Thursday, May 24, 2007

The morality of pretend.

I'm still playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and for the first time since I bought it a year ago I'm playing it in earnest. I "power-leveled" a character right at the beginning, which means that I took several days before starting the first quest doing nothing but building up the character's stats representing how good he is at various tasks.

In most games, doing this makes the game very easy; you walk around with a Zeus that can just glide through the game, make monkeys out of all those evil-looking bosses, and sit back and casually watch all the pretty cut-scenes. I like to play this way. But Oblivion is different because when your character levels, the world levels with you. While some quests are easier than they would be, others are ridiculously tough.

Anyway, that's not what I'm writing about. My question is, what is the point at which pretend evil becomes real evil? I ask this because certain video games, including Oblivion, at times encourage the player's character to do profoundly evil deeds. Certainly, any game featuring violence shows a certain callousness towards the finer points of moral theology. But some games, for example the original Legacy of Kain, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Grand Theft Auto, and Oblivion, provide opportunities for your character not only to use disproportionate force to defend himself from evil creatures, but also to unambiguously lie, steal, abuse, and commit virtual murder.

Right now in Oblivion, my character has joined an assassination cult called the "Dark Brotherhood." The Brotherhood's "theology" is interesting in itself because it is monotheistic amid a fantasy world governed by polytheistic religions, only "God" is evil and delights in death; I suppose one might consider it gnostic in this sense. But it is curious because some of the dialogue seems to echo issues that then-Ratzinger brought up in his Introduction to Christianity about the advent of monotheistic faith.

For the most part, my character's contracts have been against people who aren't particularly likable, which I'm sure is by design--the game eases you into the idea of murder by making your victims out to be villains, just like the slasher movies of the 1980's made sure that none of the doomed teenage cattle would be missed. However, from reading online guides, I know that one quest my character will soon be given involves the murder of an entire family which is absolutely blameless--again by design. The game wants to take you on a trip to nihilism.

The Pope has recently condemned all manner of violent and culture-less forms of media and entertainment. "Any trend to produce programs and products – including animated films and video games – which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behavior or the trivialization of human sexuality is a perversion, all the more repulsive when these programs are directed at children and adolescents.” (Link). His primary concern seems to be the formation of the consciences of children (and most of the games I mentioned above have at least "M" ratings, forcing many game stores to check IDs before they are sold).

I think perhaps a more helpful reference point would be any other form of play or pretend. Consider adults who reenact Civil War battles, "cosplay" at comic conventions, etc; or even professional acting. Mature people are able to participate in a fiction which sometimes calls on individuals to play-act at doing profoundly evil deeds. In the case of professionals, the seriousness of their skill demands immersion and thus a participation in evil thinking which must be less than comfortable. And I am referring as much to Shakespeare as I am to less culturally redeeming modern films.

Hm. I have more to write, but it's off to my little brother's graduation! What are your thoughts?


aapodaca said...

That one's easy.

Thinking of something is not the same as doing something, obviously. But I do believe that a sin is a sin, whether it is in your head or out in front of everybody.

I wish more folks would be honest with their nature because I often feel strange for speaking my mind. It’s a constant battle for censorship rights . . . who’s going to win, society or my thoughts?

It is up to us to accept our "imperfect" nature not as imperfect, but simply nature. I think anyway.

Why can't we get over ourselves?

Suzanna said...

Bad thoughts lead to sin. If you kill a bad thought, then you kill an occasion for sin.