Consider the moral cost of today's video games

January 10, 2008|By Matthew Devereux

PLYMOUTH, England -- In the controversial video game Manhunt 2, you're required to sneak up behind your victims, hit them over the head with a garden spade and then use that same weapon to decapitate them. As blood gushes, you're supposed to feel satisfied that you're ready for the next challenge.

To some, this scenario captures everything that's wrong about video games. They're too violent, detractors say, and they glamorize violence. Children might be tempted to copy them.

While this is an understandable concern, it misses more obvious problems with many video games today: primarily, an utter lack of moral consequence.

Many studies have tested the alleged links between virtual violence and its real counterpart. Conclusions vary, but I certainly don't need a panel of academics to explain to me that the teen across the street isn't going to attack me with a garden spade. Still, if you're a parent, the sheer intensity of violence in many games ought to be a valid concern. You wouldn't let your children view online pornography, so why let them decapitate people in a video game?

Yet many parents buy their children games rated as inappropriate for anyone under 17. Why? Perhaps it's a hangover attitude from the Pac-Man past, when all video games were presumed to be harmless fun. Or maybe they just want their kids to think they're cool parents. Whatever the reason, there's clearly a disconnect between the levels of parental angst and parental tolerance.

One of many dubious arguments against violence in video games is that children find it hard to distinguish between "real" and "virtual" situations. If that's true, isn't CNN a more pernicious peddler of unsavory material for kids? When kids turn on the TV and see footage of soldiers shooting each other for real, is there any substantial difference between that and playing a first-person shooter game?

Years ago, after the tragic shootings in Columbine, the news media were quick to lay blame at the game industry's door. Could they not as easily have turned that criticism on themselves?

What's surprising about the media's obsession with violence in games is that it overlooks more serious lapses in values. By concentrating on the bloodthirsty and extreme, they're ignoring influences that are much more harmful to children over the long term.

Take, for instance, the idea of ruthless competition. Regardless of what game you're playing, the message is almost always the same: Do whatever it takes to win, even at the expense of everyone else.

Imagine if that were the moral of every movie and TV show you ever watched. Would the world be a better or worse place? Would you let your children play a game that promoted such a dog-eat-dog mentality?

What many video games conspicuously lack is moral consequence. Once you've killed someone, stolen something or blown up a building, that's usually the end of it - you'll rarely get to see the emotional impact of your actions on the characters around you.

Every bit of mayhem becomes just another item on a video game to-do list. Games ignore moral consequence and emotional nuance to focus on the purely visceral. There are only two types of decisions you can really make: the strategically correct one or the strategically incorrect one. There is no "right" or "wrong" - only success or failure.

Such unbridled competition combined with no moral consequence eventually leads to a lack of compassion. And without compassion, humanity is lost.

What games risk instilling, not just in kids but in anyone who plays them, is a kind of sociopathy: a dearth of conscience. Whether this might be imitated outside of gaming is beside the point. What we should be asking ourselves is whether we really want to spend ever more time playing things that encourage these values. That's a moral question, one that's easily sidelined in favor of simply having fun, but it's something we all must consider as the pastime grows more popular.

I'm not calling for stricter regulation of the video game industry. Rather, I hope to widen the debate to include issues that might not be considered if we believe the hysteria of the media. By concentrating so heavily on the immediate (and short-term) effects of video game violence, we're distracted from discussing more important moral dimensions.

It's time for parents to stop asking what is appropriate for their children and to start asking what is morally right.

Matthew Devereux writes about the video game industry and is a former staff writer of Edge magazine. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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