I have some good news and some evil news. First, the good: video games have gone mainstream and there's no need for grown men and women to hide their PlayStations when guests come over. And now, the evil: video games may be hazardous to your health. Well, your moral health. If you let them.
I used to be skeptical of broad pro-nouncements like "Video games are now complex enough to explore import-ant philosophical issues," but all that changed when I first encountered Beyond Good and Evil, a 2003 release from French software developer Ubisoft. Not only does the game share a title with one of Friedrich Nietzsche's philo-sophic tomes, it also has a story and characters that are complex enough to allow for a deep moral reading.
Beyond Good and Evil (the game) is a futuristic political thriller that slips the player into the body of a young photojournalist named Jade who lives with her uncle, a talking pig. Her mission is to expose the collusion between the ruling military class on her planet and malignant alien invaders known as the DomZ. The story is set in Hillys, a utopian outer-space world that is both fantastical and profoundly Torontonian. Everyone seems to be collaborating toward some common good, but in the end you're on your own. As Jade, you make key moral decisions that, owing to the game's verisimilitude, seem to have "real" in-game consequences: broadcast one of your damning reports about the government and, on your next visit in town, you will see citizens protesting in the streets. Just like in the real world! Sure, your life may not include a talking pig for an uncle, but it probably does include decisions about vocation, action, right and wrong.
Beyond Good and Evil (the book) was published over a century ago, in 1886. Eschewing slimy aliens and talk-ing animals almost entirely, Nietzsche's collection of searing aphorisms gives an overview of the central themes of his philosophy, as well as a guided tour of everything that is wrong with the work of every philosopher who predated him. ("What? Great [men]? I always see only the actor of his own ideal.")
While both Nietzsche's text and Ubisoft's game have very distinct fan bases (that, at their more rabid extremes, include a whole bunch of people whom you'd never want to invite over for dinner), there is much in Nietzsche's project that speaks insistently to the world of gaming. The whole notion of playing video games stands as a handy analogue to the philosopher's basic principles about how reality works. After all, video games are frequently judged according to the degree to which they immerse you in a trumped-up reality: "You are Jade"; "You play as Sam Fisher"; "You are super, Mario."
Remember the schoolyard? You have a ball, a wall and the laws of physics; these materials and the rules you create interact to create a game. Video games, as they exist today, are made of similar stuff, but an additional burden is placed on the developers. Not only must they create the rules and materials, they must also design the reality itself in which the game takes place.
Thanks to technological constraints, we've had a windfall of games involving running and jumping, and few games about real-life decision making. Devel-opers only have to create as much reality as is required for the game to work. In this virtual playground, if the ball doesn't need to bounce, that facet of reality isn't built. Super Mario doesn't take a Goomba out for coffee to discuss differences; he just kills the pesky creature by jumping on its head.
If there's one thing I know about technological constraints, though, it's that they are constantly being shirked. This is one of the more realistic facets of Beyond Good and Evil (the game): the player is frequently forced to stop, read a situation and decide what to do next. Should Jade get a job and support her family or should she watch TV? Should she join the resistance and save the world or should she have a drink at the bar with her porcine uncle?
Get drawn in like I did, and you'll find a moral universe unavailable in many other amusements. While play-ing, I started to examine all of Jade's decisions according to a system of right vs. wrong. Some of the baddies are faceless soldiers in matching armour; as a result, they're much easier to gun down with abandon. But what of the innocent? Bystanders, placed in the game to heighten its realism, can also become targets. If I didn't have the urge to avoid harming the innocent, I could gun down that toddler over there with gleeful abandon... oh wait, I can, and just did.
Yet, sometimes, I hesitate. When firing on some baddies, I hit a pedestrian or two in the process, and my face reddens with guilt. I feel it, it's real, but is there any value in it? Is it a presage of the real-life guilt I would "rightly" feel when gunning down a toddler? Or is it my will to exercise power competing with my will to stay out of prison-a friction no more or less arbitrary in Hillys than in "reality"?
Game developers frequently deploy these conflicts to hook players into synthetic worlds. Kill this guy, not that guy; identify with this character, not that one; fear your demise, stay alive and, above all, win. It's those last two that are most significant: the anxiety surrounding my death infuses the playing experience with gravity, but I still want to win. If bashing that toddler is what it takes, then I just might. The consequences may not extend beyond game-over music and restarting a level, but dying and losing are still painful. In the game, as in life, things would be a lot easier if there weren't so much to fear.
Nietzsche helpfully explains that I'm nothing more than an expression of my "will to power"-my most fundamental instinct or drive to exert my will, the energy that informs all of my drives. This could lead me down the Buddhist path to realizing that there is no dread because there is no "I." But no such luck: Nietzsche is explicit on the subject of abandoning dread. Though it took some guidance for a lowly gamer like me to see it, Friedrich votes "no to nihilism" every time. In Beyond Good and Evil (the game) as in Beyond Good and Evil (the book), my endeavours find meaning through the expression of my will.
And that's your happy ending: the crushing fear that you suffer in the face of existence is the very thing that saves your life from randomness. Jade, lucky soul, doesn't worry about whether or not she exists. She cares only about overthrowing the evil invaders and keeping her pig uncle safe. Like anything in game-space, Jade is beyond good and evil. If she slows down to ponder why that Vorax wants to eat her instead of beating it with her staff-well, she'll be hearing the game-over music a lot sooner. Her moral landscape is optional: the will to reach the game's end is all she needs, so that's all I create for her. Unlike me, she's lucky enough to have only death to fear.
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