War Games Build Character?

The NYTimes Magazine this weekend raises the question of new video games like Medal of Honor which realistically depict the current war in Afghanistan. These games are blockbusters, much more popular (and much more profitable) than any books or movies on our current wars. I’m not so much interested in the question of why these games are popular, but rather, I want to look at the ethical consequences of playing such games.

The graphics on these games is astoundingly realistic. The terrain is vivid, the player’s character is clearly seen on the screen as he makes his way through enemy territory. You do a lot of killing. You get killed a lot.

There always seem to be some question about whether such games dispose players towards violence. The article interestingly brings up Stewart Brand who argued in 1972 in Rolling Stone that video games about war were good for consumers and good for peace:

[Brand] wrote that this new form of digital play (“the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters”) was “heresy, uninvited and unwelcome” in a world of “passive consumerism.” Spacewar, and by logical extension the new medium of video games, was remarkable, Brand went on, because it was “intensely interactive in real time with the computer,” because it “bonded human and machine,” because it “served human interest, not machine” and, perhaps best of all, it was “merely delightful.” (Brand also wrote that the fact that “computers are coming to the people” was “good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.”).

Suellentrop, the author of the article, notes that in subsequent decades, the view has shifted and most people find violent video games like Grand Theft Auto (where you beat people and have sex with others) are in some sense unsettling. However, those who defend the games argue that what makes them popular is their form not their content. In other words, video games don’t sell because they are violent, but because they are fun to play.

Video games, in this view, are about problem-solving and game play, the captivating, kinetic interaction between the movements a player makes on a controller and the simultaneous action on-screen. And it’s surely true that Medal of Honor’s game play will determine whether it is a best seller or a bust. “Whether this is set on Afghanistan or set on the moon, it doesn’t really matter,” Geoff Keighley, a video-game journalist who hosts a show on Spike TV, told me. Will Wright, the designer of games like SimCity and The Sims, has seemed to embrace this view, saying that games are about agency (the ability to navigate a virtual world), not empathy (relating emotionally to the particulars of that world).

However, video games, especially these new realistic war games, are not only exercises in dexterity and problem solving. They are also stories. They stimulate the imagination, they transport the player into a different, very real-appearing world. And some say that such games evoke empathy. Medal of Honor producer Greg Goodrich told Suellentrop that “the ‘holy grail’ of his medium was to get game play and fiction to interact in such a way that the fusion of the two would affect players in ways that movies and books cannot. ‘I think you have the potential to touch them in a more emotional and engaging way because they took part in it,’ he said.” Suellentrop cites studies in which characters who play such games subsequently have more empathy for Americans fighting abroad.

What are we to make of this? An increasingly popular technique for teaching ethics may shed some light on these games. Ethicists, especially virtue ethicists like myself, frequently use narrative in order to teach people how to reason morally. This is sometimes called “narrative ethics.” Narrative stimulates the moral imagination in ways that dry and calculating moral logic does not.

The other thing that narrative does is shape a person morally, not just their ability to reason morally. Stories always communicate values, of course, but that is not so much what I mean. Stories allow people to “live out” ethical dilemmas and “practice” actions that they may not face in real life. When I read about Raskolnikov walking up the stairs and approaching the landlady’s door (whom he plans to kill), I am not a passive observer. My heart is in my throat, my pulse quickens, my breathing is more rapid. I am, in a sense, him. Similarly, when I read about Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison, I don’t just feel bad for him; I feel in a very real way what that experience was like. Fiction is a way of entering another world as an agent, a person choosing certain actions in response to his or her environment. I become more courageous by entering into the narrative of a courageous person. I become more just by entering the narrative of a just person. I don’t just learn about the actions and virtues of a character in a story; I actually begin to develop some of the same habits of the people I read about and see on television.

Video games are effective means of doing this, more effective than other forms of fiction, because you actually get to control the agent’s action. You get to pull the trigger, leap, duck, turn around. You get to see people die. You get to feel like what it is to be killed. Now, fiction in no way completely represents the real world. Seeing someone die in real life, or killing someone, is not the same as doing it in a video game, but it is not completely different either. It is still a way of participating in a story and acting as a character, and we know that actions build character as well and turn us into the person we become.

War video games, as the article points out, potentially generate empathy with soldiers fighting abroad. And this could be a good thing. But they also potentially dispose players to become fighters, and not just fighters, but fighters who see fighting as fun, victory as easy, dark skinned people as bad, Americans as always good. And I think we as a society know the potential impact such games have on our character. For example, the article describes how the video game Six Days in Fallujah was canceled. In one of the scenes in a game, an Iraqi picks up a gun, and you as the player have to decide whether or not to shoot him, not knowing whether he is an insurgent. The game producers were explicit that they were trying to “add a layer of moral ambiguity to warfare.” The potential problem with this game is that its players might become the sort of people who were more sympathetic towards Iraqis and less supportive of of our fighting.

The fact is, these games are shaping our character. Now we just have to ask ourselves whether when we play them, we are becoming the sort of people we are satisfied being.

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4 comments so far

  1. Peter on

    A good deal of my military training took the form of “narrative games.” This training, which Marines call tactical decision games, is used to build decision-making skills, and improve Marines’ moral and practical judgment. Here’s a good overview (although rather suffused with jargon): http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/tactical-decision-games

    As Suellentrop points out, when it comes to building empathy with American servicemen at war, the Onion has it covered: http://www.theonion.com/video/ultrarealistic-modern-warfare-game-features-awaiti,14382/

    • everydaythomist on

      Yes! Peter, thank you. I thought about including the Onion, which the article mentioned. It doesn’t get much better than that.

      What I love about an ethic of virtue that I often expound in this blog is that we don’t say a whole lot of things like these war games are categorically bad in themselves. Rather, we look at what sort of people you may become by playing such games over a period of time.

      I’m not surprised that the military uses narrative-based training techniques, especially for moral engagements. Did you in your experience find them effective? Do you play Medal of Honor? Better yet, would you let your 13 year old son play it?

      • Peter on

        I agree with you that games aren’t good or bad in themselves… I think the common perception is that games are unserious. Thus the common tendency to refer to “simulations” rather than “games” – it sounds more official. But the goal is the same: to allow experiential learning for situations that can’t be easily replicated.

        Games are also helpful because they facilitate learning by repetition. Just as martial artists practice their punches until they have built muscle memory, a lot of military skills need to be practiced until they can be performed without conscious thought.

        You raise a good question, though: who needs this sort of training? I’ve never played Medal of Honor (though I play a mean game of Wii Tennis), but I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t want young children trained in combat skills. The NY Times ran a touching story on child soldiers a few years ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/magazine/14soldier.t.html

        In addition to submitting to boredom, and enduring endless Shakira v. Jessica Biel debates, part of the sacrifice members of the military take on is accepting the moral hazard of being well-trained in killing other human beings. I will never allow myself to get involved in a bar fight, because I know that all my hand-to-hand combat skills are designed to disable or kill my opponent. I would be very happy for Marines preparing for combat to play the “Six Days in Fallujah” game, because it helps to train them for the physically- and morally-hazardous task ahead of them. I don’t think I would be happy to have my children, or even my coworkers, blow off steam by practicing room-clearing skills after a long day of work.

        Does graduate-level theological training make use of any games or simulations? Perhaps one gains experience as a theologian by serving as a teaching assistant…

  2. […] acquisition, not to erode the natural sympathy a soldier has for other humans. While I think training can build, or destroy, moral habits, time spent on the firing range is coupled with countless hours of instruction on the law of war […]


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