Villainy and the System

Words: 2512 Approximate Reading Time: 17-23 minutes

A couple weeks ago I talked about how heroes in storytelling generally reflect a sort of bias towards the individual, in a way that reinforces ideas about how we understand the world and social situations. This same issue exists in the reverse: stories also have a bias towards antagonists that are singular entities.

The consequences of this bias are not necessarily the same as with heroism. After all, we tend to identify with the heroes in a story in a way that we don’t identify with the villains, and so the lessons we draw from such identification are going to differ as well. But important to all of this is what is commonly left out of the process.

Specifically, the focus on villains as a group or individual means that we never really encounter evil or badness as a system. By this I mean that the structures and institutions that are in place are never examined as good or bad – never blamed for the consequences – but are instead overlooked in favor of how those systems are created or abused by particular actors. If people are oppressed, that oppression must have a source in specific person who must bear the blame for creating this oppression. It can never really be the case that such oppression may be a product – or even byproduct – of systems that are largely ignored by the characters.

This overlooking makes sense to a significant degree. It’s easier to write stories centered around villains, and it’s easier for audiences to comprehend the stakes when there’s an identifiable figure causing problems. But that it makes sense why stories favor these depictions does not mean that there can’t also be problems with those depictions.

So I want to step back and look at what is being missed. What would it mean to see the “system” as a villain? Could that even effectively be done? Would the message really be able to get across?

The Simplicity of Evil

To a large extent, humans crave simplicity. Not necessarily in the sense that every single thing needs to be simple. There is a point at which we demand a sort of complexity in what we consume. But that complexity has its limits.

The reason we crave simplicity is that we don’t have the mental resources to deal with infinitely complex problems. Or even super complex problems. Because we have other things we are worried about. Even within the space of a video game, we might be thinking about strategies, and the other things we need to do, or what kind of equipment we need to get, and so on and so on. So sitting down to grapple with complex social issues within a video game world and how those social issues might be reflected in our world is going to demand a degree of time and mental energy that we just aren’t willing to devote. Or at least, the vast majority of people aren’t willing to devote.

But a villain is easy. A villain is a specific character – or maybe a small group of characters – that have a particular motivation. That motivation can then be understood fairly easily, such that we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time thinking about that motivation. And everything can be reduced down to a basic fight between right and wrong – we represent what is right, and the villain represents what is wrong. Fight until right wins.

This isn’t to say that therefore the villain’s motivation needs to be incredibly simple. We can sometimes demand that the villain have a motivation that is complex, mostly to reflect the complexity of humans themselves. A villain who wants to destroy the world for nebulous reasons doesn’t necessarily make a good antagonist for the story. Fleshing those desires out gives the opponent a measure of complexity that makes them feel real.

But this desire for complexity still reflects the inherent desire for simplicity. Because that complexity that we may call for has a limit: we still just want these complex problems to be contained within a small scope.

Systemic Evil

So let’s talk about systems for a bit. In this sense, we’re talking about things like economic, political, and social systems.

Systems are to some extent vague. There’s not necessarily a physical thing you can point to and say “that’s a system.” It’s more of a complex interplay of various actors, how they interact, and the rules that dictate what they can and can’t do in those interactions. So laws, for example, are part of a system. And the ways that those laws are created, and then enforced, and how those laws may target certain people unfairly are all part of a system as well.

Systems are important because they lay out the basic groundwork for how people cooperate. An economic system, for example, will lay out the incentives for people to produce, trade, and create. The system will also distribute resources to different people based on some criteria – it could be based on how much they produce or how hard they work, or it could be based on some other factor like how much other people like that person. These methods for incentivizing behavior and distributing resources thus fit into this complex association of people working together (and sometimes against one another) to get resources for one reason or another.

But all of these rules often mean that there are winners and losers. And winners and losers may not always be based on “reasonable” factors. Some people may get certain advantages that are not available to others. Some people may need to face hardships that others don’t. And these advantages and disadvantages can be addressed, ignored, or exacerbated by a system, depending on the rules laid out and the actors involved.

Now the nature of systems themselves is complex not just on their own, but also in how they can be “bad.” Sometimes a system itself can be bad. Sometimes parts of a system can be bad. Sometimes a system can be good, but the actors overseeing a system can be bad. Sometimes a system can be good, but the actors can be bad, but the way in which bad actors control the system is part of the system itself and thus makes the system at least partially bad as well. And sometimes a system can be created with good intentions and the actors within the system can act on principles that seem good, and the outcome can still be one that hurts or oppresses people.

Which becomes a problem, because we often like to isolate the actors from the systems they are in. Partially because systems themselves are abstract. When things go wrong, we like to be able to put a face to it. We want someone to blame. Even if our lives suck because of a complex relationship of social and political and economic systems, it is much easier to identify a group of people – or even better a single person – that we can blame for it.

We can engage in this behavior even if there’s no real connection between the two. Having someone to blame is generally more important, because anger likes to be directed at something. So getting mad at an individual, even if that individual isn’t the cause of any harm or even lacks the power to make the grand changes we desire, scratches a sort of itch for us. A system can be blamed, but it just doesn’t feel as good to blame the system.

This doesn’t mean that blame can’t be cast on both the system and an individual at the same time. Perhaps a person participates in a system in a thoughtless way, and by doing so hurts others. That thoughtless participation could then be blameworthy. Or perhaps the person supports the system but does not think about how that system hurts people. That support might also be blameworthy.

But the problem is then that we tend to fixate on the person. Because – again – it is easier to cast blame on a person than an abstract interplay of rules and structures. And so even this thoughtless participation or support takes on a central place of importance in a fight to dismantle a system – the problem stops being the system itself, and becomes that person.

So even when we recognize that systems contain problems and hurt people, we are generally fighting our own bad impulses to keep our eye on the prize, as it were. We want villains. Villains are easy to understand and – more importantly – easy to fight against. A system requires collective effort that is difficult to bring together and not even guaranteed to work. An individual can be opposed both collectively and personally, and that opposition can feel effective in a way that opposing a system may not.

But this whole process also means that we can mistake what success means. The individual we oppose – whether a bad actor or an unthinking participant – becomes representative of the system itself. And in representing the system, opposition fixates on that person. And if that person is defeated, it is believed to be a victory over the system itself, even if the system itself remains unchanged in the slightest. Even these kinds of victories can be bittersweet, because they can seem good up until the point that we may realize we’ve accomplished nothing and are right back where we started.

Video Games and Systems

So much for the pessimism surrounding systems in real life. Could these kinds of systems and the problems they pose be represented through video games themselves?

In the broadest sense, yes. Anything is possible within creative space. The question is more accurately posed as “is it possible to make the battle against such a system compelling?”

The inherent problem we are fighting is that battling against a system is not something that is accomplished quickly. I’m not even talking about a few weeks or months or years. These kinds of problems can last for generations or centuries or even millennia. Progress – if it occurs – may at best be tiny, and backsliding is very real and possible.

Couple that with the amorphous nature of the system itself. As soon as you put a human face on it, you channel everything into that individual, and as such end up mistaking victory over the individual for victory over the system. This works if the system is literally the product of that individual – overthrowing a king can mean the end of a monarchy; defeating the corporate tyrant can mean that end of a company’s exploitation. But this framing itself just brings us back to the same problem: we’re no longer making it about “the system.” It’s about the particular villain.

So what does a struggle against a system really look like in a video game’s narrative?

One possibility to point to is Disco Elysium. The game’s overall structure presents the society the player finds themself in to be pretty thoroughly corrupt. There are, of course, various individuals who are good and try to help, but often they themselves can be distrustful of the player (since the player character is a police officer, and thus a representative of the corrupt regime). Various NPCs, and even the player, face problems including poverty, being forced into bad choices, and an overall feeling of powerlessness. Things often feel manipulated without any person pulling the strings, because it’s less about a specific person being behind the problem than the fact that the player is running up against systems that have long been designed to be impenetrable. The player is generally able to overcome these problems to a degree, but only within the context of the narrow objective of the story itself: solve a murder. The player doesn’t radically change society and give everyone an idyllic life. The case gets closed.

This kind of framework can work, though obviously its portrayal is pessimistic. There is no overcoming systems. You can make small changes here and there. You can try to do some good. You can make life better for a few people here and there. Or you can just give in to the corruption and make life better for yourself at the expense of others. But you can’t change the system itself.

So we’re then brought to the next question: what does victory over a system look like?

And the problem is that it’s not clear. The obvious answer is the toppling of the system itself, but the toppling of corrupt and exploitative systems is a slow process, one with many setbacks and with no real guarantee of victory. It’s hard to portray this within the narrative of a video game, simply because video game narratives generally work within human timeframes: days or months or years. But systems can take decades or centuries to dismantle, with progress perhaps occurring in minor ways.

The only way to convey victory within the scope of time normally allowed in a game is through actual revolution. But such revolution is bloody, and obviously requires vilifying the opponents of the revolution in a way that likely renders them cartoonish. This kind of portrayal is itself dangerous, but also collapses us back into the original problem: it becomes difficult to disentangle whether the problem is the system or the cartoonishly evil characters operating it. The only way to avoid such a problem would be to portray the violence of revolution as something negative, but then we are still stuck with the problem of what victory really looks like.

So perhaps it is the case that narratives surrounding systemic oppression can only work within the context of being the victim of those systems, or of learning to live within the systems. The systems are merely a fact of life. If we want uplifting stories of victory, maybe we can only get those though simplification: by creating a villain and forcing the evils of the world to die with a single stroke.

Concluding Remarks

Humans are generally surrounded by all sorts of institutions. Sometimes those institutions are clear and visible to some degree. Sometimes those institutions are ones that we have chosen to belong to. Sometimes those institutions exist and yet we are fully unaware of them. But the impact of those institutions on our lives – in big ways and small – is very real regardless of our knowledge of their impact.

And it’s hard to think about systems, precisely because they are so abstract. It is much easier to think about good and evil in the concept of persons. We like villains in part because they are easy to understand: they have motivations and flaws and strengths and they are there. It is hard to accept the idea that a gigantic institution can be created out of bad intent and perpetuated not by that same bad intent, but simply out of basic self-interest and laziness. And perhaps because we struggle so much with abstractions, we are trapped with villains. Systems can never be the real antagonists in our stories, because we just can’t face systems as systems.

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