What Video Games Say About Our Morality
We don’t often write about video games on this here site, mostly because that’s its own rabbit hole. It’s like the Seinfeld episode where Jerry can’t go through with the threesome. Once we start writing about video games, we’ll have to get video game advertising, video game pictures, video game writers, and that’s what we’ll be. Plus Dustin passively discourages it, because since he was born a poor black child without electricity he doesn’t much trust those machines that think. True story: he types all of his articles on a vintage Underwood typewriter and makes TK put them on the Internet. That’s why TK is so angry all the time.
But enough with the half lies, let’s move on to the half truths.
Accusations of video games causing violence go back to when the first crude game of pong was played on an oscilloscope in the sixties, and the subsequent tragedy when the very first player two in history clawed out the eyes of history’s first player one. The fact that player one was banging player two’s wife was considered an irrelevant factor in comparison to the murder training that occurred on that oscilloscope by the first generation of electronic Chicken Littles.
Later generations of computers married the Satanist recruitment tool of roleplaying games with the homicidal simulators of video games, creating a devil’s froth of youthful corruption. Oh! That’s when I started playing both tabletop and computer roleplaying games! Good times, good times.
Like many readers, I have done terrible terrible things over the years to various bundles of pixels. And some of it is justified. I mean, you’re playing a hero, you kill the bad guys doing bad things. There’s nothing wrong with that, you can drop old school Catholic doctrine on that one, jus in bello. It took about ten minutes after the lions were called off for Christianity to point out that the whole “thou shalt not kill” wasn’t really talking about war or self-defense, because St. Augustine was like really, have you met the world we live in?
But then there’s the other sort of video game violence. The kind where you are not even nominally playing a good guy, not even remotely performing justifiable actions. It was roleplaying games where this got some of its start, games with enough thought given to moral complexity that being evil instead of good was recognized as a choice some players might make. But with notable exceptions of extraordinarily well written games, it was the dawning of open world games that really made a difference. If you can choose what you want to do in a fictional world, some people spend all their time picking flowers instead of fighting at all. And some people just burn down the world around them. You murder, over and over, piling the bodies all around like grim trophies.
It’s stress relief, it’s a way of letting out the demons that rage in your subconscious. Beat your fists bloody on a punching bag after hours with your boss’s face in your mind and you’re considered well-adjusted enough. But massacre every inhabitant of a village in Skyrim and suddenly it’s time for very serious conversations.
It’s not morality if there’s not a choice. A game in which you can only be the good guy will always be a ride at Disneyland from a certain point of view, a clever show on rails. When you play in open worlds though, the fact that you can murder everyone in the world is exactly what makes it a moral choice for you to not. Choice is the key element there, or we’re just automatons anyway. But the funny thing is just how many gamers I know who run straight into that. They start playing something intentionally on the evil path in order to see where that story leads, or if only to vent rage into the controller. And half the time they just can’t keep it up. They just can’t tell the little orphan girl to go to hell and steal her little pile of pennies. They just can’t bring themselves to shoot the stray dog for shits and giggles. And so they start evil and revert back to good because regardless of the fact that it’s just a game, the mind’s morality regresses to its mean.
I was playing Skyrim for a while, and realized that I was having no fun at all. Definitely not compared to Oblivion, the previous entry in the same series. And it wasn’t anything to do with the gameplay or the story or any of the other things that should rightly make a game. It’s because I wanted to play as a terrible person. I wanted to burn the world down around me. That’s what I’d done in the previous game, as murderous and evil a bastard as ever walked the fictional streets of fictional worlds. And I couldn’t. And it took a long time to figure out why.
It was because the latest iteration of the game added followers, so you could have an NPC tagging along behind you and helping out. It didn’t make sense not to take that person as a gameplay decision, but having someone else along was like having a conscience perched on my shoulder. So I wasn’t having fun because I was sulking along doing what I was supposed to do instead of what I wanted to do. It turned freedom into 1984.
Morality might be a choice, but it’s as much the people looking over our shoulders as our own morals that make that choice.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.