Is it OK to be the bad guy when you're not really a bad guy? Or does playing evil reveal a dark side that you never recognized before?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
My first time was towards the end of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I pissed off some of my party by deciding to become Space Hitler and usurping the Sith leader. Among the ranks were Mission Vao, a 14-year-old Twi'lek, and her Wookie best friend, Zaalbar. Mission threatened to leave, so I twisted Zaalbar's mind and forced him to kill her. Then he turned on me, so I Force-choked the furry bastard to death. Dark Side, indeed.
We've all done ugly things in video games. I mean, who hasn't immolated Sims in a doorless room? You probably named them after your friends, you sicko. Does virtual bad behavior say anything about our real personalities or are we just testing boundaries? Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor who's written at length about video game violence, says it's a bit of both.
"One issue with debates about video games has been this assumption that most players respond to them in generalized, predictable ways," Ferguson begins. "Some of the data, such as [that from Telltale's] The Walking Dead video game, suggests most players choose to do good or helpful things. But video games can certainly be a 'safe place' to try darker roles."
Studies have shown that people who emotionally disengage from games are more inclined to tread morally questionable paths. On the flip side, people who choose "good" options are more likely to enjoy the games, because they're more emotionally invested. We often justify violent or 'evil' acts in video games by telling ourselves, it's just a game, changing our role from participant to bystander, yet some still choose to play this way.
"These are folks who are open to exploring the dark side of humanity," says Ferguson. "There's no 'profile' of such behaviors. It's kind of like telling teachers to report kids who write 'dark' stories to school administrators—you'll identify some kids who are going through issues, but you'll also have a ton of false positives."
But does this change when the choice isn't binary? Harvesting the Little Sisters in BioShock is awful, but it provides gameplay benefits and it's an option explicitly offered by the game. Sandbox games provide as much scope to embrace your cruel side, but the options aren't dangled in front of you like a twisted mandrake. Does that mean curiosity quite literally killed all of Grand Theft Auto V's cats?
"That was always one of the ways GTA was misrepresented in news media, the idea that it is a random violence thing with no consequences, but that's not the case," says Ferguson. "But a sandbox game that doesn't prevent you from making darker choices can again be a safe way to explore different roles. Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons have a similarity there. Sometimes people choose to play good characters, sometimes evil."
It's a fair point—games can be a form of escapism. Sometimes you want to be the person who disarms the nuke and sometimes you just want to set the world on fire.
"Some degree of darkness is genetically wired into our nature, which explains our attraction to violent art" - Chris Ferguson
"It's about the game telling a compelling story—even if just for oneself—not rehearsing behaviors we'll engage in real life," Ferguson continues. "Darker stories can be as compelling as lighter stories. It's like horror movies, kind of a way to confront the negative side of the world, getting it all in your face so you can consider what makes you anxious head on."
The great thing about systems-driven games is creating narratives that are unique to you—whether you're obeying traffic laws in GTA V or curb-stomping a pensioner. Some people even force themselves to play a certain way—being a vegetarian in Minecraft, or a pacifist in GTA Online—in an attempt to stop games conflicting with their morals. The way we play can change on a whim.
"Certainly some degree of darkness is genetically wired into our nature, which explains our attraction to violent art," says Ferguson. "And I don't doubt that there's some selection effect in which people with darker dispositions may be more attracted to darker roles in media. But engaging in evil acts in a game may relate to nothing more sinister than trying out different roles or advancing a narrative that's interesting. For others, it may be nothing more than having a few laughs—the shock of violating norms in a safe environment is part of what makes it funny. The game Elf Bowling comes to mind."
A screen shot from 'Elf Bowling.' If you love Christmas, or games for that matter, you'll leave it well alone.
Whether a game is plot-driven or a sandbox affair, it seems the choice to play a certain way often comes down to telling ourselves a story, so there's no need to worry if you're generally drawn to choosing red over blue. There is a line, however—the introduction of another human.
There are stories all over the web of people mock raping other players in DayZ. This sits outside the game's systems, but that hasn't stopped players manipulating the animations and positional voice chat to make it happen. This woman's account of such an encounter makes for disturbing reading.
"Player-on-player acts, of course, are a little different," admits Ferguson. "The concept of a 'safe space' really implies no person is the target of unwanted behavior. We have to keep in mind that, just as in real life, some of the people we meet online are going to be assholes and are going to do asshole things.
"Anonymity and a perceived lack of consequences may allow these folks to behave negatively more often, granted, so this is something online communities struggle with. 'Griefing' is nothing new. Some people get jollies over shocking others. I think as the [DayZ story] implies, this is very much a thrill at being able to exercise power over another. There will always be some people who, in various contexts, enjoy this."
Harvesting a Little Sister in 'BioShock.'
So, what does video game choice say about you? If you're more Renegade than Paragon, you're likely someone who is drawn to darker stories, who is possibly more emotionally detached from video games than others. Outside of this, maybe we're all just looking for more meaningful interactions outside of violence. I know, if the option were there, I'd have at least stroked GTA V's cats before I kicked them to death with my ill-gotten loafers. I've spent a decent amount of time just walking around Los Santos, taking in the scenery and talking to NPCs—well, shouting insults at them. Sometimes it's nice to have a break from all the horror.
As for those people for whom this isn't enough? For the people who jump into the fucking void and grief other players for their own sadistic pleasure: what does that say about you? I don't need Chris Ferguson for this one. It says you're an absolute prick.
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