Much has been written about the role of morality in video games. The idea that the use of violence or other moral ambiguity in games is warping our culture and turning our youth into delinquents is about as old as the industry itself. The Prosecution in this case is typically under-informed in the subject matter and over-selective in the evidence it chooses to present as definitive proof of the erosion of society’s moral fiber. I think there is a connection between the two, but not the one that mainstream punditry would have you think.
For me, video games have always been linked to morality. When I was a kid I never really got a regular allowance. As I got older, my family started putting me to work mowing lawns and I earned some cash that way, but it was never a matter of “Here’s some money, don’t spend it all in one place” on a weekly or even a monthly basis. As a singe-income family we didn’t really have the funds for that. So, my early days of gaming unfolded largely at the whim of my Mom.
Now, she was as supportive a parent as a kid could expect, especially since she didn’t really ‘get’ gaming herself. But she would carry a notebook around in her purse with a page for all of the games I was interested in and she would compare prices for me as she shopped. Somehow, retailers seemed to have more latitude in their games pricing back then. Once we found a deal that was too good to pass up, she’d check with me, then we’d pull the trigger, but not without some strings attached. She would buy me games periodically and in return, I had to play by her rules. Even after I found my own venues for affording games, Mom’s Rules stayed in effect via the “Under My Roof/By My Rules” clause of our rent-free living arrangement until I moved out.
Mom’s a God-fearing Catholic woman and she had every intention of raising me to be the same (God-fearing, that is, not a woman. She’s a conservative and would not approve of that) so Mom’s Rules were largely concerned with avoiding anything that might erode my moral core. Basically, any games portraying violence were not allowed. Keep in mind, this was before the days of Mortal Kombat and the ESRB, so divining the content of a video game was, at best, an inexact science like vodun or meteorology. You know; real chicken entrails-reading stuff. You’d look at the box art and maybe get an idea of what the game was about. So, Mom’s Rules erred on the side of overprotection. Combat of any kind was largely frowned upon, although thankfully stomping on goombas was acceptable. No guns (hence, no Metroid or Mega Man). No swords (so, no Zelda). Fantasy creatures were a no-go, eliminating most RPGs. Overt demon references were right out, nixing the Castlevania series. There was simply no arguing on that one. Basically, none of the fun games. Is it any wonder I’m still overcompensating well into my thirties?
Anyway, I played a hell of a lot of puzzle games in those early years. Sure, you’ve played Tetris and Dr. Mario, but have you played Kwirk, Boxxle, Dexterity, Tail Gator or Daedalian Opus? I have. The Game Boy era was particularly rough on me. But those were the rules, at least until I started subverting the them where I could. Some people’s rebellious period was marked by smoking cigarettes, trying pot or stealing Dad’s beer; mine was having a friend drive me to the mall so I could use my savings to buy Super Metroid. I’ll be the first to admit that Mom’s Rules probably played into my reticence or negligence in returning those some of those ‘permanently borrowed’ games in my library since I knew I wouldn’t be purchasing them myself any time soon; a practice that, in retrospect, was morally dubious in its own right.
My largely non-violent gaming upbringing did not forge me into a pristine little angel, any more than my friends became violent, little heathens because they got to play Contra or Ghosts ‘n Goblins. I don’t believe video games warp the people that play them and I reject the fixation mass media holds that blames the games for all the ills of society. Video games and violence do not have a simple cause and effect relationship. Nothing in life is that neat. Games don’t shape the behavior or the personality of the gamer; they just reflect what is already there. Viewed through the correct lens, games can function as a rorschach test for the gamer.
I recently finished a playthrough of Thief. It’s a game Mama Pugh would never have approved of back in the 80s, seeing as how the secondary mission of the game, aside from completing the narrative, it to pilfer anything that isn’t nailed down. There’s no morality test attached to stealing. You’re not taking from the rich to give to the poor; stuff is just lying around. You can take a moral stand if you choose to, I suppose, but if you ever want to buy any upgrades, you better swipe some of that bling and make it yours (possession being nine-tenths and all.) Now, just because I enjoy the challenge of seeing if I can five-finger all 100% of the lootable items in each chapter, that doesn’t mean I long to be a master thief. It doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and try it myself in real life, because seriously, where would I even get a blackjack in this day and age to use as an insurance policy in case things went sideways mid-heist? There’s probably a website… I kid. Thief, this flawed but enjoyable remake, isn’t going to inspire me to a life of crime, but it can prove quite telling in how I approach the gameplay.
I love stealth games. No other genre gives you as many varied ways to approach a level as a well-made stealth game. Sandbox games let you do whatever you want to do, but stealth-action games let you play however you want to play. You can take the completely silent approach and avoid all enemy encounters altogether. You can stealthily stalk your prey and take down all foes without a sound. You can go full-bore Rambo and murder you way to your objective. Or you can do like I typically do: try to go one of the stealth routes, only to have something go south halfway through leaving you scrambling for your life with no plan whatsoever, just frantically trying to make it to the next checkpoint alive. Ah, memories.
About midway through my Thief playthrough I began to realize how truly ‘me’ my in-game version of the main character Garrett was. Sure, there were scripted moments where his personality was spelled out via cutscenes. But in between, the in-engine actions of Garrett as controlled by me were eerily reflective of the man behind the controller.
My Garrett doesn’t like loose ends. It has nothing to do with killing everyone in sight for the sheer joy of it. It’s not because the members of the City Watch have wronged me and I’m out for revenge. It’s simply the most practical course to take. If I’m going to be poking around every inch of a level looking for scratch I’ll have much better peace of mind if I know that no one is going to wander up behind me. So I’ll take out every fool I see to accomplish my goals, typically in a nonviolent way if I can.
Did some of Mom’s anti-violence upbringing manage to sink through my think skull? Nope. Well, not necessarily, in this case. Nonviolent means do not waste resources and since I don’t know when the next time is I’ll run across a shady guy standing in an alley way looking to sell me something “for all (my) nefarious needs” I’ll conserve where I can. Not unlike the real me. See, my version of Garrett prefers to keep things simple where he can. Complications make for a bad day, and multitasking is a definite growth area. Trying to keep track of two caged birds (which raise alarms), a caged dog (which raises an alarm) and a patrolling guard (which will respond to said raised alarm) is just more than I need to deal with. I could sneak around them all, sure, but it’s best to just dispatch the guard and be done with it. The birds and dog can bark and squawk (wait, reverse that) to their hearts’ content, once there’s no one (conscious) to hear them. It’s also worth noting that my in-game avatars are friend to all animals and will not harm them, period. Seriously, Splinter Cell: Blacklist gave me fits because I refused to shoot any guard dogs with lethal rounds. Tranqs, however, are something I can live with in a pinch.
Finally, and perhaps most telling, video game characters as played by me suffer from a complete and utter lack of subtlety. Stop laughing, Nick. My Garrett, in the process of tying loose ends and having resigned himself to violence as the least complicated method available, is not above shooting a guard in the face with an exploding arrow, knowing that it will also take out the guy next to him as well. Two for one? I call that a victory. What’s that? Missing the point?? It’s a stealth game? I’m supposed to be a sneaky, sneaky master thief, at one with the shadows and invisible as the night itself? Eh. The ends justify the means, and my end is to be advancing toward the end of the level unhindered, which would still be a work in progress were it not for decisive action on my part. Applause. Wait, what’s that? Why did I have to shoot him in the face? Sadism, I suspect, but it’s harmless, I swear. I may be undermining my point here…
In the end, Call of Duty doesn’t make me want to shoot people and Assassin’s Creed doesn’t make me want to climb buildings any more than Thief makes me want to steal things in real life. Maybe it’s a maturity thing. Maybe a younger, more impressionable me might have been swayed by such things had the immersion level been as high then as it is today. But I don’t think so.
Games don’t influence my behavior or skew my morality. I don’t believe the person I am is shaped by the games I play, but I do believe that my personality shapes the games. Moreover, I think the ability for a game to hold a mirror up to ourselves is an indicator of quality game design. Given sufficient time and budget, any developer can create a game that perfectly conveys the point of view of the game’s Director. The film genre has been doing the same for a century. But to design a game, an interactive experience, that allows the participant to play how they want to play, allow the game world to be influenced by their choices and be as reflective of the gamer as a personality test? That is artistry.