wherein is detailed Matt's experiences as he tries to figure out what to do with his life. Right now, that means lots of thinking about math.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

I've recently been playing a video game that's shockingly amoral. The striking thing is that it's not a game that's likely to get the attention of the Parents Television Council. Katamari Damacy is exceedingly weird, but it isn't violent. However, it strikes me as amoral in a way that no other videogame I've played has.

My goal here isn't to judge either the game or people who play it. I find Katamari Damacy addictive and can't blame others for enjoying it. My goal is just to explore my reaction to the game. I'm not certain I can adequately express my thoughts on the game, but I'm going to try.

The premise of Katamari Damacy is absurd. The King of All Cosmos has accidentally destroyed all the stars in the sky, and it is up to you to replace them. You do this by rolling a ball, called a katamari, around various environments. The ball sticks to everything it touches. As it accumulates stuff, the ball becomes larger and becomes able to pick up larger objects. Most levels have the objective of growing the katamari to a certain size within a time limit. If you succeed, the katamari becomes a star and you proceed on to the next level.

The game has an amazing range of scale. At the beginning of the game, the katamari is very small and you roll it around inside a house, picking up objects like stamps and thumbtacks. By the end of the game, the katamari becomes large enough to pick up buildings and even entire islands. Along the way, you pass through a range of intermediate sizes, including levels in which the goal is to pick up individual people.

I don't have a good answer to the question of why I care about the objects I pick up in the game, but I do. Part of the answer is that the game has realistic environments. On levels that are set indoors, I feel like I am rolling around in someone's house. As I pick up objects in the house, I identify it as someone else's stuff which I'm just taking.

But realism isn't the only reason why I respond the way I do. Burnout 3: Takedown, another game I've been playing recently, is the type of game that parents groups like to complain about. Burnout 3 is a car racing game in which one of the explicit goals is to crash and destroy your competitors' cars.

In spite of that, it doesn't make sense to me to speak of Burnout having any morality, good or bad. The scope of the game doesn't allow for morality. While Burnout has a very detailed environment, the only reason you exist in the game is to get to the finish line and to destroy other cars. Likewise, your competitors have no function other than to try to defeat you. Even innocent traffic only exists to be an obstacle, and one to be used to your advantage if you can.

Speaking of the game in moral terms implies a depth to the game that doesn't exist. Of course driving in real life as if you were playing Burnout 3 would be immoral, but Burnout 3 is just a game. Playing the game is neither moral nor immoral. And destroying a car in the game isn't a moral act. It's just playing the game.

The same logic should apply to Katamari Damacy. But that's not how I respond emotionally to the game. I respond to the objects in the game as real objects belonging to characters in the game. Even more, I respond to the characters as people. They flee from the katamari and scream when they are caught, and I can't blame them. Nonetheless, I gather them up, placing my goal of creating a star ahead of the the property rights or personal freedom of others.

My concern about the morality of Katamari Damacy hasn't stopped me from playing the game. But I do think about it. As videogames have developed, their detail, realism, and emotional depth have increased. Videogames can be more complex than they may appear to casual observers. And that complexity is worth studying. I'm not sure what my response to Katamari Damacy means, but I'd like to find out.

FAQ

What does "rolls a hoover" mean, anyway?

"Roll a hoover" was coined by Christopher Locke, aka RageBoy (not worksafe). He enumerated some Hooverian Principles, but that might not be too helpful. My interpretation is that rolling a hoover means doing something that you know is stupid without any clear sense of what the outcome will be, just to see what will happen. In my case, I quit my job in an uncertain economy to try to start a business. I'm still not sure how that will work out.