An Eldrich Digital Light

A review of Kent Pollard’s A Perfect Circle (in Misseplled edited by Julie Czerneda, Daw 2008)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Thorn was created to be evil, he was made to be an evil wizard… that’s the way he was designed. But, what happens when a wizard designed for a video game accidentally summons the overseer programme for the game? What happens when that wizard becomes aware of the role that he is locked into by his design? In A Perfect Circle, Kent Pollard explores the morals of gaming – creating characters as disposable figures and locking the players into a notion of moral exception by virtue of the virtual nature of the character as well as his label as “evil”. Video games are a space where moral absolutes are possible and can lock the player into black-and-white binary moral thinking – “I kill that because it is evil, and save that because it is good”. As a society we tend to ascribe moral absolutes on figures that we construct as enemies and our politicians use terms like “evil” to abdicate moral responsibility. We similarly digitise “enemies”, constructing them as less than human and quasi-virtual to treat their deaths as less impactful than those who we count as “Ourselves”. With digital warfare, this becomes easier – when the killing lens can literally be a digital scope. Thorn, like the overall notion of “enemy” is an archetype, but Pollard invests in him human feeling, experience, and the ability to overwrite his assigned role, to question the paradigm in which he has been placed and break out of the code confines that define and control him.

Pollard invests his wizard Thorn with AI (artificial intelligence) technology, a consciousness and ability to think for himself, and raises the question of whether video games in the future will do similar things when AI technology is further developed. What happens if we create consciousness in a digital construct and what does it mean to kill something that we have created with a form of conscious mind? Would using AI technology in video games be moral?

Thorn experiences an existential crisis, debating his place in his world, his understanding of selfhood, and the constructs that surround him. Worlds and layers of reality become destabilised, questioned, shaky, and understandings slip and break.

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