Virtual evil in video games

“How Evil Should a Video Game Allow You to Be?”  That’s the title of a provocative essay for the New Yorker by Simon Parkin.  When you read a work of literature featuring an evil person, you are in the mode of an observer.  But when you  play certain popular video games, you enter into the point of view of the evil person and are implicated in what he does (since, after all, you cause them).  The article isn’t against video games as such–indeed, it shows how this ability to put the player into a particular point of view has great artistic possibilities.  But still, as the article recounts some of the depravity that video games cause us to act out, it raises important questions, especially for Christians for whom sin “in the heart” can be as soul-destroying as sin acted out.From Simon Parkin, “How Evil Should a Video Game Allow You to Be?“:

Video-game violence is, like all onscreen violence, an act of play. But the medium has a unique capacity to inveigle, and even implicate, its audience through its interactivity. When we watch a violent scene in a film or read a description of violence in a novel, no matter how graphic it is, we are merely spectators. In video games, whose stories are usually written in the second person singular—“you,” rather than “he” or “she” or “I”—we are active, if virtual, participants. Often the game’s story remains in stasis until we press the button to step off the sidewalk, light the cigarette, drunkenly turn the key in the ignition, or pull a yielding trigger. It is one thing to watch Gus Van Sant’s 2003 “Elephant,” a fictional film based on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre; it is quite another to inhabit the pixellated shoes of that atrocity’s perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, as one does in the video game Super Columbine Massacre RPG.

The ability to assume a role, rather than simply witness actions, is part of the medium’s great (if woefully unexplored) potential, enabling us to inhabit the lives of people who don’t necessarily share our beliefs, values, or systems of behavior. In the award-winning 2008 game Braid, for example, the player becomes a suit-wearing stalker chasing down an ex-lover. In the 2013 independent game Papers, Please, you play as a zealous immigration inspector at a border checkpoint for a fictitious Eastern-bloc country, refusing entry to refugees. In the recent game Cart Life, you play as one of three downtrodden protagonists working a low-paying job in America. An enormously effective game that reflects the struggle of many people who live on the poverty line, it’s essentially a fictionalized documentary that illuminates the subject in a way that is possible only in a video game, compelling the player to experience the forces and choices that someone earning minimum wage struggles with. In this way, game designers, like novelists or filmmakers, can create truly transgressive works. A skillfully designed game might use this participatory perspective for artistic purpose—offering profound, affecting statements about the human condition. As in a film, this means that there’s the potential for a kind of onscreen violence that is not merely permissible but valuable. Unfortunately, it’s still a rarity: much scripted violence in games is psychopathically repetitive and presented without broader commentary or consequence. But the opportunity for a courageous designer is there.

In Grand Theft Auto V, the ambition is not only to tell a story but also to create a fully functioning social universe within a faithful depiction of a contemporary city. In addition to the core story, the player has the freedom to do whatever he or she wants, from taking part in a virtual triathlon to visiting a strip club to stealing cars. In this kind of video game, often described as an “open world” game, there is a difference between action that is required by the game in the course of the narrative and the action that is merely possible within the bounds the game; this further complicates the question of whether the capacity for some types of play should be removed.

It’s an issue all game makers face. They are, after all, small gods, constructing the rules and bounds of a reality. In previous Grand Theft Auto titles, for example, players were able to visit strip clubs, “kill” innocents and, in one notorious anecdote, pay for a prostitute and, after having sex with her, murder her to reclaim the money. In Grand Theft Auto IV, from 2008, which was game set in Liberty City, a fictional approximation of New York, players could hijack a helicopter and, if they so chose, fly it into a skyscraper. These particular actions are not stipulated by the game maker—they do not advance the player toward beating the game. But the world and its logic both facilitate them.

Last month, a user on a Grand Theft Auto V forum asked whether players would be able to rape women in the game. In the post, which was widely shared on social media, he wrote, “I want to have the opportunity to kidnap a woman, hostage her, put her in my basement and rape her everyday, listen to her crying, watching her tears.” This is alarming but, in a game that prides itself on player-led freedom and opportunity within virtual, victimless but violent worlds, is it unreasonable? If this freedom is necessary to maintain the artifice of the world, the designer surely has a responsibility to engineer the victim’s reactions in order to communicate something of the pain and damage inflicted.

Fictional characters, whether they appear in novels, films, or video games, are never fully independent entities. They are conjured by words on a page, directions in a screenplay, or lines of programming code, existing only in imagination or on a screen. A creator has no moral obligation to his or her fictional characters, and in that sense anything is theoretically permissible in a video game. But a game creator does have a moral obligation to the player, who, having been asked to make choices, can be uniquely degraded by the experience. The game creator’s responsibility to the player is to, in Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase, not waste his or her time. But it is also, when it comes to solemn screen violence, to add meaning to its inclusion.

Questions about video-game violence will gain urgency. The video-game medium curves toward realism or, as the novelist Nicholson Baker put it in the magazine, a “visual glory hallelujah.” As the fidelity of our virtual worlds moves ever closer to that of our own, the moral duty of game makers arguably intensifies in kind. The guns in combat games are now brand-name weapons, the conflicts in them are often based on real wars, and each hair on a virtual soldier’s head has been numbered by some wearied 3-D modeller. The go-to argument that video games are analogous to innocuous playground games of cops-and-robbers grows weaker as verisimilitude increases. The 1982 Atari 2600 game Custer’s Revenge, in which players controlled a stick-man representation of General Custer tasked with raping a naked Native American woman tied to a pole, attracted plausible criticism. How much more repellent might the work be if rendered by contemporary technologies with their ever-more-realistic graphics?

The rise of motion control (where physical gestures replace traditional button-control inputs in video games) will, for many, accentuate those concerns. Some games now no longer merely require your mind and thumbs but also your entire body. In a hypothetical motion-controlled video-game version of “Lolita,” it would be possible to inhabit the body, as well as the mind, of Humbert Humbert. A virtual sex crime might elicit a very different response if, instead of pressing a button to instigate it, you were required to mimic its pelvic thrusts and parries—even if, as in Nabokov’s work, it was included to illustrate or illuminate, not titillate. But one wonders how many spouses would snatch that sort of work from the incinerator.

Most moral qualms about videogames like these stop at their effect on children and how we need to keep them out of the hands of young people.  But aren’t these even more morally caustic for adults?  Or they stop at the question of their influence, whether or not these imaginary transgressions cause people to commit these transgressions in real life.  But is virtual evil still evil even if it isn’t actualized in the external world?

Those of you who play videogames–and I know there are a lot of you–do you see the point of what this author is saying?  Is he missing something, or is he exaggerating the moral problems?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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