A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
– Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
This is more of a thought experiment than a carefully crafted essay, so please bear with me. My research looks at how conceptions of heroism are negotiated across various media forms, with a particular emphasis on videogames. Videogames are teeming with heroes of all sorts, and they’re becoming an increasingly important space for defining who is, and who isn’t a hero. So when I saw that alleged murderer and cop-killer Chris Dorner had been hailed a “hero” by a surprising number of people, I couldn’t help but think – Could you make a videogame about Chris Dorner? If so, what would it look like? And if not, then why not?
After all, playing as an anti-hero or even the outright “villain” is not all that rare in videogames. GTA IV allows and at times encourages the player to battle it out with virtual police officers, and although it gets some heat for it, that’s typically fine. Now what if you replaced “Nico Bellic” with “Chris Dorner?” Something clearly changes, but what exactly? The gameplay doesn’t change; the procedures and processes don’t change; the coding doesn’t change (much). Yet, I think most would agree that this act of renaming seems to change something, at least on the surface. Clearly, this is largely hypothetical, but it does bring up some interesting questions about naming in videogames. I think it also demonstrates that games are not played in vacuums, and that extra ludic information has a lot to do with how we understand them.
I’ll outline the key points of the Dorner case before discussing how videogames might help us think about heroism in general, and this case in particular. I’ll conclude with a brief look at Spec Ops: The Line, which has garnered significant attention for its treatment of heroism.
The Dorner Case
The Chris Dorner case came to a violent end last week and was unusual in many respects. For starters, he was an ex-cop targeting members of the LAPD and their families. Ultimately, five people were killed, including a retired police captain’s daughter, Monica Quan, 28, and her fiancé, Keith Lawrence, 27. Regardless of your position on Dorner’s case, these deaths seem particularly senseless and indefensible. Moreover, not only was he an ex-cop, but a black ex-cop, openly accusing the LAPD of racism, corruption, and systemic cover ups. This resonated in a community which has seen its share of controversial police actions, especially against visible minorities.
Most surprising of all, perhaps, is the intense support Dorner received from huge swaths of the general public. Indeed, to many, he was a hero, a Batman like figure, single-handedly taking down a corrupt, evil organization which has “gotten away with it” for far too long. Dozens of pro-Dorner Facebook pages have sprung up, and many explicitly refer to him as a hero. This Facebook group, “We Stand With Christopher Dorner” currently has over 27,500 likes. There is even a Twitter hashtag #TeamDorner, which also voices support for Dorner, although as far as I could tell most tweets using this hashtag were critical of it. In the Dorner case, social media gave us access to the machinations of hero negotiations in real time.
This seems twisted to many but maybe it’s not so surprising after all. Although the roles are perhaps “reversed,” we still see the typical hero’s journey at play here: A lone, heavily outnumbered figure crusades against an evil and corrupt force. Until now, no one has dared to take on the enemy. He will right all the wrongs they have committed, through any means necessary. Sure, there is all sorts of nastiness and killing, but that’s what heroes do, after all. Notwithstanding the overused sense of the term we see everyday (“Nominate your local hero!”) heroism has always had to do with killing and dying, from Gilgamesh to Clinton Romesha. In the Dorner case, the “good guys” and “bad guys” may have switched positions, but the narrative structure of Campbell’s monomyth remains nevertheless.
Videogames: The Heroic Medium
So what does this have to do with videogames? Well, videogames are largely – though not exclusively – a heroic medium. As Jane McGonigal argues in Reality is Broken (2011), videogames often involve heroic characters, heroic situations, and heroic actions with epic consequences. There are very few games about Accountants. Even if you ignore the explicit rhetoric of heroism so prevalent in the industry – especially in the Shooter and RPG genres, at a basic level a game is a place in which to quantifiably demonstrate skill, self-worth, and in agonistic games, to claim victory. But when you add in heroic images (hyper-masculine soldier), stories (save the world), and actions (combat), then you get a bunch of heroisms layered on top of one another, interacting with each other, and producing a variety of rhetorical effects.
With this in mind, a game featuring Chris Dorner could take many forms. He could be a protagonist facing off against a villainous LAPD. Maybe this game would look like CoD, or GTA, wherein Dorner shoots it out with the police. Or maybe it would look like Arkham City, or even Skyrim, wherein Dorner must save the city, or realm, and each cop killed earns a certain number of experience points. In all cases, a lone figure battles for a “noble” cause against a superior, menacing force. Yet, these ludic forms only work if you place Dorner into the heroic role. The majority of people would probably take the opposite route, and place Dorner into the villain or “boss” role. Your own conceptions of heroism will vastly change your game about Dorner: Is he a final, evil “boss,” who terrorizes a community? Or is he a hero and a martyr, battling against the forces of evil and corruption? Put another way, if you had to feature Dorner in a videogame, what part would he play? And on the flip side of that equation, what part would the police play?
During their hunt for Dorner, the police were very understandably on edge. So much so that they opened fire on a truck driven by a newspaper carrier, Margie Carranza, 47, and her elderly mother, Emma Hernandez, 71.
Neither the vehicle nor the occupants of the vehicle matched Dorner’s description, and according to Carranza and Hernandez, they had no idea something was amiss until dozens of rounds were fired into their truck. An internal investigation is under way, and although I completely understand that officers found themselves in a very tense, scary situation, such indiscriminate use of a weapon is, frankly, inexcusable. So should the officers be punished?
Well let’s think about that question in terms of a videogame. If you play a game as a police officer (or soldier), what typically happens when you kill an “innocent,” such as a civilian? Most of the time, you fail the mission. And why? Because killing civilians is not what police do; it goes completely against their procedural rhetoric. A police officer killing a civilian completely upends the moral order of things. From my own play experiences, I can’t count the number of times a civilian has ran right in front of my line of fire while I’m battling bad guys; no, I didn’t mean to kill the civilian, but dead is dead, intentions be damned, and I’m penalized for it. Even outside of videogames, one can imagine a police training course, which requires the officer to shoot the hostage takers but not the hostages, for instance. One would assume that shooting a hostage would count as a fail condition. Thus, according to the procedural rhetoric of the training course, you’d expect the members involved in this shooting to be held accountable.
Spec Ops: The Line
Over the past few years, both independent and major game studios have begun moving away from the unambiguous videogame hero, at least in some respects. In games like GTA IV, the player is not only allowed, but encouraged to commit violent crimes, even if Niko Bellic does have a good heart. Jonathan Blow’s Braid (2008) and Konami’s Metal Gear Solid (1998) have also toyed with simplistic heroic binaries, to varying levels of success. Yager/2K’s Spec Ops: The Line which came out last June, is probably the most recent and high-profile game to address videogame heroism in general, and the heroism of the American soldier in particular. In many ways, Spec Ops: The Line (SO) feels like a typical third person shooter. Like other popular games in the genre – Kill Switch, Gears of War, etc. – the player plays as an American Special Operations soldier, killing enemies with guns and explosives throughout the game.
However, SO ultimately tries to complicate the unequivocal rhetorics of patriotism, heroism and moral righteousness which characterise most shooters. Brendan Keogh has written a wonderful ebook about the game and this subject, entitled Killing is Harmless. His central point is that SO is a meta-shooter that openly and explicitly critiques the genre. As he puts it on his website
When I finished playing The Line, I was left with a whole heap of questions. These questions the game left me with were largely to do with the nature of virtual acts of violence, but also some further questions to do with Western interventionism and wars conducted via proxies.
I didn’t have the same response to the game as Keogh – I found it heavy handed – but I definitely like the attempt to shake things up.
This is probably most evident in the now infamous “White Phosphorous” section, in which the hero-player, Walker, is confronted with a sizeable enemy force blocking his way to a heroic objective – saving civilians. Walker only has two other guys with him, so they don’t have the capabilities to attack. Luckily for Walker and his team, there just so happens to be an artillery gun nearby which fires White Phosphorous (WP) rounds. WP is nasty stuff; it is an incendiary round which burns at very high temperatures. The player gets a God’s eye view of the battlefield via a thermal imaging interface, and selects targets for bombardment. It’s tough to make out what’s what, but the player targets some tanks and firing soldiers, and a big clump of enemy infantry all huddled together. Eventually, the player’s astute aim incinerates the entire battlefield. In most games, after such a victory the player will typically receive a “well done” either ludically or narratologically, but not in SO.
Instead, Walker approaches the burning battlefield, and is horrified to find that those tanks weren’t hostile after all, but friendly, and those large clumps of people weren’t enemy infantry, but the very civilians he was trying to protect. Everywhere Walker looks, there are badly burned soldiers begging to be killed, and charred remains of dead mothers holding their dead children. Narrative designer Richard Pearsey explains his thoughts on the scene, and comments on some of the testers’ reactions:
A lot of [players] at that point – they can’t watch what they’re seeing … which puts [the player] and [Walker] in an identical psychological state … because that’s what you’re doing and that’s what the player is dealing with to a degree. The city is burning and you’re the ones who burned it. (via Polygon)
Walker tries to be a hero, and in his attempt ends up committing irreparable harm. Which brings me back to the Chris Dorner case. If you’ve read his manifesto, you know that he saw himself as a hero fighting a righteous cause. However, Dorner ultimately undermines his hero story by killing innocent people along the way.
I find heroes interesting because they can tell you a lot about the attitudes, values, and beliefs of the groups from which they emerge. Ask yourself, “Who are my heroes?” and the answer says a lot about the qualities you most admire. So could you make a game which featured Chris Dorner as a hero? The answer to that question depends on your conception of the heroic. For me, the answer is no. Even if you do see the police as a malevolent force, Monica Quan and Keith Lawrence never signed up for violence. That is not in any way to justify Dorner’s actions against the police, but instances of armed insurrection against the powers that be have a long and celebrated history, especially in the United States. So if you’re the type of person who views police as tyrannical, corrupt, and violent, then anyone who opposes them is a potential hero. Again, I don’t condone it, but I get it. But what I don’t get, and what precludes Dorner from hero status – structurally, and morally – is his killing of two young people, who had no part in anything.
I couldn’t place Dorner as the hero in my game; at best he’d be a complicated villain. But the people in the FB groups could, and that tells us a great deal about their values. More than that, however, the fact that someone like Dorner could be valorized so greatly also tells us something about the declining faith in the old heroes, and maybe that’s being reflected in our videogames as well. Police may have once claimed a nearly universal “hero” status, but this status has, I think, been eroded considerably, especially after high profile cases of perceived injustice. Thus, for some people it is becoming less and less difficult to vilify the police, and consequently, to valorize those who fight them.