Zombies, Zelda, and the Natural Law

Rescuing the princess. Punishing unjust oppressors. Liberating a people from slavery. International gamers across the world live out these fantasies on a daily basis. These fantasies don’t make themselves, however. Grown men and women have to sit down at computers and think them up.

Most video games these days have some kind of pre-packaged narrative experience, a plot (even if extremely thin) to help engage the player. What’s striking about this global phenomenon, however, is how this modern genre of entertainment so uniformly reiterates basic and even ancient human concepts of good and bad, right and wrong. This general uniformity persists despite the vast cultural and national differences between the players and, perhaps more surprisingly, despite the international diversity of the developers. Video games—secular amusements that spans the globe in terms of consumption and production—apparently prove natural law. Natural law, of course, is the concept that humans possess an inherent, inborn system that enables them to understand right and wrong. Its universality is described by the Catholic Catechism in the following:

Application of the natural law varies greatly; it can demand reflection that takes account of various conditions of life according to places, times, and circumstances. Nevertheless, in the diversity of cultures, the natural law remains as a rule that binds men among themselves and imposes on them, beyond the inevitable differences, common principles.

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When Nintendo, Sony, Blizzard, Bioware, and others try to design games to a wide, international market, they tell stories that will appeal to a broadly held value system. Thus, without even realizing it, companies turn to natural law as the least common denominator of international marketing.

Of course, games can also appeal to other, seemingly less noble value systems as well. Most games project fantasies of violence—often gruesome and cruel. Gamers obviously like to imagine killing things. However, as I intend to prove below, most gamers only like to imagine killing things in certain contexts. Ultra-violent games that revel in providing death and dismemberment in stunning HD typically provide either moral justification or critique of their own violence. Below, I offer some brief examples of particularly questionable games and show how they still conform to basic human concepts of right and wrong.

Perhaps the most perverse video game I have seen of late is Tea Party Zombies Must Die, the independently produced “first person shooter” where the player storms into the offices of Fox News and kills conservative celebrities and voters. Typical objections to this game question whether or not it will inspire an already unhinged maniac to perform real life atrocities. Surely it may. Yet, even this highly objectionable, tasteless, and irresponsible game ultimately conforms to an inescapable natural law. To make his metaphorical point, the developer was forced to transform all of the targets into zombies. As hateful as the game was, it still demanded the complete dehumanization of its victims first. The developer intuits that killing people because of their beliefs would not be morally justified, so he had to create a morally justifiable excuse…the metaphor of self-defense during a zombie apocalypse. I’m not writing this to defend the game or suggest that you should feel comfortable with people playing it in the cubicle next to yours. My point is only that, within the context of the game’s fiction and satire, the game scripts its violence into morally excusable self-defense.

In a more typical example, a super-violent and popular franchise like Sony’s God of War depicts its protagonist, Kratos, as liberating humans from oppressive and tyrannical Olympian gods. And while Kratos does sometimes receive health bonuses if he kills innocent civilians, the game goes out of its way to brand Kratos as an anti-hero. He was himself a tyrant who made a horrible mistake in his past. Although the player can recognize how Kratos brings vigilante justice to the pagan pantheon, the player also recognizes that Kratos really only seeks revenge for himself, and that his revenge is self-destructive.

Even games that are less interested in justifying their violence still convey a sense of the wrongness of the actions portrayed. Rockstar, the company that makes Grand Theft Auto and similar ultra-violent, culturally edgy games like Bully and Manhunt, sells its games on the very criminality of the simulated actions contained within. The enticement is that the actions you can perform in the game are so very, very wrong. Characters in these games might find immediate material gratification, but they are almost never happy people. Rockstar never claims to model felicity in its games.

Some games even let you play evil itself. Mario’s doppleganger, the selfish, evil Wario has his own series, but Wario is depicted as an ugly caricature of greed, a kind of Scrooge McDuck without the avuncular charm. The recent series of Overlord games invites players to take on the role of a demonic warrior who follows his every base desire to pillage kingdoms and seduce beautiful women. It might have well been called Freud’s Id: The Videogame or Male Teenage Wish-Fulfillment. But, like Grand Theft Auto, this game advertises itself on the premise that it tempts the player to make evil choices. It makes no bones about its protagonist’s own immorality.

To say that video games prove natural law does not mean every video game is good or inspires moral behavior. Far from it. Games can inspire very bad behavior, and not just in terms of violence.

Personally, I think parents should be much more concerned about the depictions of sexuality in games. From the days of the risque Atari 2600 games, to the silhouettes in the window of Golgo 13 on the 8-bit NES, to last year’s release of Catherine, some developers have pursued push-button eroticism. Even in these cases, however, natural law usually wins out. When one considers Sierra Entertainment’s old Leisure Suit Larry franchise, perhaps the first popular series to feature sexuality as a game dynamic, the titular Larry was not someone the players would want to emulate in real life. He hearkens back to the Restoration rake, the fop, the would-be lothario. Renaissance playwrights have often their use of such characters as amusing if not didactic negative examples. Laugh at them, imagine yourself in their shoes, but never be one of them. The same principle of the negative example generally holds true for video games as well.

Likewise, Catherine problematizes its sexuality by depicting the anxiety of a faithless boyfriend, and attempting to convey that experience of anxiety to the player via the Japanese anime puzzle genre. Although the game advertises itself on sensuality, the game is about a tangled, tortured web of infidelity. (Or so I’ve read. Such games are not in my library.) On the gamer blog Kotaku, columnist Patricia Hernandez reveals how her attitudes towards the protagonist of Catherine made her come to grips with her own ethical failings:

Vincent isn’t a likable character–I’m sure this is a universal sentiment. He comes across as a spineless, milquetoast sap. As you play, you’re practically screaming at the TV over the choices he makes.

I didn’t just dislike Vincent, though. I absolutely hated him. I hated how he stalled. I hated how he ran away from his problems. I hated how he strung both Catherine and Katherine along. I hated how he acted as if the problem would fix itself.

Or was it that I hated watching Vincent commit exact same mistakes as I did, for being exactly the same as me? I can’t say.

It is telling that Hernandez describes her reaction to Vincent as “a universal sentiment;” and her description of universality reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s description of natural law in The Case for Christianity. Lewis likewise emphasizes a universal sentiment of good or bad with regard to certain kinds of behaviors:

I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities. But they haven’t. They have only had slightly different moralities…Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that you oughtn’t to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired.

Hernandez’s assertion that anyone playing Catherine must not like the character Vincent assumes that everyone must have the same thoughts about his actions. No one, she believes, would play this game and think his lying and cowardice is worthy of emulation—even people who have behaved in the same manner in real life, as she confesses she has done.

Coincidentally, Lewis’s description above precisely echoes Hernandez’s point in its next lines: “Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you mustn’t simply have any woman you liked” (5). This is precisely the argument that Hernandez implies is behind the story of Catherine.

I don’t know whether Hernandez and I agree on most moral particulars, but a 21st Century female video game blogger, a bunch of Japanese computer geeks, a deceased 20th Century British philologist, and myself all have the same core reaction to infidelity, reminding us that

The natural law is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history; it subsists under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man.

So far, however, I have only shown how narrative structure relates to natural law. There are, frankly, only so many stories to tell, and one could play a similar game (pardon the expression) with other media such as movies and fiction. Is there a way in which video games uniquely broadcast natural law? To answer requires a more academic definition of video games.

Video games are different than other media, as Roger Ebert tried to explain to a very angry and vocal gamer community

As Ebert pointed out when arguing that video games cannot be art, the nature of a game as a narrative medium is intrinsically different than a movie or book. The most important difference, according to Ebert, is that you can win a game. You can win a game because games have rules. Although Ebert eventually backpedalled on his own argument, I’d like to take this idea a step further and in a direction altogether different from what Ebert intended.

Certainly there are “rules” to crafting other media, but there aren’t really rules to consuming it. You can read a book in any order you want. You could read all the words backwards, jump around, or skip pages. You do actually have to turn pages and scan them with your eyes, but you usually have significant control over the pacing. With movies, you passively watch the action take place. You might be actively engaged with the movie, but nothing you do can change the pace at which it plays. You could perhaps fast-forward or rewind depending on the technology you are using, but the main difference between a movie and a book is that a movie will continue to play whether or not you are in the room. A book can’t read itself.

Games, however, are a synthesis of these two media. Like a book, the player must take action to advance the plot (no matter how simple that plot is). But, like a movie, the programmer still controls the pace at which the plot can unfold. The pacing can be controlled through cinematic means, by making very long or short stories…but the pacing is also controlled by the game’s difficulty. The difficulty of the game is a result not of the complexity of the plot but of the rules of the game. If you have a hard time in a book, you can skip ahead. If you don’t understand a scene in a film, it simply ushers you along to the next scene. If you don’t understand Hamlet’s motivation, it’s not like all of the actors stop acting until you get it. However, unless you are using cheat codes, you can’t advance in a game until you have mastered its rules.

Sometimes it takes me hours to learn how to make one little blob of pixels jump over another little blob of pixels. I’m not allowed to go anywhere else until I’ve learned my lesson. It can be a bit purgatorial. (MIT professor Henry Jenkins refers to this aspect of games as “environmental storytelling.)

Rules in video games dictate where you can go and how you can get there. There are places that are off limits, even to Super Mario. These rules dictate what constitutes virtual life and death. They dictate what earns points and what takes points away. The rules define the conditions of the player’s reward and punishment. Even The Sims  and other “sandbox” genre games that let players develop their own narratives, still have rule sets. Actions must be selected from pre-defined menus, and a Sim needs simoleons if they want to buy things. They also have to eat, sleep, and excrete or else the player is punished. So rules, really, define games as a media.

Yet even with all of these rules, people consume this media for fun. Even people who in reality complain about the oppressiveness of religion will pay hard-earned cash to spend hours in a virtual world that shackles them with countless restrictions. If online players encounter a hacker who violates the rules of the game for personal advantage or merely to spoil the experience for other players’ (a behavior known as “griefing”), then rule-abiding players become irate, complain to server moderators, and sometimes “rage-quit” out of the game. One can read countless forum conversations where outraged players decry hackers as not merely Internet trolls, but as unethical human beings. Victims of hackers cry out for justice with all of the passion of someone who has been violated in real life—and yet all the hacker has done is break arbitrary rules.

Video games entertain us precisely because of these rules, and so our desire to play them speaks to an inherent desire across the human species for order and justice. While complex, epic role-playing games might lend themselves to complicated moral dilemmas, simple games like Angry Birds, Tetris, or Pac-man still suggest that adherence to rules and governing principles are rewarding in themselves.

To conclude, I’d like to consider the gamer scene in St. Thomas More’s Utopia. The fictional traveler Hythloday describes games that the Utopians play:

They do play two games not unlike our own chess. One is a battle of numbers, in which one number captures another. The other is a game in which the vices fight a battle against the virtues. The game is set up to show how the vices oppose one another, yet readily combine against the virtues; then, what vices oppose what virtues, how they try to assault them openly or undermine them insidiously; how the virtues can break the strength of the vices or turn their purposes to good; and finally, by what means one side or the other gains the victory.

Obviously, the Utopians are not playing this on their XBOX or Playstation, but I cite this passage because More observes how games convey meaning through both story and through rules, or perhaps more appropriately in this case, how rules can convey narrative meaning. In this English translation, the most important words are ones like “how” and “by what means.” These words can only refer to rules. Thus, the game teaches morality by showing how virtues and vices interact with one another within the game’s rule set. Is More ahead of the curve with a kind of moral “game theory?” Do games activate the same intellectual system that enable us to understand morality? Or rather, can we only play games because we are hard-wired to understand what a game is because we are hard-wired to understand rules?

While the precise rules of particular video games might be arbitrarily designed by programmers, the fact that most human beings on the planet are receptive to them suggests that we are born with hearts that understand how rules work. Video games reveal our inherent proclivity to understand rules, to recognize a system of right and wrong—the very basis of natural law. Because video games, unlike games in general, have a greater capacity to convey stories, they provide a kind of one-two punch to expose natural law; and their pervasiveness in modern, globalized, first world culture proves natural law’s universality.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just received word that Zelda has gone missing again.


  • Peter Freeman

    Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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