Killing Games: or How Weird is it to Virtually Fire the Killshot?

While eating dinner with my mother, we were watching Wolf Blitzer in ye olde Situation Room on CNN. This flashed across the bottom of the screen while Wolf discussed the viability of Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate. I then did a little Googling and found this site, which boasts, among other things, an Osamagotchi, modeled in some ways after the once popular (now seemingly gone from popular culture) virtual pet Tamagochi.

Seeing games like this makes me pause for a second and drop into “why do I critique everything?” mode. I want to note here that while I adore James Paul Gee’s gaming work and aspire to be able to do similar things–I think the world of Dr. Gee and have told him as much, not that he probably remembers me :)– I had this same reaction to the fact that he included the politically charged game Under Ash in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Gee uses the game expertly to make an important point, but that particular game is so politically  charged, and so relatively obscure, that as a reader I couldn’t help but be distracted by the fact that I felt the same point could be made with a game that wasn’t such a hot button. That’s about me, though, and is meant in no way to be a judgment of Dr. Gee. It was just something that weighed on me in interesting ways when, as part of a grad seminar, I presented on/led discussion of Gee’s book. Someone asked me why that example was there, and I couldn’t justify it, because I asked the exact same question myself as I read.

The issue of violence in video games, generally speaking, is so overdone, and so generally overblown, in popular press and now decades old psychology and sociology literature that it rarely emerges as a central topic in contemporary writing (don’t get me wrong– people are still talking about it, but it is nowhere near having the widespread visibility that it once had as a topic, as there is a period in the 1980s and early 1990s where more than half– significantly more than half in some years– of the published scholarly work about games focuses on violence and the Congress heard arguments about banning games which led to the formation of the ESRB and game ratings). And most recent psychological studies in particular have found little correlation between video game violence and IRL (in real life) violence. Gamers tend to understand that it is a game.

I’ve always believed that, even when all I had was the anecdotal experiences of growing up as a gamer among other gamers as my support. I stood in line with “rabid” fans to play Mortal Kombat in the arcade. I was part of a number of huge LAN parties at IU playing Doom, Doom II, and Quake. I play World of Warcraft now, and on a weekly basis me and my friends (and my research participants) kill several dragons, huge worms, evil wizards, etc. Sometimes we kill each other for fun, too.

The question I ask myself, then, is “why would this be different?” I’ve assassinated a number of fictional characters in my gaming life. I never felt any real malice in doing it. It was part of the game, and my mind always makes that separation, just as I’ve found universally among now three different groups of research participants. I’ve had a few people tell me they like to inflict damage to people and things online as a stress release, but I’ve never had a single person tell me– or even act as if they might be holding back from me– that they feel an inspiration to do bad things, to inflict harm, because of their gaming experiences. They’ve all realized– and in fact pointed out to me– that it’s a game and isn’t meant to mirror real life, at least in the case of killing things.

The reason why a game where the gamer gets to shoot bin Laden in the head– or torture him as a virtual pet– bothers me is a much more personal reason. It’s an issue of ethics and morality. I’m not going to go to religion here; I don’t think that’s required (I think a person who has any belief system they’d like to apply could easily, but that’s not really my focal argument).  I think that when we deal with abstract, fictional characters– and we only give personalities to the things we inhabit, or that we know that others inhabit– the unspoken rules of being a “proper” human being come into a different light (I struggled for a word there– I don’t want to say “right”– right and wrong are just constructions, too, on some level) .

Before I go any further, a quick aside that builds on this but takes us ever-so-slightly afield: the night that we found out bin Laden was dead, I was relieved to know that the threat was gone, but I felt odd feeling relief in the death of another person. I had a few Twitter conversations with people about it. I will not say it is wrong for a person to be happy that another person is dead; I don’t make the rules for everyone. But I cannot personally find happiness in the demise of another, even someone that we’d thoroughly Boogie Manned. I’m glad we don’t live in the shadow of bin Laden anymore, but I won’t cheer the fact that we killed him. Only that good, in this case, has triumphed over evil.

Back to my other point: I think it’s different when the goal of a game is to inflict harm upon/kill a specific, identifiable, person.

Some examples– all anecdotes from my own life. Not the strongest research, but I think they illustrate my thinking:

1) in WoW, I often duel with a few of my friends. One in particular loves to duel as a “skill check.” He’s a tank, and I’m currently the “toughest” damage dealer in our group (since my Death Knight wears plate armor and I put out serious damage with a number of skills that slow him down). I kill him quite a bit. He kills me way more often. I know it’s him. But he doesn’t really “die.” He falls to his knees, defeated, and the whole time this fight is happening we’re talking over the headsets on Ventrillo. I know it’s okay with him, and he knows it’s okay with me.

2) Another WoW example. There’s a cross-faction (alliance– he’s a gnome!) mage that a friend– and myself– often encounter in Tol Barad, an open-world PVP area. I won’t comment on said gnome myself, but will rather use my friend’s description, as it is apt and hilarious “he’s an uber-douchenozzle dickwit.” The gnome is a mage, and he tries as best he can to kill you before you can even see him. He kills me maybe 10 times a run. My friend, on the other hand, gets the drop on the gnome about half the time (I like to claim it’s because I’m such delicious bait– who wouldn’t want to attack the shiny goblin with the geodes on his shoulders?), and he relishes killing the mage before the mage can get a spell off.

At first, I felt a little odd about us “hunting” this guy. Then I found out something that made it feel completely different; he used to be in our guild (one that dissolved), and he comes into our Ventrillo server to talk smack and share stories after the TB runs. He– like players in a game of Doom or Quake— comes to tell us of the fun he had. It is then jovial. Plus… if he gets me or we get him, it’s always just a short corpse run before we pop right back up.

3) A few years ago, my friend Greg and I used to play Gears of War over the Xbox Live system. Xbox Live– at least for Gears of War— is set up so you can talk to your opponents between rounds, but you can only hear your teammates when you’re alive and fighting (when you die you can hear the others talking– at least long enough for them to taunt you).  We usually– maybe due to time of day– matched up with people roughly our age, and we’d crack jokes and congratulate each other on superb kills between rounds. But one night, we had a kid who sounded like he was about five (he claimed to be six– you can never know for sure, of course).

I couldn’t kill him. At first it was because he was just really good at the game, but I learned his patterns, and I still couldn’t bring myself to kill the little guy. I had to explain it to Greg, as we lost over and over, that I just didn’t feel right chainsawing a five-year-old in the face. Then the five-year-old insulted my mom. So… I killed him twice before we switched battles. I was conflicted, but if he could bring himself to insult my mother, he was clearly in the spirit of the game. 🙂

4) The example that gives me the most pause: I trust that most of you reading this know me to some degree. Maybe only from reading posts here, from reading my Facebook and Tweets, or seeing me give a presentation, but you know me. If you’re a classmate, instructor or friend, you really know this one thing about me in particular: I LOVE the Indianapolis Colts. I worked for their web team as a volunteer for years. I watch every game, and I have a little tantrum if they don’t cover it locally up here in Michigan.

There’s something that goes hand-in-hand with that, but it extends a bit beyond, too. I HATE Tom Brady. Let me be perfectly clear about three things as I say that:

A) Hate is a strong word, and I don’t use it very often
B) I know it’s totally unrealistic for me to have hate for someone I’ve never met, and I know it’s totally unfair to Brady as a human being. I know I’m making a judgment, and I’m doing it as a fan in the name of fandom and I hope that anyone reading it realizes this is sports hate and not “want to kill him” hate.
C) I feel the way I feel about it anyway. Sometimes we feel something we know we should be above. It’s just Tom Brady, not the other Patriots players or other players who have knocked my Colts out of the playoffs. I don’t like that dude.

But here’s why it causes me to pause. Tom Brady is the one real person depicted realistically in a game that I get an actual emotional response from inflicting pain upon. I play Madden football pretty much daily (one game before bed, or as a writing break, whatever). Just last night, I had my yearly regular season Colts vs. Patriots game. I have a defensive lineman in the game who is me (how odd is it that the Colts had a Phil Alexander in camp a few years ago? I had to use that as justification to be in the game, too). He sacked Brady (I sacked virtual Brady with him) and knocked him out of the game. It was just a pinched nerve– he came back in a quarter, and no real Tom Bradys were harmed in the making of this anecdote.

But I felt enjoyment– more than I do for a typical sack or score in the game.

It felt like “hey, I got you, Tommy! Take that! Tell Giselle I said ‘hello.'”

This brings me back to my initial point. I know I’m not the typical gamer in many senses (I don’t know if there IS a typical gamer, but if there was, I wouldn’t be it, because I study this stuff, too), but I felt a pang of guilt right after hurting virtual Tom Brady. I wanted virtual me to go apologize as they helped him off the field. Or something.

If it’s possible that people are living out a murder fantasy with a bin Laden game, I really don’t know how good that is, or what it says about us as game consumers/players or the developer as a creator. I can see how it might fulfill a need, but eye-for-an-eye seems primitive and below the level of the current global culture.

What does it say that this game exists?

Are we to the point where gaming fits the science cliche of “it’s all about what we could do, not what we should do?”

Of course I hadn’t heard of the game, nor have any of the people I know in the gaming community, other than those who, like me, saw the media talking about it. No one I have found yet has played it (and I feel too creepy to do more than click on the Osamagotchi). So maybe it’s not fun. And if it’s not fun, it won’t survive as a game. Perhaps, then, morality and taste wins a victory.

Or maybe ideology and consumerism are simply an ill fit.

I don’t know, but that’s what I’m thinking about.


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