March 1, 2013

Video games make you complicit in their characters’ actions, and that’s a good thing

Video games make you complicit in their characters’ actions, and that’s a good thing

I’m sure many will brush off the premise of G. Christopher Williams’ “Forgive Me, Father, for I Have Simmed” — that video games “[make] you complicit in making the choices and witnessing the consequences” — but I find it fascinating and provocative. Williams writes:

Yeah, yeah, I know you “it’s just a game” guys. “Dude, it’s just a game.” I’m not an idiot. I know I’m not Tommy Vercetti. I know I’m not an albino-skinned guy with two blades chained to his hands who gets perturbed easily. I know I’m not a fat Italian plumber.

But I do worry about you guys, sometimes. You do know that all those pixels on a screen mean something, represent something, communicate something, right? You do know that the flickering images on a screen make you feel something, make you laugh, make you cry because, you know, they’re familiar, not real, but they remind you of real circumstances, real moments of joy, real moments of tragedy?

[…]

Infamous decrier of video games, Jack Thompson, likes to refer to video games as “murder simulators”. He isn’t altogether wrong in many instances. Games simulate a lot of behaviors. Like any good simulator, like the airplane simulators that commercial pilots practice emergency scenarios on, the goal is to consider responsiveness, to consider reactions, to understand how we respond to certain kinds of stimuli, to certain kinds of choices. Thompson may fear this notion. I wonder if it isn’t a useful mechanism for considering exactly these kinds of notions, for testing our moral responsiveness, our own impulses, our own inability to act or to not act under certain circumstances because, not in spite of, the fact that “it’s just a game” and not a real emergency, not a real moral quandry.

When Williams writes “I wonder if it isn’t a useful mechanism for considering exactly these kinds of notions, for testing our moral responsiveness, our own impulses, our own inability to act or to not act under certain circumstances,” I think he’s getting at something similar to what I wrote in my review of the first Mass Effect game and its approach to morality:

With their interactive nature, video games hold a unique potential for causing people to think about those “big” questions in ways that no other medium can—by allowing them to make those decisions and experience the consequences (albeit in a virtual form).

[…]

I’ll admit, sometimes it’s fun to be the renegade, to be the bad-ass special agent who runs in with both guns blazing and to hell with the consequences. But when Mass Effect shows you to results of your actions, I find myself wishing I’d taken a nobler, more thoughtful path. Similarly, being a paragon may be its own reward, but there are times when being the “good” guy means worse consequences in the long run.

Also, in my review of Mass Effect 2:

In the Mass Effect games, every choice has potentially galactic ramifications, and you may not even know what all of those ramifications are until Mass Effect 3‘s credits have finished rolling. Don’t be surprised if, during the game, you find yourself putting down the controller and walking away for a bit as you try to figure out the potential effects of your options, and hoping that you—or at least, your character—can live with the decision you’re about to make.

I’m not saying that you should go ahead and play that ultra-graphic, hyper-violent first person shooter because it contains some grand lessons on ethics. By all means, let’s still use our discretion. However, as video games continue to mature, artistically and technically, their ability to truly simulate real life situations — and all of their ethical and moral complexities — will only increase. Mature games may increasingly become truly “mature” in the sense that they challenge the player to grow up and think long and hard about the ramifications of their actions (albeit in an engaging and immersive way).

As that happens, it’ll prove far more exciting than better graphics engines and other, purely technological developments.