Avatars and our exploration of Evil.

Do you think you are evil?  No.  Good.  Funnily enough, you’d be hard pressed to find someone to answer this question in the affirmative.  And the real irony is that often, the most emphatic “Nos!” are from those doing truly horrible things.  (Here’s a good test, think of something horrible you have done… is the reason, the “because” justification for why you did this thing the next step in your thought process?  Ah, yes – negative deeds have reasons or causes, while our good deeds are all a result of who we are…right?)

So how does that happen?  Well there are brilliant books (The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo & Cruelty by Kathleen Taylor are two books I would recommend) on the subject of how thinking people, claiming to be good, can commit evil acts.  When human beings struggle to hold opposing beliefs, there are often some impressive leaps of logic required to turn obvious harm into an act of good.  But, people do it every day.  In fact, some of those people might be you and me… Never!  Well.  That’s the first area to address.

There is a quote (I probably misremember from my childhood), that went along the lines of only those who know they are right, go to war.  I believe it was M. Scott Peck who I am paraphrasing here, but the essential truth of this statement has become a life-long mantra for me.  Doubt, the space that removes absolutes, is something to be promulgating.  The people who don’t serve gay people pizza, or deny women’s rights to their bodies (or to drive if you’re in Saudi), or pull the trigger on blacks or whites or Hispanics or behead journalists and aid workers, are not hesitating because they are convinced of their “rightness”.

Perhaps what is most bewildering is how good intentions seem to devolve into terrible outcomes, and often with an “Oh, that escalated quickly!”  If I return for a moment to my country of birth, South Africa, currently floundering under the most fearlessly ruthless of megalomaniacs in the form of President Zuma.  He has taken a party with a proud history of over 100 years devoted to inclusion, integrity and human rights and reduced it, in a few short years, to a coven of corruption that seems unable to halt his flagrant disregard of the constitution.  (A document which is arguably one of the finest on the face of our planet and a crowning moment in the ANC’s history).

And let it not for a moment be said that Africa, or the Middle East are the only bastions where bad men flourish.  Turn your attention to the GOP clowns in the USA’s current Presidential campaigns, I mean between Cruz and Trump it is nothing short of bewildering that these man-children are allowed to stay up after 9pm, let alone run for the position of USA’s leader and Commander in Chief.  But it brings home the terrifying reality of how fragile our systems are.

I have nothing short of a love affair with the comedian and journalist Samantha Bee for tackling head-on the blatant bullshit that the politicos peddle in her show Full Frontal.  If you want to know what I mean, check out her mini-expose on abortion and ask yourself whether Dan Flynn really believes what he is saying?

Really?  Should we not perhaps simply assume that all politicians are rotten human beings?  Well, the problem is that they are often representative of the very real racism, bigotry, homophobia and simmering hatred of the “other” that lurks below most veneers of civilisation.

Let’s just look at some statistics. These are current estimates for the two biggest religions in the world today.  Let’s round it all down and say 50% of the world subscribes to the tenets of these two faiths.

Christianity 2.2 billion[3] 31.50%
Islam 1.6 billion[4] 22.32%

The truth is if you call yourself a follower of one of either of these religions there are a list of rather shameful practices around killing, vengeance, homosexuals, women, slaves, oh you get the point – an endless list of things that in this day and age one would be very hard pressed to justify as doing good.  

Ah, you see. But I wouldn’t do that, and of course that is wrong.

The thing about belief is that it becomes part of how we see ourselves.  It integrates so completely that we often confuse what we believe with who we are.  Injecting facts into the mix tends to make people scramble for moral or ethical grounds, in fact, there is a cognitive bias (check out the Backfire Effect) that seems to indicate that opposition (even with credible facts) makes your beliefs become even more entrenched, no matter how off the beaten track they may be.

A clear solution is to encourage “walking in another person’s shoes”, or what we commonly call empathy.  The moment you can get someone to inhabit the needs and desires of the “other”, you have opened a crack which allows doubt to shake the foundations of the absolute.  That’s the goal.  To introduce doubt is to introduce reason, and that’s where human beings have often shone. However this is damn hard – just read the Scientific American’s post on Why People “Fly from Facts” to see the degree of self-deception we can engage in so that we don’t have to engage in reason when we want to believe in something.

But if you can temporarily obliterate your sense of self, this ability to slip into the “other” happens easily.  Try it.  Oh wait.  This requires real effort.  (Deep sigh) And here is where all of us “do good” people really might have the wheels come off.  I always use the example of Nelson Mandela learning Afrikaans when he was imprisoned over 27 years as an example of understanding your “enemy”.  He didn’t just learn the language – he read its poetry, he submerged into its history, because when you do this – no matter that you might not agree with your opponent, you will understand them.

At EdenRage our mandate has always been to have sustainable, positive impact, and the search for how to address some of these big issues is a major driver.   So has the world of Immersive Media anything to offer?

Enter the “avatar”, the digital you. The word “avatar” refers to the digital representation of yourself inside a game or virtual world, but most know it from the James Cameron movie where the “blue guys” were avatars for the “white guys” (I won’t even go down that rabbit hole). Avatars allow us to have an experience at a degree of removal from our real selves and the opportunity to explore beliefs that are intrinsically “not you” is incredible.  I mean just ask why millions of people play evil characters online in role playing games like World of Warcraft.  There are even wikis on how to play truly evil characters, you can read one here. These exist because a different set of permissions operate in worlds that are considered not-real, or when we have the distance of a character that represents, but is not “the real us”.  There is a radical space worth exploring here, because we can slip beneath the radar of belief systems.

How does this help with the litany of ignorant evil men I have listed from the hallways of power around the world?   Well, they are ultimately the representatives of our worst collective beliefs, so addressing the mass audience with Immersive Media content designed to change belief systems provides amazing opportunities.  Now wait, you cry!  That could just as well be used to fuel the worst of our desires and beliefs.  And yes, it’s true.  Avatars bring us the opportunity to swing towards either edge.  Truth is though, it’s in the process of exploration itself that we open up that all important seed of doubt.

In 2013 a brilliant and fascinating play called  The Nether explored some of the most controversial extensions of this idea.  Jennifer Haley’s play has a detective stumble into the dark recesses of the web, where a group of consenting men play out their paedophile fantasies.  The very grey area is that while the avatars are very young children, they are in fact old men.  The play is jarring because watching a girl of ten on stage being seduced by a man of fifty is viscerally disturbing, but when looked at theoretically seems within appropriate boundaries (whose to police what form we choose to inhabit?).  No matter how liberal or conservative your ideals, you cannot help see both sides of the coin here.  The avatars are not real, but they seem and feel real so we identify with them.  Simultaneously we understand that the actors playing the roles are real, and it is profoundly uncomfortable viewing.

The ethics around whether a simulation like The Nether would in fact promote sexual predators or provide a safe outlet for those who are not acting out in the real world is itself a fascinating debate, and it’s amazing how even defending the possibility of it leads one to feel often surprisingly unsure of the absolutes.

Of course this is where the magic happens.  As creators it’s not about definitive answers, it’s about leveraging the cracks with our creative crowbars.  It’s making the thinking that we know to be true enter very unstable ground.   When we address these sacred cows, we embark on an age where debate and reason are more important than the immovable concrete facts that the word “right” inhabits.  And where there is reason, and facts, and debate, well, they are by their very nature fundamentally opposed to the virus of ignorance.

Brett Lotriet Best is the Founder & Creative Director of EdenRage Media, check out their Immersive Media work at www.edenrage.tv.  Image courtesy of Unsplash, Volkan Omez.



2 thoughts on “Avatars and our exploration of Evil.

  1. Such a thought provoking article. So enjoy extending my reading, watching and gaming sphere thanks to your carefully selected references.

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