Friday, August 13, 2010
Why is there so much virtual murder?
The US homicide rate is about 5 in 100,000 per year. While this is still considered as high compared to other countries with a similar standard of living, it nevertheless tells us that over 99.99% of Americans manage to get through a whole year without killing somebody. But when we move from the real world to the virtual worlds of video games, the numbers reverse. Unless you’re only playing the small games that came with Windows and some Facebook games, chances are that your recent video game activities had a good amount of virtual murder in them. Killing sentient beings in one form or another is the main activity in the majority of video games. Whenever I report on a video game without combat, I get comments declaring that to be too boring to play. Why is that, and what does it tell us about the ethics of people who play video games? Please understand this as an open question. I don’t want to “accuse” anybody, and I’m certainly myself part of the group of people who spends much of their free time killing virtual beings in computer games.
There are two different schools of thought on that matter. One point of view is that games aren’t real, and therefore a safe environment in which people can live out their inner aggression without causing any actual harm. Video games have even been credited with a reduction in crime by keeping unemployed young men busy stealing cars in GTA instead of on their own streets. The other point of view is that our preferences in virtual worlds, in which our acts have no or little negative consequences, reveals a lot about who we really are. If, when given free choice of virtual worlds and activities, we’d rather kill other people with headshots and then teabag them than try to do something creative or collaborative, then maybe we aren’t really all that nice and civilized as we might want to pretend. That doesn’t mean that “video games make people violent”, because most people are well able to distinguish virtual from real, and are aware of the negative consequences of real world violence. But it poses the question of whether we are violent and evil to start with, and are just clever enough to hide and suppress those feelings in the real world. A recent study suggested that 60% of young males would punch a coworker in the face if they could get away with it.
One frequently cited excuse for liking violent video games with lots of combat is the aspect of “risk”. If we pretend to be somebody else, we’d rather pretend to be somebody living a dangerous and adventurous life. But if that was the case, why is the violence in video games so one-sided, the player usually killing lots and lots of enemies, and dying only rarely himself? More soldiers survived World War II than died in it, thus on average every survivor killed less than one enemy over 6 years. In a WWII shooter a video gamer kills hundreds of enemy soldiers in the span of a few hours. Not only do our virtual characters die a lot less often than the computer-controlled enemies, the games are also usually designed in a way to minimize the penalty for dying. In a typical MMORPG the chances for you die on a typical solo quest are close to zero, and if you still manage to die, you’ll be back up to full strength within minutes. Violent video games are very little about risk to the player, and very much about *dishing out* violence. The “risk” is a video game is always just to have to play through the same content again, and it would be perfectly possible to have “risk” like that in a game where the player is something non-violent, like a fireman or astronaut.
An increasing number of video games is not only violent, but either casts the player in an evil role, or at least gives him the choice between being good or evil, with no negative consequences for choosing the latter. Again we have to ask ourselves what it tells about us if we choose to play an evil character, a thug rather than a hero. Virtual worlds theoretically allow us to be anything, but instead of choosing to be a hero, an astronaut, a fireman, a doctor, or an architect, we choose to be a car thief or contract killer. Bioware is apparently confident that if given the choice between good and evil in the quintessential good vs. evil drama of the Star Wars universe, around half of the players would rather be evil oppressors than the heroes trying to save the universe. Funny, I don’t remember half of the audience cheering for Darth Vader back in 1977 when I saw the first Star Wars movie.
Even if we say that evil acts in virtual worlds somehow “don’t count” as evil because pixels don’t suffer, the ethics of video games become more difficult in MMORPGs, where we interact through the virtual world with other real humans. If killing in virtual worlds isn’t evil, then is cheating evil? Is betrayal evil? Selfishness? Is robbing your guild bank an evil act, or just part of the game? How about botting and gold farming? Hacking? Ninja-looting or kill-stealing? Chat that is racist or gay-bashing? Begging and leeching? If evil didn’t exist in virtual worlds, then why are all the MMORPG bloggers so frequently complaining about other players behaving badly in their game? If morals didn’t exist in MMORPGs, you couldn’t even bash other players as “morons & slackers”, because such a judgment is based on a social standard of how informed, efficient, and hard-working other players are supposed to be. If I can “roleplay” a killer without that saying anything about my ethics, I could also be “roleplaying” a thief, traitor, racist, or lazy bum.
If you talk to video gamers, it isn’t as if they had no ethics or moral standards at all. But if question them about what they consider okay and not okay as behavior in a game, you end up with set of ethics rules which sounds rather twisted if applied to real life, and which changes from game to game, and even sometimes from player to player. Part of that is actually hard-coded into the games, or enforced by the game companies: Excessive violence is okay, but if you say “fuck” the chat-filter censors that out. Blizzard’s customer service won’t intervene if somebody ninja-loots or robs your guild bank (unless it was a hacker), but the GMs now patrol Goldshire to prevent people from having cybersex there.
Another aspect is how technological advances in video game graphics make virtual murder appear more “realistic” over time. The violence of Space Invaders is highly abstract, but the violence in Dragon Age: Origins is very visual and gory. Apparently EA thinks that players will find it funny when a dialogue after a fight shows them splattered with gore, instead of them feeling any revulsion. Isn’t there a danger of us numbing towards the images of violence because of this? If we just spent several hours decapitating people in a video game, does the video of jihadists decapitating a hostage on the news later that day still provoke the same horror in us? A game is said to be good if it “immersive”, but is a virtual world full of excessive violence and murder really something we should be immersed in? And is all that virtual evil really as harmless as we think it is?
Rarely have I written a post with so many question marks in it, and although you might find the questions leading, they are nevertheless open questions to which I invite you to find your own answer. The main question however is not whether virtual murder is “evil”, but why virtual violence is so predominant in video games, except for casual games and children games. I recently asked why there are no games about blood elf porn, and now I ask why there are so many games about blood and violence, and so few games without it. Even if you consider virtual murder to be harmless, the question why there is so much of it is still valid.