In the aftermath of mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, President Donald Trump blamed violence in video games for the “glorification of violence in our society.” It’s an old refrain, and gamers and their allies typically respond by pointing to the facts. We lack evidence that supports a causal relationship between video games and violence, and though some studies have found links between violent video games and aggression, which is distinct from criminal violence, the effect is small.
But while research matters, this line of argument misses an important point. Though some video games are casually, thoughtlessly violent, many others explore violence with nuance, placing it in social context and giving players a hands-on opportunity to explore moral conundrums they would never face in real life.
Similar to many other forms of art, gaming is a story-telling medium that reflects upon and critiques the society in which we live. Its unique strength lies in the deeply immersive experience that it offers relative to other media by giving players the ability to impact the world around them directly.
Sometimes that means exploring the various settings, characters and reasoning that give rise to violence with deliberation and nuance – a standard that our national dialogue has yet to reach. In the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto IV, recent immigrant Niko Bellic is gradually roped into working as a hired gun despite having escaped a similar life in Europe. If that wasn’t powerful social commentary in and of itself, the tragedy of his criminal involvement eventually culminates in the death of either his cousin or his romantic interest, depending on a choice made by the player.
The Uncharted series critiques treasure hunter Nathan Drake’s increasingly destructive obsession with his legacy and inability to extricate himself from a profession that endangers him and his loved ones. In Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, players are placed squarely in the midst of Drake’s internal conflict, torn between the thrill of his latest escapade and the guilt of lying directly to his wife. The interactivity of the game encourages players to experience what Drake is feeling and gain a better understanding of the obsession that has previously caused him to become estranged from his wife and led to the kidnapping of his mentor and father figure.
While some games use these moral dilemmas mostly to frame their plots, others are rooted in sophisticated systems of morality that guide their gameplay. These games put players through a series of difficult decisions and demand that they interrogate the circumstances and justifications that frame the violence they choose to commit. The most interesting morality systems steer away from the simplistic dichotomy of good and evil and ensure that players feel the consequences of their choices.
In the psychological thriller Heavy Rain, players are tasked with hunting down a serial killer who abducts and drowns young boys. One of the four playable characters is the father of an abducted child, who must undergo trials assigned by the killer to rescue his son, including a demand that the player kill an unsuspecting man. The game has 17 different endings, from the capture of the killer and survival of the protagonist’s son to abject failure on all ends.
While Heavy Rain allows viewers to make choices in accordance with their values without nudging them in any particular direction, other games have ethical frameworks of their own and try to encourage players to adopt them. The player character in Undertale is a child who has fallen into the Underground, an isolated world populated with monsters who were banished from Earth in the aftermath of a war with humans. Encounters with the monsters can be resolved by fighting or extending mercy, and the game design encourages players to opt for peaceful mediation. This can be an especially challenging choice when the player faces off with an opponent such as Undyne, a guard who tries to provoke the player into physical confrontation. But the game urges us to interrogate how we respond to conflict, especially in the context of our treatment of marginalized communities.
And Fallout: New Vegas places an interesting spin on morality systems by using metrics that measure both a player’s reputation and karma, and putting them in tension. Predominantly set in post-apocalyptic Nevada, the game features warring factions. Killing members of an opposing faction might decrease your karma. However, in a grimly accurate reflection of our society, it will certainly improve your reputation with your allies because you are using violence in ways that suit their interests.
No other medium offers its audience the same opportunity to directly wrestle with how we justify violence. If we want to get Americans to think seriously about the subject, we might be better if more of us played video games.
© The Washington Post 2019