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  • Anti-Heroes In Video Games: Why It's Fun To Be The Bad Guy

    [05.23.19]
    - Katrina Filippidis

  • 3. The appeal of redemption

    "I am no longer worthy of being an orc. May my ancestors forgive me."

    Arrogant, sarcastic, and selfish: they're probably not the first qualities that spring to mind when envisioning a desirable character. It turns out, however, that we are more likely to pardon the behavior of such characters-a process social psychologists refer to as 'moral disengagement'-if it is underpinned by an altruistic motive. In their 2013 paper published in the journal Mass Communication & Society, Drs. K. Maja Krakowiak and Mina Tsay Vogel show that selfless motivation has even more weight on creating a positive perception of the anti-hero than whether the outcome of their actions is negative.


    Image credit: Cyanide Studio

    Cyanide's Styx: Master of Shadows is ripe for analysis here: its central character Styx routinely slits throats, snaps necks, poisons guards, and causes catastrophic environmental accidents, but we still love the little bastard. We take solace in the fact his efforts prevent a more evil scheme from achieving fruition, and in a way, this tells players they are still a moral octave above the real villains. But it begs the question: Is there a limit to bad behavior players are willing to accept before it spills into unacceptable territory? Dr. Krakowiak explains researchers haven't really found a definitive threshold:

    "Viewers and players are motivated to enjoy the content they consume so they may continue to accept increasingly heinous acts in order to maintain their levels of enjoyment. It is also complicated by the fact that players or viewers can easily justify characters' behaviors because of the fictional nature of entertainment content. In other words, players may not feel bad about doing bad things in a video game because they know that it is "just a game" and that no one really gets hurt by their actions."

    4. The shock of role-reversal

    "Be ever diligent, for thine enemies are a multitude, and sin never sleeps."

    Another interesting phenomenon which occurs whenever we play as an anti-hero is the unexpected moral 180. And it is precisely because heroic protagonists are the default that this feels so startling. When viewing the world from any given perspective, it is not us who is 'bad', but anybody around us who attempts to derail our objectives. When Garrett is creeping through Saint Edgar's Church, every single Hammerite guard suddenly becomes the villain; he is simply on a mission to 'acquire' a holy relic for the Keepers; he is now 'good'.

    It is particularly important to mention that the interactive nature of gaming only serves to accentuate immersion, and by extension, the degree with which we identify with Garrett: the tactile 'click' as we snatch items; the hushed footsteps of nearby guards striking fear into our hearts; the gentle depression of WASD keys required to sneak behind an NPC and subsequent adrenaline rush when we successfully empty their pockets (or ghost by) without raising suspicion.

    All these sensory elements combine, not just to reel us away from reality, but to quietly untie long-held assumptions about whether immoral actions are truly indicative of an evil character-especially when that character is now us.

    Visiting the Dark Side

    Games which let us play as a character who isn't required to uphold the laws of heroism are relatively scarce. It is far more common to install a hero like Link, who we all know is in opposition to evil, or Lara Croft, arbiter of justice in a world consumed by treacherous organizations and mythological impossibilities.

    But when anti-heroes enter the fray, they blur the schism between good and bad, leading us to question whether they are just villains or heroes stuck in limbo. They slowly twist our moral compass each time we inhabit them, inviting us to relish in the joys of anarchy, hold our breaths for redemption, and urge us to reexamine a quote as old as time:

    We're not so different, you and I.

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