Hardy Plumbing
August 16, 2006

Game Dork

Soldiers Do Your Bidding in 'Middle-Earth II'

Your job is to order thousands of soldiers to kill others and march to their own deaths in "Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II." What could compel your warriors to slay and put their own lives in peril? Honor? Patriotism?

Over the years, while playing games starring soldiers, gangs and spies, I've never been satisfied with the stated motivations for these underlings. So I have spent a lot of time searching for a reason I can get behind. I've decided to buy into a compelling argument in Stanley Milgram's 1974 book Obedience to Authority. Milgram was a Yale psychologist who set up experiments starring regular townspeople. He paid them small amounts of money to administer high levels of electric shock to other regular Americans.

They all complied. In one sub-study, 26 out of 40 townspeople administered three sets of the most tortuous, 450-volt shock levels to strangers. In another, 12 of the 40 men and women physically placed the hysterically screaming shockee's hand on a shock plate and then blasted them.

The shockees were actors, sometimes sitting in front of subjects, sometimes out of sight in another room. No real electricity was involved, though the test subjects later said they thought it was real.

Some averted their eyes. Women reported being more stressed than men. Others argued about whether they should go on. But most continued to the end. Milgram's "teachers" didn't even cruelly force townspeople to do this. Teachers merely established they were in positions of authority in a lab setting. They politely said things like, "The experiment requires you to continue, please go on."

One subject said afterward, "It's funny how you really begin to forget that there's a guy out there, even though you can hear him. For a long time I just concentrated on pressing the switches." Milgram concluded these ordinary people behaved out of a "sense of obligation," and not because of "aggressive tendencies." Subjects didn't just walk away; that would have created an "awkwardness of withdrawal."

They became "absorbed in the narrow technical aspects of the task" and lost "sight of its broader consequences." They trusted the teachers were keeping the moralities in mind. They saw themselves as not responsible for their own actions. And they wanted to put on competent performances.

"Subjects found it necessary to view [the victim] as an unworthy individual, whose punishment was made inevitable by his own deficiencies of intellect and character," Milgram wrote. "It is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences."

I surely wouldn't judge all soldiers as cogs of evil. But in the very engrossing "Middle-Earth II," you see how mass obedience plays out brutally. The game, a "real time strategy," looks like a fancy, intricately drawn version of the game "Risk." You send archers and swordsmen into castles and forests and seas. Their directive is to kill goblin soldiers, dragons, giant spiders and other mythical creatures.

When you win a slaughtering battle, there is a fulfilling feeling of satisfaction of completing a dehumanized task, and you are told in narration, "Valor and honor have taken this day." Valor and honor? Or obedience to authority?

("Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II" for Xbox 360 — Plays fun if you like strategy games. Looks good. Very challenging. Rated "T" for fantasy violence. Three stars.)

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