Virtual Morality

October 17, 2008

I came across this essay yesterday and I think it definitely fits within the realm of our class discussions – when it comes to online / video game universes:

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“Either we will be forced to concede that as long as no ‘other’ is being harmed, people are free to do absolutely anything (torture, rape, molest, murder, etc.), or we will conclude that morality does indeed have a place in virtual worlds.”

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Technology is dragging morality into some deep and murky philosophical waters, forcing us to reexamine our understanding of it as many of us choose to become actors in virtual worlds. By putting choice and consequence in closed virtual worlds where we can kill without harming others or facing punishment ourselves, we are forced to reconsider the case for moral behavior. New videogames such as Grand Theft Auto IV and online communities such as Second Life, invite an increasingly large percentage of society to participate in fantasy worlds where we are invited to experience life without rules – to be the bad guy or the sexual deviant. The implicit suggestion of these products is that, like gravity, morality does not necessarily exist in a virtual world. Morality and consequence can be switched off. Anything goes. It’s an attractive proposition, one that undoubtedly contributed to the record breaking sales of Grand Theft Auto IV, which took in over $500 million in its first week. Morally questionable behavior provided by the game now includes lap dances, sex with prostitutes, killing prostitutes, killing cops, and of course, stealing auto

Although Grand Theft Auto IV allows you to kill anything that walks, you cannot (yet) sex anything that walks. Sex in the game is restricted to prostitutes who willingly engage. This design choice has allowed the game maker, Rockstar Games, to negate some particularly unsettling in-game situations such as virtual rape or virtual pedophilia. Though I believe there would be a public outcry if such morally repellent things were included in the game, explaining exactly why virtual sex and murder are acceptable – while virtual rape is not – is a difficult argument.

The issue typically discussed around violent games such as Grand Theft Auto is that the violence or sexual behavior of the virtual worlds will surface in the real world – that violent games will eventually create violent people who do horrific things (videogames were repeatedly blamed following both Columbine and Virginia Tech. massacres, for instance). But there is another concern that has gone largely unaddressed that will become increasingly perplexing as videogames create better, more immersive models of reality: am I free to do anything I want in a virtual world, or are some things inherently wrong?

The Matrix Revolutions hints at the complicated relationship between morality and virtual reality through a subplot involving a husband, The Merovingian, and his wife, Persephone. Set in a future age where simulations of people – programs – are largely indistinguishable from real people, the Merovingian has a sexual tryst with a stunning blonde-haired program. Persephone takes revenge on her husband for his sexual dalliances by betraying him to the story’s protagonists. In the scene of his betrayal, The Merovingian confronts Persephone, demanding to know the cause of her disloyalty. Persephone suggests her cause was her husband’s own sexual disloyalty. Unable to refute her claim, the Merovingian points out that he has not been with a woman, he has been with a computer program. “It’s just a game,” he says. The essence of his argument is that morality is meant for governing how people interact with people, not how people interact with machines. Persephone offers no counterargument, and none is required. Regardless of any philosophical arguments, she feels offended by her husband’s infidelity. This is one example, albeit a fictional one, which dispels the notion that virtual behavior has no real-world consequences.

Liberty City, the virtual world of Grand Theft Auto IV, is a much simpler virtual reality than that of The Matrix, but the essential questions of the role of morality within it still apply. The Merovingian’s argument for sexual infidelity – it’s just a game – is presumably the same argument used to justify Grand Theft Autos IV’s virtual lap dances and killings. To be sure, the killing of a fictional character in a videogame cannot be judged on the same moral grounds as the killing of a person in the real world, but The Matrix suggests that morality and consequence cannot simply be ignored in virtual worlds.

The 2002 film Minority Report, based on Phillip K. Dick’s short fiction, also projects a future in which there is a convergence of sexuality and technology. Minority Report imagines brothels of the future where people purchase sexual fantasies made possible via technology. The film doesn’t explore the moral implications of such technological innovation, but rather provides a picture of how technology can complicate our ideas about sex and what constitutes moral sexual conduct. In the wake of this kind of technological innovation, individuals as well as entire religious bodies will be forced to clarify exactly what it means to be faithful to one’s partner. A second, perhaps more difficult question, also quickly follows: what kinds of fantasies should be condoned?

This question was recently debated in the online community of Second Life when it was found that certain members who presented themselves to the online world as children were engaging in virtual sexual acts with adult characters. This may have been allowed to go on, except that some actual child pornographic material was uploaded into the virtual world. Something interesting happened when Second Life’s creator and controlling company, Linden Lab, issued a warning that such activity would not be tolerated. Some of the participants became angry, suggesting that Linden Lab has no business moderating the kinds of fantasies consenting adults participate in. It’s a fight between people who see no moral boundaries in virtual worlds, and those who maintain that there is a place for morality in virtual worlds.

Religion takes an entirely different approach to morality than the model which governs society. Our legal systems attempt to enforce a moral standard upon the way people interact with each other. The purpose of state-imposed morality is to prevent harm. While secular morality condemns actions that harm others (precisely because they harm others), religion is more concerned with what offends God. From a religious perspective, harming your neighbor is wrong not only because it causes your neighbor pain, but also because your action makes God angry. This perspective shifts the gaze of morality from other to God. The first five commandments of the Decalogue do not address the mistreatment of one’s neighbor (e.g. lying, stealing, murdering, committing adultery), but rather man’s approach to God (e.g. creating idols, taking the Lord’s name in vain, keeping the Sabbath day holy).

When Jesus began teaching and interpreting the moral code of the day, he radically redefined adultery, translocating the sin from the physical realm of actions and words to the virtual world of the mind and imagination. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” What Jesus teaches is that God is concerned not only with what plays out in the physical world of actions (reality), but also with what takes place in the virtual world of our minds. A sociological approach to morality judges murder wrong because it harms an innocent person. A theological approach to morality finds murder sinful not only because of the physical act, but also because God is offended by an angry mind as well as violent hands. The humanist or secular view of morality is concerned only with what we do. True religious morality is concerned not only with what we do, but with who we are, with what we desire to do.

In virtual spaces, questions of moral behavior seem to have been passed over entirely, perhaps because, until recently, few games have been specifically designed to allow people to virtually participate in morally reprehensible behavior. The record-breaking sales of the Grand Theft Auto series guarantee that this will soon change. Such a huge market for the game has shown that there is a collective desire to immerse oneself in virtual misbehavior. The market demand for virtual lawlessness guarantees that developers will soon be rushing to the marketplace with games that offer increasingly realistic worlds and potential for morally suspect behaviour. How we will act in those worlds, and whether we object to their content, will stem from our understanding of the source of morality. Either we will be forced to concede that as long as no ‘other’ is being harmed, people are free to do absolutely anything (torture, rape, molest, murder, etc.), or we will conclude that morality does indeed have a place in virtual worlds.


October 17, 2008

Considered to be the greatest film of all time, at yesterday’s Reading the Screen class, we watched, “CITIZEN KANE” by Orson Welles. Ironically enough, the night before on BRAVO, they showed, “RKO 281” the film made a few years ago about the making of, “CITIZEN KANE” starring Liev Shreiber and John Malkovich.


CITIZEN KANE – opening clip

CITIZEN KANE – News on the March

CITIZEN KANE = #1 on the American Film Institute Top 100 Greatest Movies

– bold, sans serif, outlined type
– moody, sombre music score – misty scenery, deserted castle
– one lonely light on in the bedroom
– ROSEBUD – drops toy – nurse comes in – miniature camera used inside toy
– NEWS ON THE MARCH – Xanadu’s landlord – the loot of the world
– since the pyramids, xanadu’s man’s largest monument to himself
– greatest newspaper tycoon of his time
– “The words Charles Foster Kane are a menace to the workingman”
– “I am and always have been…an American.”
– the still unfinished Xanadu – cost…no man can say
– take my word for it…there will be no war…
– as it does to all men, death came to Charles Foster Kane
– What were Kane’s last words?
– ROSEBUD – dead or alive
– Walter Thatcher memorial library looks like a gigantic tomb
– solitary sunlight illuminating the safe room – looks like fort knox – more valuable then gold
– we see Kane as a young boy with his sled and acting with fun
– his father is concerned for the boy’s well being yet the mother is more than happy to sell him off to the bank
– his mother has had Charles’ trunk packed for a week – she seems like a sociopath with no feeling at all
– snow slowly builds on the sled – solitary and alone
– “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!”
– he’s just having fun with the news stories and seems to be enjoying it
– Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel
– it is also my pleasure to look out after the hardworking man
– at the rate of losing $1 million a year, I will have to close this place in…60 years
– if I hadn’t been rich…I could have been a great man
– there’s also the chance that they will change mr. kane without him knowing it
– people will think what I tell them to think…
– great cut scenes showing the passage of time over the breakfast table
– Kane got splashed by a horse carriage driving over a puddle

RKO 281 – Trailer

Reading the Screen – class notes and film clips

October 17, 2008

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance – Trailer

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance – clip

In-class discussion:

mother earth – many women were interviewed – native culture had women in powerful positions in the tribe as opposed to european cultures

remarkable part of this film showed the canadian military in a negative light – where is the federal government in all of this crisis?
point of view is taken from the natives – she stayed with her people and moved with them the entire time – the lens was always from the mohawk perspective

talking heads and voice overs / staged or scripted?

subject-centred arguments / euphemematic – you get a lot more power of suggestion and widespread opinion

how did the film maker try to deal with euro-centric points of view?
– she did show both sides of view about the bridge
– interviewed the white male doctor who’s first reaction was anger, but who later changed his POV
– mayor of Oka is presented as cowardly and racist vs. the government we see in the native band
– showed the graveyard in the pines looking out at the golf course – camera pulled back and showed the native perspective of white encroachment

My Film Critique and Response:

I had the chance to view the film, “Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance” over the weekend seeing as I had missed last week’s screening class. I have to say that I found the film to be a very interesting and engaging piece of film making as well as being a good social commentary on the Oka Crisis as a whole. It succeeded in bringing into perspective the plight of the Mohawk people over the past 270 years in their dealings with White Canadians, the Church in particular and how they had been cheated out of their land. Particular emphasis was placed on the Surete du Quebec and the Mayor of Oka as well who  should have rightfully have had an independent inquiry into their strong arm reactions before, during and after the crisis.

Where I do find fault however is in the film maker’s depiction of the Canadian Army. For better or for worse, I believe that the Federal Government made the correct decision to send the Canadian Army to secure the perimeter of the area and to allow both the Mohawks and Surete du Quebec to fall back to pre-established positions. As outsiders to the situation and not having faced the possibility of losing their land or having watched one of their comrades killed in the opening assault, I thought that they showed great restraint at the handling of the situation as a whole (other then the one incident when one of the Mohawks was beaten one night). As far as the comments made by some of the Mohawk warriors laughing at the sight of the soldiers installing barbed wire in the water, imagine being one of the Canadian Army officers trying to keep your men motivated and engaged during what was obviously a very stressful and trying situation. One of the basic tenants of any army is the fact that soldiers need to be constantly tested and kept active. Many an army officer has made his platoon of soldiers dig trenches one day to only cover them all up the very next day.

Another major flaw that I saw in the film was in the handling of then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s response to the crisis. As the ultimate Commander in Chief of the Canadian Army forces sent in to contain the situation, he is only seen in one brief clip complaining, “We will not be dictated by armed people, some of whom aren’t even Canadian.” The sentiment of that clip was taken completely out of context, and is shown as to refer to Mulroney’s belief that the Mohawks were not in fact Canadian citizens. The truth of the matter however, given the fact that I grew up during the crisis, is that Mulroney was in fact referring to American Mohawk warriors who had come across the border to join their Canadian tribesmen and were making their own demands as well. Which brings up my earlier point about the barbed wire in the lake; while the chances of weapons being delivered by boat was low, the goal of the drill was to stop the very remote possibility of weapons and other supplies from being delivered to the Treatment Centre over the lake, and also as a means to keep their soldiers active and engaged.

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DOCUMENTARY – these people, places do in fact exist and the viewer accepts the information on the basis of trust

MOCKUMENTARY – fake people, fake story line yet made to look legitimate

Films INSPIRED by a true story!!!

Categorical Documentary – to convey information about the world to audiences

Rhetorical Documentary – to present a persuasive argument, to persuade the audience to adopt an opinion about the subject and to act on that opinion

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compilation – images from archival footage
interviews – talking heads
direct cinema – cinema verite
synthetic – uses several options
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SOLUTION BASED documentary

“The River” – rhetorical film made in 1938 by the US Federal government as part of The New Deal by FDR to create jobs during the Depression
– the “problem of the land” – narrator speaks poetically rather then lecturing – emotional music to pull at your heart strings
– lot of close ups – intimate camera to get you close to the land

– yankee doodle dandee music showing logging camps and rivers
– industry – power – might of the country
– reminds me of Soviet propaganda films
– wheat / cotton being loaded onto ships

– new scene and new cringing music piece showing clear-cut forests
– “And sent it down the river…”
– water comes downhill and causes floods due to the lack of forests to absorb it
– dum dum dum dum dum = drip drip drip drip drip = raging floods now
– narrator’s voice is now booming to emphasize the poetry of his words
– air raid siren and fog horns go off – RIVER RISING!!!
– men, food, coast guard, medicine needed in every town up and down the rivers all over the country
– lists off the years that the major rivers flooded over their banks

THIN BLUE LINE – by Errol Morris

– 8 years after the murder, Errol Morris – convicted man ended up being freed – Randal Adams
– similar to Truman Capote’s, “In Cold Blood” although they were guilty then
– interview subjects look directly into the camera – up to the audience to decide if they are telling the truth or not
– does reanactments with actors which are beautifully shot (unlike TV ones)
– no old film footage, but uses old photographs, maps, graphs…
– no direct cinema, interviews only
– audience is always watching and asked to participate
– uses an old feature film which is ridiculous but it works
– unconventional film score – looking for the truth – doesn’t relent

Dallas Law Enforcement interview
– woman officer was there when her partner was shot
– beautiful score -repeating notes of multiple violins and basses
– she is placed right in front of the police car – silhouetted and placed within the headlights
– she couldn’t remember the license plate number
– blue vega with HC in the plate
– “you expect they would know more then they do” – police officer witness didn’t follow procedure
– speculation = she was sitting in the car drinking her milk shake – re-enactment of her throwing it out the window
– showed forensic diagram showing where the milkshake landed on the ground
– swinging watch – hypnotized her but she couldn’t remember any details but she remember a hit and run plate from earlier in the night

Large woman who was the defense attorney
– she’s the one who got him convicted – butt ugly woman with bad blond hair
– jesus she sounds like a dumb shit or at least somewhat mentally retarded
– “Too nosey to know what’s going on”
– by her own admission it was dark within the car, so how could she have gotten such a good look at him?
– “She’s a ho”

LONELY BOY – movie about Paul Anka