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Illustration for article titled A Crippling Lack of Moral Relativism in Games, Games Media, and Gamer Culture

Video games, and the people involved with them on any level, be it casual or professional, are extremely diverse. Beheld are a litany of political views, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and personal preferences. So why is gaming, as a slice of society at large, still thinking in such strong terms of black and white?


There Is No Such Thing as Good and Evil, nor Right and Wrong

Moral relativism is a set of philosophical views that posit ideas of, say “good and evil” are extremely subjective, and differ greatly from culture to culture, and from person to person. I don’t have any sort of formal background in philosophy, but I definitely take this to mean that something that offends or disgusts one group of people may be held in opposite regard by another. It’s interesting, then, that so many games, even today, base their morality on a strict scale of “good and evil,” even if those terms are not explicitly used.


When I think of the best use of morality in a video game, my mind focuses squarely on one example: Fallout New Vegas. In New Vegas, your actions are not defined by the developer’s notion of good and evil, but rather on the different tribes and organizations you choose to ally yourself with. The two major factions in New Vegas, the New California Republic (NCR) and Caesar’s Legion (we’ll call them CL), and these two groups are at war with one another. While the game definitely pushes one of the lesser of two evils, the groups no doubt have their dark sides: CL is a culture that takes slaves, and views humans with certain views and lifestyle as animals or livestock. The NCR, on the other hand, engages in a strict bureaucracy, and demands that all peoples living in the lands they’ve conquered become citizens and pay taxes, despite their meagre existence. But neither side necessarily has bad intentions - CL believes that humanity ought to stand in unity, to forgo lives of luxury and avoid divisive politics. The NCR may tax its “citizens”, but it in turn provides them, hypothetically, with protection from its militia.

But the best part of New Vegas? You don’t have to ally with either of them. Indeed, you can play through the whole game without giving a single damn about either - you can let them war for the Hoover dam, and spend your time taking control of the Vegas strip for yourself. Me personally, I allied closely with the Brotherhood of Steel (remnants on the US military studying and preserving pre-war technology - weapons tech in particular) and the Followers of the Apocalypse (a group looking to preserve pre-war knowledge and allow the free sharing of knowledge across the wastes, to the betterment of humanity), and replaced Mr. House, the ailing overlord controlling New Vegas. In my own imagination, I like to think my actions made New Vegas a great place to live, well-defended and well-informed. :P But I don’t think the plot explicitly told me I’d done so by the end.


That was a bit more lengthy than I’d liked, but compare it to the alternative - games like Mass Effect, Infamous, and even Fallout 3. In these games, there is no real freedom for interpretation - the games have clearly defined “good and evil” systems that are incompatible with reality. For instance: If I were a superhero with electric powers, like Cole Whatever in Infamous, and I knew that an otherwise oustanding cop - a hero cop, who’s saved lives - was taking money to keep a sex trafficking ring hidden from scrutiny, would I be evil for killing him, or would that make me a hero? What if I had the trafficking ring exposed, knowing it would see the victims sloppily deported to countries they haven’t seen or contacted for decades? What would that make me if I did nothing and went on collecting blast shards? While games are getting better at dabbling in moral ambiguity and difficult choices, the idea that one’s actions can be so cleanly divided into “good and evil” is a lazy oversimplification of the events happening in these games, and these real events they’re intended to mirror.

We’re All a Bit Different

Let me describe myself a little, and believe me, there’s a point to this.
I’m a 25-year-old man who grew up in poverty.
My ethnic background is half English, half Macedonian (although Balkan nationalism is a confusing mess that makes “Macedonian” a word that means a dozen different things).
Politically, I’d put myself somewhere between centrist and social democrat - but as a Canadian, these words will mean different things to me than they will to an American reader.
I consider myself pretty sex-positive, able to accept and tolerate any act between consenting adults.
I believe strongly in the scientific method, and understand the scientific reality that anthropogenic climate change is real, evolution is a fact of life, that water fluoridation is a good thing, and that GMOs and vaccines are safe.
I don’t believe in any kind of deity, but I hold a poetic reverence for the universe and its physical properties the same way someone might feel about “god”.
I feel strongly that the rich have too much and the poor deserve a higher portion of their income.
I think that people who say things like “all white people are racist,” “all black people are criminals,” or “all men are potential rapists” are the absolute most simple-minded, hate-filled people on the planet.
I think that immigration levels in Canada are too high (I love multiculturalism, but we need to stop importing unskilled and low-wage workers en masse in a effort to reduce Canadian wages and crush unions).
I believe that the world needs to be taught better methods of birth control to reduce the global population of humans to a more ecologically responsible level. Incidentally, I also think abortion is a right, and that it should not be shunned.
I feel that the concept of “privilege” is greatly exaggerated, and that such rhetoric (CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE, etc.) is used to silence oppressed people more often than to empower them.
And believe it or not, I’d call myself an egalitarian (and yeah, even a feminist). Everyone deserves equal rights.


If any of those views differ from your own, or if you’re offended by anything I’ve said, then fantastic: The entire point and purpose of that manifesto was to basically say, “None of us will ever think exactly the same.” Or something. I can’t think of a more eloquent way to put that.

Where Games Media Gets It Wrong

GamerGate is a thing that happened. Few people, even those who agree with their alleged mission statement of creating better standards and transparency in journalism, agree with their methods or feel comfortable allying with them. But few people have really stopped to analyze, “Hey, why does GamerGate exist?” Some sites have definitely created snark-filled articles characterizing these people as “manchildren” or “misogynists”, and other similar slurs (but perhaps not in those same words), sure, but they haven’t really stepped back to analyze why the “movement” (can’t think of a better word) struck with such fury in the first place. And really, I think it’s those reaction articles that show us exactly why.


Games media, and journalism in general, is a difficult place to be. Especially on the internet, where the line between opinion piece and reporting is very blurry, it’s really easy to generalize and use hyperbole. Let’s use the specific issue of sexism and fair representation in games, which continues to be a point of contention for GamerGate stalwarts. There are certainly sites, Polygon and Kotaku, for instance, that definitely skew “progressive” in their politics. And that’s fine. The internet should definitely be full of a diverse group of sites analyzing media from different perspectives. But some of the language used is, undoubtedly, inflammatory. When Polygon, for instance, reviewed the games Dragon’s Crown and Bayonetta 2, games that have definitely been discussed and criticized (both negatively and positively) for their depiction of women. In both reviews for these games, they specifically decribed the attitudes presented about women as “gross”. As in, disgusting, or reprehensible. You may very well agree. But in using language like that, the authors are drawing a very clear line: “If you like this, you are evil, you are in the moral wrong.”

But is that really the case? Bayonetta, for instance, represents a strong, female character with full agency over her sexuality. She kicks ass, and she feels comfortable in her skin. Does liking that depiction of a female character make someone morally reprehensible? Does finding that kind of character sexually appealing or arousing make someone evil and dirty and wrong? The truth is, there is no clear answer - if you asked 1000 people those same questions, you would probably get at least a dozen different answers.


In a sense, the games media is directly responsible for GamerGate. In making such strong statements to infer, “If you like this, you are toxic; if you tolerate this, you are not welcome here,” they can, and did, alienate a large number of people who disagree with those viewpoints. Now, is Polygon allowed to proclaim their morality? I mean, absolutely. Nothing’s stopping them, and they ought to. But in doing so, they put a very clear line in the sand, and make Polygon as a whole a far less welcoming space to people of differing opinions; over time, the community runs risk of being so far in intellectual unison that any form of disagreement with the social norm will result in banning or shunning in some way. In my personal experience with that site, I’d argue it’s already gotten to that point - it’s a very hostile website, where no challenging discussion ever take place. There’s a lot of back-patting and snarky comments, sure, but nothing in the way stimulating discussion of, well, anything. And this is the fate of many gaming sites, for similar reasons.

Where Our Culture Shows Cracks

Gaming is, and always has been, a very divisive space. In some circles, preferring the Genesis to the SNES is heresy. In others, criticism of well-received titles like Shadow of the Colossus and Final Fantasy VII results in being shunned, and permanently labelled as the town fool. In many ways, gaming is a very black and white space; “You march with us, or you march against us.” Our competitive gaming circles mirror this closely - we march to our deaths as Team Red or Team Blue, we unflinchingly take orders from Blood Eagle or Diamond Sword... We don’t know why we fight, and it usually doesn’t matter - but we do fight. A lot.


Now, I’m not going to pull theatrics and claim multiplayer games in some way enforce tribalist and divisive behaviours, because I doubt that’s the case. But in the sense that we do fight, in comment threads, for arbitrary and contrived reasons, it does bear a resemblance. It’s Team SonyPony in one corner, vs. Team Xbot in the other. It’s “cod is 4 stupidheads” vs. “nintendo is for little kids”. It’s everywhere in our culture as gamers. But why? Why do we feel a need to jump on a bandwagon, to champion a cause that won’t champion us in return? Why fight valiantly for a brand that doesn’t give one single fuck about anything other than your bank balance?

Is a “live and let live” attitude really so difficult?

Why We Need Moral Relativism

TAY. TAY is why we need moral relativism. This very blog is a place where, within reason, people can write anything they damned well please. It’s a place where we can discuss games, academia, culture, baking and Messy’s habit of shooting witches in L4D2 without coming to blows with one another. It’s a rare space on the internet where I say, “Shadow of the Colossus is one of the worst things I’ve ever played” without being lynched for it. But, it’s also a place where buddy can ask, “Why do you hate it?” And as a result, I write a thousand-word response explaining, in detail, exactly why. He/she may disagree with me completely - but they won’t try to shun me for it. We are a small corner of the internet where people can discuss openly, and learn from one another. We may still hold our opinions at the end of the day, but simply conversing with people creates enormous potential for personal improvement.


I view discourse as an image in my mind - two people, talking to each other, are like two giant balls of yarn. As they’re able to discuss their views and feelings, without fear of reproach, those balls of yarn unravel, revealing more and more information to the other party. Of course, we are not yarn, we can see and understand that information being presented. If we see a strand we haven’t seen before, we can replicate it within ourselves, understand it. And my analogy fucking sucks. But basically, every new thing we learn through discourse, is new information for our brains to consider. When we have more information to work with, we can make better decisions. We can learn new ways of explaining things (anyone care to share an analogy yarn?). We can better understand the world around us.

So when you look at an arbitrary “good vs. evil”, when you look are the rigid moral standards of something like Polygon, when you look at the divisive nature of gaming culture itself... You see nothingness. You see spaces devoid of interesting discussion, devoid or moral and intellectual complexity, devoid of change, of progress. You see people unwilling to change, unwilling to understand something outside of what they already know. And it’s disheartening to me. I think if we’re to evolve, both as a culture and a medium, we need to be far more willing to accept and understand the views of others, to listen to and discuss with them, regardless of how repulsive or reprehensible they may seem. Because really, we could all stand to learn a little more.



My writing isn’t perfect, but I’d love to hear some feedback. I put quite a lot of effort into this article - a few hours, in fact - and in staying with my own personal standards, I’m not going back and altering what I’ve written. A lot of this stuff was quite difficult to write, so if you have suggestions on how I might improve my style or otherwise make it more coherent and readable, I’m very receptive. Thanks for reading, and please, by all means, share your thoughts on the content of this article. I’d love to hear ‘em.



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