Last spring Ian started playing the Mass Effect trilogy of games. The games are a sprawling space opera involving villains, aliens, ancient races, cool futuristic technology, and a singular hero. As the player you take the role of Commander Shepard — the hero and a sort of space-going special forces soldier — in his (or her — you can choose whether Shepard is a man or a woman) quest to unravel various plots and defend the galaxy. Much of the gameplay is built around the notion of making choices and living with the consequences and that makes the game different for each player. Thinking (correctly) that it’s the sort of thing I’d enjoy, the boys conspired to buy me the trilogy as a birthday gift. On Sunday afternoons I play as a break from the workaday world.
A week or so ago I was playing a side mission that involved preventing a group of terrorists from dropping an asteroid on a highly populated planet. Doing my best John McClane, I slaughtered my way through dozens of enemies, shut off the fusion engines driving the asteroid toward the planet, and hunted down the terrorist leader. (The game has very cinematic pacing and each episode builds nicely to a climactic moment.)
The terrorist had captured three scientists and locked them in a cell with a remotely-detonated bomb. I had a simple choice. I could let the terrorist go and he’d release the hostages, or I could take him into custody knowing that he’d detonate the bomb before I could get to him.
The game waited patiently while I weighed the alternatives. On the one hand, he was a lying terrorist who had been trying to wipe out millions of peaceful humans. On the other hand, the scientist would surely die. But…terrorist!
I reasoned that he was certainly lying about releasing the hostages and I’d wind up with dead hostages and an escaped terrorist. If I captured him, I could put a stop to his unprovoked attacks on civilians and save countless lives. That seemed a fair trade.
The hostages died and I captured the bad guy. The game gave me ample opportunities to shoot him and I resisted because that wasn’t the moral thing to do. Instead, I arrested him and shipped him off for trail.
Since Ian has shown a keen interest in my progress, I sent him a text. He responded almost immediately, very surprised at my choice.
Bad guy blew up the hostages. At least he’s in custody now.
You chose to let the hostages die?
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
You chose wrong. He and the rock are stopped either way. He just slips custody.
Ahh…oh well. Now that’s a part of my character’s story.
It’s just funny because I asked you about that choice when I first played it.
And you said freeing the hostages was more important than capturing the terrorist. Did you think the asteroid would hit if you didn’t capture him?
No. I assumed he was lying and would kill the hostages anyway. Poor thinking on my part.
Funny how being in the moment changes things.
I feel there is a lesson in this.
I think so…must ruminate.
You’re going to be a cow?
Yes. Yes I am.
Ian’s wacky sense of wordplay aside, I did ruminate and I came to some interesting conclusions.
First of all, the game had given me a way to practice my faith — albeit in a simulation.
Second of all, I didn’t do very well.
When Ian called me last spring and asked my thoughts on whether or not to free the hostages, it all seemed very clear. In fact, the Catechism addresses this type of question in chapter 1, article 4, The Morality of Human Acts. The article lays out a standard for judging morality which includes the object, the intention and the circumstances. The meat of it shows up in paragraph 1753:
1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. Thus the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation. On the other hand, an added bad intention (such as vainglory) makes an act evil that, in and of itself, can be good (such as almsgiving).
That was core of the issue right there. The good intention — stopping the terrorist — did not make it acceptable to intentionally sacrifice the hostages’ lives. By making that choice, I objectified the hostages and stripped them of humanity in favor of achieving my goal. In the words of the catechism, my behavior was “intrinsically disordered.” (That’s fancy talk for “just plain wrong.”)
What had been so easy to answer in the abstract during a telephone conversation with Ian, suddenly seemed very difficult in the heat of the moment.
I’m unlikely to ever face such a choice in real life, but Ian was right to say there was a lesson in the experience.
The first lesson is the importance of formation and a deep understanding of the faith. I’m pretty sure I had a solid basic grasp of the faith and I was certainly able to answer the question for Ian when he called. But in the heat of the moment I forgot what I knew and my answer came from a gut hunch instead of informed reasoning. Had my formation (formal and informal) included more contemplation of how the catechism played out in the real world — or in the simulated world of a video game — I might have had the presence of mind to make the right choice.
Which was the essence of the second lesson. I made the wrong decision even though I knew better. Sometimes real life is like that. Even when we should know better, we do the wrong thing. The Apostle Paul referenced this very issue in Romans 7:19.
For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.
As human beings, we are all subject to concupiscence. That is, we are inclined toward sin despite our better desires. And, if it was true for me in a relatively trivial decision in a video game, how much more true is it for people facing difficult moral decisions in real life? It is easy to sit in the pews and condemn people who face difficult choices such as abortion. (I’m using abortion as an example, but given the wide range of human behaviors and opportunities to miss the mark, there are plenty of other situations I could have chosen.)
It’s easy to convince yourself that you would make the correct moral choice; after all you have a well-formed conscience. Perhaps that is true. But you’ll never really know until find yourself living that moment.
That truth calls us to be caring in our response to people who make those choices. As I noted, condemnation is easy, compassion is hard. The decisions which seem so obvious and simple on the outside can be very difficult for those who live them.
Not that sin should be excused — far from it — we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the very purpose of addressing sin. Rather, in addressing the sinner we need to have appropriate concern for the humanity and dignity of that person. Failure to do that is a different sort of moral lapse.
Which brings me back to the game. I had saved an earlier play session and had the option to re-load from that point, reconsider my decision and act in the way I should have acted all along. The terrorist got away and set a timer on the bomb (my instincts weren’t entirely wrong) but I saved the hostages. Unlike real life, the game gave me a chance to undo my mistake; to make it as if it had never happened. And — maybe — the opportunity to repent of an error and return to do better the next time is the model that should encourage us all to trust in God’s Grace.