You get up, go to work, and try not to get in trouble along the way. You provide for the people you care about as well as you can and treat others with respect. And yet when bad things happen we admit it doesn’t matter: bad things happen to good people.
Melvin Lerner’s Just World Theory was a startling subject to examine. Though we have seen scores of individual experiments afterwards the results tend to be the same. And it’s horrifying when you really understand what it says about people.
Inside all of us somewhere in our subconscious is the idea of the just world. Good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Maybe there’s some randomness, maybe the cheater gets away with cheating sometimes but in the end they’ll get in trouble for the bad things they do. Similarly even though bad things might happen to us as good people eventually things will work out. We’re doing the right thing after all.
When we look at movies or games often we see this idea in action. Shadow of the Colossus is the exception and as gamers we accept most games are about being the good guys and winning eventually. Films are the same way, even though we might accept that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a very cynical, I mean profitable, I mean calculated endeavor to make a lot of money the films portray a world in which the good guys win. We can accept the executives are bad guys but not our heroes.
The effect of the just world idea is entrenched in slasher films where the virginal girl survives to the end while the people who aren’t morally upstanding meet grizzly fates. As much as we might not want to accept it though we are for the most part fine with it. We go to these movies and start trying to figure out who is who and what’s going to happen. Similarly farces like Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” also exist in this system where you clearly know how the story will end - someone is going to get an inheritance and we’ll see a wedding. These frameworks exist because they fulfill audience expectations.
The Wizard of Oz. The Shawshank Redemption. Lord of the Rings or The Matrix. Most if not all of the Lethal Weapon movies. We create this false reality on screen and accept it. Not to say that I hate this. Some of the best films ever made follow these ideas as well. And even more often great films play off this perception. Citizen Kane, Forest Gump, Inception, Goodfellas, all these movies are better movies for fundamentally pushing against these perceptions in some way yet they’re still in no way the norm.
But the reality isn’t that Woody escapes from the kid who destroys toys he’s going to get broken and Andy won’t want to play with him any more. Plus the weird kid probably did something gross to him.
And while we see this shown constantly in film and TV in the real world this “just world” has caused incredible problems. These tests Lerner used to examine this idea were about letting the tested people think they were harming other people. As more tests were done we’ve actually seen people suggest that these results might give us some insight into how the most terrible and massive tragedies ever were allowed to happen. People seem to think that if something bad is happening to someone they probably deserve it.
The problem of the just world is in what we do with this new information. I mean do we need laws to protect us from these people? Guns? No we can’t give them guns. But they probably already have guns. What do we do? The people writing the laws probably are also trying to push their “just world” agenda on us. In fact aren’t most laws connected to a belief in a social contract, and that’s seriously compromised when we see that the just world effect exists.
In all reality we have a chance to look at how the human mind works in tandem with creating a society and that what might seem to be a prevalent and benign belief could actually be a terrible thing. Our sense of justice leads to all sorts of terrible consequences for the world-every despotic regime has in some way been seen as a push towards a better life for people.
But the just world can be helpful. Maybe even necessary to live in this absurd reality. Giving a sense of justice to our world seems to lower depression. It actually might help other mental health issues. So should we give up on following some sort of new Nietzsche? Maybe not the best example when looking at previous examples for the article but his idea about escaping the old value structure really fits here.
Nietzsche felt that people were trapped in old value structures and that these values clearly didn’t work for people. While he wasn’t only talking about a sense of justice we should think for a second about that idea: is following this sense of justice fundamentally flawed and harmful?
As I write this Metal Gear Solid V is about to be released and it seems to be a story about a man becoming a monster, perceived or fallaciously. Though it might not be a popular opinion, in gaming, I think we should play the bad guys a bit more often. I think that often when people who like film or books talk to people who play games our stories sound very different to their stories. But something I’m proud about with games is that just by the way they’re structured they can look at very difficult things without losing a large audience like most films will. The Last of Us was a tremendously popular game, Dark Souls as a series has become tremendously popular, these games play out very basic yet ignored questions about how society works. Even Call of Duty has basically used the last several games to bring actual scary issues about the future into the hands of 12 year olds. I mean 18 year olds, no 12 year old has ever played a ‘mature’ rated game.
So games give us something really unique in that unlike some book nobody will read unless they search it out or it’s on a reading list we have this material that actually questions our modern sense of values. Unlike a movie that you know is going to be dark and sad so you don’t watch it in the theater games actually sell new copies of material that fundamentally question our normal sense of morality and self interest. And yes I know that by and large most games we see aren’t going to push these questions, they don’t have to and I don’t only want a diet of nihilism, but looking at this industry it’s exceptional how popular games can be that don’t portray this normalized view of justice.