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.