Crawling through a dystopian Seattle street, a battle-scarred young woman pauses when she spots a passing enemy. She equips her bow, aims in his direction, then lowers it. Any sign of disturbance would just draw more guards. But more importantly, she knows that this guard has a name. She understands that he has motivations as complex as hers and moves on, realizing that she had almost succumbed to the mindless habit of dehumanizing the Other. One might say that she—or the player controlling her—is thinking about karma.
A zombie-slaying video game like this year’s blockbuster The Last of Us Part II might not be the most expected source of karmic insight. It could even exemplify the negative side of karma—what American mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn described as an “accumulation of tendencies that can lock us into particular behavior patterns.” In the popular conception, at least, video games may turn us into hungry ghosts, driven by the habitual impulse for another trophy earned, another quest completed, another enemy vanquished.
It’s remarkable, then, that over the course of The Last of Us Part II ’s roughly twenty-hour campaign, developer Naughty Dog uses exactly this facet of video games in a deeply purposeful way. Introduced as a simple tale of revenge, the game takes an abrupt turn in its middle third, when we are unexpectedly removed from the perspective of the series protagonist, Ellie, and instead dropped into the shoes of a member of the Washington Liberation Front militia group, the same enemy we have spent the past four hours tracking, bludgeoning, and brutally killing. During this unexpected arc, we meet the same cast of enemies seen in earlier hours, but now we come to understand their motivations. We pet their dogs. We share meals with them. We fall in love. We see past our habit of labeling them as the enemy.
Then we are abruptly shepherded back into Ellie’s perspective to continue her revenge against these now humanized enemies.
Many reviewers bemoaned the strange dissonance produced by this stretch of the game. It’s a reasonable criticism. The game offers no real option in its closing act to get around killing these suddenly sympathetic enemies. Look, I get it, you may think. Killing these people is wrong. But you designed this game so that I had to do it! Again and again! So why do this? Why would writer and director Neil Druckmann—who has said the game was partially inspired by his childhood in the West Bank—want to force players to experience the discomfort of knowing an act of violence is wrong yet repeatedly perpetrating it?
I would argue that the game is showing us the habits of our own minds.
The game forces us to ask: How often do we truly exercise agency in our own lives?
By creating dissonance between the violence being performed on-screen and the player’s own feelings, the game illuminates the stubborn nature of karma. We feel frustrated at our own lack of agency, our inability to avoid the game’s violence, and yet we are forced to ask: How often do we truly exercise agency in our own lives regarding such matters? How willing are most of us to simply cede responsibility because it feels easier and to accept instead the ingrained patterns of behavior passed down to us through culture, biology, and history, no matter how harmful they may be?
Seen in this way, we are stuck in the same rut as Ellie. It’s simple to say that violence is wrong or that vengeance only begets more vengeance. It’s far harder to break the chains of cause and effect in our own lives that have conditioned so many cycles of oppression and hate—the same chains that bind Ellie to her inexorable path of vengeance.
The ethical dilemma we face in The Last of Us Part II harkens back to a breathtaking moment in 2015’s deeply philosophical interactive game The Beginner’s Guide. At the midway point of its simulated walk, you enter a cozy home on a wintry tundra. An offscreen narrator begs you to help tidy up the house by clearing the table, straightening the bookcase, and making the bed. More of these genial requests pile up—to clean the couch, mop the floor, scour the dishes, scrub the tub. What’s remarkable about the scene, and what illustrates its karmic dimension, is that it never has to end. The requests loop infinitely, and the game provides no prompts suggesting how to move on. Theoretically, you could stay inside these warm and welcoming confines forever.
With time, however, the realization dawns upon you: This is the state of an unmindful life: an endless litany of tasks, performed solely because the chain of cause and effect has demanded it of you. You as the player have been automatically reacting to these requests, asleep within the pleasant illusion of the digital world.
Here is the rare opening the game has given you: Now you can take responsibility for your actions. You can open your eyes to the profound role old karma has played in your life, stop your mechanical responses, and make a decision to step outside this illusion and into the bracing cold outside. Or you can stay within the endless loop of reactivity that will keep you imprisoned within a warm and deluding dream.The choice is yours.
As we can see, video games are remarkably good at performing this kind of sleight of hand: luring the player into a reactive mind state through the magnetic pull of interactivity and then throwing back the veil of ignorance to reveal exactly how constricting such habits of mind are. Though rare, such moments in gaming can be literally revelatory. They open our eyes toward a singular truth—that we, the players, are alive and that with effort we can transcend the bonds of habitual living into the expansiveness of the present. In this way, games bring us back to ourselves.
Of course, given the infancy of the medium, such moments in gaming are uncommon. Far more prevalent are the experiences offered by popular open world games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Witcher 3. What such games accomplish is to immerse the player deeply in the experience of being a desperado or vigilante. And yet a nagging sense lingers in the background that we are spending hours of our lives merely responding to our karmic drives, imprisoned by a digitally manifested monkey mind that urges us to collect the next item and conquer the next task. What such games lack is the momentary awakening that allows us to grasp that this moment is everything and that the possibilities from this digital vantage point are infinite.
Nobody should expect the creators of every hack-’n’-slash or shoot-’em-up adventure to leap at the possibility of making us, their fans, reflect on our own karma. But as gaming grows as an art form, a number of independent developers and studios have taken it upon themselves to reflect on the medium’s hyperviolent past and move toward a more nuanced ethic. Games like The Last of Us Part II and The Beginner’s Guide raise the possibility that more developers might use interactivity to help players pause, be still, watch their impulses, and escape the prison of mindlessness.
It may seem like a stretch that a controller could guide someone toward this sort of awakening. But in the current moment, when so many homebound Americans are turning to video games as an escape, perhaps being pointed toward the world before our own noses is exactly what we need.
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