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April 16, 2005

Discussion: Elephant


Elephant was extraordinarily compelling to me, while at the same time so horrible to contemplate. An ordinary day in an ordinary school, with a tension so thick in the viewer that you feel like something might just snap, because Elephant is a fictionalization of Columbine.

Van Sant, the writer-director, makes some interesting choices. The kids he employs as actors are all unknowns, and they all portray kids with their own names. They seem like ordinary kids, even those who portray the analogues to Harris and Klebold. They all look wonderfully alive, just doing the things that kids do.

When it came right down to it, the most significant exception I could take with the movie was the portrayal of the videogame they liked to play. You'll have to see the movie for yourself to see the blandness of what they were playing -- there was apparently no game there at all, just an endless succession of people walking across a blank space, who you could kill with different weapons. If these were the games we had available to us, we wouldn't play any more¹.

It's not to say that Van Sant blames the games at all, not really. Van Sant has said that if you do anything obsessively, it's bound to influence your behavior, even if it's something apparently simple like solitaire. But he hasn't, to my knowledge, tried to draw a causal link between the games they played and the killings.

Although I think the title is supposed to refer to the parable of the blind men and the elephant², I kept thinking about it as "the elephant in the room". I don't believe that videogames cause real-world violence; but to me, the fact that so many people apparently do is the elephant in the room. I'm not sure how we'll ever connect with those people, and I think there's quite a lot of them.

The other thing it got me thinking about was a GamaSutra question of the week which asked whether game developers have a moral obligation to teach values in their games.

My answer is no, of course, it has to be no. I believe in a fair amount of freedom in this regard, just as I believe in the freedom of the first amendment. I was surprised, actually, just glancing over the responses³ how many came in for and against -- they had plenty of people saying we have a moral responsibility.

What I will say, however, is that I think it might be to the moral benefit of game developers to examine the issue closely, to examine how we present moral choices in the games we make. In a lot of cases, it might be to benefit of the games as well. I'm not advocating for game developers to push a particular morality on me, but I wouldn't mind seeing games which present moral quandaries. Games where the designers have spent significant time thinking about those quandaries themselves will likely present them in the most interesting ways, and thus, likely be of moral benefit to the developers who spend time pondering them.

I came across one such issue in Neverwinter Nights: a woman gave me a quest to find out what had happened to her daughter or something. While I don't remember the specifics of the quest, what I remember is coming back to that woman and having the option to tell the truth about the grisly death of her daughter, even though it might be extremely harmful to her, or to lie to her and tell her that her daughter had gone far far away, but that she was alive and well.

I had to stop and think a moment: would I rather someone lied to me, if I had no way to verify the truth? Would I rather believe a falsehood and be happy, or to live with the truth, which was horrible?

I chose to tell her the truth; I figured that we can believe what we want to believe even in the face of the truth, and she could still believe a lie if she preferred, but that I took away her moral agency in lying to her. It wasn't a huge moral quandary, but it did make me stop and think for a moment, and I appreciated that. It's a rare thing, and I hope the designer responsible for that felt some pride at the moral quandary he presented, at least, to me. It happens too rarely.

Of course, the nice thing about video games is that you can go back to a save point a few minutes back and find out what happens if you make a different choice. So I did.

Same XP.

¹I looked into this a bit, btw. Van Sant was going to use Doom but couldn't get the rights to use it, though he didn't say why in the interview I consulted. If it's because id blocked him, I can both understand why they might not want to and still feel a little disappointed in them.
²Each man feels a different part of the elephant and thus each comes up with a different explanation of what they're finding.
³I'm holding off reading them until I've finished this entry.

Posted by Brett Douville at April 16, 2005 09:07 AM


For the record, I completely agree there is no obligation to teach morals. That of course doesn't mean developers shouldn't do it. It just means that games should not be required to conform to some controlling outside influence's opinion of morality. It doesn't mean we can't find our own. In fact, virtual worlds are the perfect place to toy with such notions as morality (in addition to completely doing away with them, not 'just' doing away with them.)

I give kudos to Bioware for having choices like this in their game, but I would've liked to have seen them take a chance and reward players for doing one action over the other. Would they reward good players more for telling the truth (and hurting her,) and less for lying (and sparing her feelings?) And would evil players get more for lying, or hurting her feelings?

(Of course neutrals are screwed, but they lack convictions anyway. ;) )

Posted by: Jeffool at April 16, 2005 01:46 PM

Didn't know that elephant in the room poem. Learned something.

Posted by: Jamie at April 16, 2005 03:45 PM

Jeffool, welcome!

It's a fair distinction, but I'm not sure that the good/neutral/evil alignment system applies well here -- it's more appropriate to an Ultima IV-style morality issue. Because, after all, intentions might matter in this case -- do you tell her the truth because you want to watch her weep and gnash her teeth (hence, evil) or because you want to know because of the moral agency argument I present (hence, one hopes, good). Similarly, do you lie to deprive her of moral agency (evil) or to preserve her happiness (good if perhaps ill-advised).

In the question of the Avatar, the moral choice here is between Truth and Compassion¹. Still an interesting choice, but one which assumes you want to do good and are just trading off which one you'll pick.

¹Potentially a true measure of geekdom: can you name the eight virtues?

Posted by: Brett Douville at April 16, 2005 08:00 PM