When Games Matter: PayDay: The Heist and Virtual Crime

When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.

Should mature gamers feel guilty for committing virtual crimes? This question drove me to play PayDay: The Heist, a game where the player takes part in virtual bank robberies and other various heists.

There are two common answers to this question and neither really gets to the heart of the issue. On the one hand its a game—completing PayDay’s various heists does not actually require one to commit crime. The person who is too young or too immature to parse fiction and reality should not be playing videogames about bank robbery. That should be obvious, but common Christian objections to videogames often run along these lines. Christians tend to object to such games by asking, “Why would you do something in a virtual world that you wouldn’t in the real world?” “Aren’t games like this just fantasizing about sin?” These objections fail to realize how foreign videogame “worlds” often are to our own. On the other hand, as videogames become more lifelike they begin to bear more responsibility for how they depict lifelike events.

The environs of PayDay are largely believable—banks are clean, modern, and full of civilians while gang hideouts are dirty, dingy, and full of thugs. The tools you use to conduct your heist—drills, explosives, and guns—are realistic enough. These elements beg the question—is this more a crime-simulation than it is a “game”? If so, is PayDay teaching us to enjoy criminal activity?

When I first started playing, I was surprised by how quickly the game turned violent. When one of my accomplices held up his gun and shouted, “Everybody get on the ground now,” the bank security guards immediately started firing their guns at me in the presence of countless civilian bank customers. For me, this act completely ruined the illusion of a real-life heist.  Though I was in a very lifelike setting with seemingly lifelike people, any illusion of reality was quickly broken. I was very cognizant of the fact that what I was playing was a game—a set of rules and objectives and little more. And PayDay constantly reminds me of this fact—I can take an inordinate amount of bullets without dying and whatever urban city I am in has an enormous police force that constantly acts in obvious disregard for the safety of its citizens. The civilians of PayDay are largely unconcerned about their own safety—they will often not take cover until you command them to despite the deadly war zone that has taken shape around them. And while my accomplices are equipped and trained to use all the latest and fanciest gear for breaking into vaults, they are incredibly dim-witted as they are constantly running out in front of me while I am firing my gun. The game’s nods to reality are broken so often that I can’t imagine anyone viewing PayDay as a crime simulator.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At their very core, this is what all games are—sets of rules that we abide in order to accomplish a stated goal, typically for the purpose of enjoyment. If we were to replace PayDay’s security guards and law enforcement officers with mindless zombies or hostile aliens or terrorists, I would not be writing this article, no one would be interested in this discussion, and the game would remain essentially the same. This is not to say that games cannot be meaningful beyond mere entertainment—I merely want to point out that most games are not and PayDay certainly isn’t. Honestly, PayDay isn’t likely to move anyone to contemplate the human condition or reflect on what drives a man to a life of crime. It will, however, provide an entertaining gaming experience that the mature gamer can enjoy with friends. When reality was broken for me in the world of PayDay, I certainly enjoyed it. I was not deeply troubled by my virtual crimes in PayDay, if I were, I would reveal my “reality” to be far more broken than that of PayDay.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • http://generationalgamer.com/ Generational Gamer

    For me, I always play the part of the hero. Games should be fun and I get more joy out of playing the role of the hero. Even with an anti-hero, whatever violent act need to be taken there performed for good of mankind- or something to that effect. Its difficult for me to play a game that does not give you the option to make the right choice. In DCUO, I am a hero; in Dragon Age I am a liberator, in COD or BF3 I am the soldier fighting for my country. When Diablo III comes out, I will play a character that may not be perceived as Christian- but he/she will be used for Gods purposes to destroy the enemy… in a manner of speaking, lol. If Pay-Day would have given me the option to be a cop or even if it let you turn on your fellow criminals- that would have been even better! Good article, good topic.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Generational Gamer,

    I hear you and honestly I almost always play the hero as well so long as games give me that option. However, I would say two things:

    1. As I argued above–the more serious a game takes its “world,” the more serious consideration we should give to our actions in that world. To me PayDay does not take its world seriously–or perhaps it tries to but utterly fails. Consequently, I just can’t take seriously my own actions in that game world. So while of course I always want to be a hero in real life (constantly working toward good ends), playing the villian in a game whose world doesn’t take itself seriously is about as impactful as playing Tetris or Bejewled. Does that make sense?

    2. If you limit yourself to always playing the hero, I think you will miss out on some particularly impactful game experiences. What I mean is that we are not as heroic in real life as we like to think we are. Sometimes games remind us helpfully of that fact (RDR, Shadow of the Colossus, Far Cry 2). If games are to be taken seriously, they have to start taking the world seroiusly and perhaps more importantly they have to start taking human nature seriously. So there are a lot of games that I really appreciate that didn’t really allow me to be a true hero. Instead they forced me to admit that I am not as heroic as I would like to be. The latter is more realistic and in some ways more helpful because the former is an illusion.

  • Mike Wright

    Didn’t you just argue a few days ago that developers should include more civilians and consequences for killing civilians in games like BF3 and MW3 so we can experience the reality of the collateral damage of war? How then do you go from that to saying PayDay doesn’t take itself seriously so we shouldn’t take the virtual crime seriously? Even if the war titles had more civs, running around bunny hopping and respawning isn’t a serious world, so why shouldn’t we we just use the civs as target practice if they were there? Just curious :)

    I’m a long-time player of FPS games and have never had a problem with it. I equate it to a game of tag with friends on the playground. I found myself watching the trailer for PayDay a few weeks ago and thinking how fun it looked, but ultimately deciding that a game where the sole objective is virtual atrocities, with seemingly nothing redeeming, just isn’t the title I should be supporting. The same reason I guess I’ve avoided the GTA series. I just wonder, where do we draw the line? Honestly, arguing that the virtual world of crime doesn’t take itself seriously and so we can’t hold ourselves accountable to the things commited in the imaginary world seems like a slippery slope. The same sort of reasoning could be easily applied to a game with sexual themes, or even the porn industry itself. In theory, I think I could play something where the goal is to sleep with as many women as possible and not be driven to cheat on my wife, but something inside me would just find it creepy. I assume that something is likely the Holy Spirit within me, so as much as the gamer within me wants to try to reason it away, I try not to ;)

    In any case, great article!

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Mike Wright,

    Thanks for reading and leaving feedback–I always appreciate feedback and I think your comment is fair.

    I think there is a big difference between PayDay and your example:

    The same sort of reasoning could be easily applied to a game with sexual themes, or even the porn industry itself. In theory, I think I could play something where the goal is to sleep with as many women as possible and not be driven to cheat on my wife, but something inside me would just find it creepy.

    I thought I would find PayDay creepy. I thought I would feel bad about the crimes I was committing on screen–but PayDay was constantly reminding me that it was just a game and so I never really got creeped out by it. If I had, I think I would probably have stopped playing. Additionally I would say that if a game objectified sex in the way you bring up, I most certainly would not play it because I know myself and I respect my wife and playing that game would not honor her and additionally it would be far more likely to tempt me toward sin.

    You said you equate FPS games with a game of tag with friends on the play ground–I couldn’t have said it better myself–that is pretty much what PayDay was to me.

    As far as my argument a few weeks ago (not sure if you are referencing the podcast or the article I wrote) on Battlefield 3, I would say that PayDay and Battlefield 3 are trying to do similar things but B3 succeeds to a far greater degree than PayDay does. Both are shooting for a degree of realism. B3 succeeds in doing so to a far greater degree than PD does. B3, in fact is the most realistic shooter I have ever played–its textures, its sound design, and environments all at least attempt to mirror reality and I think it does very well at that. PD on the other hand breaks the players sense of reality so often that it honestly just plays like any other shooter–it was more akin to Left 4 Dead than some sort of crime sim. I would say that the more a game shoots for “realism” the more responsibility it bears for how it depicts reality.

    What I was arguing for with B3 was that, I would like to see games at least attempt to depict some of the collateral damage of war not that I want gamers to experience the collateral damage of war. The former games can do, the latter they can’t and shouldn’t. We can’t possibly get in the shoes of a soldier and feel what he feels and see what he sees–we can only see as through a glass dimly but many war games, especially MW3, make war look like something that its not and those games B3 and MW are setting the bar high in the realm of realism and then they are only showing the cool aspects of war.

    In other words to answer your question, I wouldn’t make the Civilians target practice in B3 if I could because I would feel creepy doing so–namely because that game does such a good job of depicting a realistic feeling battlefield. Does that make sense. Mowing down civilians in a game like B3 would be awful because B3 does much more to make their world seem life-like and meaningful.

    Feel free to push back on this as I really do think you bring up some excellent points and questions.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Mike

    I would also add that the question I was asking in this article was “should we feel guilty for committing virtual crimes?” I didn’t tackle the question of whether we should “support a game whose sole purpose is viritual attrocities.” That is a more complicated question.

  • http://generationalgamer.com/ Generational Gamer

    Wow, good discussion happening with this one. In context as Christians, the apostle Paul declares we are free from sin and condemnation in Christ. We are no longer bound to the death of the law- i.e. we eat what we want, all things are lawful for us to do etc. He explains further on that our freedom is not a ticket to sin or take part in any worldly pleasure we desire; rather that freedom gives us the ability to go into certain parts of the world to share the good news of Christ. Games, media, entertainment, music etc should be approached on a per-person basis. For example God has equipped and called some to minister to the world of pornography; well more power to them- I couldn’t do it. I know my flesh couldn’t handle it, so does God. Drew clearly has the ability to remove himself from the “fantasy” of the game and stand outside of it objectively. Which is awesome because he plays an important part in the body of Christ by helping us understand these kinds of games. Its the whole being in the world but not of it. Some of us cant do it. I get to caught up in the “fantasy” and so for me, I avoid the games that put you into a role that stands in contrast to what God has called me too. Its different for each person.

    Now, in context of society I think games like this walk a fine line of morality and shouldn’t be labeled as a “game”. What we defined as entertaining 50 years ago has clearly changed. Another 50 years from now it could look like the movie “Gamer”. I think there is more harm in labeling subject matter that clearly cross the lines of morality a “game”. We need to find another word for it. Calling something like GTA, Pay-Day, SAW#? a game is a deception. Unless your crushing people alive in Tetris, games like Pay-Day are in a whole other category.

    Now I go watch the movie “Gamer” again, LOL!

  • Micah Burke

    I’m a gamer, but these questions have been bothering me lately. I don’t really find these answers satisfying:

    “Additionally I would say that if a game objectified sex in the way you bring up, I most certainly would not play it because I know myself and I respect my wife and playing that game would not honor her and additionally it would be far more likely to tempt me toward sin.”

    When you play Heist or even the amazingly produced yet ultimately immoral GTA IV (where you’re basically forced to be a murderous jerk) aren’t you simulating crime, murder, greed, lust and the like? How different from this is watching gore films, or porn, except that in gaming you act in them? Why do we draw the line at sexual material while accepting the rest?

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Micah – what I mean is that I know myself in terms of seeing sex on screen is far more likely to cause me to lust than seeing killing on screen is to cause me to have hateful or murderous thoughts. There is a huge difference there.

    For many of the reasons I listed above, playing PayDay does not make me want to steal, nor does it make me impatient etc etc. etc.

    Sin begins in the human heart (Mark 7)–not from outside stimuli. That said, there are certain outside stimuli that I know I probably would not respond to well graphic sexuality is one of those things, violence in games typically isn’t.

    Know yourself and how you tend to respond to things, I have honestly never been moved toward violence or unhealthy anger based on violence seen/experienced on screen. Does that mean that everyone should play those games? Of course not.

    Let’s take responsibility for how we RESPOND to games and what is in our hearts and not just blame them for our sinful reactions.

  • Mike Wright

    @Drew – I see your point about sort of drawing the line where you feel like it affects you or not. I don’t feel like a game like PayDay would affect me in the slightest either. However, maybe sex in a game was a bad example because it is something that could easily lead to stumbling in reality, especially with men.

    Let’s switch the context to something that you wouldn’t be tempted to do. For the sake of argument, let’s say there is a well designed game who’s sole objective is to kidnap and kill babies. Shoot them, stab them, blow them up, beat them with baseball bats. Say there’s a baby in every house. Maybe you just have to get past some armed parents first. No cops. If you get out of the house alive nobody follows you or cares and you move on to the next challenge at the next house. Not a very realistic world right? I’m going out on a limb here and guess you wouldn’t be tempted to indiscriminately kill babies in real life. Is that game okay to play?

    It’s just a philosophical question. I don’t know what the answer is and I’m not saying your line is wrong. I guess we each have to decide that for ourselves. For me I think it boils down to avoiding titles that are based on pure virtual moral bankrupcy. I’m not really comfortable wearing that hat, even virtually, and I guess I think that is a good thing. I just don’t want to step onto a slippery slope, so I guess I’d rather error on the side of caution. Or maybe I already stepped on when I picked up my first virtual rocket launcher in Doom, so I just don’t want to grease it up any further ;)

  • Owais

    I am a Muslim and I am boycotting this game due to all the points mentioned in this article. Yes it is a game and yes its virtual but the concept is what matters to me. I simply can’t enjoy anything knowing that an innocent person is harmed in the process whether its real or fiction.


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