Manhunt: An Unlikely Moral Catharsis

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This is the fifth in a series of guest posts by Hali Sofala and Eric Jones on the connections between gaming (video and otherwise) and the literary.

A child of nine may fall under both the Selective Player Model and the Susceptible Player Model (see our last blog post) should she actively seek out games that reinforce her already burgeoning violent tendencies. For her, Manhunt is a profoundly unethical simulation tool. While many legislative battles are being waged from the viewpoint that gamers are easily brainwashed in the hands of wicked corporate developers, there is little evidence to support that theory, and this may be due to the fact that most game designers are more concerned with the Rational Player Model: that part of the player that sees games in terms of objectives and obstacles, risk and reward. Jonas Heide Smith, author of Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction, defines how game designers see the player “as a logical and rational individual whose main (or only) concern is to optimize his or her chances of achieving the goals.”

In other words, it is advantageous for a Rational Player, in the cinematic crime simulator Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, to pick up a prostitute, engage in sex with the prostitute as an exchange of in-game currency in order to restore the player’s in-game health meter, then to kill the prostitute and retrieve the currency. This mechanic, which was largely the focus of legislation concerning the ethics of game design, offers a reward for both prostitution and subsequent murder. This also explains why so many games involve guns. A gun involves a simple achievable objective with an equally simple risk: aim and shoot. Avoid getting shot.

In the question of whether or not games can be moral literature, we are chiefly concerned with the Active Player Model, which “has strong affinities with the turn within media studies in the 1980s towards poststructuralist, semiotic notion often inspired by reader-response criticism originating in literary theory” (Heide Smith). Here, players are seen as interpretive moral beings that engage in games often with the intent of exploring them as texts. For the Active Gamer, it would not be advantageous for their on-screen avatar to commit in-game unnecessary murder because doing so would violate the principles of their in-game character (unless, of course, it doesn’t violate those principles). James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy, notes that “it is not uncommon, even when young people are playing first-person shooter games featuring a superhuman hero (like Master Chief in Halo, a game for Xbox)… that they will redo a given fight scene because they feel they have ‘let their character down.’” This is due to the player projecting an identity onto their on-screen avatar, much in the way that Monopoly forces the player to play a role in which they are unfamiliar.

Similarly, “modding communities” arise around games like Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim that take the original game design and manipulate it for their own purposes. Games are typically built to facilitate this level of player creativity, either by allowing the player to create their own character or by opening up the development tools for the game to the public.

We’ve spent a few feverish evenings this month playing Minecraft. This game has no narrative or set moral code but what the player can create. It is a videogame that presents the player with a pliant world moldable to the whim of the imagination. In order to achieve the objective (itself left to the player’s imagination), the player must harvest the world’s natural resources by “mining.” We got halfway into building a full village before we abandoned the game. The lack of narrative structure made our task feel tedious. Turns out, we are Active Players, but only to a certain point. There is a point at which we want the game to take control and tell us what to do.

Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives, takes a similar Active approach to ludic interaction. Often his actions are in response to what he describes as general incompetence “with almost every aspect of… game narrative,” although he also admits that games are not a storytelling medium, and as a writer, his frustrations with this fact exhibit themselves in general in-game rebellion against narrative design (100).

In Manhunt, however, the game forces the player into a state where she must confront her own unethical behavior. There is little room for the Active Player Model because the constraints of the in-game narrative are mirrored by the constraints of the game’s mechanics. The player is cast as James Earl Cash, a death row inmate who is kidnapped by a vile film director and forced, as the player is forced, to commit increasingly violent murders to other inmates in the dilapidated ruins of an abandoned city. Bissell admits “the vomitous Manhunt actually made me contemplate, and recoil from, the messy ramifications of taking a virtual life.” The tightened noose of the game design in Manhunt forces players to behave unethically, as opposed to games like Grand Theft Auto and Mass Effect, which allow for players to choose unethical behavior. Depending on the player type, the games allow for ethically relevant exchanges in different ways. In Manhunt, the reaction is almost unanimous. Players erupt in revulsion when playing it, suddenly aware of the line that they’ve crossed. In this way, Active players may find moral catharsis in Manhunt, just as Tom Bissell did.