Seeing the end of Game of Thrones on the horizon, HBO greenlit a number of other television series that it hoped to fill that void, and one of them was Westworld. I'm not sure anyone looked back at Michael Crichton's 1973 movie and thought it was particularly relevant to today's culture, but the show-runners have decided to prove us all wrong.
Westworld has a lot to say—and I think the things it has to say about video-game culture and the treatment of artificial intelligence are fascinating.
For those not in the know, the titular Westworld is a theme park where robots (called "hosts") are put into all manner of situations to create stories for human visitors to participate in. The park experience depends greatly on the interests of the person visiting. Want to bring the kids and go panning for gold and get a sense of wholesome Western life? Westworld has that. Want to go on an indiscriminate spree of murder and rape? Well, it has that, too.
That premise raises an interesting question: Does acting on these impulses in fictional situations—be it a robotic theme-park simulation or a video game—cause us to act this way in real life? Or do they offer us a safe space in which to act upon these impulses, see how they feel and then put them back to bed when we return to real life?
It's a fascinating exploration, but social science has told us that there is no correlation between video games and real-world violence. Would making that violence three-dimensional—and in a way where the verisimilitude is so great that one can't always tell fact from fiction—increase the chances of violent behavior in the real world? I'm not sure.
It's enough, though, to ask if Westworld is simply a work of fiction that plays to cultural stereotypes about gaming and gamers. Though Crichton himself has been dead for almost a decade, Westworld certainly bears a hallmark of his, and that's the idea that technology is bad. This is something I don't agree with, even though I love the work his world-view produces. Jurassic Park is an entire saga warning about delving too deeply into the science that made it possible to clone dinosaurs. In The Andromeda Strain, we were terrified that contact with aliens would kill us all. But Westworld in the absence of Crichton handles this theme better; it struggles with finding that answer as much as we do.
Soon enough, Westworld becomes about bigger, more important things. Yes, the effect of video-game culture on society is something that's been steadily building over the past three decades, but robots and artificial intelligence raise many more unanswered moral and ethical questions. These ideas are what the makers of the show seem more eager to explore, and after one season, boy, do they make you think.
Although it doesn't package the story as tightly as, say, 2015's Ex Machina, the overall sweep of the first season addresses just as many complex questions. One of the most challenging examples happens in the first episode, and I'm still struggling with it. I don't particularly like to see rape as a tool of a story under any circumstances, but the use of it here—on a robot who looks like a woman—makes you consider whether there's a difference in the severity of the crime.
Ultimately, I don't think there is, but I arrived at that conclusion after agonizing over the idea from the time I first watched the pilot. Just because an object is programmed to act like a woman doesn't mean it's OK to treat it like an object. If we treat avatars of women as objects, is that going to contribute to negative consequences in real life? I think so. I don't think there's any doubt that features like this in video games, although they might not lead directly to something as horrific as rape, certainly contribute to its culture and objectification of women. Westworld has forced me to reevaluate all of that, and wonder what we should do about such a thing. And I think I'm better for it.
If you can make it past that incident in the first episode, I would say stick with Westworld. It's chock full of philosophical discussions worth having.