Garwulf's Corner

Garwulf's Corner
The Glimpse of Who We Could Be

Robert B. Marks | 15 Feb 2017 16:35
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"The guests don't return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before... something they've fallen in love with. They're not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They're here because they want a glimpse of who they could be." - Dr. Robert Ford, Westworld

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It will probably be no surprise to anybody that I am a big fan of Westworld. I love the show and its subtleties. Its quality is no surprise - not only is it on HBO, but it's by the team behind Person of Interest, which was some of the most thoughtful SF on the rise of artificial intelligence in the last few years, at least until they started making Westworld.

And yet, as much as I love the show and all the themes it explores, I cannot help but disagree with its central premise. Even as a realist and a political centrist, there is a pessimism built into the show that I cannot share: the idea that given the ultimate (perceived) consequence-free sandbox, it is inevitable that human beings will be drawn to the worst demons of their nature.

And indeed, we see this over and over in the show. The robot hosts of Westworld are abused, murdered, mutilated, and raped. The guests who at first appear to be decent people - like William - are seduced into committing atrocities just like the Man in Black, who comes to the park to drop the charade of being a good man so that he can play the villain. And Westworld doesn't let its characters take lasting comfort in the idea that the monsters they become in the park are somehow divorced from who they truly are - as the Man in Black notes, even though his darker self never leaves the park, his wife was aware enough of it to live in fear of him until she took her own life.

Why Westworld takes this stance about humanity is easy to understand: Westworld is a drama, and dramas require conflict. Having at least half of the guests treat the hosts with respect while just enjoying being in the Wild West and hunting for treasure does not make for the best storytelling. And, there is some truth to Westworld's look at our darker nature - there are no shortage of people who, with real-world consequences removed from the picture, would not hesitate to do things that are, in a word, horrific.

But is this reality really the rule that Westworld suggests? In the world of video games, this is a question and discussion that has been playing out in subtle ways since at least the days of Baldur's Gate and Fallout 2. When we have the choice between playing the hero or the monster, will we really prefer the monster? After all, we do tend to find the villains more entertaining than the heroes. We'd rather watch Hannibal Lecter on the screen than Will Graham. And we cannot help but admit that we are titillated by violence, with enough violent AAA titles to make some pundits worry that the medium as a whole may be descending into a niche where violence is the primary way for a player character to interact with the world.

And yet, I just don't see that being the case. There is a huge difference between what we watch and what we do for entertainment, and video games are firmly rooted in what we do. When you take a look at the video game titles that have moved the most copies across multiple platforms, violent video games wherein players can play the villain with abandon are conspicuous in their absence. Violent video games do not appear at all in the top three - Tetris, Minecraft, and Wii Sports - and in the top ten there are only two violent titles: Grand Theft Auto V (#4) and Diablo III (#10), only one of which allows a player to take the role of the sociopathic monster. In the full list of 45 games, only 17 titles are what could be considered violent, and some of them (such as Skyrim) could be considered debatable. When one looks at the top-selling single-platform games of all time, violent video games are completely absent from the top 10 sellers - the first (and only) violent title to appear on this list is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and it shows up in the #24 spot out of 30.

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Even when it comes to player choices in games where there is a choice between good and evil playthroughs, the tendency of players is to take the good path. As a GDC presentation by Amanda Lange demonstrated, those who do elect to attempt an evil path in their playthrough are most likely to do it during a second playthrough, and they are less likely to finish it. In fact, most players base their decision making in video games on how they would act in the real world, and their choices don't tend towards the dark side.

We may enjoy watching the violence and the mayhem, taking glee and even experiencing catharsis as the characters on the screen descend into darkness, but our video game consumption tells a much different tale. There is, and always will be, a place for violent video games (and, let's face it, a violent video game is a great way to blow off steam). But, given the complete freedom of choice, we'd rather build in Minecraft than murder damsels in Red Dead Redemption. We'd rather play electronic sports than gun down Nazis. And, were we to find ourselves in Westworld, we are far more likely to help the old prospector up and join him on a treasure hunt than to stab him in the hand for annoying us.

I am, and remain, a Westworld fan - I am waiting with bated breath for the second season, and I can't wait to see the many fascinating questions and issues it tackles. But, no matter what, I must remain in disagreement with it - when it's all said and done, humanity seems more drawn to the better angels of its nature than the darker demons, and this does not look likely to change anytime soon.


Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is available in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.
Garwulf's Corner is made possible by the support of readers like you (and it is a complete falsehood that Patreon funds are being used to create an all-chinchilla recreation of Westworld). If you would like to see more content like this, please visit the Patreon, and if you can, contribute.

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