The Needles

Grasping At Immorality: A Tale of Two Games


( Warning: spoilers inside.)

For years, videogames have made players the hero. Even when you’re doing rather unheroic things, like mercilessly butchering your way from one end of the galaxy to the other, you’re generally doing it for a good cause and presumably saving humanity (or something perhaps more worthwhile) in the process. Even “story-lite” affairs from Doom to Crysis have managed to turn epic mass murder into a tool for the greater good. In videogames, the end always justifies the means.

It’s all very well and good as long as those “ends” remain, in some broad sense, positive and desirable. A few innocent civilians might get roughed up along the way but, like my dad always tells me, if you want to make an omelet then you gotta break some faces. But what happens when the greater good goes sailing out the window and what’s left behind is something more akin to committing crimes against humanity for a blood-soaked payday?

That, in a nutshell, is Far Cry 2, which I just wrapped up, in case you’re wondering what brought this on. It was decent, although certainly not great: fantastic action in a sprawling, open world that is deeply marred by some strange design choices, in particular the inability or unwillingness of Ubisoft programmers to bother cooking up friendly AI. It would be altogether unremarkable, really, but for the fact that this is the first game I’ve ever played in which I was given a hefty payment of conflict diamonds in exchange for blowing up a pipeline in order to deny fresh water to the suffering civilians of neighboring African nations. For what I’m pretty sure was the first time in my gaming life, I had actual moral qualms about what I was being asked to do.

And then I went ahead and did it anyway. Not because the rational, dispassionate part of my brain reminded me that it was just a game, but because it occurred to me that I’d probably already done worse things in game. Murdering police officials? Check. Blowing up an antimalarial drug manufacturing operation? Check. Helping the local gun dealer keep his profit margins fat by butchering the competition? Check.

It was like the game was purpose-built to bring out the worst in me; in a matter of just a few days I was killing guys in the designated no-fire zones just for bumping into me on the street. I’d gone from one of the most consistently neutral-good gamers you’ve ever met to a gleeful and well-paid harbinger of death, destruction and woeful misery.


Before anyone suggests that maybe I’m taking it all a little too seriously, let me assure you that I’m not. My moral revulsion was tempered by the knowledge that nobody actually died as a result of my incredibly depraved behavior and it’s not as though it was a conscious choice on my part to embrace the role of the genocidal maniac anyway; the game slipped that straitjacket on me from the moment I woke up from my game-opening malarial delirium. But my completely non-functional in-game moral compass did provide an interesting angle from which to view a different, still-raging debate about the real-world morality of another, newer and far more popular game: Modern Warfare 2.

Hey, everyone else is talking about Modern Warfare 2 so I might as well get in on the action too. (And I can’t believe I’m saying this about the most-talked-about game in years, but there will be spoilers, so act accordingly.) Videogame critics, so-called “watch groups” and the entire nation of Russia are completely losing their shit over the fact that the game allows players to join a group of Russian terrorists and take part in the massacre of unarmed civilians at a fictional airport. It doesn’t matter that the game offers warnings that the sequence may be disturbing, that gamers are allowed to skip the entire level with no penalties, or that those who prefer the middle of the road can apparently play through the segment without actually killing any innocents. Nor does it matter that the player isn’t actually a terrorist at all; as the story goes, he is in fact an American agent trying to infiltrate the extremist group and prevent it from unleashing a new world war. This is probably the biggest uproar over a mainstream videogame since the Hot Coffee mess blew up a few years ago.

Yet compare that single scene – which is, I would hope, ultimately a look at the tangled web of higher causes – to the entirety of Far Cry 2, a game in which running people down and setting them on fire is something you do while driving yourself to other areas of the game, where you’ll do the really bad stuff. Far Cry 2 is one of the most utterly amoral games I’ve ever played, yet it rated nary a wagging finger from anyone except dissatisfied game critics. Can someone explain this to me?

I’m not so dense as to suggest that there aren’t obvious differences: Modern Warfare 2 was destined to be a behemoth from the moment it was announced, while Far Cry 2 was never going to be more than a run-of-the-mill shooter cashing in on the limited fame of its popular PC predecessor. And maybe there are some real-world prejudices at work here too, which is a nice way of saying that nobody gives a shit what happens in Africa as long as it stays in Africa. But in the end, isn’t it just a little hypocritical – or even a lot – to get so worked up over a game that dares to portray complex heroism, yet not even notice one that turns us into unrepentant monsters?

Despite his murderous excesses in Far Cry 2, Andy Chalk did his best to avoid accidentally running over zebras and gazelles and always felt bad when it happened.

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