Most of the movies or shows I've seen that directly interact with video games show them in shallow and/or goofy ways. The husband and his friends addicted to some sports game on the XBox, the gawky teenager, the Mazes and Monsters parody of a person who gets too deep in a game and can't get out. But Westworld, which is now in its first season on HBO, is something different.
The premise of Westworld is that humans pay a lot of money to be fully immersed in a realistic wild west setting, complete with brothels and shootouts. To fully enjoy their experiences, they interact with robots that look like humans and express human emotions. Human visitors can treat the robots however they please, because they will just be repaired and put back into circulation, their memories wiped... sort of. And that is where the problems with Westworld truly begin.
You might first compare a show like this to 2001: A Space Odyssey or another film about experiments with advanced AI coming back to haunt us. But what I can't shake when I see the show is my own experience as a video gamer. I half expect one of the androids to say, "I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took a bullet in the knee." In the very first scene of the show, a man is talking about how he played the game "white hat" while he was with his family, but returned alone to be fully evil at a later date. Inside Westworld, the android characters say their lines again and again, and interacting with them sends visitors down various "questlines" that allow vacationers to become heroes, villains, or treasure hunters. It was like the TV version of Red Dead Redemption, or a western version of the Elder Scrolls Online.
The character who interests me most right now is the Man in Black (Ed Harris), who has been playing the game in Westworld for a very long time and who wants to push it to its limits. At first, he just seems to be a violent participant, but it soon becomes clear that he is in search of something deeper—and he is willing to scalp, murder, and abuse his way there. He finds the suffering of his android "hosts" to be fascinating, even enjoyable. He's probably the character I would have been in Skyrim if I were hoping to meditate on the nature of evil.
I really struggle with playing evil characters in video games. Getting all of the Daedric artifacts in Skyrim is something that I did once because I wanted that platinum trophy, but I will never do it again with another character. I enjoy the Thieves' Guild, and even the Dark Brotherhood, but the human sacrifices and cannibalism were a bit too much for me to take. Other players, however, seem to love having the option to experiment with depravity, and I don't necessarily think that is wrong. But how will the upcoming VR systems for PlayStation and XBox change the ethics of interacting with AI? And where would we draw the line when interacting with robots that were not human, but truly seemed to have human feelings? It is one thing to shoot someone on your flatscreen TV, but it is quite another to literally get blood on your hands.
Westworld is a superb show so far, and I can't wait for the next episode to air. But I also like the show because it makes me think about who I am as a gamer.