On Relativism And Games

This is a post about the psychology and art of games, and we’ll return to your regularly scheduled programming blog shortly.

In almost every game I’ve played, there has been a force of evil. In fact, an overwhelming majority of not just games, but films and books, and stories that we tell our children, and legends of gods and demons, have a simple premise: good versus bad. Humans versus aliens. Allies versus axis. Good people versus bad people.

Now, this goes deep into our roots. Those who share our moral views are with us, they’re the good side. Those who don’t are bad people, the bad side. An over-simplified look at things? Well, bear with me.

(I should mention that this blog post is essentially still unfinished – I have not mentioned a great many things that I’d like to mention. Stay tuned.)

You see, there are, to use a cliché, grey areas. Nothing is ever, ever black-and-white. There are extenuating circumstances in every situation. However, humans, as a rule, find it extremely hard to comprehend this. Humans, on the whole, are not empathetic. In fact, if I’m being empathetic towards someone, it’s often because I’m jealous of them, or trying to manipulate them. A very large number of human beings do not think about the effect their actions have upon others. This could be because we don’t like putting ourselves into situations we don’t want to be put in, or because we don’t want to realise how important our actions can be, or any number of other reasons.

You see, I’m doing it right now. I’m telling you that there are two kinds of people – empathetic and apathetic. This is just as untrue as saying that there are only two kinds of people – tall people and short people. We all know this is wrong, don’t we? Most people are neither tall nor short. Most people are of average height (rather, people are tall or short relative to your height, but I don’t want to turn this entire article into a debate on height). Just the same, most people are empathetic to some things, and apathetic to others. Those who are the extreme of either have certainly died of stress by now.

The Matrix Screenshot

Did anyone ever ask Neo why he was wearing a dress?

Back to games. Almost every game has an underlying “good versus evil” tone. In a very, very large number of games, you are the good guy. The princess-rescuer.

In far fewer games are you the abductor of the princess. The story of the other side is rarely touched on, and when it is, it is often simply a cursory evil laugh or plot elaboration. There is almost never an explanation of motive (and even then, it’s “I, a giant space turtle, wish to marry the princess, who is approximately a fiftieth my size, and have her bear my children”).

Alert viewers may have noted that I’m making references to the Super Mario Brothers series, which isn’t exactly lauded for its story. So I’ll go with another game.

Half-life 2 is not a game with a good story. It tells a story better than thousands of other games, but the story it tells is still “You, a Good Guy, must go kill the Bad Guys and win this war.”

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love Half-life 2 as though it were my clone. Also note that by “good story,” I mean that it doesn’t exemplify the grey area that everything around us exists in, and instead lives in a black-and-white world where there is good and bad and nothing else. It concerns humans, and yet the humans are perfect. I don’t know any perfect people.

Half-life 2 does, however, have the character of Dr Breen. Now, if you haven’t played Half-life 2 (and if you haven’t, where have you been for the last six years), Dr Wallace Breen is the antagonist. He is a human scientist who seems to have made a deal with the Combine (the Bad Guys in the game, an alien race) to save humanity at the cost of enslavement. He is then appointed ruler of Earth by the Combine, who seem hell-bent on taking over the planet and its puny inhabitants (because they’re the Bad Guys, remember).

Dr Breen, because he was in the right time at the right place, becomes the Bad Guy. He becomes hated by most, if not all, of humanity, despite having saved their lives with a diplomatic solution. However, this is barely even touched upon by the game, which is a shame.

Breen, in my opinion, is a hell of a lot more relatable than Gordon Freeman, the protagonist. Freeman, a theoretical physicist and the main character, is essentially a vessel with which you kill the alien scum. He doesn’t have misgivings about killing them. He doesn’t think about the possibilities of simply taking this lying down, that nature intended the human race to go out like this. He didn’t think that that was simply how survival of the fittest worked. He simply went and killed some goddamn aliens.

Half-Life 2 Freeman Poster

Would you trust him with your life, and the lives of your children and your children's children? I wouldn't.

I can’t relate to that. I can’t relate to being a shining white knight who “saves” the human race. Hell, if Half-life 2 were a really realistic game, they Combine would simply have sent a hundred men at him and stopped him in his tracks before his friends could make a witty remark about not using his physics degree. If my name was Gordon Freeman, I’d have given up before I started. Hell, I’d have welcomed our new alien overlords. I’m not alone here either, though it’s a tough thing to admit to yourself.

Let’s face it. You can’t relate to being a hero either. Games love exploiting this particular failing. Because you aren’t a hero and you know it, games let you to transplant yourself into a hero’s body, doing a hero’s work, and you can pretend that you _are_ a hero. That you, and you, and you, can save the world too.

World War Two is such a well-traveled road for games, because it’s a very clear dichotomy: Americans (according to most games, the English didn’t even fight in WW2) are good, Germans and Japanese are bad. That’s all there is to it.

But that isn’t all there is to it. Every soldier killed on the frontlines had a mother. Every soldier killed on the frontlines had someone who cried for them when they died. Both sides robbed mothers of their sons. Both sides robbed wives of their husbands, robbed fathers from children. Do you think about that when you play Call of Duty? You should, because you’re not playing a hero. You’re playing a killer, a man who stole another man from his family, and the only reason it’s not seen that way is because history books say it was the right thing to do.

The best stories, the best real stories, the ones you think about on the way home and the next day, and the next year, and ten years down the line, are the stories in which the characters show their humanity. The ones where the protagonist has faults. I’m not talking about Hollywood-esque faults. I’m talking about real, human faults. If Gordon Freeman didn’t simply blindly run into gunfights without stopping to think of the ramifications, didn’t automatically pick up followers along the way, if he had to convince people of his good intentions, or just gave up (or even better, almost gave up), then it would be a hell of a lot better, as a story. In Half-life 2, you happen to collect people who’ll fight alongside you (until they die in a hail of bullets). They’re nameless humans, and they give their lives for Gordon Freeman, and I can’t see why.

Life isn’t black and white. Why should games be?

About the Author

Carl Lange

I'm currently a Computer Games Development student at Carlow IT. I love programming and all things technical, and I'll learn anything if it's interesting. I'm passionate about technical education, and naturally about games. Check out my resume, and follow me on Twitter!

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  1. Joe Chung December 5, 2010

    You take games way too seriously.

  2. MJMcKevitt December 5, 2010


  3. MJMcKevitt December 5, 2010

    I’m curious to know what goes on inside you humans’ minds…it’s amazing.
    The games you’ve played don’t have any good sides or bad sides…nor do any good films that I’ve seen…when a character fights in a war they’re following orders…wars always have (at least)two sides…good and bad are simply your perceptions of a character’s/side’s actions. While developers/designers may try to persuade you who and what is right, there are no absolute truths…it is for the player to determine his or her own opinion.
    “Humans, on the whole, are not empathetic”…if an invasion happened I definitely wouldn’t try to save the world…though when the decision between slavery and some rootin’ tootin’ alien shootin’ comes along, I’ve already made up my mind…and competition is always a great motivator; so tell people your trying to save the world while you get your kicks and who knows maybe along the way, you’ll actually save the world…

  4. Certain games are predisposed to have “good sides” and “bad sides”; it subconsciously validates your actions in the game. Who would want to play a game with the questionable concept: “you are a German soldier during World War Two, you must go into this house and kill the twenty Jewish people who are hiding in the basement.”

    Nobody wants to blur the definite lines between Allies and Axis. It doesn’t fit the agenda of games like Call of Duty. You need to kill blindly, without any thought to the moral culpability of your actions. You can think all you want about your next move, just not your next kill’s family members, or whether you’re on the “correct” side.

    In any case, even if it was attempted, you can’t transpose the preconceived personalities of the Axis and Allies. For example, you may be listed as an American soldier and required to kill a few dozen German children. It doesn’t sound like a game that would sell much, but neither would a game which requires you to kill Jewish women and children. It’s better to have German soldiers on one side and American soldiers on another. With games based on factual war, the story lines are one dimensional for a reason.

  5. Kevin Beirne December 28, 2010

    I disagree with the majority of this post. Although it’s great to have multi-dimensional games, one of the primary points of story-driven games is escapism.

    Escapism primary description on Dictionary.com is “an inclination to or habit of retreating from unpleasant reality, as through diversion or fantasy”. Hate to sound like a tosser quoting (perhaps unnecessarily) but the key words in that definition is unpleasant reality.

    The fact that we have to deal with complex moral choices and “grey areas” regularly in our lives is a strain for most people. Yeah, you get little bits of self-satisfaction over what we think was the right choice but because games have such limited paths as mentioned in your other article, you’re not going to feel that kind of moral satisfaction from picking option D instead of B.

    The reason games are often clear cut as to your character’s intentions is so that you stay happy with your characters choices. If at any time you were unhappy with what your character had become then you wouldn’t enjoy the game as you wouldn’t be able to stop him.

    Most story-based games which I consider to be good will either come in two varieties. One where you are given a character good, evil or in-between but where the character remains consistent with that personality.

    Two, where you are given a character who will be given moral dilemmas but (very importantly) the PLAYER has control over the choices/changes, not the game.

    If you stay within these two types of character development then you may not have that greater scale of moral dilemma in the main character but most importantly you don’t give the player any false pretence. They can play the character they expect to play and not feel betrayed by a games designer’s decisions.

    Couple of other notes:
    · If you want to throw in moral dilemma whilst retaining the main character’s expected personality then use secondary characters. When a player finds out that a secondary character has had a moral dilemma them then they feel their CHARACTER has been betrayed or unpleasantly surprised. If their own character changes against their will then THE PLAYER feel betrayed. This takes them outside of the game experience and can potentially ruin immersion.

    · Don’t get me wrong, just because I believe a video game based character in a story-driven game should remain consistent doesn’t mean I think they have to be boring. For example, in Thief, your main character Garett is a criminal but one who has a certain sense of justice and reason. You can’t call him evil or good but he still remains the same throughout the largely linear games. (My type one)

    · Sorry for my response being all over the place. I didn’t edit it correctly, apologies if it was hard to read.

  6. If some other nation invaded Ireland, what would you do? Agonise over the morality of killing other human beings, or do what needed to be done?
    War is hell. Whether you bring it to someone else, or have it brought to you, it’s not pleasant. But it is very much part of the human experience, and secretly everyone wonders how they would cope in the real thing (apart from those who really do).
    So, games and movies about war are NOT escapism. They’re about us questioning ourselves about how we’d do in those situations.

    • Author

      That’s an interesting viewpoint you have there, David. I suppose you’re entirely correct – games (well, some games) do make us question ourselves, and that’s a very good thing. Something that should be and is being explored.
      In fact, I’ve been playing Dragon Age II recently, and the entire experience made me question myself. I wonder if it’s familiar to you; the underlying concept is whether or not you trust people with the power to do anything, and the game asks you this almost outright in several places. A very interesting conflict, and what made it so interesting is that is was entirely internal to me. The game didn’t really push me either way.

      Sidenote: if another country invaded Ireland, I’d sit back and laugh (after I got the hell out of the way) – I’m German. 😉

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