Permit us a couple of great oversimplifications: Hannah Arendt became well-known by writing about evil. Video games, especially classic ones, usually challenge the player to fight some kind of evil. And so we have a suitable, if at first seemingly incongruous, meeting of form and substance in this video, “What is Evil?,” from the 8‑Bit Philosophy series. It casts the 20th-century political theorist as the hero this time around, rendering in vintage video-game aesthetics her quest not simply to fight evil, but to identify evil — a much more troubling enterprise.
“Traditional conceptions of evil focus on the utter monstrosity of evil actions — the complete awe and unthinkability of horror,” says the narrator. “Called pure or radical evil, this is the sort of evil associated with antagonists or villains — is is the antithesis of good.”
It also happens to be just the sort of obvious straight-up evil video games tend to put their players up against: enemy ships you can only shoot down before they shoot you down, mad doctors you can only blow up before they blow the world up, monsters you can can only jump on before they eat you.
Arendt started seeing things differently from this black-and-white (or in the case of eight-bit video games, 64-color) conception after she saw the trial of Adolf Eichmann. “Put on trial for numerous horrors, Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against humanity — especially against the Jewish people, for overseeing the trains that transported people to Nazi death camps.” Sound like a mean piece of work though the guy may, Arendt beheld in the courtroom “an altogether innocuous and seemingly normal little man,” a “stereotypical bureaucrat” who “never stopped to put himself in anyone else’s shoes,” driven by an “unquestioning sense of obligation to authority.”
To put it in video-game terms, Arendt expected the sort of grotesque, cackling big boss that appears in the last stage, and she got the kind of drone who simply stands around waiting to be slain with one hit in the first. This led her to coin her immortal phrase “the banality of evil,” which, she explains in Eichmann in Jerusalem, describes it “only on the strictly factual level. He was not stupid. It was thoughtlessness, something by no means identical to stupidity. Such remoteness from reality can wreak more havoc than all the instincts taken together.” And what kind of sword, laser, or power-up could defeat that?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.