We love revolutionaries. We hate governments and organizations that mistreat, denigrate, or kill its people for personal gain. We love the story of the little guy standing up for what is right. We hate stories of those in power hiding from the Truth. We love the story of men and women stepping up to change the status quo for the better. It's a story writ large on American history. It's a story represented in our entertainment, again and again.
It's a story we do not like in the real world or in real time.
Baltimore is currently embroiled in conflict. As a resident of the DC Metro area, it's a conflict that's close to my mind. As an African-American, it's a conflict that's close to my heart. A young man named Freddie Gray was taken into police custody whole and left that custody with three fractured vertebrae in his spine and a crushed voice box. He later died. We have no clue why Gray was arrested, nor what happened to him in police custody to cause the injuries. The Baltimore police have offered no explanation, but suspended six officers to desk duty.
After five days of peaceful protest over the lack of information in Gray, actions on Saturday found the city of Baltimore fighting with itself. After ignoring the story prior, the media descended to cover the chaos. Public opinion is divided on those in Baltimore, a people without hope, without power, and without answers. Some of that opinion paints the entire community as thugs, malcontents, and criminals, the worst humanity has to offer. But this is not about the situation in Baltimore.
In our entertainment, many of our heroes would probably be on their side.
Two days ago, Sony Computer Entertainment America released a new gameplay trailer for Square Enix and Avalanche Studios' Just Cause 3. The game still stars Rico Rodriguez, the mercenary for hire code-named the Scorpion. Rico is back to destroy another locale, causing untold amounts of destruction to sow chaos and help the local rebels triumph over their government. Just Cause 3 actually brings Rico home, freeing the fictional island of Medici from yet another dictator.
I loved the hell out of Just Cause 2. Just running around causing chaos and destroying the island is a blast. Hijacking random vehicles, tethering objects together, going on random chases; Just Cause 2 is up there on my list of favored games because it gives you so much freedom. I'm looking forward to diving into Just Cause 3 this holiday season
I state my love for the series because I want you to know where I'm coming from. This is not even about Just Cause 3, that was merely the starting point of my thoughts. Looking at the trailer, what struck me is how in reality, Rico would probably be the villain. Torn down in the news and our social media for his actions. (Probably with good cause if they're talking about the Rico I play.)
There's a moral divide between the ideals formed by your actions in entertainment like Just Cause and our status quo in real life. This is true of most of our entertainment. Moral disengagement allows us to enjoy our entertainment even when it diverges heavily from our stated moral positions in real life.
It's why we want hot-shot cops in Lethal Weapon or Bad Boys to do whatever they need to bring in criminals to justice - excessive property damage, murder, torture, and planting evidence - while stating openly that those actions are wrong. We laud Batman in The Dark Knight Returns as he fights against the status quo for the little guy, but acknowledge his crusade is largely violent and incorrect. The cast of the Fast films destroy countless lives and property over the course of seven films, but they're our heroes.
This extends to our favorite games. Depending on your choices in Dragon Age: Inquisition, you may be an upstart who frees powerful mages from their sometimes-ruthless keepers. In Watch Dogs, hacker Aiden Pearce appoints himself above the law in order to get revenge for the death of his niece. Bioshock Infinite drops you into the middle of the floating city of Columbia, destroying the peaceful lives of the populace in order to complete your mission.
The problem isn't that these actions diverge from our morals. That's rather normal; these characters are an enhanced versions of us, many times without nuance or doubt. They know that someone is the bad guy, and they're usually right. The faceless drones you kill are merely those standing in the way of seeing to the greater good. The property isn't real, so the destruction is worth it for a better tomorrow. In many cases, our gaming heroes are able to do what we can't, without dealing with similar issues that would plague us. They're invested with power we may not have in our lives.
What's interesting is how these ideals and actions so completely differ from what we actually prize in real life. In fact, they're nearly opposites. The average person tends to prefer the status quo if it doesn't affect them negatively. Comfort supercedes progress and change. That means we'll prop up organizations and individuals that our heroes would fight against in entertainment, because we feel they're the only option or because they're "good enough". We will rationalize actions that we'd ascribe to a villain in a game as normal. "It is what it is." We will turn a blind eye, because in the end, we are cognitive misers, prone to shortcuts and bias that help us deal with the absolute assault of information that heads our way each day. It's harder to rationalize the experiences of a human miles away than it is to understand a fictional character we interact with on a daily basis.
Those people who fight and scrabble to change the status quo? They are the villains in real life. They are pilloried and hated... until they're not. During the May of 1968 in France, labor strikes and student protests turned violent. The government would later make concessions to the protest groups, including "higher wages and improved working conditions for workers" and "a major education reform bill intended to modernize higher education". The Stonewall Riots took place in the next year, when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar owned by the Mafia at the time. It was the last straw for much of the gay community. They moved away from the Mattachine Society, a homosexual civil rights group that preferred a more civil method of change, forming the Gay Liberation Front and later, the Gay Activists Alliance. Stonewall is considered the beginning of North America's gay rights movement.
Those are just two examples. These actions and many others like them were not loved when they occurred. In real life, that kind of action is wrong, but in our fiction, it's the opposite. Everything is flipped.
When Daredevil beats up a crooked cop in his television show, we applaud, but in the real world comic book vigilantes would be hunted and killed. In the first Assassin's Creed, Altair fights his own people to kill Al Mualim; imagine seeing his actions from the perspective of the Brotherhood or the citizens of Masyaf. Our heroes in Bravely Default fall into a quest that puts them in direct conflict with the ruling bodies of their world; the citizens should rightly vilify them and their actions, which end it what was essentially a military coup. The difference in entertainment is the ability to step into the shoes of our protagonist, to see their pains, their moral struggle, and their conflict from their perspective. We don't always agree with the actions we undertake in these games, but if a developer does it right, we at least understand them. That's a layer frequently lacking in real life.
We could do better, safe within our personal bubbles, to understand the experiences of those in such conflicts. Those in Baltimore, or the Arab Spring, or the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution don't just react because they feel like it. They react because they're tired, lost, and hopeless, and this is the last straw. Life is not a game, but perhaps if we could step into their shoes, like picking up the controller, and try to understand where they're coming from, things could be better.
If we could do that, then perhaps those we fight against and fight for in our entertainment might closer resemble their counterparts in the real world.