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The Cardus Daily

Gaming Out the Ambiguous Morality of Apocalypse

Robert Joustra  |  April 19, 2013  |  Foreign Policy, Games, Philosophy, Politics

“So, can my son, in good Christian conscience, head-shot a zombie to save the town?” You can take that answer to the bank. Kevin Schut, professor at Trinity Western University, has written the book most of us want to read but are usually too embarrassed to write about, Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games. With geek culture gone mainstream, dragons and zombies are aplenty, and with them a booming industry: video games.

Gaming is not a bad way to think about the renaissance in geek culture. Gaming, or game theory, is fundamental to a whole range of forecasting. From domestic to international politics, to pop culture and cult sensations, gaming is at the heart of some of our favourite past times. NBC’s Revolution is one big game theory experiment: if all the power shut off, how would people respond? Or AMC’s The Walking Dead: what are the social and moral dynamics of post-apocalyptic survivors? Right down, of course, to Max Brooks’ unsurpassed World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, great if only because of its use of actual, rather than caricatured, foreign policy paradigms.

None of this takes a lot more creativity than doom and gloomer foreign policy pundits who predict World War III starting with the U.S. Seventh Fleet: you lock in your assumptions, toss in the stimulus, grab a bag of popcorn, and watch the fireworks. What’s interesting about shows like Revolution, or so-called strategy games like Risk or Settlers is not just how the logic unfolds, but whether the assumptions as locked in actually make any sense. This is also what makes World War Z unsurpassed: it mitigates lock and stock realism with actual international institutions, learning problems, inertia and groupthink, and, naturally, the walking dead.

The best games, like the best gaming, don’t yield easy answers. You struggle with them. Games, like game theories, that do yield the easy logic of ‘trust no one’ and ‘kill everything’ inscribe pathological assumptions that should, at this point, strike us not only as wrong-head and morally repugnant, but also simply unrealistic. In the post-apocalyptic world, just like the one we have now, there are people who can be trusted, and people who can’t; there are even people that can be trusted sometimes, but not at others, or in some situations, but not in others; there are those who heroically rush toward smoking ruin, and those who cause it. The radical stimulus and circumstance of game theory and gaming does not change those assumptions, it clarifies and extends their logic. Sometimes that brings us face to face with major questions, questions worth facing, worth gaming. And sometimes, of course, those games dictate the logic to us, and reinstate assumptions that are not merely morally bankrupt, but also empirically wrong. The world of popular culture needs its Francis of Assisi’s as much, probably more, than its zombie apocalypse.

Like any media, sales is a driver, and so like music, like literature, there is lots of Britney Spears and lots of 50 Shades of Grey that steal the headlines. But the best games, like the best music and the best literature, enlarges and ennobles us. It may ask hard questions in disturbing ways, but questions worth asking, hardness worth encountering. There isn’t a great ‘how to’ for discerning that, but it is a starting point. And, by the way, don’t be an idiot: take the head-shot.

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