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How Games Like Ni No Kuni Help Us Become Better People
Nowadays many games like to present us with quasi-moral dilemmas wherein our choices directly impact the story. Something like the Mass Effect franchise’s Paragon/Renegade choice system springs to mind. Of course there are other examples, but my point is that when morality enters into the digital realm, it’s primarily a tactic is to get us more involved in the story.
It’s not all that often that a video game goes the opposite route and instead uses itself as a platform to teach us about morality. However, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch does just that with the game’s Virtue/Brokenhearted gameplay mechanic, borrowing heavily from Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics in the process.
What is Virtue Ethics? I’ll try to explain it as simply as possible, but keep in mind that there is more to Virtue Ethics than what I’m about to describe. As for how it relates to Ni No Kuni, I think a brief outline of the theory’s underlying tenants should suffice.
Virtue Ethics states that the ultimate end of our actions and the culmination of our life’s work is happiness. Everything we do is a means to the end goal of being happy. Now happiness is not, as we often assume it to be, an emotional moment in time. Instead, happiness as Aristotle meant it is called Eudaimonia (the Greek word for happiness), which falls more in line with well-being or human flourishing.
So how do we flourish, live well, and find happiness? Well, we find happiness by acting virtuously, hence the “virtue” in Virtue Ethics. According to Aristotle, virtues are states of character which lie between two extremes: excess and deficiency. Picture it like this:
courage is a virtue, but an excess of courage leads to rashness while a deficiency leads to cowardice. The virtue “courage” is the mean that falls between those two extremes. To act moderately is to act virtuously, while to act otherwise is to act immorally.
The question remains, however, as to how we are supposed to know what these virtues are. In order to figure that out, we look towards what Aristotle deemed the person of practical wisdom: an individual who, through experience, has figured out how to act virtuously and has put such knowledge into practice. We don’t necessarily need to copy everything that this special individual does, because the person of practical wisdom is more of a concept than a real human. Rather, we need to continually ask ourselves, what would a wise and practical individual do in such an instance as this?
Does any of this sound familiar? If you’ve been playing Ni No Kuni it should. Look at these passages from pages fourteen and fifteen of Oliver’s Wizard’s Companion:
“Joy and grief, pain and pleasure… One’s heart comprises all these things and more. A heart may even contain too much of one and not enough of enough of another. Such a heart becomes unbalanced, with grave consequences for its owner” (14).
In this passage specifically, Ni No Kuni is essentially preaching a character-based ethical philosophy pulled from Virtue Ethics. Just as in Virtue Ethics, whenever there is an excess or a deficiency of a characteristic trait, it causes an imbalance in the owner’s heart, or spirit, which in turn prevents said owner from flourishing.
The similarities become more explicit, especially when you take the language of the next passage into account:
“There are eight virtues that can be stored in the Locket: courage, kindness, ambition, belief, restraint, enthusiasm, love, and confidence. Whilst all of these appear to be wonderful qualities in themselves, an excess of any of them can great distress. Too much ‘confidence,’ for example leads directly to arrogance.
“Of course, the lack of a particular virtue is also a problem. Indeed, a serious deficiency of a virtue leads to a person become unable to function—a state known as ‘brokenheartedness’” (15).
Notice how the word “virtues” is used specifically, and how either excess or deficiency of these virtues creates problems. Deficiency of a virtue is actually given its own condition, brokenheartedness, and sounds more serious as a result. An excess of virtue is also noted to cause “great distress” and can be just as bad. As in Virtue Ethics, the trick to living well is to find the middle ground.
When it comes to finding that middle ground, Ni No Kuni places responsibility in the hands of those who know how: “It is a wizard’s duty to extract virtue from those who have it in abundance and share it with those who need it most, so as to restore balance to their hearts” (15). Being that Oliver is a wizard, he must adhere to the wizard’s obligation of using magic to take virtue from those who have it in excess and to share it with those who lack it. Through these actions, Oliver takes on the role of Aristotle’s person of practical wisdom (and being that Oliver is fictional, he too is a concept).
Admittedly, drawing a parallel between the person of practical wisdom and Oliver may be attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole. However, I would suggest that the squared edges can be rounded with some consideration. Think of it like this, when an NPC in Ni No Kuni either lacks or has a surplus of a virtue, Oliver knows how to help the NPC. Once Oliver, through his wisdom/wizardry has helped the NPC find balance, that NPC knows what to do to live well and flourish.
As an example of this exact situation, in Hamelin there’s an NPC wandering about saying he cannot eat because he has too much work
to do even though he is quite hungry. Obviously, this NPC has an abundance of restraint. Once the excess restraint is removed through Oliver’s intervention, the NPC remarks that while restraint is an important virtue, too much restraint leads to self-deprivation which creates imbalance and prevents flourishing. It is through Oliver’s assistance and example that the NPC eventually arrives at the proper level of restraint while also figuring out how to maintain a balance between indulgence and self-deprivation.
Whether intentional or not, Ni No Kuni takes on the Virtue Ethics slant by acknowledging that it is through virtues that we achieve a good, moral life, and that these virtues are a balancing act between excess and deficiency. Of course Ni No Kuni, being a game about magic, puts its own slant on Virtue Ethics. Despite this added magical dimension, the direct use of “virtues,” “excess,” and “deficiency” in the game’s moral lessons leads me to propose that Ni No Kuni is an effective platform to teach us about Virtue Ethics.
Such a statement takes on even more weight when you look at player involvement in Ni No Kuni. Rather than the game giving a non-playable guide to oversee your moral development, it makes Oliver the person of practical wisdom. Therefore as you play as Oliver, you too take on role of the person of practical wisdom—the individual who knows what must be done to live virtuously. You learn, by playing, who has an excess of virtue and who has a deficiency, and what must be done to balance the two. Through curing the brokenhearted, we learn what is required to be moral, or at least a Virtue Ethics view of what is required to be moral. In that sense, Ni No Kuni teaches us not only to act morally but also to be a moral instructor for others who lack the tools.
The way that Ni No Kuni approaches morality is also important to our cause as gamers. I mean, we recognize the value of games, but talk to anyone who doesn’t play games or read about them and they only know the negative connotations. Turn on any news report about video games and they are surely talking about the impact of violent content. And while I don’t believe there is a causal link between violence in video games and violent behavior, there are many who do.
So when a game like Ni No Kuni goes against the grain and does something noticeably positive like teach us about ethics, we need to stand and up and say: “No, video games aren’t immoral, corrupting, wastes of time; they are in fact useful vehicles to deliver a multitude of messages and teach us many things including morality.” If anything, Ni No Kuni making use of Virtue Ethics shows us that video games shouldn’t be shunned but instead be embraced for the educational tools that they have time and again shown themselves to be.
Ni No Kuni isn’t just an incredible game for its art design, story, and originality; it’s an incredible game because it sets out to help us understand how we behave and how we ought to behave in order to exist in harmony.
Learning ethics and morality, whether through video games or otherwise, helps us in a very real way to recognize and assess our own behaviors, and ultimately to make better choices in our lives. If you’re interested in learning more about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.