Christmas is almost here, and this year video games are again among the most popular gift items. They also spark the most controversy. Electronic entertainment, from Xbox to online multiplayer games, often features brutal and bloody violence. This understandably concerns parents and teachers. But this sort of entertainment also promises a kind of wild freedom that is comparable, in some ways, to what philosophers describe as a "state of nature."
The state of nature, according to political philosophers, is a hypothetical world in which humans exist without laws, principles and central authority. Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English philosopher, believed that without the restraints of civil society, people's lives would become savage - in his famous words, "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." John Locke, the British philosopher who influenced many of America's Founding Fathers, was more optimistic about this state. Except for a few tyrants among us, he believed, people would generally seek a peaceful and just life.
Electronic entertainment offers a fascinating simulation of what Hobbes and Locke imagined it to be. Readers of online material already know how the anonymity afforded by the World Wide Web enables nasty and slanderous exchanges rarely seen in face-to-face conversations. More tellingly, video games often encourage this phenomenon.
For example, Runescape, a game owned by the Jagex Games Studio, has more than 1 million players. They explore a fantasy realm, chat with each other, trade goods and go on adventures. When Runescape was first released, players were free to attack each other any way they wished. After it was made available to the public, players ruthlessly turned on one another. New players were immediately murdered by more experienced players, who would then loot the corpse and fight each other. To preserve the game, Runescape's developers had to act like Hobbes' "Leviathan" by seizing authority and forcibly restricting player-on-player combat to specified areas of the map, such as gladiator arenas.
Yet online gaming does not always promote such savagery. Indeed, numerous participants in cyberspace reflect Locke's more charitable view of humanity. They want as many people as possible to enjoy the game and generate more action. For example, in my experience, players of Armies of Gielinor (a Runescape spin-off) abide by an unspoken rule: Never attack other players before their eighth turn. This gives new players a chance to learn the subtle twists and nuances of the game. To prevent the few tyrants who prey on novices, participants voluntarily abide by their own miniature social contract to ensure fairness.
Of course, video gaming as lens for philosophical perspectives only goes so far. For one thing, most players are adolescent males, who, according to numerous social psychologists and casual observers, tend to be more impulsive and violent than the rest of the population. Second, there is obviously less at stake in a virtual state of nature than in a real-life state of nature. Players do not risk their lives in virtual combat as they would in a real conflict.
In any event, for last-minute shoppers and concerned parents alike, video games and the culture of electronic entertainment can evoke the untamed freedom philosophers ascribe to a state of nature. However, as two British thinkers observed, this state has two directions. One is malevolent and opportunistic, leading toward self-destruction. The other is fair and benign, sparking the process toward civilization. The path we choose - in video games as in real life - is up to us.
Jonah Penne is a freshman at Stevenson University, where he is studying visual communication design and philosophy. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.