What if you feel sorry for the people you're shooting? The ethics of game heroes

Games are not films: if a player is going to invest in a character's actions, they need to have a chance to do the right thing.

Nobody really knows why Bowser kept kidnapping Princess Peach of the Mushroom Kingdom. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that a giant turtle was up to no good and that meant that he and his kids were going to get got, because that’s how the Mario Brothers roll. But despite stomping on dozens of foot soldiers and chucking the guy’s progeny into lava pits, it was a given that Mario and Luigi were good guys. They freed the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser’s minions time after time without making any demands of the people and when the dust settled they were not above meeting up with old adversaries at the Kart track for some friendly racing.

In those days the heroes were pure as the driven snow and even a game like Doom, which was a bloody and brutal affair by the standards of the time, put you in the shoes of a soldier fighting demons. No ambiguity there, for all the machismo and aggression your character was saving the world, not just from scary monsters, but scary monsters from Hell, the worst kind of scary monster.

So how do we get from the video game hero as a sort of chivalric knight figure to a character who carries out a terrorist attack in an airport or who tortures people or who turns up in a country and completely trashes the place at the behest of a foreign power? Perhaps it is a desire for grittiness and edginess, perhaps it’s an appeal to jingoism, or perhaps it’s just writers within an immature medium misunderstanding of the role of a hero in a story.

There are plenty of games of course where being bad is good, where you are attacking the world order rather than seeking to protect or restore it. The Grand Theft Auto series has always cast you as a deadly outlaw, the God Of War series sees you play as Kratos, a brutal monster in his own right. These characters are bad guys, but they are generally painted as having some virtues which are considered universal and which set them above the villains of the piece, such as loyalty or a sense of purpose. In these games it is the world that is portrayed as the villain more than the villainous protagonist. There is a conscious effort to present the world in these games as corrupt.

There are in effect three sorts of video game heroes, the heroic ones, the anti-heroic ones, and those where it is the player who is in charge. Developers and writers of the first type in particular need to be careful, because if they cast a character as a hero and he comes across as a scumbag, a douchebro, an idiot, or worse yet all three then that’s bad writing. That’s a hero who makes you feel unclean for walking in his shoes. Some games approach this knowingly, such as Far Cry 3 or Spec Ops: The Line, where the main character is forced to confront his own misdeeds, but for others it is a consequence of bad writing. Any hero who makes you root for the guys you are shooting has failed.

The interesting thing with these failed heroes is how they come to fail in the first place. For example you don’t need to have a hero commit torture when you are writing the story when you can just have the hero find what he needs some other way. Somebody, for whatever reason, chose that route for the character. By the normal run of things it would be considered insulting to portray British or American government operatives torturing people in such a casual and practiced manner, but on that front it isn’t only the ethics of video game characters to have slipped in the last decade or so.

Games where you are in essence playing through a story on rails are subject to the control of writers but it is games where you are free to carve your own path where some of the strangest ethics in games can be seen.

For example, nearly every fantasy RPG features crazy amounts of looting. There you are, in Skyrim, or Ferelden, or Azeroth, or Faerûn and the first thing you do upon slaughtering an enemy is to rifle his pockets for coins, gems and other items. Needs must and all that but really it seems odd that nobody passes comment on a rich warrior hero, the would-be saviour of the world, rummaging around in a decapitated goblin’s loincloth for his beer money.

This is coupled to the fact that in games of this nature there is usually a sense that anybody and anything outside of a town is fair game to be murdered and to have their possessions claimed by the noble hero. Skyrim handles this in a very crude manner; if a person is to be considered fair play to be murdered then they will be called a "Bandit". They have no name and are thus freely killable. This is a strange feature in a game that otherwise does such a fine job of making the world feel alive, but it is one mirrored in many other role playing games where faceless goons pad out the world in lieu of characters.

Games that rely upon experience points for advancement are perhaps the worst offenders when it comes to the ethics the player is encouraged to show. The crudest interpretations of experience points based systems literally entail a path to progress and success that is paved with the bodies of whatever hapless individuals happen to cross your path. You want to be a better cleric? Kill some people. You want to be able to learn more spells? Set fire to a few dozen wolves. The world of the fantasy RPG is staggeringly predatory, although one might argue that’s the point.

In games where there is true freedom of choice you will usually find that the easy path is the unethical one, whether this means just stealing everything that isn’t nailed down from everybody and selling it on, or shaking people down for greater rewards when you’ve helped them out. But there can be a certain satisfaction in not taking the path of least resistance. In the same way that a player might want to keep the difficulty setting on high, they might also want to play by a code.

In games with a predestined story it could be said that there is something more realistic and more grounded about a hero who is willing to get his hands dirty, or to put it another way, betray the principles he claims to represent. However what games developers need to remember is that games are not films. Watching a hero on screen betraying his ethics is one thing, but if you want players to stay invested in the character as their avatar, as their hero, then those sorts of situations need to offer a choice.

When a game offers you nothing but scripted sequences of unpleasant people killing each other, with nobody to root for and nothing to hold your attention except the next action set piece, it is barely any better than a movie.

 

A still from "No Russian" in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, in which you carry out a terrorist attack on an airport.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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3D cinema without the glasses: a potential new technology could change how we watch films

Early-stage research success hints at a visionary future in which an immersive glass-free 3D experience could be possible at the cinema. 

The rise of film-on-demand streaming sites such as Netflix and MUBI threatens to make visits to the cinema a redundant pastime; why head out to watch a film when you can just watch one from the comfort of your own home?

A deterrent for many has been the influx of 3D blockbuster films released in theatres. An all-too-familiar routine has developed that causes audiences to let out a big sigh at the thought of 3D films: get excited about the latest Marvel flick, travel to your local cinema, sit through previews of future releases and then as the film is about to start...stick on a pair of flimsy plastic 3D glasses.

It’s an experience that has come to feel lacklustre for people who hope to experience more from 3D technology than just a gimmick. However, recent news that researchers at MIT have developed a prototype screen which can show 3D films without glasses may be just the development needed for the medium to attract fans back to the cinema.

A team of scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab paired up with the Weizmann Institute of Science from Israel to create “Cinema 3D” – a model cinema screen which could potentially allow cinema-goers to have the full, immersive 3D experience sans glasses, no matter where they are sitting in the theatre.

Detailing their research in a paper, the scientists outlined the technology used, which includes “automultiscopic displays” – a 3D enabler that presents “multiple angular images of the same scene” and doesn’t require glasses. The research has had to build upon conventional automultiscopic displays that alone aren’t sufficient for a cinema setting; they don’t accommodate for the varying angles at which people view a film in a generally widely-spaced theatre

Wojciech Matusik, an MIT professor who worked on the research said: “Existing approaches to glasses-free 3D require screens whose resolution requirements are so enormous that they are completely impractical. This is the first technical approach that allows for glasses-free 3D on a larger scale.”

Cinema 3D aims to optimise the experience by making use of the cinema setting: the fixed seat positions, the sloped rows, the width of the screen. 3D televisions work as a result of parallax barriers – essentially a set of slits in front of a screen that filter pixels to create the illusion of depth. Traditional parallax barriers tend to fail with anything larger than a television, as they don’t recreate the same image when viewed from different distances and angles.

The researchers have combated this by using multiple parallax barriers in conjunction with slanted horizontal mirrors and vertical lenslets – a small but crucial change which now allows viewers to see the same 3D images play out, whether they’re in the middle row, the back row, or far off in the periphery. According the paper, the design “only displays the narrow angular range observed within the limited width of a single seat.” This can then be replicated for every seat in the theatre.

Cinema 3D will require a lot more work if it is to become practical. As it stands, the prototype is about a pad of paper in size and needs 50 sets of mirrors and lenses. For the researchers though, there is reason to remain optimistic as the technology works in theory at a cinema-scale.

It’s important to note that 3d technology without glasses isn’t new; it has been used in a limited way with televisions. What is new with this research is its potential application to the film industry along with improvements in picture quality. Matusik has stressed that “it remains to be seen whether the approach is financially feasible enough to scale up to a full-blown theatre”, but went on to say “we are optimistic that this is an important next step in developing glasses-free 3D for large spaces like movie theatres and auditoriums.”

It could take a while for the technology to get to a stage where it can be used in multiplexes, and the market may need convincing to adopt something which is expected to cost a lot of money. It could prove to be attractive to the advertising industry who may want to use it for billboards, allowing the technology to be introduced at incrementally larger stages.

The thought of seeing James Cameron’s next Avatar instalment or the latest high-octane thriller played out in 3D without glasses could push the technology forward and get people to return in droves to the silver screen.