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March 3, 2006

Filed under: gaming»design»story

Cape of Good Hope

Big news in superhero games lately. Jim Lee of DC fame intends to create a massively-multiplayer competitor to City of Heroes--I don't know who he is, but I'm assured that he's important. There's a trailer for the next-gen Superman Returns license--although it's prerendered, so it's about as revealing as fundamentalist fashion ("Becky's elbows were clearly visible, that slut"). But I remember reading somewhere that they're planning on playing up the invulnerability that makes Superman a pretty boring character. Instead of protecting yourself, the real goal is to protect as many lives in Metropolis as possible. It's an interesting take. It'd be amusing if they made you do that while you were trying to hold down your reporting gig at the Daily Planet.

But you know what? When it all comes down to it, you're still just fighting off big angry monsters, and scaring the occasional mugger or carjacker. I hate to keep referencing Warren Ellis, but he's really beat this theme into the ground: superheroes are, frankly, useless. They don't change the status quo. They can't do anything that would actually affect the living standard of the citizens, because they're too busy making sure that said citizens aren't flattened by the Villain o' the Week. Superman doesn't feed the hungry or clothe the poor. Spiderman's a great guy, but he doesn't take out corrupt politicians. Even the X-Men--they're fighting for mutant rights, obvious stand-in for the civil rights movement, but they largely restrict their advocacy to beating up on Bad People with Guns.

Note: perhaps this is not entirely true. I'm not a devout comics reader, so if Aquaman #258 had the Justice League starting a chain of shelters for battered women, I wouldn't know. But I'm making a point. SILENCE.

One of the nice running gags from the Batman animated series is that you saw Bruce Wayne going to charity events all the time. They sold the millionaire playboy/philanthropist angle at every opportunity--and we never saw Bruce do any kind of actual work. I like to think that Batman, being a down-to-earth kind of superhero, was trying to attack the crime from its results and its causes. But it also makes you wonder--Batman's a superhero because he trained his body and his mind, but he's really a superhero because he's rich (See an estate tax post where I contradict myself at Philanthropica). Would anyone else like to see a Batman simulation where you have to play cutthroat exploitation capitalist in order to afford gas for the Batmobile? Where you have to beat down the poor so you can afford to save them from the Joker? Does Bruce Wayne ever lie awake at night, wondering which of the workers he just laid off is going to find a magical ring in the dumpster and use it to massacre hundreds? Other writers have touched on this, of course, but it's still a valid question.

Ethics in video games are largely the same as ethics in comic books, which is why theoretically they work very well together. Stop that crime! Kill that villain! Follow that car! In part, this is because gaming began as a medium with limited available expression, and that established a tradition of flat objectives even as the simulation aspect became more complicated. It also has roots in its perspective, which generally focuses on one character. Everything else in the world exists to help or harm a single protagonist or small group of protagonists. As Lance Mannion pointed out (although discussing movies instead of comics or games), these characters are heroes because they're standing where a hero is supposed to stand. People are trying to kill them or hurt them, and they fight back. (See Creating the Innocent Killer, re: Ender's game, for similar thoughts)

I'm not trying to say that this is causing some sort of grave ethical crisis. Our youth are not being corrupted. Grand Theft Auto should not necessarily have an internal debate on welfare underlying its criminal methodology (although.... no, never mind). What I am saying is that we need context. More specifically, we need a perspective.

I refuse to be ashamed to admit that I've been watching Project Runway, Bravo's fashion designer competition. One of the constant themes that the judges harp on is perspective--have a perspective, say something with the clothes you make. And in the end, you see their point, because the designers who do have a strong point of view on how clothing should feel and what it should mean are the ones that consistently make the most interesting designs. Their clothes exist in a context. They hold opinions.

When is the last time that you could really give me a perspective for a game, that wasn't limited to an internal view of its system? What does it have to say about who we are? Take this article from the Escapist by Patrick Dugan. I'm not trying to pick on Patrick here, because he was under no obligation to address any of this in his article, which was completely unrelated to my cynical viciousness, and he seems like a nice kid. I'm just using it as a convenient example, because it struck me. Patrick is discussing challenge, which is fair enough, and he mentions a few artifacts that don't fall under the typical conception of challenge (or even "games," but that's another discussion entirely). He mentions September 12th, an interactive and explicitly political display about Bush's now-legendary War on Terror.

Now, again, I'm not complaining about the article. Patrick set out to write about challenge, and he does it, and I think he makes some good points about the systems of the games themselves. But I remember reading that part and thinking, wait a minute: you've got this game that aims to undermine existing justifications for military action against terrorism, and what we're discussing is whether or not it's challenging? Back up the train a minute, because I want to spend some more time on its message. Is it effective? How do people react when they realize what it's doing?? Forget about the game-as-a-system, amateur designer perspective. What does September 12th mean? What could we learn from it, not as gamers, but as people? You can't understand it from a four-color comics perspective. Whether you agree with what the artist is saying or not, it's asking you to consider something about your reaction to the perceived threat.

All of this is really a long way of explaining part of what I find so frustrating about games lately. I see a lot of focus on discussing the mechanics of these games, and not whether they (like the Project Runway kids) have a strong point of view. Trying to create dynamic, open worlds for generated storytelling, that's all very well and good, but it doesn't give the designer a lot of room to say anything because they're trying to say everything. The opposite end is the safe route, the comic-book morals of glorified vengeance against attackers and aggressors.

I want to play something with an opinion.

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