Narrative Design: Proxy Defense

Proxy defense is a term I use to describe a specific behavior that we people tend to do: we act more extreme when we are doing it in the defense of someone else. We’ve all seen it before, and we’ve all probably had experiences when we acted that way too. It feels noble and heroic, like the Saturday morning cartoon protagonist who says “I don’t care if you insult me but I’ll beat you up if you insult my friends.” But in this essay, I want to write about the darker side of proxy defense. There are many nuances to this behavior, some good and some bad, but in general people never pay attention to the negative effects that this can have. I firmly believe that proxy defense is a major contributing factor to groupthink, hiveminds, circlejerks, herd mentalities, or any other situation where a collection of people becomes less than the sum of its parts. If you were to ask me, I would go further to say that proxy defense is a philosophical crisis of the modern age, and we should try to resist it as much as possible.

What Is Proxy Defense?

I remember once I read a cute little love story on the internet. It went something like this: a girl and her boyfriend were at an amusement park, and they were about to get on a roller coaster, but the attendant stopped them and asked the girl her weight. The girl had been feeling insecure about her weight for a long time, and broke down in tears. In response, the boyfriend punched the attendant in the face, then took his girlfriend away.

Great love story, huh.

And what surprised me so much was that there were actually people who believed that the boyfriend was in the right. People thought it was really touching and caring and loving that he would go through such lengths to protect his girlfriend. There were people who wished their significant others were more like that.

But to me, I see it as a classic case of proxy defense. The boyfriend punched the roller coaster attendant in order to defend his girlfriend’s pride. He did something extreme and irrational, but to him, it was justified because he was doing it for the sake of someone else. In reality, he just committed physical assault on an innocent person. He just attacked someone because he didn’t like what they had to say.

This way of thinking is so pervasive. We see it everywhere. The boyfriend-punching-innocent-attendant story is an exaggeration and yet there would still be people who think he was in the right. Movies, novels, video games, every kind of entertainment medium uses proxy defense in subtle ways that are meant to be applauded rather than reviled.

Look at this trailer for example:

So Geralt of Rivia is just a blindingly cool badass who goes around saving helpless maidens from evil lynch mobs. Sure. Pretty standard setup for a heroic character. But when you look at it objectively, he just murdered three complete strangers in cold blood.

Geralt knew nothing about the situation, other than that a pretty lady was being sentenced to death. He didn’t know if it was justified or not. What if she had been a killer, or a spy, or some other threat? What if she was using polymorphism to look like a helpless lass for the sake of garnering sympathy? Of course, she could very well have been completely innocent and the lynch mob was corrupt, like the trailer implies them to be. But Geralt does not know.

And yet, despite not knowing, he still rushes in and saves the damsel in distress. Despite all this talk about ambiguous choices and lesser evils, he still decides to kill three random people. He does it in the name of proxy defense: his psychopathic actions are justified because they are done in order to defend someone else. You could argue the morality all you want, but the fact remains that Geralt committed murder. Whether or not that murder was justified is the real question.

Proxy defense is an excuse. People will find something to defend in order to launch their attack. Whatever they’re defending doesn’t matter anymore. It only exists as a justification for the attack. But the justification doesn’t change anything. A justified crime is still a crime.

Gay marriage? Christians aren’t attacking homosexuals, they’re defending the definition of marriage. Gays aren’t attacking Christians, they’re defending equal rights. But in reality, Christians are attacking homosexuals, and gays are attacking Christians.

War in the middle east? America isn’t attacking the middle east, it’s defending the world from the threat of WMDs. The middle east isn’t attacking America, it’s defending their way of life. But in reality, America is attacking the middle east, and the middle east is attacking America.

The Crusades? Catholics weren’t attacking Muslims, they were defending their god. Muslims weren’t attacking Catholics, they were defending their god. But in reality, the Catholics did attack Muslims, and the Muslims did attack Catholics.

Gamergate controversy? AGGers aren’t attacking journalism, they’re defending minority game developers. GGers aren’t attacking minority game developers, they’re defending journalism. But in reality, AGGers are attacking journalism, and GGers are attacking minority game developers.

You don’t have to agree with the other side’s reasoning, but you need to at least see that it is indeed there. Both sides believe that they are the righteous ones. They are the defenders, while their enemies are the attackers. Since they’re justified, they believe that they can act more extremely than they normally would.

When you act for the sake of someone else, it becomes an excuse to leave your own personal set of morals aside. But what set of morals do you replace them with? Often, the answer is simply none. That is a very dangerous state to be in.

And yet, this is exactly the kind of behavior that entertainment media sees as a virtue. Good guys act for the sake of others as a convenient excuse so they can beat up bad people, because that’s what’s exciting. But people wouldn’t want to admit that they’re being entertained by a psychopath, so the media creators use proxy defense to justify the protagonist’s actions.

Look at Taken. You can literally watch a movie where a guy kills 30 people, and he’s still the good guy all because he’s doing it for someone else’s sake. Is that really a valid justification to kill so many people? If I were kidnapped, I sure wouldn’t want that many people to die in exchange for my freedom.

People generally want to think of themselves as the defenders. They want to think of themselves as the righteous ones who are under attack by nefarious outside forces. Aggressors are the selfish ones, and defenders are the selfless ones. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity”, right? But what happens when both sides see themselves as the defenders?

In entertainment media, people are painted as defenders and attackers. The defenders are the good guys and the attackers are the bad ones. “Everything was fine and dandy until the fire nation attacked” and all that jazz. That way, it’s easy to know who to cheer for. But in reality, it’s not like that. Everybody is a defender in their own minds. You don’t see the other person’s side in movies and books and video games, and so we’re not trained to look for the other person’s side in reality either.

This is also a large part of groupthink and mob mentality. Religious fanaticism happens when a bunch of people want to defend their god. Patriotism happens when a bunch of people want to defend their nation. Internet flame wars happen when a bunch of people want to defend their waifu. Draw an insulting picture of me and I won’t really do anything about it, but draw an insulting picture of my god and suddenly I can take more extreme actions in the name of proxy defense.

I think that people need to realize when their attempts to defend someone else end up crossing the line. There are things that you cannot do even if you are doing them for someone else’s sake. If people saw themselves as attackers rather than defenders, if people saw themselves the way they saw their enemies, they could see how hypocritical their conflicts are.

Rethinking Narrative Structures

I see the film John Wick as a great foil to Taken. They’re both mindless action movies about a badass guy who goes around killing people. John Wick’s kill count is almost twice as much as Bryan Mills’s. But while the main character of Taken acts in the name of defense, the main character of John Wick acts in the name of offense. He is angry because people killed his dog. That is it. The whole movie is literally about him hunting down the people who killed his dog.

And as a result, we don’t see John Wick as a good person. He is not the classical heroic protagonist who oozes kindness from every pore. He is not a knight in shining armor who makes ladies swoon and gentlemen tip their hats. John Wick is none of that. He is a boogeyman, a grim reaper, a silent legend.

Are his actions over the top? Yes. It is absolutely, utterly, undeniably ridiculous how much he’s overreacting. That’s the whole point. He probably doesn’t have the healthiest coping mechanisms around. But all of that come through to the viewer. John Wick is a flawed person, and he’s liable to go too far when he’s provoked. The viewer sees his strengths and his weaknesses and understands him as a whole person as a result.

Contrast that to Bryan Mills from Taken. Are his actions over the top? Objectively, yes, but subjectively, no. Subjectively, everything he’s doing is righteous and good because he’s trying to save his daughter. All of that comes through in the cinematography and the script. The audience is made to cheer for him rather than condemn him. His malicious actions are made to seem badass rather than flawed. While John Wick was a rounded character, Bryan Mills is just a power fantasy.

John Wick knows that what he’s doing is wrong. The viewer also knows that it’s wrong. He knows that he’s going to pay a price, and he does: in exchange for unleashing all of his anger and killing all of those people, he must give up his comfortable civilian life and return to the underworld. It’s a sacrifice that he struggles with and eventually closes the deal on. That’s his way of repenting for all the horrible things he did in the movie.

Bryan Mills has no repentance. He has no reason to repent. In his eyes (and in the viewer’s eyes), he has done nothing wrong. As a result, he never has another side to his personality. There is nothing more to his character other than the fact that he’s a badass.

We can have more interesting stories if we break away from the protagonist defender/antagonist attacker paradigm. Here, John Wick is a protagonist attacker, and the fact that we don’t exactly agree with his actions gives him much more depth than a standard hero. There are stories about antagonist defenders who make you question whether or not they are truly wrong. Then there are other setups that completely transcend the paradigm altogether with multiple perspectives or setting everyone as either a defender or attacker. It’s not a new approach, but it’s definitely a less popular one.

It’s okay to like mindless violence. I love mindless violence. But we should be aware of it rather than being ashamed and trying to mask it with justification. John Wick proves that you don’t need a kidnapped girlfriend to make an action movie. The whole thing is better because it doesn’t resort to a cheap proxy defense.

Implementation Into Interactive Media

When it comes to games, you can even provide the player with a proxy defense. You can give the player someone to defend and they will go through the hoops you set out for them. They will go through the experience and do things that they probably wouldn’t normally do, and they will do it all for the sake of defending someone else. Everything I just said about crafting a proxy defense has been at work in video games for a long time.

Proxy defense in video games has all the exact same problems that it does in other mediums, but now the player lives it firsthand. That means the player becomes even further divorced from the ethics of their actions. Imagine Taken as a video game. That’s basically the setup for most hack-and-slash games.

I think that this problem is connected to violence in video games. People always take such a strong stance on whether games make people violent or not, but I think it really depends on the way the game’s narrative is structured. If you have a game that is up-front and unashamed about making the player an attacker who does horrible things because they’re fun, then it draws attention to the ridiculousness of it all, much like John Wick did. The Saint’s Row series is a perfect example of this. Then there’s a world of games that play with this distinction, like Spec Ops: The Line, which initially sets the player up as a proxy defender, but later starts challenging the player’s motivations and how they use heroism as an excuse for murder.

However, if you have a game that sets the player up as a proxy defender, then it implies that their killings and crimes and violence are justified and righteous. That’s the point where I become scared. There’s always the standard setup where the player has a girlfriend, the girlfriend gets abducted, then you spend the rest of your game trying to rescue her. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has actually had some moments that made me nervous. If someone insults one of your sorceress girlfriends, you can usually challenge them to a fight. It’s suspiciously similar to the boyfriend-punching-roller-coaster-attendant story that I opened this essay with. I personally didn’t feel attached enough to any of the characters to fight over them, but I can see how someone would honestly want to defend Yen’s or Triss’s honor.

A common argument is that violent video games don’t make people violent, but instead desensitize them to violence. It’s a valid train of thought and it makes sense, but I think that it happens because players don’t feel passionate about the digital characters they are defending. When they kill an enemy or inflict some other form of violence, the player does it for fun rather than for the sake of defending someone else. The proxy defense is usually boring and forgettable and players end up putting their motivations out of the way and just enjoy the experience. Nobody plays Mario because they have a burning desire to save the princess. But what happens when developers find a way to actually do it well? If a player truly honestly believes that the horrible things they do in a game are righteous and correct, will they cross the line from desensitization to justification? I’m not sure, and I’m a little bit afraid of finding out.

Conclusion

I knew a guy who got into heated arguments with his landlord because the AC in his unit was broken and his baby son was crying from the heat. I knew a guy who recommended a friend for a position at a project he was working on, and he got defensive and argumentative when people commented on his friend’s lack of work ethic. I knew a guy who rushed to the ER because his son had a common stomach ache. Would all of these people have acted so extremely if it hadn’t been for the sake of someone else?

What I really want is for people to have a widespread knowledge of proxy defense, and a desire to fight against it in their own lives. This doesn’t need to be a grand sweeping social shift for it to have an effect. Even the small things you do in day-to-day life can be affected by proxy defense. Do not act out of line of your own set of morals, even if it’s for the sake of someone else. I think that entertainment is the first step to solving this situation. Proxy defense is a real philosophical problem that has turned into a narrative crutch. We need more things like John Wick or Spec Ops: The Line to challenge the way people usually think about heroism.

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