Is “fun” a moral good?

A developer diary and reflection on the aesthetics and politics of entertainment.

Do we consider things we enjoy to be moral positives? This is something that crossed my mind as I began to develop my game RED GLARE. The game began as a concept revolving around firing and reflecting homing missiles, set in a format similar to that of Defender or Fantasy Zone.

left: Defender | right: Fantasy Zone

The idea was that you’d pilot a mech and destroy targeted bases to build up a cash reserve you could use to further update your weaponry. As the game progressed it started to look a bit darker. “What if,” I asked myself, “the mech wasn’t something that was piloted by controlled remotely? What if it was nothing more than an updated drone?” The idea took root and the game quickly began to take on the aesthetics of military drones, and of course the politics of them. In fact, you may have noticed the title of the game RED GLARE, makes direct reference to the first verse of the United States national anthem:

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The vision was, simply put, to make a game about the damages and costs of drone warfare.

the last development video for RED GLARE, where you can begin to see how it takes on drone aesthetics

It would take the idea of the power fantasy, give you overwhelming force, and leave you no choice but to cause collateral damage. Even more, it would egg you to cause more damage by giving you corporate funding for more thorough destruction.

left: Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare mission “Death from Above” | right: military drone targeting system

It was Modern Warfare’s “Death from Above” dragged across a whole game. The dehumanization, the overwhelming force, the emotional distance as you simply ended life. In a lot of ways, it’s not that different from the way games often treat deaths, it would just wear it in the open.

Videogames have a long history within the US military. Early game efforts were create by universities directly funded by the Pentagon, and developers have worked back and forth with the military to develop more realistic games or to create recruiting tools such as America’s Army. In recent years military contractors have even taken to use Xbox controllers as interfaces for their weapons and there is an increasing refrain of “it’s like playing a videogame” from drone operators in recent years. We’re increasingly reaching, and desiring, fewer barriers between war and games.

The game would be set in a framing around a “just war”. One set as a retaliatory effort for an attack on your country. What is obfuscated, however, is that the initial attack itself was a retaliation for innocents killed during a military test. It would end in a scene making an allusion to the final moments of The Hurt Locker, in which the character is overwhelmed by the choices, security, and mundanity of everyday life. Except in this one, every person you killed across the game would return in a vision to overwhelm you.

The Hurt Locker

As I built this concept I began to wonder, “Is there anyway to build this without being exploitative?” It was a very fine line to walk, one that easily could have backfired on my intentions. Even worse however, was the idea that by placing you as the force causing the damage I might actually be making you empathize with the oppressor.

This brings me to my main point: is there any way to truly deliver a subversive message while giving your players something “fun”? Will the overwhelming power fantasy override any feelings of horror that the framing or narrative could bring? Does control of an avatar impose a sense of empathy by default? There seems to be, at least on some level, this expectation of pleasure as a moral good. There’s an overriding hedonistic philosophy in this medium, or arguably, even in the larger culture. It seems why, in part, why we become so defensive about the value of the things we enjoy. To think of what we enjoy as “bad” means a moral judgement upon ourselves.

I began to wonder if Truffaut Was Right, and if it was truly impossible to depict something reprehensible without inherently glorifying it. It seemed wrong to build something around such sensitive issues and moral lines, especially within a culture that so often glorified the exact things that I was taking aim at. There was too much cultural encouragement of it, too many underlying violent, oppressive sentiments to trust others to look past to my intended message.

RED GLARE still exists on my hard drive in its most basic forms. I still wonder if it can be salvaged into anything I feel comfortable with.