Wednesday, December 17, 2014

[BoRT Dec. 2014] Moral Valet+: Hegelian Cynicism and Gaming

This post was written for the December 2014 Blogs of the Round Table

                “Since, in the action as such, the doer attains to a vision of himself in objectivity…the inner aspect is judged to be an urge to secure his own happiness…Thus, for the judging consciousness, there is no action in which it could not oppose to the universal aspect of the action, the personal aspect of the individuality, and play the part of the moral valet towards the agent.”

                -Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit

                I gave up on this month’s Blogs of the Round Table.

What is there to say about New Game+ that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? I had no ideas. The only concept I could come up with was digging an old game out of the closet and starting a New Game+, but I frankly couldn’t be bothered. I only ever play a New Game+ for one reason: unlocking content I missed in my first playthrough.

Then I read this excellent piece by Phill of Tim and Phill Talk About Video Games and it all fell into place. Why I hate New Game+. Why so many games bore me to tears. How I play video games and why it precludes making multiple playthroughs only to unlock new content.

                Let’s take it back a step. When I play games with story-path choices, I always take the path that best reflects how I, personally, would respond to the situation. If that conflicts with the story’s morality system, so be it. I don’t care if Infamous saves its best powers for those who stick only to “Good” choices or “Evil” choices; if I disagree with the game’s definition of good and evil, I will defy it. I try to follow the dictates of my own moral system in each situation even if it means losing out on some rewards and content.
                This particularly comes into play with Visual Novels (Katawa Shoujo and Hate+ spring to mind) and games that borrow heavily from this genre (Persona 4). By the end of the first playthrough, I know what choices I would have made, for better or for worse. I have responded to the game honestly and have seen myself reflected in the eyes of the creator. Sometimes my choices conflict with the narrative and I get a Bad Ending, but it is my Bad Ending, the path that I chose.

                Some people like to power game, working with FAQs and walkthroughs to achieve maximum power over the game from the start. This is perfectly valid for those who enjoy playing this way, but I feel that walkthroughs rob me of immersion, of the option to interact with the game on a serious, emotionally involved level. To power game is to play cynically, to view the game as an aggregate of mathematical formulas to be exploited instead of a world to be inhabited.

                When I play a New Game+, I am my own walkthrough. I know the choices that I would make. All that remains is either to re-experience that same narrative or to cynically make alternate choices in order to see something new. But it is no longer my choice, no longer my narrative. The experience of New Game+ is either redundant or frustrating.

                Phill describes a similar frustration, the frustration of genre savviness. When you already know how the game is going to play out, it becomes difficult to view the game as anything but a set of numbers to be manipulated. The total aggregate of my gaming experience becomes a walkthrough and ruins immersion in advance. The game cannot be taken seriously when I can only view it as a game, as a human-made construct instead of a “true” living world. I am an alienated, cynical moral valet towards the game, not a true believer.

                In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes the “moral valet” as an alienated individual[i] who is no longer convinced of the authenticity of action in moral systems. As the saying goes, “No man is a hero to his own valet.” While the public persona of an individual may be a hero who upholds a universal law, the valet sees the selfish individual motives behind the façade. He cleans up after the hero, cooks his meals and prepares his clothes, hears the back-room conversations of the powerful contrasted with the moral rhetoric presented to the public.
                For the moral valet, all systems of morality and truth are mere human constructs. Religion is a lie, art is empty, and ethics is a con game. Laws exist only to protect the interests of the rich and powerful – there is no eternal moral truth, only what we can get away with. Anyone who claims to be upholding moral truth is either deluded or a liar.

                Oddly enough, the moral valet finds moral superiority in rejecting human-made morality. “At least I am not propping up the façade, at least I am not playing the game. Others may continue to lie and delude themselves, but I will not participate.” Of course, when asked why they refuse to participate, the moral valet has no answer. If all morality is constructed, there is no reason not to use it for your own advancement. The moral valet has no logical answer, only defiance; a sort of “courage in the face of nothing.”

                Why not play games cynically? I have no good answer. While I might oppose approaching society, ethics, and justice as arbitrary concepts in real life, a video game is, after all, only a game. It does not matter if justice is served in a video game. It does not matter if my character’s morality is a truly held belief or a cynical manipulation of a human-made system.

                And yet, I must have courage. I maintain the Self in defiance of systems. I am driven to respond openly and honestly to games in the same way that I respond to real-world systems. There is an element of selfishness in this (this is how I most enjoy playing the game), but the same could be said of real-world ethics. I prefer to live in an ethical world because it is so much nicer over here.

                The line between game and reality begins to blur. I only enjoy both the game and life when the hard choice is made, when power is sacrificed for truth. Even if the system is rigged and I can extract more rewards by cynically exploiting the faith of others, I refuse. Maybe the system is human-made, but that does not make it unimportant.
                So what if game systems are at heart cynical mathematical formulas? By responding to them in a real way, I make them more real. By upholding morality, I make morality more real. Even if truth is human-made, that only means that it can be made true by humans.

                I still don’t like playing New Game+-es (New Games+?). They seem intended to extract something that does not interest me out of video games. If I want to see an alternate ending, I’ll watch it on YouTube. But I think more can be done than simply trashing the system, and I think Phill hits on part of the solution when he describes his efforts to develop games himself. Don’t like the system? Make a new one. Change the rules of the game.
                Why should playing a New Game+ mean retreading through the same old branching choices that were there the first time? Persona 4 has something like this – there are dialogue options that can only be chosen on a second playthrough.[ii] Ideally, a New Game+ should offer more than the option to plow through the game faster to see all the endings. It should add to the game experience, not just carry over an old game’s stats and items.

After all, what narrative justification is there for New Game+? How does it make sense that the first playthrough affected the main character but left the rest of the world intact? Wouldn’t it be great to play a New Game+ where you took the role of Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, knowing information in advance and taking advanced steps to thwart the villain’s schemes? Many games already put the protagonist in the position of Messiah – why not Prophet?

                There is no reason why a New Game+ has to be boring – or even the same game. Mechanically speaking, New Game+ just involves creating a save file which carries over information from a previous playthrough. So a New Game+ could be an entirely new scenario, plus information from an old game.
                I’m just brainstorming here, but maybe the first playthrough of a game is set in a feudal society and the New Game+ throws the same characters into a contemporary setting. The overall plot may be the same, but how does swapping out the time period change the morality of your choices? Can you support an absolute monarchy in the 21st century? Is it as easy to slaughter Orcs who wear t-shirts and jeans instead of jagged plate mail?

                Maybe the hero from the first playthrough is the evil dictator in the New Game+. “You either die a hero or live to see yourself become the villain” and all that. Or maybe you play as the villain who has to work against yourself in the first game, the hero who is becoming progressively more powerful as your loyal troops are decimated for experience points. There is no reason to fall into the cynical position that New Game+ only exists to pad out play time. It can just as easily be an engaging part of the narrative.
                Cynicism only ruins games when you let it. If you approach game design as a checklist of market-tested mechanics and designs, you will make a boring game. If you approach game play as a checklist of systems to be manipulated, you will have a boring time.

                The moral valet only cares what games are in the most physical sense of ones and zeros. The cynic sees something that can never have a meaning greater than itself. To be a true believer in games is to push their limits beyond what they are into what they can be. Stepping beyond cynicism is the only way to make truth, to recognize others, to find the Self.

                So go out there and make something better - fire your Moral Valet.

Previous BoRTs:

[BoRT Nov. 2014] Lebensraum and Ichsraum: Self-Portrait in Civilization 4
[BoRT Oct. 2014] The Mask of Sanity: Persona 4 as a Psychopathy Simulator

[i] Hegel uses the term “moral valet” both for an aspect of self-consciousness that doubts the universality of actions and for individuals that doubt the universality of actions (universality here meaning that a particular action is taken from duty to a universal moral principle instead of selfish, personal desires). For the current article, I’m going to stick primarily with the moral valet in the second sense but I’m adding this note because misrepresenting Hegel is where angels fear tread.
[ii] Specifically: certain dialogue choices require a high stat in Courage or Empathy. Since it is impossible to raise that stat high enough fast enough on the first playthrough, they can only be accessed in New Game+.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Born To Die: Death as Narrative in Shin Megami Tensei 4

“And am I born to die?
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown,

A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought,
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot?”

-Charles Wesley, Hymns for Children

                Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare has come under fire recently for its memorably bad handing of a soldier grieving a dead companion. The scene has already been analyzed thoroughly by others and inspired Press E To, a game that tackles the subject with far more gravity.

                You can say what you want about the scene in question, but Advanced Warfare’s attempt to address the finality of death in a big-budget video game may have been doomed from the start. The early history of the medium was built around the assumption that death is never truly the end. Whether it’s Mario collecting 100 coins to gain another life or Arcade machines trading real money for imitation lives, the show always went on for players with sufficient skill/quarters.

                It is not impossible for games to tackle the subjects of death and grieving, but it can be difficult. Aerith’s death in Final Fantasy 7, considered one of the most traumatizing events of many a childhood, falls apart emotionally when you ask “why didn’t they just use a Phoenix Down?” Why doesn’t the friend in Advanced Warfare just respawn? When will he be available as a DLC character? Grief is predicated on the permanency of death, something which game narratives do not generally support.

                There are, of course, games that subvert this assumption. Whether it’s a high-concept subversion like Lose/Lose (where each enemy’s death permanently deletes a computer file and the player’s death deletes the program) or more standard subversions like ZombiU (where player character deaths are permanent), the straight trope of “revolving door afterlife” can and has been avoided.

                As much as this trope has been subverted, it exists for a reason. Video games are a (generally) interactive medium – the player can make the character fail in a way that conflicts with the story. If we assume the narrative of Super Mario Brothers is “Mario hops and bops and defeats Bowser,” we realize just how easy it is to subvert this narrative. The player can refuse to move forward. The player can intentionally kill herself. The player can prioritize collecting coins over saving the Princess. The creators can punish the player for diverting from this narrative (limited time to finish levels, “game over” screens which force the player to restart the game), but they cannot force the player to win.

                If we position video games as contracts between the player and the creator, the necessity of multiple lives becomes clear. The creator has the right to punish the player for an inadequate performance – losing lives, lowering scores, locking off content. However, the creator also has responsibilities to the player. Make the game too easy, and players will tire of it and quit. Make it too hard, and players will become frustrated and quit. Make it unplayable (*cough* AssCreed *cough*), and the player will quit.

                The player also has rights and responsibilities in our theoretical contract. The player has the right to buy or not buy the game, the right to decide she does not like the game and quit, the right to play the game in a subversive fashion that conflicts with the creator’s design. On the side of responsibilities, the player must either accept the game’s design and work with it or accept the consequences of playing subversively.

                Multiple lives are not the only method of cheating death; we also have the save/load system.[i] A creator might be able to reasonably expect a player to finish Super Mario Brothers in a single play session, but what about Final Fantasy 7? Is it really reasonable to expect a player to restart a 40+ hour game after a single death? In these cases, forcing a player to finish the game in a single life and a single sitting would prevent the vast majority of players from ever taking it up, let alone playing it to conclusion.

                Multiple lives games like Super Mario Brothers still present the player with a failure state – the dreaded “Game Over” which forces the player to start again from scratch. Save/Load games cannot force the player to start over from the beginning, just from the last save point. Multiple lives games can punish inadequate performance with finality, Save/Load games can only be lost if the player gives up.

                There is one final right we have not discussed: the right to infinite play. Outside of arcade machines or subscription service games, a player who purchases a game theoretically has the right to play it ad infinitum. It does not matter how many times I fail at Super Mario Brothers and get the Game Over screen, I have the right to try again and again until my game cartridge/NES dies.

                Or until I die.

                This is perhaps the reason why this trope cannot be completely avoided. Even if Lose/Lose deletes itself, I can always reinstall it. My player character may die permanently in Zombie U, but I will get another one. My stupid little brother may delete my FF7 save file, but a new game can be started.  As long as the player remains alive, the possibility of infinite replay remains intact. To remove the possibility of infinite replay is to violate the common contract between creator and player.

                Since games cannot legally kill the player for failure (right? I’m not a lawyer), all games substitute the idea that failure is met with a narrative dead end. Death forces the player to restart the level, to restart from the last save point, to switch to a new player character, to reinstall the game. Failure is met with a frustration, the understanding that the game cannot continue until the player gets her shit together.

                Now let’s talk about Shin Megami Tensei 4. Spoilers follow.

                SMT4 is a fairly standard JRPG and a completely standard Shin Megami Tensei game. Collect and fuse demons, run around a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, make choices that affect your alignment, etc. There are a few nice little twists and some fairly impressive use of the 3DS’s hardware, but if you’ve played an Atlus RPG before you will feel right at home.

                Like most JRPGs, SMT4 uses Save/Load system. When the main character dies, the game can resumed from the last save point. Unlike most games, death does not have to be the end of the narrative.

                Upon death, the player resumes consciousness in the Underworld. The narrative of the game continues as the player meets Charon, the overworked god in charge of ferrying the souls of the dead across the River Styx. Charon, fed up with the “mountains of the dead” waiting to be ferried across, offers to let the player return to life in exchange for money (Macca). If the player does not have enough money, Charon will even offer to open a tab!

Lines After Death: Wait to reincarnate or pay to live again?

                In one sense, this device simply allows a safety net for players who have forgotten to save recently. Instead of losing however many hours of game time since their last save, they can take a financial penalty and return to the entrance of the dungeon where they died. However, Charon also clearly exists within the narrative of the game – the player can receive side quests from him and his two assistants.

                SMT4 combines the Arcade system of “money for infinite lives” and the Save/Load system, while adding a unique narrative flair. Instead of subverting the trope from the usual end (trying to make death more realistically “permanent”), it subverts from a fresh angle (death/player failure is incorporated into the narrative). Instead of punishing the player by ending the narrative, Atlus rewards the player’s death with additional narrative content.

                It could be argued that Atlus is subverting the player’s ability to subvert – not even intentionally “committing suicide” can liberate the player from Atlus’ narrative. However, I feel that it is more accurate to view this as a player-positive feature. While the player is financially punished for failure, they are not narratively punished. Whereas dying in Final Fantasy 7 takes the player completely out of the narrative, dying in Shin Megami Tensei 4 does not interrupt immersion. It is a more feasible to play through SMT4 without ever saving or reloading than the vast majority of RPGs.

                I am particularly inclined to give Atlus the benefit of the doubt on Shin Megami Tensei 4 for a related reason. While SMT4 includes the usual three Law/Chaos/Neutral endings, it also has a fourth option: liberating the entire universe from existence.

                In the “White Ending,” the player decides that the only way to end the suffering of humanity is to annihilate all humans and triggers a chain reaction that destroys the entire universe. This is not presented in game as a “bad ending” (although the linked video describes it as such) but as an equally valid alternative to the others. Finishing the game with the White Ending still unlocks the New Game+ option without any sort of penalty.

                In providing the White Ending, Atlus gives the player a level of choice not many other games can boast. Personally, I found siding with the Angels, Demons, or Humans of SMT4 equally depressing prospects. The White Ending gave me a chance to embrace my feelings of nihilism about the setting and wipe the whole thing out. It felt something like quitting the game, like refusing to side with a faction I could not morally support. The only difference was that my choice was supported by the narrative instead of punished as a poor performance. In destroying that fictional universe, I found some measure of real-world peace.

                Shin Megami Tensei 4 subverted my expectations of video game death in a way that was both unexpected and pleasing. But it did so by becoming less realistic, not more.

                I suppose the question becomes, “Is it possible for video games to address the issue of death in a manner that is both realistic and pleasing?” I’m not sure. Real humans and video game characters are both born to die, but their deaths have very different meanings. When video game characters die, it is usually because the player failed in some way and there is usually a way to reverse it. Real humans die regardless of how they lived and it cannot be reversed for love or money.

                But then, that’s only going by what science tells us, and science isn’t the only game in town. Maybe the theologians are right. Maybe we do get to respawn in a world without pain, or else reincarnate in a new body with a new chance to get it right. Maybe the Death, the Last Enemy, is more like a Final Boss than we ever dared to imagine.

                So whether we get one shot at defeating Death or as many as we need, choose your character class and equipment with care. I hear that Bastard plays dirty.

Waked by the trumpet's sound,
I from my grave shall rise,
And see the Judge, with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!

[i] As a friend once said, “Save/Reload is the most powerful spell in any game.”

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Men Among the Ruins: The Death of Normativity, Otaku, and Male Power Groups - Part Three & Conclusion

Part One
Part Two

History’s Unmarked Grave – Divergent Responses to the End of Normativity

Database Animals: MRAs vs. Otaku

I have previously mentioned the work of Azuma as a major influence, and I still believe that it provides the most accurate model for the development of the otaku subculture in Japan. Azuma traces the development and change of consumer tastes in narratives from modern realism based in a Grand Narrative (normativity), to hybrid fictional Grand Narratives which provided a replacement for the Grand Narratives lost in society as a whole, to complete postmodern rejection of Grand Narratives in favor of a “database” of affective elements with no Grand Narrative at all.
Much of Azuma’s model cannot be applied to Western MRAs, if only because the historical turning points he uses to define the era shifts do not hold much weight outside of Japan. The 1970 Red Army Incident, the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks, the end of Evangelion; these are not turning points in the lives of our Western MRAs.

Although some of Azuma’s historical signposts are international in nature (such as the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall), they have different implications for different societies. The fall of the Berlin Wall may have been an alienating, normativity-destabilizing event for Socialists but it was a normativity-strengthening event for Capitalists, a concrete demonstration that “we are right and they are wrong.” 

Azuma himself says that the fall of the Berlin Wall was not as important in Japan as the Aum Shinrikyo attacks. Similarly, while the fallout of WWII shook the underpinnings of Japanese normativity, it tended to reinforce the inherent “rightness” of Americanism for Americans.
To get to the point, both otaku and Western men experienced the death of a post-sittlichkeit normativity, but they experienced it in very different times and in very different ways. For otaku, it was the collapse of the fictional narrative as shown in the 1995 end of Evangelion. An entire generation experienced “Eva Shock” as director Hideaki Anno’s narrative normativity collapsed around them.

However, Japanese narrative normativity had already been decoupled from actual historicity. The end of WWII, the collapse of the 1980s bubble economy, the loss of lifetime employment and the death of the middle class had already reduced otaku narrative to clichéd apings of history. Narratives such as Gundam were not meant to be commentaries on “the real world” so much as pastiches for pleasurable consumption.

By focusing in on the technical details of fictional giant robots and the timeline of the “Universal Century,” otaku were able to assuage their feelings of alienation from “real” society by engaging in a fictional world which still held a sense of normativity. Evangelion merely tipped over a fictional edifice which was already rotten and on the verge of collapse.
Western “nice guys” started out with a fictional normativity (the Monomyth) which still had some semblance of reality. Although Western society saw a similar shaking of normativity in the 1960s and 70s, its effects were not nearly as destabilizing as events in Japan.

America in particular was still driven by an evangelion of progress and free markets, which strengthened normativity in the 1980s with the return of normative narratives – the fight against the “Evil Empire.” While Japan’s economy plummeted in the 1990s, America’s took off. Our narratives were proven right, not wrong.

While Western normativity (particularly American normativity) has weathered history better than Japanese normativity, it seems that no culture can fend off the creeping advance of alienation forever. The long survival of Monomyth-esque normativity, with its emphasis on moral virtue and the triumph of good (nice guys) over evil (jerks) makes it particularly painful for Western men because it is at odds with the sexual revolution. Men who attempt to cling to traditional morality by clinging to traditional gender roles are left exhausted, depressed, and desperate for meaning.

This is the main point of divergence between otaku and MRAs. While otaku have largely moved beyond the need for traditional normativity and Grand Narratives (though there are right-wing elements within otaku circles), MRAs insist on developing alternate models to replace the old.

Ex-nice guys have not continued to the next stage of history, in which mutual recognition becomes the basis for a new sittlichkeit, they have instead developed new Grand Narratives which keep the Other at a distance. PUAs embrace a new social contract which maintains women as objects, MRAs divide the world into “us” and “them,” and the fully alienated who have lost all normative compass lash out with threats of death and rape like the wounded animals they are.
It is perhaps no coincidence that these tendencies are so prevalent in Western fandom, the equivalents of Japanese otaku. From complaints about “fake geek girls” who do not properly conform to male fan normativity to internet crusades against female video game critics, male geek culture is a breeding ground for male alienation.

Like their Japanese predecessors, Western male fans have retreated into the fortress of geek culture and are defending its peculiar normative institutions to the death. For these men, fictional worlds are the last place where men are still active agents and women are still objects, where the hero still gets the girl and the villains still get their comeuppance.

Engaging in prophecy is always a crapshoot, but I feel justified in thinking that an Eva Shock equivalent is coming to the West. The rotten edifice of Western male-driven geek culture normativity cannot stand forever. It is teetering, and headed for the inevitable crash. I do not wish to downplay the negative effects of Gamergate, but it looks very much like The Last Stand of the Monomyth. The very extremes to which these MRAs have resorted, their death threats and organized terrorist actions, show the extent to which they have been driven against the wall. The point is not that we can sit back and let history take its course, the point is that we be confident in standing against the agents of a discredited normativity.

As for MRAs and so on outside of geek culture, they have even less of a supporting edifice. “Nice Guys” are the products of a transitional age, and once the transition is complete (or more advanced), there will be no source to spawn them. When the pool of alienated “nice guys” dries up, so will the candidate pool of potential MRAs and PUAs. The male-entitlement crowd, like the poor, will always be with us, but their days as a culturally relevant force are numbered.


To be honest, I don’t really have much left to say, other than a few words of caution. First, this is perhaps the least academic paper I have ever written (appropriate, since I am not currently in academia). Tracking down and critically analyzing, say, a particular “nice guy” rant or MRA webpage frankly seemed like more effort than it was worth for the current moment. My goal was not to absolutely demonstrate the rightness of my interpretation, but to build a tentative infrastructure for future analysis. I have painted with a very broad brush, caveat lector.

Second, this paper was written as part of a much longer ongoing effort to test the applicability of Azuma’s model outside of Japanese contexts. I have retread a lot of ground, feeling out the space ahead of me carefully before moving forward. I am still figuring out what I’m doing and how to do it, so please pardon the mess.

Third, for all of the respect I have for Azuma, I approach his model from a less Kojevian and more Hegelian angle. The biggest difference, as mentioned, is in the definition of modernity. Azuma (and Kojeve) see the modern as still having normativity; for Hegel the modern is defined by the death of normativity. If anything, what Azuma labels as “modern” should be labeled either “pre-modern” or “pre-modern to modern transitional.”

However, I would agree that contemporary otaku culture is legitimately post-modern, in that moe elements provide a post-enlightenment normative structure which is not subject to alienation. While otaku may still suffer alienation in reference to society as a whole, they do not suffer it within their mutually recognized normative subculture. If anything, their powerful emotional responses to narratives constructed within this mutual framework demonstrate just how de-alienated otaku culture has become.

Last, I would encourage readers not to paint with these broad strokes when dealing with individual MRAs. The main shortcomings of Hegelian criticism manifest themselves when it is over-applied. Just as Newtonian physics break down when applied to sub-atomic particles, broad Hegelian eras can break down when applied to individuals. Transitions between eras are not total “once and for all” events but rather ebbs and flows in a very gradual process. History may have “ended” in 1806 at the Battle of Jena, but not everyone has gotten the memo.

It is under this last point that I understand the Gamergate crowd. As culture becomes more modern and less central, we will all start to move through history at different speeds. It is easier than ever for a subculture bubble to remove itself from society and evolve separately. Social Justice Warriors and Men’s Rights Activists exist in the same time and place, but not in the same Era of History. The current struggle is like two previously separate tectonic plates crashing together.

This is, perhaps, why both sides cast themselves as victims. Some great external force has shaken their way of life. Neither side asked for this conflict, but conflict is inevitable as the two plates grind into each other and shake the people living on them.

Sometimes the mere existence of other normative frameworks is enough to drive humans to threaten, persecute, and even murder each other. We have seen this before. We will see it again. The goal is to truly understand what is happening, why it is happening, and to reconcile with each other – not to defeat the “Other.”