Today we have the second part of Arno Görgen’s post on biomedicine and bioethics in the setting of The Division video game. You can read Part I here.
Although the game offers a smooth and motivating gameplay and an intriguing recreation of a fallen New York, The Division evokes a ludonarrative dissonance: „At its core, ludonarrative dissonance is the idea that when a game tells the player one thing through its story and environment, and then contradicts it through gameplay, the player becomes unimmersed and disconnected from the experience to a degree” (Makedonski 2012). In the case of The Division, it is not a contradictory development of gameplay and game world, but an increasing distance between the PC’s experiences in the game, the in-game (ethical) culture and the (ethical) culture he himself is rooted to in real life.
On the one side, the alienation of player from game develops through its generic use of stereotypical narratives. E.g., the game only deals with bioethical aspects in a most superficial, even often purely aesthetical manner. For example, the stereotype of a profit-driven pharmaceutical industry is reproduced in a side quest in which the PC follows the tracks of a missing agent and enters the buildings of the pharma company “Vexix”. In so-called “echoes”, hologram records of specific situations, he learns that before the collapse, the company was close to a breakthrough in the development of a vaccine. They then decided to delay the development in order to generate more research funding. It’s not problematic to implement popular tropes like this one. The problem is, that the critical perception of pharma industry stays in shallow waters and never leads to any conclusions for the PC.
Despite ethical implications, this does not mean that the game is “immoral” so much as problematically “amoral,” in that is does not seek to arrive at a moral, nor does the game play provide for a critical investigation of it’s absence. Further examples for this unreflective lack of morality on the narrative level are the impossibility of helping the desperate citizens in concrete situations, or the generalizing interpretation of looters in the game’s post-apocalyptic environment as morally corrupted beings (which also reminds me of the reinterpretation of looters in post-Katrina New Orleans (Johnson, Dolan and Sonnet 2011)). This binary value ascription seems arbitrary, even egocentric, since the player’s own autonomy is generally considered higher than that of others (and the player often loots himself).
This amorality is a characteristic which also regards the ludic sphere: The player is trapped within a cycle of biopolitical self-optimization (Apperley and Clemens 2016), which mainly affects his bio- and techno-functionality, but at no point refers to his relationship with his social environment. In other words, autonomy is proclaimed on the game level as a technocratic ideal without offering a space for the development of a moral ideal of autonomy of oneself or others (“for the people of New York”). In toto, although the game has been equipped extensively with an own deeper history and culture, a moral or political confrontation with the game world hardly takes place. Furthermore, although the PC influences the gameworld by playing quests and fulfilling tasks, the game world does not respond to him, either. Hence, player and world co-exist without any meaningful communication.
Overall, the game stays behind its potential and cannot be put in a line of tradition with outstanding ‘bioethical’ games like Bioshock (2K Boston 2007) or Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal 2011), or of “anti war games” like This War of Mine (11 Bit Studios 2014) or Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development 2012). These games have in common that they all question the player’s (moral) autonomy in a – mostly violent – conflict situation, which requires the player in response to develop a game immanent ethical culture as well as wider ethical reflection on his actions.
The mission of the game to restore order is a just as paternalistic as unreflective target situated in an extreme epidemiological situation. This task undermines itself, because not the repair of the broken window in the form of resistance to the disease and its consequences, but the enforcement of the player’s own techno-functional autonomy with all – mostly violent – means available, is the only given way to play The Division.
By doing so, The Division betrays its own gameworld. Even if we consider the scenario as a realistic one – and at least it seems to be a plausible setting – the somnambulant gameplay neither allows space for a psychological development of the PC (e.g. by implementing a trauma response), nor does it reflect on the pitfalls not only of such a gameworld, but also of the epidemiological and social strategies to cope with the depicted catastrophe. It’s an autistic experience in which people and their stories are reduced to devices of the stage design. In consequence, if this world is a mere periphery of an ego-centric player (and not the other way around), it finally denies the necessity to maintain culture and civilization as a set of collective norms for action, and it denies the normative purpose of medicine (to help). If this is true, a repair of the broken window is out of reach and all player efforts are meaningless in itself.
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