All Myst games revolve around Atrus, one of the few survivors of a highly advanced civilization called the D'ni, whose greatest achievement, The Art, allowed them to write books through which they could travel to different worlds. In Myst, we discover that Atrus' greedy and power-hungry sons, Sirrus and Achenar, have lured him into a trap so that they could ravage his library and the worlds it linked to, eventually becoming trapped in two prison books of Atrus' devising. In Riven, the player follows Atrus' kidnapped wife Katherine to her home and matches wits against Ghen, Atrus' megalomaniacal father, who wants Atrus to repair the damage he's caused through his inept mishandling of The Art. In Exile, a former victim of Sirrus and Achenar (Brad Dourif, making ends meet before Peter Jackson and the producers of Deadwood started handing him fat and well-deserved paychecks) tries to take his revenge on Atrus by stealing his only link to the new D'ni homeworld. Revelation, which takes place a decade later, sends the player to Sirrus and Achenar's prison worlds to discover which one of them is responsible for the kidnapping of Atrus' young daughter, Yeesha.
The first two Myst games (and the three tie-in novels that tell Atrus' backstory) emphasized the fact that the good guys were highly educated, inquisitive, and scientifically minded. The bad guys were lazy, uneducated, unable or unwilling to acknowledge their intellectual inferiority and constantly looking for shortcuts on the way to knowledge and power. If that wasn't enough, the metaphor of books that allow you to influence the physical world and travel to distant places is a clear indicator of a pro-intellectualism mindset.
Things start to change in the third game, Exile, in which we get a glimpse of the process of educating someone like Atrus when we follow the villain to his prison of two decades, a lesson world written by Atrus for his sons as they began to learn The Art. These lessons, however, are nothing more than insipid New Age mantras such as "energy powers future motion".
Things get worse in Revelation. Atrus summons the player to offer an unbiased opinion on whether Sirrus and Achenar have reformed enough to be allowed out of their prisons. While exploring these prison worlds, the player gets a glimpse of how the brothers have spent their incarcerations through flashbacks and journal entries. Sirrus, the "smart" brother, immediately sets out trying to find a way out. Using only crude tools, he somehow manages to MacGyver everything from circuit boards to airships. When Atrus inserts an impervious meeting chamber into the prison world, through which he and Katherine can talk to Sirrus without allowing him to escape, their unrepentant son immediately begins trying to find a way to shatter it, going so far as to manipulate his young sister and tug on his mother's heartstrings to do so.
Achenar, on the other hand, is depicted as a lumbering, grunting he-man (the brothers' personalities in Revelation are a gigantic retcon from the original Myst, in which Sirrus was a greedy, effete abuser of alcohol and narcotics with zero understanding of technical matters, and Achenar was a giggling psychopath with dark and grotesque appetites) who uses his incarceration in a jungle world teeming with wildlife as an opportunity to hunt big game. Though not unskilled with his hands, Achenar is clearly Sirrus' intellectual inferior, as his crude handwriting and poor spelling reveal when the player reads his journals. These journals also reveal a slow but definite change in Achenar's personality. He begins to be horrified with his and Sirrus' crimes, and with his own depletion of the jungle's wildlife population. He becomes a conservationist, spending hours observing and studying the indigenous monkey population. When his mother makes him a gift of a home-made garment, the simple giant is moved to tears by its beauty and softness.
Revelation's final act takes place on the world to which Yeesha has been kidnapped, a New Age wonderland ruled by of a group of priestesses who travel to "Dream" to meet the spirits of their ancestors. There the player discovers that the still-evil Sirrus is Yeesha's kidnapper, and that he plans to take over her body in order to learn The Art from Atrus, whom he intends to kill once he's learned all he needs. Through the self-sacrifice of Achenar and, of course, the help of The Ancestors, Yeesha is saved.
The transformation is complete. From a series that extolled the values of education and erudition, Myst has turned the intellectual into a boogeyman. The only permissible kind of intelligence is the ethereal, illogical, fortune cookie "wisdom" of the spirit world. To paraphrase Achenar as he describes his quarry in the jungle world, stupidity has become a virtue.
Anyone watching popular culture depictions of academics knows that the stereotypical egghead is and always has been cowardly, weak, and effeminate (unless they are female, of course, in which case they usually aren't womanly enough). The stereotype doesn't exist without reason--if only because the kind of mindset required to do something very brave probably doesn't benefit from too much introspection or imagination--but recently it has evolved to include moral deficiency. Most worryingly, a lot of these new depictions of the academic as heartless and amoral come from science fiction--supposedly the stronghold of geeks and rationalists.
- When Farscape's John Crichton is duplicated by an alien device, one of his copies is farther along the evolutionary scale (naturally, this copy is pale, bald and less well-hung). The more advanced Crichton is smarter than the regular one and, as the audience soon discovers, is coldly amoral. He manipulates Crichton and the rest of Moya's crew in order to preserve his own life, whereas Crichton's cave-man duplicate selflessly sacrifices himself for the greater good.
- When the new Doctor Who picks up Adam, a self-proclaimed genius, as a companion, the young man immediately turns around and tries to make time travel work for him by stealing schematics of future computers, not caring how he might disrupt the flow of history. This is in contrast to the selfless Rose, who dropped out of school (which she hated) without getting her A-Levels.
- Battlestar Galactica's Gaius Baltar was probably the smartest person on his planet, and when he discovered that the Cylons had used him to destroy nearly all of humanity, his first reaction was to shirk the blame and try to hide his guilt from the other surviving humans, going so far as to frame another man for being a Cylon spy. At no point during the series' first season has Baltar expressed remorse for his part in the genocide of his race.
- Willow, the geeky best friend of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, thoughtlessly manipulates the minds of her lover and friends to prevent them from being angry at her. Buffy's mentor, the bookish Giles, proves the be the most morally flexible character in the cast when he kills a helpless man to prevent his monstrous alter-ego from reemerging, and later when he distracts Buffy as the vengeful Robin Wood tries to kill her sometimes-ally Spike.
- On Angel, the educated Wesley Windham-Pryce betrays Angel by kidnapping his son. Even more distressing is the staunchly moral Gunn, a street kid frustrated by his intellectual limitations, who receives a magical gift of legal knowledge. He becomes so enamored with his new erudition that he betrays his friends, causing the death of one of them, rather than lose it.
I would hazard a guess that the devaluation of the academic as a moral entity has something to do with the belief that intellectuals can't be spiritual. Again, that's a sterotype with roots in reality (although plenty of scientists and academics are also religious), but whence the assumption that a person needs to believe in God (or Goddess, or Gaia, or Buddha, of The Force, or some non-specific deity-ish bugaboo) in order to be moral? I find it vaguely offensive to suggest that the only reason people know that killing is wrong is that God told them so, or even that they don't kill because they fear God's retribution.
Morality is a tricky notion. Some people suggest that it is inherent to us as thinking beings (or as immortal sparks of the divine, whatever floats your boat), that something in us recoils from causing pain and damage to others. Others claim that morality is a construct of civilization, and that our animal nature, left to its own devices, would prompt us to act out of total selfishness to secure our own survival and comfort. I vacillate between the two, but either way I don't see why it should follow that an intellectual would be any less moral than an uneducated person. Whether from God or from society, the impulse to act morally should exist in all of us, and I see nothing in the process of education that would distance a person from that impulse.
I find it unfortunate, therefore, and not a little bit ironic, that the people who have made the sterotype of the intellectual as amoral and untrustworthy so prevalent should be the same kind of intelligent, educated people who make games like Myst.