By Ooi Teck Chye
What is Spec Ops: The Line?
In a long-running video game series, Spec Ops: The Line, is the first release in 10 years. While the earlier titles were simple, straightforward military games, Spec Ops: The Line parades as one so it can really mess with your head. Instead of a review of this game, I want to discuss its relevance to ethics and how it is that we make decisions.
I’m a Good Person and So Are You
The game superbly meshes gameplay mechanics and story elements. Even the loading screens criticise modern military shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield. But what’s more interesting is the scope of the protagonist, Martin Walker’s decisions throughout the game.
Throughout the game, Walker makes a series of decisions which get progressively worse. His decisions increasingly endanger him and his team, and accordingly, they become less ethically defensible over time. Walker doggedly persists and defies orders only to stay in Dubai, and continue to make poor decisions. A mantra he repeats to himself and everyone around him is “It’s not my fault”.
Walker’s need to be a hero as he progresses through Dubai skews his self-perception: it makes him believe that he is morally upright. When contrasted with the atrocities he commits, the cognitive dissonance he experiences breaks him, and he has to believe that it’s not his fault in order to hold on to his belief that he is being a hero, and hence a morally upright person. This fundamental flaw in Walker — his need to be a hero — sets up the rest of his horrible choices throughout the rest of the story.
While not many of us may think of ourselves as heroes, or perhaps even desire to be one (though personally I think we do), we do like to think of ourselves as moral people; we believe deep down that we “do the right thing”. But herein lies the danger. Dogmatically holding on to this belief, that we do good things, allows us to ignore our own ethical transgressions, because we want to continue believing that we are good people.
What can we learn from Walker’s descent into madness? Well, for one, good people can sometimes end up doing bad things. We should therefore have our guard up, and learn to recognise when it is that we err. Only by recognising our moral failings can we act to prevent further transgressions. Most people can, given a hypothetical ethical scenario, point out the “right” choice to make, but when it comes to actually making the choice we see people falter and fail their moral judgments.
The Lies We Tell Ourselves
Walker uses flimsy reasoning to justify his actions in the game – reasoning that may not seem all that uncommon to those of us who have ever been confronted with an ethical dilemma. The first of these is what we might call a “false dilemma”. Classically this refers to a situation where we erroneously believe there to be only two choices when in fact there are more. A major recurring theme in the game is Walker’s insistence that “we/I had no choice”. This is usually responded to with “there is always a choice”. Indeed, for Walker, there was always a choice, and for many of us in ethical dilemmas, there is usually a choice, just not one we are happy to take. I’d venture a guess and say that when we claim there isn’t a choice, we aren’t usually looking too hard for one; Walker certainly wasn’t, he wanted to be a hero.
Another way Walker justifies his actions is by believing that his enemies deserve what he’s done to them. After Walker uses white phosphorus on an enemy position, a dying soldier chokes out a “Why?”, to which Walker answers “You brought this on yourself”. Walker goes on about making them “pay for what they’ve done” and it is clear that he believes his actions are justified. This is possibly more insidious, because who among us hasn’t felt the urge to “get back” at people we don’t like? We may tell ourselves things like “he’s a jerk, he deserves it” when bad things happen to people, but this should not actually excuse our own unethical actions, because the fact remains that we acted unethically, and two wrongs don’t make a right: doing bad things to bad people is still doing bad things.
Ultimately, all of Walker’s faulty reasoning stems from a need to justify to himself; it is as if he thinks that after all he’s done, he is still a hero, like he believes. The game also takes a jab at the player with a line of dialogue ostensibly aimed at Walker: “The truth is, you’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: a hero.” So what can we learn from this, in summary? Don’t be a hero? Well, that certainly helps, but I think that misses the mark. The original intention of the game developers was to get gamers to examine the status of military shooters as harmless entertainment, so it’s not as if this was a key part of the message.
One thing we can learn from this game is the need for constant self-reflection. If Walker had stopped to ask himself how certain he was that he was doing the right thing, things might have turned out differently for him. It was his refusal to consider anything but the notion that he’s a hero that leads to all his faulty reasoning afterwards. The choices Walker makes are, after a certain point, very obviously unethical, and any person could have pointed out just how wrong they are. Yet, a strong point of the game is in the characterization of Walker, showing us how and why he might have felt justified even though we as observers can see exactly why he’s wrong. The lesson is that Walker, in the moment, could have made the same observations, if only he’d stopped for a moment to think, and indeed afterwards, when he has time to stop and consider his actions, he immediately realises just how wrong they are, but that doesn’t help anyone anymore. So, a key takeaway from Spec Ops: The Line – always take time to reflect. Who said video games can’t help educate us?
- Croshaw, B. (2012). Crossing Spec Ops: The Line. The Escapist. Retrieved 30 May 2017, from http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/video-games/columns/extra-punctuation/9810-Crossing-Spec-Ops-The-Line
- Croshaw, B. (2012). Zero Punctuation – Spec Ops: The Line. Retrieved from http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/6021-Spec-Ops-The-Line
Image Credits: candybanana, hardcoregamer