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Scott Jennings: Morality, Controversy and Video Games

By Scott Jennings on November 25, 2009 | Columns | Comments

Morality, Controversy and Video Games

Let’s step away from MMOs for a moment. Never fear, we’ll come back in a moment. But there are other games, really!

For example, Modern Warfare 2 is possibly the most financially successful game launch in history. The weekend of its launch, it sold 4.7 million copies, making its opening weekend, at $310 million, more profitable than most smash movies.

(SPOILER WARNING: The rest of this column discusses events that take place near the beginning of Modern Warfare 2’s single player game in some detail. Although this has already been discussed online, and in fact has been before the game was released, you may wish to stop reading until you’ve played the game if you haven’t, and plan to.)


When you start Modern Warfare 2, you are given the following warning: “Some players may find one of the missions disturbing or offensive. Would you like to have the option to skip this mission? (You will not be penalized in terms of Achievements or game completion.)” If you click “No, I will not be offended” (which is an odd thing to agree to sight unseen, unless perhaps you consider your ability to be offended already broken by the Internet in general), you’re asked again. Just to be sure.

If you haven’t been following the gossip online about the game, you probably have no idea what they were talking about, and after a while you probably forget about that warning. You play through a few levels, with the usual explosive pyrotechnics and snowmobiles and scenes ripped from television and the like.

Then suddenly, with little fanfare, your character, who is supposedly an undercover agent working with a Russian nationalist terrorist named Makarov, is given the following instruction for the next mission, in its entirety, with no other explanation: “Follow Makarov’s lead.”

And, as you watch, Makarov and his men proceed to calmly massacre everyone in a crowded airport before your eyes, while you stand behind them, with a large machine gun at the ready.

You are given no prompting as to what to do next. You are only penalized for doing one thing: shooting your murderous erstwhile comrades. (If you do, the level ends immediately with the warning “You blew your cover.”)

You can, if you choose, do nothing. Or you can shoot wildly, blowing out glass and computer monitors and the like. Or you can shoot the wounded, screaming people trying desperately to flee from you. The game doesn’t care. As far as it is concerned, your job is to make it to the end of the level. How you do so is up to you.

What is interesting, to me, is the reaction that the “No Russian” (so called because of Makarov’s curt order to not speak any Russian before the attack) sequence elicits, or fails to. Perhaps you are revolted at being asked to, essentially, become a terrorist. Perhaps you think the sequence is badly done and fails to make a statement like it obviously aspires to. Or maybe you just think it’s unique and cool to “be a bad guy” in a video game, and enjoy how realistically the people you shoot crawl off to die in a corner. (For the record, I shot out a lot of glass and felt vaguely ill, but then proceeded to gleefully shoot up the riot police who showed up to stop the carnage.)

Much of this hinges on how seriously you take the game you are playing, and how much you identify with the actions you take onscreen. The entire point of the exercise, especially given Modern Warfare 2’s larger subtext (without trying to spoil too much) about the folly of blindly following orders, seems to be that reaction when you first realize what is going on: “they really expect me to start shooting those people, don’t they?” and then, perhaps, reflecting on the brief flash of emotion that you may have felt before the rationale of “it’s just a game” kicked in.

Some never get that flash of emotion, because to them it is really a game and nothing more (and the Modern Warfare online series, especially, being an epic paen to the art of stabbing people in the face), while others may never move beyond the shock of “they want me to kill those people? Uh… no.”

And this is something that MMORPGs deal with as well (I told you we’d get back here eventually).

The argument over whether an MMORPG is “just a game” or “more than a game” has raged for years – essentially, since they were invented. From a design aspect, this usually hinges on whether a given MMORPG is a theme park, like EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and the many games that play similarly, with a straight line to the “cheese”, or a virtual world, such as Ultima Online, EVE, or to a greater degree Second Life, that give you no goals save that which you make. And from a market perspective, the theme park has won, overwhelmingly. World of Warcraft’s position in the market alone sees to that, if nothing else.

Yet among the players of games, the argument rages, and even in wholly “theme park” games such as World of Warcraft. Players of these games can take them very seriously indeed, and they have every right to given the amount of time that character development can entail. “Guild drama,” after all, can be far more riveting to experience first-hand than any canned quest.

Yet one thing that MMORPGs have shied away from is intentional controversy. Unintentional controversy, of course, happens with great frequency (I am reminded of the very offended woman who called the Dark Age of Camelot office wanting to know why there were no ahistorical black characters in DAoC – the existence of the vaguely historically correct Moorish “Saracens” entirely failing to placate her), but there never has been any attempt at a quest line that aims for the level of discomfort that “No Russian” tries to elicit.

Much of this, I suspect, is simply that no MMORPG developer wants to borrow trouble; the simple act of launching an MMORPG gives them quite enough, already, thank you. And, to be brutally honest, the writing within most MMORPGs just isn’t very good. Partially because in any given MMORPG there’s just so much of it. When you have to write thousands and thousands of quests and script NPCs to react accordingly for each one, your dreams of the Great American Interactive Novel tend to fall before the hamfisted hammer of reality’s scheduling requirements. Most MMOs have glimmers of creativity in their writing – one producer speculated that every budding quest writer has one excellent quest they’ve been dying to implement ever since they started making games, and you can usually tell in each game which one out of 50,000 or so that was. But in the main, writing for MMORPGs can beat the creativity out of anyone just out of the sheer massive workload. It’s a lot easier to just play madlibs with whatever fill-in-the-blank quest objectives your tools allow for, paste it into the tool, and call it a day.

But MMORPGs tend to make moral judgments simply by virtue of never consciously making any. After all, the story of the typical MMORPG is that of imperialism – you the player are tasked with exploiting weaker creatures, at sword point, and making yourself fabulously wealthy in the process. Few if any MMORPG writers, or developers for that matter (though there are notable exceptions) ever point out the fairly cynical nature of this exercise, or the fact that by the time a typical player has reached the end of their character development cycle, they are a virtual mass murderer, having killed literally hundreds of thousands of orcs and goblins and bandits and what have you in the endless journey that is the art of beating up entities for their lunch money.

Most MMORPG players would find the above analysis more than a little silly. It’s just a game, the monsters themselves are, well, monsters, and there’s certainly no deep meaning involved. And not every game that gives a player a rifle is a “murder simulator.” But I wonder if the MMORPG market will ever mature to a point that someone in one points out that, thanks to the players’ actions, they’re surrounded by hundreds of corpses, instead of just happily ignoring the carnage.

Until then, they really are just games. And more’s the pity.

Next week: “Does this island make my butt look fat?” Why MMOs make expansions, and why they probably shouldn’t.

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