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Discussion Points: Using HALO to talk about Morality and Ethics

Gamingtodaynews1b - Discussion Points: Using HALO to talk about Morality and Ethics
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The point of this post isn’t to provide the answers but to provide some context and talking points to open up and engage a dialogue.

We all have read books and are comfortable with books and stories being the primary method or ethical and moral discussions but we aren’t as comfortable with video games and movies as a teaching medium. I’m not here to say that video games or movies is the wave of the future, in fact I have a library of books and audio books that dwarfs my video games collection.

We’re comfortable with books because we grew up with them, we know that they don’t cause *much* behavior change unlike the current observations of children with screen time and because there are an almost infinite amount of quality and wholesome stories out there. I can’t, and won’t try to alleviate concerns about screen time, but let’s remember that even a 1 year old can watch and learn from TV where a five-year-old is learning to read.

Does that mean that I want a five-year-old to play HALO? ABSOLUTELY NOT, I want a five-year-old to play twister, or on the seesaw, or learning to share on the playground.

Ok, back on topic, books already have such significant buy in. I mean EVERYONE in school always was so captivated by every book we were assigned! I mean I remember the entire football team asking about what we thought of 1984 and the volleyball team was enthralled with To Kill A Mocking Bird. And don’t even get me started on Shakespeare, everyone loved deciphering old English, ya know, something that people study for their undergraduate degrees.

Maybe if we use a modern medium that can capture fleeting attention spans to start significant conversations. I actually have a whole video about how video games can be used to build relationship bridges between all sorts of people, link up THERE.

I know I know; video games create mindless drones, I mean kids just sit there blank in front of them. Truth be told there are plenty of research papers and studies that have been conducted and on going that are starting to show benefits of different styles of gaming. But not all games are built the same and when discussing morals, ethics, and potentially it takes serious writing on the game developers to ensure that there is agency to a game. What is agency? Well, it’s the buy in. It’s what captivates the audience. Except in a video game, the buy in is interactive, the player now is in charge of the hero or heroine’s actions.

The Hero’s journey is one bit of this agency, it has to be believable, and it has to matter. There has to be a reason for the hero and heroine to put themselves through mortal danger. Are they driven by duty? Morals? Ethics? The other bit of the agency? Some realistic buy in from the in-game characters. In HALO specifically every time that Master Chief appears at a location, he is revered by the UNSC Marines. His presence alone gives them hope that they not only can survive the coming fight but outright win it. They’re often battered, beat up, and on the verge of hopelessness when in steps the Master Chief standing nearly 8 ft tall in his Mjolnir armor weapons at the ready, poised and confident. The hero riding in to save them in their most desperate hour. Sounds like a classic fantasy or sci-fi novel, right?

Thankfully, the good writing within the game hooked players who become invested, so invested in the HALO franchise that it has spawned 13 games, 15 novels, and 6 comic books. The HALO universe expanded faster than the big bang. In HALO Combat Evolved the story was fairly cut and dry, save humanity, and the entire galaxy, from mass genocide at the hands of religious zealots and the flood that they unwitting unleashed.

Hold on, this sounds A LOT like the bible. How can a video game series from 2001 and has lasted 20 years be so heavily influenced by Christianity? There is actually a great video from Wisecracks in 2015 that perfectly sums up all of the narrative similarities between the original HALO trilogy and Christianity. The Covenant also is a wonderful example of what can happen when zealots become the controlling function of a religion.

For the Pious

WARNING: THIS SECTION HAS SPOILERS, if you want to be surprised too then skip to the next section. Not all of the Covenant came freely and willingly into the fold, in fact most of the lesser species were ransacked, ravaged, and nearly exterminated so that their society could be rebuilt to serve the prophets and their savage quest across the milky way.

This raises many questions that are raised by the Covenant.
Why commit genocide against the Human race when it could be brought into the fold?
Why such a strict hierarchy based on species? There’s no room for advancement?

One answer is Exclusive humanism (Dr William Connolly) and that is when a religion (or person, or institution) believes that it is the only correct answer. For religions this means literally damning the other religions into the hellfire.

The prophets believed that they were the only ones with the right answer and thus should sit at the pinnacle of their religion and society. They destroyed other species only to rebuild their societies to serve the will of the prophets, they used the grunts as cannon fodder and manual labor with no ability to increase in social rank. Their treatment of other species in the galaxy was horrific, because they believed themselves the chosen ones. (This doesn’t sound familiar in human history does it?)

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If the prophets are the only ones with the correct answer and they are confronted with a different reality in HALO: Contact Harvest (and later explained in the HALO 2, 3, and 4) what are they going to do? They decided to do the only thing that made sense, destroy humanity and exterminate it. Thus we have the Covenant invasion and genocide of humanity across the stars.

I would never think that any government, cult leader, religion, or other well established hierarchy would ever obscure, hide, or mislead their followers to maintain power right?

How were we so blind?

How can the Prophets get so many to blindly follow their will? The fear of ‘the other’ and the manipulation of information so that those in the covenant viewed humanity as unworthy to join the great journey is central to story of HALO. We know why the prophets feared humanity’s existence now, but how come none of the other species within the covenant questioned their orders?

The answer is quite simple, and one that is often found across the globe in our stories, history, and civil and military campaigns. The dehumanization of other people: marking them as unworthy, inferior, classless, unintelligent, or degenerate simply because of their appearance, color, stature, or location of birth has been a staple of humanities ill will towards itself throughout recorded history. While it would be easy to say that we would never commit such heinous acts against ourselves, history has proven otherwise countless times before.

During WWII American comic books and cartoons depicting the German Huns are large, oafish brutes and Japanese soldiers with wicked fangs and claws. Pictures and movies of the enemy as human beings were rare and often not shown to the public.

Japanese and German holocausts during WWII, the Armenian genocide, countless colonial expansions across Africa, South America, the Pacific. US expansion across the continent, slavery, systematic racism and Jim Crow laws, and my personal hornet’s nest, the reduction in educational funding based on local taxes.

Is Humanity worth saving?

Finally, we’re turning our attention back to Humanity and we must face a difficult question, was the creation of the SPARTAN IIs worth it? To fully understand this question takes a little explaining so I’ll be as QUICK as I can.

Earth had sent out the first wave of colonies who became the inner colonies, and then subsequent colonist who founded the outer colonies. The outer colonies become resource producers, entire worlds were dedicated to mining or agricultural, and the inner colonies and Earth become dependent on their supplies. One thing leads to another, no taxation without representation and an insurrection starts.

Instead of peaceful negotiations Earth decides that military occupation and deadly force would be the best way to handle the rebels. Low and behold this doesn’t work and in a desperate bid to win a losing fight a secret organization within the already secret Office of Naval Intelligence set up the SPARTAN II project.

ONI’s black box screened millions of little kids and eventually abducted 75 six-year-olds, primarily from the outer colonies, replacing them with faulty clones who would die tragically. Over the course of the next decade they would train in military studies and physical conditioning and receive chemical and biological modifications crippling more than half of the children. In the end, as the SPARTAN II super soldiers began their careers to end humanity’s infighting, not to battle the Covenant’s alien hordes.

When the aliens began their genocidal campaign, humanity had little hope in space, fairing better on the planets’ surfaces but still badly out numbered and out gunned. Except where SPARTAN IIs appeared; battles turned as individuals and teams of SPARTANs turned the tides of battle. But even with the 33 SPARTAN IIs valiantly beating back the invaders humanity was steadily beaten back, and that is where the HALO saga begins.

Throughout the HALO games and novels, it becomes clear that the only real advantage that humanity has are the SPARTANs. In fact, without the Master Chief it is arguable that all life in the galaxy would be wiped from existence. But do these facts justify the evil done to 75 families to save the billions or trillions of lives spread across the milky way?

To me, no. To the UNSC in the HALO Universe, again, no. They search for and imprison the project director, Dr Halsey. But to some, the answer was yes. And it wasn’t even to save the human race from extinction but rather to subjugate the outer colonies and put down their rebellions. So why is there such a wide variety of what we as people think are acceptable prices to pay for power? For survival? For privilege, comfort, wealth, security?

I’ll leave you with that question, I’m very interested to see if these are helpful for anyone so please let me know if you use them in discussions. Better yet, please let me know if you have a different game that you think would work better for this type of dialogue.

Again, the point of this post isn’t to provide the answers but to provide some context and talking points to open up and engage a dialogue. If you have any other questions, I am most active on twitter and I stream on twitch if you want to have a ‘live discussion.’ I won't link them, the Act Man or Wisecracks videos for the whole promotion thing but I hope this brings together some discussions.

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