Recently, The New Yorker has published an op-ed from Simon Parkin in which he asks the question “How Evil Should a Video Game Allow You to be?”
In this article, Mr. Parkin brings up the common concern that the consumption of violent or evil-inclusive media will influence the audience to commit violent or evil acts.
He contends that this concern is especially valid due to video games being a participatory medium. Unlike other media, the audience is not watching a character commit the evil, rather, the player is actively engaging in the action being performed (such as genocide in the Civilization series).
For the record, there is no genocide in Civilization that I am aware of. You just conquer the people, not murder all of them.
Yet, are games the only participatory storytelling medium?
Strangely enough, they are not. Movies and television are as well. The difference is that they are not participatory for the audience, rather, it is participatory for the actors, especially those actors who engage in the acting school of method acting.
Method acting is where the actor uses their imagination, emotions and senses to imbue their characters with unique and original behavior. Often the emotional base will come from the actor’s own life, or, in cases where the actor does not have a analogous experience, the actor will pursue the experience so that they can convincingly portray the character.
Sometimes this goes to extremes; rumor has it that Jack Nicholson received ECT for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Yet, knowing the lengths that Nicholson will go to for a role, no one is worried that he is going to start chasing down people with a fire axe like Jack Torrance in The Shining. Daniel Day Lewis did a wonderful job portraying Christy Brown in My Left Foot. During filming, Lewis had to be moved around set in a wheelchair and be carried over lighting wires. However, to this day, Lewis has yet to engage in a painting career using only his left foot.
The reason that no one is concerned for people’s safety around Jack Nicholson or that Daniel Day Lewis has not engaged in a career in painting is that they are engaging in make-believe and we recognize that.
Human beings have the ability to differentiate between fantasy from reality. The inability to tell the difference between the two is called psychosis.
In GTA V, there is a scene in which the player character tortures another character. In this scene, the player has to turn the analog sticks on the controller in order to perform the torture. It sounds horrific, because it should be. Personally, I cannot imagine a situation in which I could ethically engage in the torture of another. That being said, I can imagine a situation in which a criminal could ethically justify torture. I can because I have an imagination and I can tell when I am engaging in make believe.
Though the question remains, what affect do these games have on society? Do they normalize violent and evil behavior? Do they desensitize their audience to the horrors inflicted by humankind on humankind?
Unfortunately, I do not know of any credible studies that investigate this question. However, I do know of a study that asks that question of a form a media that often faces similar criticisms: pornography.
Advocates against pornography, such as Wendy and Larry Maltz in “The Porn Trap”, say that pornography is a leading factor in sexual irresponsibility and divorce. Robert Jensen asserts that “pornography does not make men rape… [but] it may activate coercive tendencies”. Since internet porn became widely available in the 1990s in the United States and since then 42 percent of children aged 10 – 17 have viewed internet porn.
With those figures, one would expect strong increases in STDs and sexual assaults, but that has not been the case. According to the CDC, the syphilis rate has fallen 74 percent and the occurrence of gonorrhea has declined by 57 percent. Also, the teen birth rate has dropped by 33 percent and the divorce rate has fallen 23 percent. Lastly, rape and sexual assaults have plunged by 44 percent. This shows a strong negative correlation between the availability of pornography and sexual assaults and STDs.
So, that is pornography, but what of violence (outside of sexual assaults and rapes)? Video games have been with us for quite some time now, and no one is arguing that video games have become less violent. If violence in video games leads to violence in real life, then the crime rate would go up. Instead, while video game sales have gone up since 1990 by 461%, according to the FBI, the violent crime rate has decreased by 25%.
Does this prove conclusively that pornography and violent video games are, in fact, social goods? No, it does not, there may yet be other underlying causes of the decline of sexual assaults and violent crime, however, the preponderance of the evidence so far indicates that these things are, rather than causing harm, are in fact helping.
Seeing this, I would like to address a what-if scenario presented by Mr. Parkin. In his article, he asks whether it would be responsible for a game company to make a game involving having sex with children using motion controls.
Sounds horrible, huh? I cannot say that this is game that I would like to see in a retail setting, but that does not to say that it shouldn’t exist. Having something like this in a therapeutic setting might actually be a good idea. R. Karl Hanson and Kelly E. Morton-Bourgon of Public Safety Canada have found that the recidivism rates for among adult sex offenders to be 14% over a period of five to six years and 24% over periods of 15 years. Video games are already used to treat people with PTSD, so they are no stranger to therapy. If violent video games do give people a safe way to indulge in violence, perhaps giving people who have these urges a safe place to act out these fantasies in a way in which no one gets hurt, will help there be fewer victims of sexual crimes.
That being said, much like the Red Cross, I would like to see more meaningful consequences for violence and for causing harm to innocents in video games, but as the industry and medium continues to mature, I am confident that we will see more complex story-telling.
What is lost in all these arguments, though, is that games are a story-telling art. So, how should evil should video games let you be? As evil as the story requires.