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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your article. I was trying to find any analysis of the problematic morality found in the series of games. Very little appears to be written and the only conclusion I can allude to is the same you noted. As noted, the game seems to subscribe to another form of morality but without any foundation other than their own independent thought, which inherently leads them down the same path as that which the reject.