take actions of various moral worth. In this article we will look at a straight narrative, where the actions are predetermined and the player plays a pre-determined role.

Given the attempt to create complex and meaningful stories by modern video games, it is imperative to have a consistent moral vision. The particular actions must reflect a consistent moral outlook, even one we may not particularly agree with. The moral precepts must also be consistent with one another, in order for the actions to make sense in the character's world. Without this, the complexity and meaning of the story are rendered impotent.

A perfect example of when these principles are not followed can be found in the game series Assassin's Creed (1 and 2). The games are known for their complex and immersive stories as well as excellent gameplay and presentation. However, the moral context of the stories are such that the world that the characters live in is to put it mildly, an incoherent mess.

Assassin's Creed's main protagonist is Desmond Miles, a bartender who is kidnapped by Abstergo Corp., a front company for the main villains of the story, the Templars. Desmond has the misfortune of being the descendant of a long line of men who belonged to a guild of Assassins. Through the magic of technology, Desmond is forced to relive the memories of his ancestors, as the Templars will use his memories to locate the Pieces of Eden, devices of unknown origin that can control the minds of humanity.

The premise is intriguing enough. The action is intense as Desmond relives the memories of his ancestors, first a man named Altair who lived in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade; and then Ezio Auditore, a man born to a noble family in 14th century Italy.

The first game suggests that all the leaders throughout history, from religious figures to political and industrial ones, have used the pieces of Eden thorughout history to manipulate and control people. While an interesting theory, the implications are left to the imagination. Also, the only people who profess such a view of history are the Templars. Only at the end, when Altair's mentor betrays him and tries to kill him using the piece of Eden in his possession does this view come to the foreground. Altair kills his mentor and is left with nothing to believe in.

Had this been the only mention of religion in the series, this would have sufficed. The whole "all religion is fake so let's roll with the story" would be annoying for religious people such as myself, but not necessarily important to the main thrust of the story. However the games themselves attempt to go deeper, and in doing so destroy any moral foundation for any actions partaken by the protagonists to have meaning.

The summary of the Assassin's Creed is "nothing is true, everything is permitted." In short, everyone is permitted to pursue his own development (as explained in the second game by none other than Machiavelli, yes "that" Machiavelli). Why this one principle should be honored is anyone's guess. And why the Templars are not allowed to pursue their goal of world domination is something also left unexplained. At it's core, the philosophy of the world of Assassin's Creed professes nothing, proposes nothing about the human condition or what is really good.

What we are left with is simply the competition of equal views, that of the Assassins and the Templars. When held up to the philosophy that the games present, there is no reason to assume that the Assassins fight for "good" and the Templars are "evil." It is true that the Templars are associated with actions that are traditionally evil, but then again the methodology of the Assassins differ little. Templars use murder to achieve their ends. get the idea.

But it would be imprudent to simply speak ill of the games. There is one good thing that comes out of the wreckage of the philosophy of the Assassin's Creed games. It clearly illustrates what happens when man is severed from the concept of God and the objective moral law. By creating this world where all religion is false and everything is permitted, the players in the futile drama simply fight for their arbitrary values. My view vs. your view, and our swords decide which one prevails. It is a form of the dictatorship of relativism. For this we can be thankful to the creators of Assassin's Creed, and we should pray that God saves us from those who would "cleanse" the world of religion.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Legislating Morality

One of the more curious arguments against laws that would appear to have religious views as their origin is to say that one "cannot legislate morality." That is, if I understand it correctly, is that there is something inherently wrong with making laws that reflect a moral viewpoint.

After thinking about it for some time I had trouble coming up with laws that did NOT reflect a particular moral viewpoint. Oddly enough if one stops and thinks about such things we find that all law, in some form or another, is the imposition of a particular point of view from a moral perspective. From healthcare to abortion to welfare to the military every issue that is talked about today is talked about from a moral perspective.

This should not be a surprise if one thinks about it. The law itself is a set of rules that a society of people use to regulate interactions with one another at the political and social level. The intent behind all law (ideally) is to achieve the common good as well as the rights and liberties of the individual. In order to do this one must have a view about the human being, and this view must include how the human being as a person in a society interacts with other human beings. This view goes to the very fundamental nature of man, and as such it is only logical that at the political and social level the laws of a society reflect the views of man in a social context.

Yet some would have us believe that we must put aside our moral views when making law. The view that morality, be it from a philosophical or religious view, should be private and thus absent from the social and political discourse. Politicians for their part seem to have this notion that their "faith" should not affect their policy making decisions.

This view however lacks anything resembling reason or common sense. A religion or philosophical view considers the very essence of Man. It asks fundamental questions about the nature of Man and his relationship to nature. To say that these views about the nature of Man and the fundamental questions of being should not affect how we regulate at the social level is a view that the English language has no words to describe the folly. If anything, the moral viewpoint must come first before we start considering what the law should be.

Monday, April 11, 2011

We are all addicts

I pondered the post of an atheist's comment on Jennifer Fulwiler's blog sometime back. The particular offense that the atheist objected to was that Christians do not care what other people think. That all they want to do is impose their values on others. Now curiously enough I agree with this summation up to a point. It is true that Christians as a rule do not at times factor the views of morality that others hold. This is sometimes not ideal. It does not foster communication between two people when one side is not actually listening to the other. However there are times when an attitude of indifference of another's opinion is called for. Take for example the case of the drug addict. Those who are enslaved by this vice are typically unable to think in terms of their own best interest or in the best interest of others. For them, the only thought is how next to obtain the object of their vice. Over time more of the same is needed for the original intoxication's effect. People are used, and the original addict is as much a victim and those who he exploits in pursuit of his vice. The Christian argues that sin is much like the vice of drug addiction. It usually starts small, such as stealing an apple. Or a lustful thought. Initially these things provide a brief exhilaration, sometimes proportionate to the act but other times the slightest sin can provide an initial rush. Over time however more is needed. Breaking into a house or the viewing of pornography, the sin escalates as the need to commit more daring offenses increases in order to feel that original exhilaration. Soon we cannot see outside our ourselves. Our minds are too fixated on our next crime. The Faith can be thought of as a rehabilitation program. The Faith begins when the addict admits he has a problem in sin. He realizes that he cannot continue to live his life as an addict. It causes him to turn in on himself. He exploits others. Or at the very least he cuts himself off from people. Afterwards the reliance on a "Higher Power" to overcome the addiction. Struggle, hardship and pain as the old life of the addict is burned away in the Light of the Truth. In essence the reason why the Christian can appear to be indifferent to other moral viewpoints is that because we are all addicts our minds are darkened by the entrapment of our vices. When we argue against the Truth we are attempting to justify our addictions. Like the addict, we cling to our vice because we think we can only find happiness in the vice. But the vice eats away at us. The thrill is soon gone. Only the trap remains. As such to our atheist friend we must remember that letting another "do his own thing" sometimes is the worst thing we can do. Charity demands that we stop our brother from destroying himself.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

History IV

My apologies for not returning to this subject earlier (I have a habit of losing my concentration. I blame the time period I'm in). But it is time to turn our attention back to history, by way of legends.

I first wish to clarify something that came up in discussions with others. The challenge to my thesis was that in today's world people are not interested in "History." In particular our young seem dreadfully incurious. I would answer the challenge twofold.

First, it is not all apparent that there is a lack of curiosity of history. What I perceive is a lack of curiosity of "History." The difference lies in the presentation. "History," as presented in classrooms across America, is a shadow of what it could be. Robbed of any rational perspective and lacking in any meaningful depth, "History" is taught and thought of today as a study in trivia. Facts of the past that for some reason are important to learn but when asked why the only reply teachers can muster are empty phrases such as "History repeats" and "Those who don't know their History are doomed to repeat it." With the parallels between modern America and ancient Rome quite apparent to anyone who has studied both, it appears that those who know their history are just as doomed to repeat as those who don't.

With that in mind it is no wonder that today's youth are apathetic toward history. If those who teach history are powerless to stop the repeat of history, why bother to learn it? It seems to have not done the previous generation any good. And why would one want to see the oncoming bus of history if one can do nothing about it? It would be akin to standing in the middle of the street and seeing the bus that is about to hit you. I for one would rather be looking the wrong way down the street, and my end to be swift.

But it is this lifeless form of "History" that serves quite well to contrast to the purpose of legends. Legends (I would argue) just one of the means used to communicate those elusive eternal truths that one generation would pass on to the next. What I mean by legends is rather loose in the definition. Legends, such as the journey of Odysseus or Gilgamesh, the heroics of King Aurthur, the stories of the Crusades, or the modern tales of Tolkien.

Legends, properly understood, have been used since man first could talk to communicate deeper truths that could not be expressed through mere dialogue. The journey of Gilgamesh taught of the inability to escape death. The journey of Odysseus teaches the arbitrary will of the gods and the fate of the dead. The story of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein warns of trying to play God. Such stories and legends throughout human imagination convey ideas and truths that cannot simply be expressed in their depth and magnitude through simple dialogue.

The legend of St. Francis and St. Claire, whose love for God burned so bright that the local town thought the forest was on fire, teaches with word imagery that which dry "facts" cannot convey. The love of God that was in them was so powerful that this legend is but one of many that surround the two saints. And like all legends that surround real people, the details factual quality is not important, but what the details are attempting to convey, the deeper truth of the light of the love of God.

This concept of legends lacking in "historical truth" but driving at deeper truths is one that must be explored a little more deeply if we are to understand history's true importance, and why

Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Skepticism

The reaction of the Pharisees in today's readings amuses me greatly. Contrary to the claims of modern skeptics, people were just as skeptical of miracles in Jesus' time as they are today. They accepted the possibility of miracles, but actual instances were met with criticism and the same rationalizations and outright denials that that we hear from the moderns.

In this case we have a young man (in theory given textual clues, no age is actually given) who has been blind from birth. Because of this he is looked upon as an outcast, either he or his parents had done something to invoke the punishment of God. Our attitudes toward the handicapped have not improved much (Down's Syndrome babies in utero are aborted around 98% of the time in this country for example).

But because of the young man's profession of faith, Jesus cures him. The reaction of the Pharisees and townspeople are all too famillar. How can this be possible? It doesn't make sense! One can see from the conversation that the Pharisees simply assume that he is wrong. The repeated questions are clearly an attempt to get the young man to change his story. Other Pharisees point out that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, something that doesn't fit into their little box of understanding.

Ironically, those who claim insight and knowledge are the ones who are immune to the truth. The man who was blind is the only one who allows himself to see the truth. For others, ti doesn't matter what the truth is. The evidence is dismissed out of hand. Those who trust in their own knowledge, their own concept of what God would do and what God is, are left with only to cast the man out, rather than adjust their thinking. How shocking, and yet how predictable. My last post talked about a professed atheist who stated that she could not come up criteria that would facilitate her conversion to the Catholic Faith. If God himself came down with a full blown orchestra announcing she was wrong it wouldn't matter.