There is no guilt bar to fill

July 17, 2010


“6. Video games are not a meaningful form of expression.

On April 19, 2002, U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr. ruled that video games do not convey ideas and thus enjoy no constitutional protection. As evidence, Saint Louis County presented the judge with videotaped excerpts from four games, all within a narrow range of genres, and all the subject of previous controversy. Overturning a similar decision in Indianapolis, Federal Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner noted: “Violence has always been and remains a central interest of humankind and a recurrent, even obsessive theme of culture both high and low. It engages the interest of children from an early age, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tales collected by Grimm, Andersen, and Perrault are aware.” Posner adds, “To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.” Many early games were little more than shooting galleries where players were encouraged to blast everything that moved. Many current games are designed to be ethical testing grounds. They allow players to navigate an expansive and open-ended world, make their own choices and witness their consequences. The Sims designer Will Wright argues that games are perhaps the only medium that allows us to experience guilt over the actions of fictional characters. In a movie, one can always pull back and condemn the character or the artist when they cross certain social boundaries. But in playing a game, we choose what happens to the characters. In the right circumstances, we can be encouraged to examine our own values by seeing how we behave within virtual space.”

This is myth number six on Henry Jenkin’s list of debunked myths about videogames, featured on the PBS website. This article was born of The Video Game Revolution, a show which I know little about. I come across the piece because I have read Jenkin’s other works before and found him to be in on the same crazy interest in games that I indulge myself.

The paragraph quoted raises a few questions in debunking the myth that videogames have no value or meaning beyond that of a toy, and to be honest, this is the initiating conversation to the greater, bigger and angrier debate over videogames as art. It is just that the word “art” makes the discussion one about what is art rather than what value videogames bring to society.

Two points of defense raised are what interest me here:

1. Sheltering from violence is problematic.
2. Games allow people to feel guilt over what happens more so than other mediums.

I could go on about how sheltering from the trauma of violence can also shelter someone from the guilt of violence, but I wonder if games are sheltering the player from guilt due to the traditions of genre. How much guilt do we as players feel over killing zombie #15438 or hundreds of look-alike goombas? It is rare for games to put you in situations where your destruction has a face that matters. Is this due to a populace of enemies who serve as nothing more than targets? Why hasn’t this subject been brought up in a game? Well, because maturity in gaming too often means violence instead of serious. But that is a distraction. Here is the deal: the rules must inflict the guilt.

The guilt cannot just come from better, more realized characters, but the call to hesitate the trigger button of gaming must come from in-game consequences. I have always felt that it was more fun to be evil in a happy, bright game than it is to be good in a dark, M rated game. You could hijack an ambulance and rush to accidents in GTA: Vice City, but somehow that part of the game always felt like a humble, weaker side game. It did not matter in the greater sense of the game. Moving to a recent game from Rockstar, their Red Dead Redemption gives you opportunities in the open world to help people in need, and offers you different ways of accomplishing the tasks. You can ignore the citizen who lost his horse, you can hunt down and shoot the thief or hogtie him up, and you can keep the stolen horse for yourself or return it to the citizen. Each of these options and random events feel far more in line with the overall game than previous attempts at “good” in GTA games. What of the guilt though? If I kill a simple horse thief, I am rewarded with their loot. If I tie him up, I get more reputation. The question is do the longterm rewards out weigh the immediate satisfaction of looting a corpse?

Perhaps it is the wild west setting that removes greater consequence for killing a horse thief, but it may also be one of the difficulties of game programming. There has been attempts to offer multiple paths in games released as of late, but most of these paths either: only impact how characters talk/react to you or lead the outcome of the game towards one of two or three endings. The difficulty of programming cause and reaction, the secondary consequences of events and the dynamic flow of life is… well a pain in the ass. It would take years and years to come up with all the splitting paths needed to account for actions the player takes, so instead all consequences are herded into a short list of outcomes and exchanges.

Overall, while I agree with Wright’s assertion, I do not think it has happened yet. The in-game consequence are not there yet, and I get this idea that game designers fear putting more of it in because harsher consequences for actions might turn off the player. If Batman breaks the rules a bit, he cannot end up in jail for it, and there is certainly a sense of superheroism in big name games. Wright’s games are different in this manner, but you can still scour the web for youtubes of people joyfully putting their poor Sims through hellish situations just for a laugh. If the Sim dies, then start over. No consequence outweighs the reset button in gaming and very little consequences outweigh the power you wield in a game. I think at some point guilt must happen at the interface level in games, where the games’ rules find a way to include guilt in what a player can do within the game. In a certain way, this problem is the same problem as story telling in games: no consequence is permanent is, as well, no death is permanent.

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