272: Games Are Modern Morality Plays

Games Are Modern Morality Plays

Contemporary videogames like Doom 3 or the God of War series have some surprising similarities to medieval morality plays. Jeremiah Leif Johnson believes that such games should enter the discussion of games as art.

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Very interesting and informative article. Being a Secular Humanist myself, i was very surprised to actually learn the comparison between video games and medieval morality plays. I hadn't realised that as you say, back then the character was the pawn in a game, but here we control the game. We don't have to 'learn a life lesson' or have a slice of humble pie, because we can follow Kratos' example and simply fight our way out. We forge our own destiny and we overcome our own demons through sheer will of strength and determination. We don't fold to the will of the Gods or indeed even 'fate' because in the game we follow our own 'fate' and this is none so much true as in the free choice 'morality' games. When we witness a moment such as in a Mass Effect game where you're presented with a choice in which neither is inherently good or appealing, we don't see somewhat comical depiction of a character falling from grace or learning from his vices, we don't see renegade players falling to Greed and his good buddy Wrath. Instead, he is rewarded for it. The player has chosen how he will behave in the game world and by sticking with it the game world will shape around him, rather than stay entirely firm and inflexible. Good or evil, the player is in control of the world and his actions rather than the world being in control of the player and his actions.

I see it quite the opposite:

There is a god in all of these games, and that god is you.

You are an other world being that is 'all powerful' and 'all knowing' and control the fates of the characters in this world. And you will always swoop in and save the character and bring him to the final cutscene/credits/'heaven'/etc.

I'm impressed by this article.

Interestingly, there are many video games that seem to be about humanity rising up and getting rid of their god(s) so they can control their own destiny. The Breath of Fire series, especially the third game, makes this explicit.

Tolkien might suggest we have no mythology, but, and all respect to the man, video games and television are our generations' mythology. We can recount the events in the Halo universe from the fall of Reach through Master Chief and the journey of Samus Aran as well as Hesiod could recount the lives and genealogy of the Greek Gods in his Works and Days, one of the fundamental texts of mythology. We know the exploits of "The Ghost of Sparta" as well as the recounted stories of Hercules. The stories that comprise the Final Fantasy and Fire Emblem series tell us the stories of men and women banding together to save their kingdoms, their countrymen, their lives by thwarting some oppressive, near-omnipotent evil. What figure in literature or media is as god-defying and capable as The Doctor, in any of his iterations? In one sense, the most literal Deus Ex Machina that could ever happen is watching him step from the TARDIS and save the day. John McClane and his villain-shattering catchphrase stand along side the Lion's roar, as the most famous of Italian Plumbers becomes comparable to Odin in his perpetual fight against Loki, and the forestalling of Ragnarok. In that regard, we have our mythology, our gods, our deities to whom our suppliant prayer of pressing buttons before a shimmering box grant them unimaginable power beyond anything ever before seen in mythology--the power to die, be reborn, and start again moments apart from where they were, keeping the knowledge they just had. Video games, in their childhoods or developing years, are the onset of some of the greatest mythology that has yet been known.

I think mythology mostly comes about after a civilization is gone. What we see as Greek and Roman mythology for example was to them, the way things simply were. Due to increasing lifespans, political correctness, and the like we haven't seen many civilizations pass on quite the same way, and when they have there is a lot of resistance to portraying the beliefs of a vanquished people the same way the ones of the ancient world were... never mind the touchy subject of portraying religions still practiced today (like hinduism) as Mythology
so to speak.

That said, I have mixed opinions about video games as morality plays. The thing is that I think your right... in fact I was just thinking something very similar when looking at "Bioshock Infinite" which seems from the trailer to be set up to convey a left wing moral message connected to current debates on things like immigration, national sovreignty, and cultural adaption.

The problem here is that people have progressed and are better educated and more informed than they were back in the golden age of "morality plays" and "passion plays". Back then, those things reinforced what was already a rigid structure most people upheld. Today while everyone likes to make pretensions of representing a majority position and trying to "help" and "educate" those who have not seen the truth of their point of view, things are very much polarized. Even outside the US, "political and moral deadlock" seems to define most of human civilization. While everyone thinks the other guys are wrong or foolish, the truth is usually somewhere between the two extremes (in any enviroment) with neither side being entirely right or entirely wrong. In this kind of enviroment moral (or worse yet political) preaching tends to get very annoying, very quickly. One of the reasons I tend to prefer my escapism to stay firmly entrenched in fantasy. Even if I agree with a message overall above and beyond the context of the story itself, I still find it annoying since I play games to get away from that kind of stuff.

Well, it's no surprise that pieces of media from a certain age reflect that age's mentality. Sure we may laugh at morality plays and how they advised people to stay quiet and hope for some divine event to save them. They would laugh at us for thinking we can do anything for our own. This mentality led them to centuries of cultural stagnation and insignificance. Our led to millions of self help books and people who should be completely happy taking weekly therapy sessions. Every kind of outlooks has its pros and cons.

Although the all-powerful player motif seems to me less of a humanist celebration and more of an instance of the infamous adolescent fantasy fixation.

It's true that us godless fellows have picked up a concept of Heaven and Hell through osmosis, but do they mean the same things to us as they would to a pious man? Usually, they don't. You'd have a hard time finding consensus on what Paradise and Perdition mean, even among those of a single faith - primal psychological crap is like that.

I guess the sad part is that we have yet to get our shakespeare where morality plays are concerned. Also, the local baker is not providing the bread in the game either.

I'd like to point out that Diablo probably isn't the best of examples. You see, in the first game, and during the transition, the rogue didn't do so hot, the sorcerer got it worse, and we all know what happened to the warrior

RiffRaff:
You are an other world being that is 'all powerful' and 'all knowing' and control the fates of the characters in this world. And you will always swoop in and save the character and bring him to the final cutscene/credits/'heaven'/etc.

Unfortunately, while a nice enough idea, this does not work. You are not all knowing or all powerful (otherwise there would be no difficult puzzles, and you'd never need a re-try to beat a boss), and while you control your character or party, you have to play it the game's way. Very rarely can you change the game to accomodate what you want to do, you have to follow the predetermined path or story laid out by the game designer.

To follow the metaphor, the game designer IS the god - the creator of the world, who has mapped out the player's destiny (while sandbox games may give the impression of free will, to actually finish the game will require following the pre-planned story to the end, changing only minor details) and has decided what will happen and when. If the player fails, the designer is the one who has programmed the helping hand that lets us get back on our feet and resume play. Likewise, if we play through the game and earn redemption for our character, it is only by the grace of the game's makers, who could just have easily made the ending a bleak twist wherein the protagonist ultimately fails and is cast down.

In this metaphor, we are just the facilitators of a greater design. I suppose we would be the equivalent of a guardian angel, guiding our characters through the story that has already been laid down for us.

Jeremiah Leif Johnson:
Games Are Modern Morality Plays

Contemporary videogames like Doom 3 or the God of War series have some surprising similarities to medieval morality plays. Jeremiah Leif Johnson believes that such games should enter the discussion of games as art.

Read Full Article

I love how Death is always a bad guy... considering how Marvel currently is having its Space heroes fight people from a universe where life won. In other words, nothing ever dies.

Death isn't evil, it's there so that the world wouldn't overpopulate within 100 years ;)

This article seems like a nice experiment to determine whether or not games are contemporary morality plays, but despite author's conclusion, I feel that the article demonstrates that games are not like morality plays. I agree to an extent that many of the protagonists are meant to somehow represent the player, but only in a different way of looking at it. These muscular, athletic, armed-to-the-teeth marines are what (many) players desire to be: powerful enough to get his way and save the world single-handed. Master Chief is a great example of this, with his mask giving a player the ability to put his(/her) own face under the mask.

I don't think your source for Tolkien's perception of a lack of an English mythology did a good job with writing that web page. There are English myths and legends of the mythological sort. English stories about Beowulf and King Arthur function as mythology and the Welsh and Scots have their own mythological heroes. Also, the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians didn't have mythologies to start either. They each had their own religion, which gradually became myth over time.

One last bit, "The Pride of Life" is also a furry web comic: http://prideoflife.com/?p=316

Good job at missing the point of morality plays.

They were dramatizations of a struggle in which man was an active participant. Not being totally controlled by Heaven or Hell, but being forced to pick between them. They were simplified to be understood by the peasant audience, but the point was that man made the choice.

You also ignored the difference between the active nature of games, and the passive nature of plays. Of course the audience member (player) does more work in the game. If games are modern morality plays, then they add an interactive element to man's role in the struggle between heaven and hell.

And what about the "God mode" cheat in Doom, in which invoking the name of Jesus makes the player nigh-invincible. There certainly is benefit in seeking out a higher power (cheats in general could be seen as the gameplay equivalent of "miracles").

And don't forgot about moral choice systems, in which man's actions play him into the influence of light or darkness (I think the medieval monks would approve).

Nothing has changed, man is still influenced by forces beyond his control.

Finally, I really despise the notion that games are in their infancy, and that suburb games from the 8 and 16 bit generations must be seen as inferior to brown next generation FPS games and art house trash like "Limbo". If anything they were more creative with their limitations, and are certainly more memorable.

and then saint row 3 came along.....

ryukage_sama:
This article seems like a nice experiment to determine whether or not games are contemporary morality plays, but despite author's conclusion, I feel that the article demonstrates that games are not like morality plays. I agree to an extent that many of the protagonists are meant to somehow represent the player, but only in a different way of looking at it. These muscular, athletic, armed-to-the-teeth marines are what (many) players desire to be: powerful enough to get his way and save the world single-handed. Master Chief is a great example of this, with his mask giving a player the ability to put his(/her) own face under the mask.

I don't think your source for Tolkien's perception of a lack of an English mythology did a good job with writing that web page. There are English myths and legends of the mythological sort. English stories about Beowulf and King Arthur function as mythology.

Those are actually exactly the examples Tolkien uses to explain England's lack of mythology. They are respectively Norman and French in origin. The Norman invasion effectively removed the english mythology from what I've heard.

(EDIT: Oh shit. . . did I make a stupid necro post again? Damnit I need to stop posting in articles linked from other articles. . . )

 

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