There is a pernicious idea that has worked it’s way into American culture particularly in the in the religious right, but in many other places as well. It’s the idea that video games are harming kids. I’ve written on my blog before about my time as a fundamentalist Christian in college, but believe it or not I was a gamer even back then, and I was often told I shouldn’t be by religious friends that I had. I was told that it was a waste of time and I was told I should spend that time sharing the gospel with people and other similar arguments.
Further in culture at large video games are blamed for even worse things including several of the school shootings which have happed in the last several decades, and the recent shooting in D.C.. Teaching people to be amoral murder machines in virtual worlds where there are no consequences will turn them into such things in real life eventually so the argument goes.
Most people reading this are probably familiar with some of the arguments gamers have made about these issues. Poor reporting by the media was responsible for people associating a false causative relationship between the violence perpetuated by these youths and the video games they played. So most people reading this are probably on board with the idea that video games don’t actually make people less moral. However, I’m going to argue that my so called misspent youth playing video games actually made me a better person today than I would have been other wise.
To explain let me give an example from a game I played years ago, Suikoden III. It’s an eleven year old game, but just in case there is anyone out there who hasn’t played it and plans on doing so there will be some plot spoilers here. The game has an original way of telling it’s story, it had three main characters. The game was divided into five chapters, the first three of which had to be played through by each of the main characters. What makes this particularly interesting is that each of these characters are leaders in a country which is at war with the other two.
There is an iconic scene in this game that involves two of the main characters. Chris, a Zexen Knight, and Hugo, son of the Karaya Clan Chief. While playing through Chris’s story your government orders you to attack the Karaya clan’s village after an attack on Zexen that you later find out was wrongly attributed to the Karaya clan. While Chris is leading the attack she sees a suit of Zexen armor in the village that she recognizes as belonging to her father who disappeared without a trace years before. She assumes that the Karaya must have killed her father and taken the suit as a trophy and in a moment of anger orders her knights to exterminate the village. She is unable to carry out the order because Hugo shows up with some others and drives her knights away, though she does kill one of Hugo’s friends in the process of retreating. While playing through her story her actions, while perhaps extreme, make sense. She isn’t a bad person, but she has spent her whole life wondering what happened to her father and thinks she has found his murders. She also regrets her order and later becomes angry at those who call her a hero for attacking the village.
On the other hand while playing through the same sequence as Hugo, he returns to find his village in flames and a Zexen knight ordering the death of everyone in his village. From his perspective she looks downright evil. Further, you know from his story that the suit of armor belongs to someone who lives in the village. It turns out Chris’ father is actually alive and living in with the Karaya. It turns out he left Zexen to protect Chris from assassins that were perusing him.
I know, this plot probably seems super typical of high fantasy novels like Lord of the Ring and such, but this story confronted the young 20 something me with an idea that has stuck with me to this day. In this story both Chris and Hugo held a perspective about the events going on around them that made sense given their world view and the facts that they had available to them. It is undeniable that both of them, while right about some things, were incredibly wrong about others, yet from their perspective the choices they made seemed totally rational. Now some might say that you could talk about this idea in a movie or a book ,but I think this idea was actually far better communicated in game form than it could have been in those ways. See in a book or a movie you are passively watching other take action, but in a game you are taking action, you feel as if you are influencing the world the game exists in and in effect you become the character. While playing a game I often come to identify with and understand the main characters motivation in a way that I don’t with movies or books because I feel as if I take on the role of that character. With this game it meant that I could actually understand and empathize with both the feelings and motivations of two people who hated each other in the first chapter of the game. In short it this game encouraged to me to think about complicated philosophical questions like epistemology and ethics, It also forced me to conceder the notion that an idea can seem reasonable from one perspective but still ultimately be untrue.
These ideas helped me grow as a person, and probably contributed to my willingness to abandon my religious beliefs, but this is hardly the only game out there that encourages people to think about complex moral issues. For instance games like Skyrim which allow you to make opened ended choices to resolve quests make people think about ethical dilemmas. I find it absurd that video games are often billed as a special type of cultural phenomenon that only wastes time or even worse is dangerous and causes people to become killers. Yet I’ve seen people who watch 40 hours a week of TV claim that people shouldn’t play video games because it is a “waste of time.” I’ve also seen news casters immediately ask after a school shooting if the shooter played video games (and sometimes if they were an atheist) which is an absurd question because in this day an age almost everyone under forty has played a video game. They wouldn’t assume that someone’s TV watching or book reading habits caused them to go on a shooting spree so why video games?