An Undervalued Medium
During the 2012 London Olympics, much hubbub bubbled up regarding a South African sprinter by the name of Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee who runs on carbon fiber prosthetics. Amid much controversy, Pistorius was allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes. NBC host Bob Costas suggested that a day might soon come when prosthetics technology would not only allow amputees to compete at the international level, but would also give them a distinct advantage over their flesh-and-bone peers.
I’ve certainly fantasized about having robotic arms that can automatically open cereal boxes without spraying the contents all over my kitchen—and yes, I realize that isn’t a sport—but such a technological achievement always seemed to be at least a few decades away, if we ever got there at all. However, the field of robotics has been advancing much faster than I had realized, and in a very literal sense: the robot featured in this video has achieved a higher running speed than that of Usain Bolt, 2012 gold medalist in the 100-meter and one of the fastest humans who has ever lived.
Perhaps technology will one day be used to engineer a better human than could ever be produced by the birds and the bees. If that day ever arrives, we will likely find ourselves in a labyrinth of new moral and ethical questions. Science fiction novels and movies may give us a visual glimpse into that maze, but they don’t give us a map, as we only ever follow the moral compass of the protagonists without being asked to make our own choices.
There is, however, a rich medium that doesn’t just brush up against the questions of tomorrow, it forces the audience to confront them directly—a sort of moral training ground: video games. Non-gamers might think that video games foster laziness, poor social skills, and violent tendencies, and while that may be true for some genres, there are a number of innovative titles which present intricate ethical dilemmas for users to consider as they play: Black & White, BioShock and Mass Effect, to name a few.
Perhaps the most provocative is Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a 2011 role-playing game set in a cyberpunk vision of the near future in which society (and the player) must come to terms with increasingly powerful and potentially abusable human augmentations. What makes games like Deus Ex such valuable social resources is that they seamlessly merge decision-making elements with exciting gameplay, resulting in near-complete immersion. Users don’t make choices as external viewers, they choose as though they were actually living in the worlds that the game developers have created.
Most modern video games are no longer just reiterations of “You’re the good guy, shoot the bad guys.” They have become increasingly focused on challenging the player’s ability to think critically and consider the consequences of their actions. The protagonists of today’s imagination, running at 40 miles per hour on powered superlimbs, might just be the Oscar Pistorius of tomorrow’s reality. The history books will help us learn from the mistakes we will inevitably make as these changes unfold, but only the interactive fiction of video games can help us form answers to the important questions before they are asked.