Decisions, Decisions…

“Ethical” Choices in Knights of the Old Republic

This weeks blog comes to us from Zach DiMiele (GC Alum 2011). Zach is in the final months of his Master of Divinity and Duke Divinity School (2016) and is pursuing ordination in the Free Methodist Church. His current interests are in ethics, media, epistemology, and ecclesiology, seen through a liberationist lens.

In 2003 BioWare released one of the most enduringly beloved video games of the 00’s: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR). KOTOR has consistently showed up on ‘best of’ lists, and I myself have played through it several times. Its initial hype was due in part to its emphasis on ethical choice, purporting to give players the choice between the light-side and the dark-side. The actions the player commits are not reducible to simply styles of gameplay as in, for instance, the Elder Scrolls franchise. Rather, the player is required to make role-playing decisions with an assigned moral value that is either positive (light side) or negative (dark side).

So what does KOTOR tell us about ethical decisions? Consider one example, seen here:

As you walk along the pathways of an elevated city on the planet of Taris, you come across a couple of bounty hunters putting the squeeze on a random, unnamed but unfortunate man. What to do, what to do? Thankfully, predetermined game mechanics save you the trouble of appreciating the complexities of such a serious situation.

At the not-so-subtle nudging of your compatriot, you are compelled to act. The gangsters overhear and confront you. What options remain to you? As the game ostensibly markets the opportunity for you to become a galactic peacemaker, perhaps a nonviolent solution could have been a creative roleplaying option? Alas! In KOTOR — as in most video games — violence is both necessary and inevitable. No matter what, you are going to kill these people. So the game is not so much posing the question of “what is ethical action?,” but the narrower (and less imaginative) question, “under what circumstances is it ethical to kill?”

In this and most other scenarios presenting “ethical” choices, the player is caught up in the mechanism of the game and finds that she can do naught else but kill. So, does KOTOR represent the way that we make ethical decisions? Well… yes and no.

Consider the testimony of Robert McNamara in the documentary The Fog of War. In this video, he outlines the calculus that guided the decision to firebomb Tokyo in World War II. He readily admits this was a war crime that resulted in the death of 100,000 civilians. Consider also a briefer clip in which McNamara claims, “Well, I was part of a mechanism that in a sense recommended it.”

In KOTOR, the player is also part of a mechanism that, in a very real sense, recommends violence. There are no other options for the player because the mechanism (the game itself) does not allow for them. The developers of the game programmed this exact situation, and so predetermined the player’s actions. All that remains to the player, much like McNamara, is the question of how to narrate the “choice” to kill. The narration constructs the moral value for both KOTOR and McNamara.

So, what moral value would KOTOR have assigned to McNamara’s decision? Would firebombing Tokyo have brought him closer to the dark side, or the light?

If this formulation seems overly simplistic, that’s because it is. The problem is that, despite its 3-D graphics, KOTOR represents a rather 2-dimensional attempt to engage in an already problematic tendency among ethicists. I’m talking about “quandary ethics.”

We all know quandary ethics, even if we haven’t heard that term before. Any contrived story that places you at the helm of a train with a revolver, or coming across a drowning person while wearing expensive boots is a “quandary ethics” scenario. Even more popular is the hypothetical question offered almost without exception to those advocating nonviolence: What would you do if your family was attacked by an armed assailant? Or recall the question at 2:58 in the video: “Do you mean to say, that instead killing 100,000 Japanese civilians, we should have burned to death a lesser number, or none, and then had our soldiers cross the beaches in Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands?” These questions are all more rhetorical than hypothetical because it is clear that the asker will not accept any answer other than one that accepts and endorses violence as a solution to the given situation.

So quandary ethics come to us in the form of a problem, but it is an abstract problem in the guise of a concrete one. When given a quandary to consider, we should want to know more about the dynamics: who are these people? What is their story? But these questions are irrelevant to an ethic that is constructed around abstracts. Just like the account in the video that disregards the death of one wingman in light of the “larger victory” of killing 100,000 civilians. KOTOR offers a similar smokescreen. Its problems cannot supply the answers to our questions, demonstrating the fundamentally abstract nature of this mode of inquiry.

This is a position that should make Christians uncomfortable. As Christian ethicist Amy Laura Hall writes, “To view any person as individually intricate and uniquely problematic is a gift of the Lord’s Supper, a gift possible as we perceive one another as of the same body that is a church.” (You can, and should, read her much better article on which I am drawing here). Ethical decisions are complex, but we do not ascend to the moral high ground by taking a “gods-eye view” of the situation. That is exactly the opposite of what Christians proclaim that God has done in the Incarnation (think of Paul’s words to the Philippians here).

So what does KOTOR tell us about ethical decisions? Beyond teaching us to remain caught up in mechanisms that recommend violence, not much. How we narrate our ethical decisions is a vital aspect of the decision itself, and so KOTOR mimics our choice in this way. But as it abstracts our choice from any narration that relies on other people’s stories, it only succeeds in echoing our worst tendencies. A Christian ethic requires a considerable attention to detail, but the “devil is in the details” and he would rather not be seen

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