Virtual Worlds, Real Choices: What Blowing Up Megaton (or not) Taught Me About Myself

There’s no doubt that choice has always been an obsession amongst gamers and video game developers alike. Developers of games like Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, and Fallout 3 take pride in their ability to provide players with the experience of deciding for themselves exactly how plot lines will develop in their games. Choices in these games aren’t trivial or meaningless either. Every choice brings with it concrete consequences that the player can actually experience within the context of the game. Such games therefore define themselves by the string of choices and consequences they claim to allow players to create for themselves. So why are we gamers fixated on the idea of making and playing such games? I think the obsession we have with choice in video games is the symptom of a problem that lies at the very heart of the nature of free will itself.

The notion of free will has always been, and still is, a matter of philosophical debate. Advocates of free will claim that in the midst of all of the causal occurrences in their day to day lives, human beings have the ability to impose their will upon the world and alter the course of events that unfold in it. On the other hand, determinists maintain the opposing position, and claim that what we perceive as “choices” are just illusions. To the determinists, the choices we make are part of a causal system in which the outcome of every event, including the ones we believe are the result of our own free choice, is necessitated by the event preceding it. Whatever the case may be, I think its fair to say that both positions assert something about the world, just as much as they assert something about our place within it. The debate between advocates of free will and advocates of determinism is therefore a debate between competing worldviews as much as it is a debate between competing notions of an individual’s sense of existence in the world. So do we human beings truly have the ability to bring an element of choice into the world, as free agents, or are we just cogs within a causal machine? Is the world we live in a world of free will or a deterministic one?

Looking back on the trivial and meaningful “choices” that I believe I’ve made throughout my life, free will seems to me to be a notion caught in a state of limbo; I can neither prove nor disprove its existence. It seems that the most I can do to convince someone that I can truly make choices is to get them to agree with my unjustified belief that things could have turned out differently, had I acted differently in a past situation. The only proof I have of the existence of free will therefore seems to be grounded on the assumed truth of a past possibility, and is consequently not really proof at all. Convincing someone that I have free will simply because I believe I could have made an alternative choice, is pretty much begging the question: I have free will simply because I have free will. It seems then, that the temporal nature of the real world forces us to a corner where we can only resort to our belief in the notion of free will, to try and demonstrate its existence.

Someone could argue that proof our free will lies in the fact that we can actually refrain from making choices at all. We can reflect on specific moments in our lives, and refrain from making any kind of decision whatsoever. Our free will therefore proves itself through the possibilities we are confronted with, rather than the ones we’re forced to reminisce upon. That position only works however, if someone thinks they can just step outside the world and observe it from some kind of completely detached god-like standpoint. One could easily make the counter argument however, that refraining from choice is a choice in itself, which would then bring us back to the problem we started with. That’s not to say however that the world is a deterministic one either: absence of proof is, after all, not proof of absence. free will, when looked at from a subjective standpoint, is something elusory rather than illusory; we are forced to maintain an agnostic viewpoint, and neither accept nor reject the claim that we are in fact free agents in the world.

This all changes however when video games enter the picture. video games allow us to replicate and replay specific situations and contexts (present within the game) over and over again. When I play through a game like Mass Effect, I can actually start a new game all over again and have a specific event, such as the Geth’s invasion of the Citadel, recreated for me in minute detail, so I can play it one more time. Heavy Rain even allows me to pick exactly what section of the game I want to go back to and play over again. Unlike the real world then, I believe that video games are atemporal; they are, in the most literal sense, timeless. They provide us with fixed virtual worlds where we can move about back and forth freely, and experience multiple times. I think this means a lot when you look at choice-based video games especially.

In these games, not only am I able to recreate an entire event, up to the most minute detail, but I can actually alter the experience following it: Miranda or Jack? Megaton or no Megaton? The context is set and recreated for me in exact detail every single time, all I have to do is choose, and watch the various consequences of my choices unfold. Choice-based video games therefore seem to provide us with a luxury we don’t have in real life; a chance to demonstrate to ourselves that we really can make choices. The virtual worlds of choice-based video games are like playgrounds that allow us to play a game with ourselves, and more importantly, let ourselves know that we actually can. It is only through video games therefore that I believe we knowingly exercise our free will.

Is this necessarily the case though? One could plausibly argue that so-called “choice-based” video games do not in fact prove anything at all concerning free will and our existence as free agents in the world. After all, there is no escaping the fact that the virtual worlds presented to us through choice-based video games exist within the temporal real world. In that case, someone could also further argue that video games do not really replicate specific events that take place within the context of the game, and more importantly, they do not let us replay them either. What we perceive as choices in these games are therefore no better than the ones we believe we make in the real world, in which case, all our choices, whether real or virtual, could be nothing more than an illusion, and not really choices at all! We are then forced back into our agnostic position again, regarding the question of free will and our existence as free agents in the world.

Deep metaphysical questions aside, which I think this issue inevitably calls for, I think that such a view, although conceivable, is a bit unreasonable. Can I really deny that the moment in Mass Effect where I have to choose (for lack of a better word) between killing the Rachni Queen or letting her survive is different from the choice I had to make last time I played the game? Was it just a similar one and not the exact same one? It certainly seemed identical to it. What if I saved my game and loaded it instead of starting a new one altogether? Would my game be a different one every time I loaded it, even though I was loading what I believed to be the very “same” save file? I admit that all I can really resort to at this point are questions which I don’t really have any definite answers to, and I leave the reader to decide for him/herself whether they’d like to take the leap of faith with me, and believe that we do, in fact, make choices in these games.

It seems to me then that the obsession video-gamers have with choice-based video games is driven by a need to prove to ourselves that we are, in fact, free agents in the world. Our obsession with choice-based video games is therefore driven by a need that I believe we cannot satisfy in the time-constrained “real world”. video games also give us the added satisfaction of being very entertaining. They allow us to exercise our freewill under a myriad of contexts; some realistic others not. Some games try to replicate reality up to the most miniscule detail, while others go beyond it through over-the-top visuals and soundtracks. What ever our preferences may be, I believe that video games allows us to interact with the world as free agents, and enjoy ourselves at the same time.

In a 2009 interview with G4TV, David Cage, creator of Heavy Rain, said that he would like to have people play Heavy Rain just once. I am assuming he meant that by playing it that way, the game would feel more meaningful because the gaming experience would be a more authentic reflection of the choices we might have to make (or should hopefully never have to make) in real life. If that’s really what he meant, then I think he got the meaningfulness part wrong. For those looking for an authentic gaming experience, play Heavy Rain once. For those looking for a meaningful one, play it at least twice, and make sure you do something different the second and third time around. I believe that choice-based video games give us the chance to discover something about ourselves that is crucial to our sense of existence in the world as morally responsible beings. An opportunity to discover something about ourselves that would have otherwise remained concealed within the boundaries of the time-constrained real world; a world that, I believe, we should try to enhance, rather than replicate, within the virtual worlds of video games.