Video games change the dynamics on how we consume media.
Strangely enough, we do not just receive stories and perform actions when playing games. As the visuals on screen turn from something less abstract (say, away from the depictions of walking mushrooms and evil plants), we increasingly find ourselves in a tight spot. The violence escalates from jumping on goomba’s heads to murdering actual digital people. Riddick snaps some necks and shoots some people, even getting creative with bats, shivs, and screwdrivers. Sex emerges, having not even existed beforehand; heck, the threat of it on the prison walls everywhere is enough. There’s a variety of responses to these new developments in gaming (even in 2004!), and many of them revolve around how we view our interactions with video games in the first place. I could just give a backhanded response and call it a prequel, which it is and it does explain Riddick’s penchant for violent creativity not even seen as effectively in the films, but I imagine you expect a more substantive answer than that.
Our responses to media generally revolve around the philosophical concept of agency – that is, whether in real life or in a video game we as agents are capable of performing actions in the world, virtual or otherwise. This does not necessarily mean that such actions contain a moral dimension of any sort, just that agents (however you define it as a human mind, a soul, etc.) can perform actions. Of course, moral content remains what people want to know about when it comes to these sorts of issues, especially in video games, and specifying moral agency removes the confusion from the discussion. Does the violence I enable on-screen constitute the use of my agency to promote such actions? Am I morally culpable for this, or did I lose part of the equation? Do video game actions fit within traditional definitions of right and wrong, or do I merely manipulate pixels on a computer screen?
Let us discuss a few theories of moral culpability to, hopefully, set us aright. We could take a deterministic view, in that accidental and incidental actions lead to other actions, and so on. The vast chain of cause and effect makes us sit on a couch and kill a bunch of dudes in a video game. In this view, there’s obviously no moral culpability for your actions in a game or elsewhere, as what you do demonstrates your lack of free will. We do not often think in terms of determinism (or, for a more Christian turn of phrase, predestination), but it provides no definite answers to the question of moral agency in video games. As well, it doesn’t provide much of an answer for most human beings; if it’s true, everything that will happen will happen, and thinking about this issue in the first place makes no sense. Christians do not generally accept this view, although predestination can cause this as a logical conclusion if not a theological one.
Immanuel Kant’s theory of the real self versus the noumenal self pushes back against determinism. Although our real self may not be able to make a decision of free agency, our noumenal self (the self we know before experience, or a priori in fancy philosoph speak) may express different leanings. Determinism takes a rather simplistic view in this way, leading us to a strain of inevitability (also, it makes laws against particular actions seem rather unfair!). Kant, on the other hand, says that regardless of our public actions, our noumenal self may reflect different inclinations.
So let’s imagine playing a game filled with morally reprehensible characters. I imagine many people cannot peg just why that remains so off-putting! If everything merely comes down to it “being a game”, then why do I feel as if I am violating my particular moral code? Your real self manipulates the game for the purpose of fun, achievement, or pleasure, yet certain instances in the game force your noumenal self out of its comfort zone. It secretly condemns the action precisely due to the realism of said action. The noumenal self isn’t a part of nature, and this remains uncaused, thus being unaffected by a deterministic universe. There’s a different between doing torture (in Grand Theft Auto V), and having said torture perpetrated by AI players and appearing offscreen (Final Fantasy VI; go back and play it if you don’t believe me). You noumenal self makes the judgment based on what occurs onscreen; you also have the voluntary free agency of whether or not to play.
Kant needed to perform a bit of rhetorical jousting, precisely because human ideas do not fit neatly into the structure of human society. If, for example, all our musings about justice and morality merely derived from our circumstances and environment, that’s a rather damning charge against the fundamental frameworks we on which we rely. How do you punish someone for actions they could not avoid? How do you prosecute anything when there’s no motive to prove other than the surrounding area and/or influences? A religious person sidesteps the problem by placing moral authority upon God. In that case, the “noumenal self” of the soul remains culpable for actions it can know and perform apart from outside influence.
This fits very much into the idea of “intention” by which the Bible seems to base its moral code. The Old Testament says actually doing an action constitutes a moral transgression; Jesus, affirming the authority of that which came before, takes it one step further by stating the mere thought of such an action produces a moral transgression. Matthew 5 makes no qualms or real deviations from this interpretation, which remains rather crystal clear:
21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.
Jesus also mentions this in the context of sexuality further on in the verse, and so we find ourselves covering both ends of the proverbial “objectional content in video games” issue. Intention counts for much.
To cite a personal example, I feel no moral qualms chopping dudes up in a video game. The last two words have often been enough hand-waving to justify said actions, as I’ve never viewed any actions taken in digital world in a moral light. I see them as physical manipulations on controller, an acceptance of the rules in the game which would exist (if not as exciting) whether or not violence is depicted onscreen. In more social games like MMORPGs, the way you treat people online blurs this line between fiction and reality, but one can easy make the judgment required here. I treat people like I would want to be treated, even if we’re dealing with fake gear, fake bosses, and fake things that we can easily distinguish from reality. Everyone’s concerned about fake things, surely, but real people with real feelings, wants, and needs exist behind the computer screen, so it’s less a matter of confused perception and more that people cannot discern the functional difference between a real person and a fake video game world.
In a way, I suppose I accept the idea of the “magic circle”. First coined by historian Johan Huizinga (and helpfully noted by Theology Gaming’s friends at Gospel and Gaming), it states that there’s an invisible circle or membrane surrounding our actions in play versus out of play. Hence, we call it the “magic circle”, which we enter when we’re playing games and accept their rules. Our complicity in “moral” actions comes down to our acceptance of the rules. To quote Huizinga himself:
All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart
That doesn’t preclude the human agent, of course, but understanding this state of affairs makes our determinations much easier. We do this all the time in whatever game we play. Whether or not we disagree with the ideology on display, we agree with its rules and systems for the purposes of play. Some developers take advantage of this in storytelling (see: anything from Suda51 or Grasshopper Manufacture, pretty much), but rarely do they attempt to address and integrate both. When they do, it sets our alarm bells off due to the association between the player and his in-game avatar, whether or not they’re really doing anything.
Now, can a video game convince the player, through immersion, that they’re the moral agent in question? Absolute they can! Of course, as we all know, video games are not just magical pieces of digital entertainment emerging out of the ether. They comes from a long line of similar entertainment enterprises which, similarly, sought to immerse their audience. Reading a good novel, for example, provokes the same effect; we see the protagonist, who we grow to admire, fail in their task due to stupidity or even commit heinous actions we find horrific. Film often presents us with these shocking moments in a way that leaves far less to the imagination, and video games moreso than that.
The problem, then, is less “bad people doing bad things”. It’s more “a good person (defined by us) playing a video game, forced to do bad thing”. We feel a bizarre kinship with the person we play, whether it’s cold-hearted killer Riddick or simply ourselves made through a create-a-character tool. Some games allow us free reign to do what we will and what reflects our character, and others force us down a particular path filled with nasty things. Neither of these approaches is wrong, but we place entirely too much stock in the action of a character in a predetermined story just through out personal involvement.
So then, how do we wrangle with Riddick in all this?