Video Game Pacifism

I’ve been emailed this article by several people now, and I think that I should probably comment on it now.

The Wall Street Journal profiled a series of Skyrim videos about “Felix the Peaceful Monk.” The basic idea of the character is that he does not kill any enemies. He just wanders the world and calms the people who want to hurt him. I’m not really sure how the player makes it through some of the more tricky parts of the game, but I am sure it happens.

I often speak out against the damaging aspects of video games; I think that games, when done wrong, can put forth some ethics that are problematic. For example, the Call of Duty franchise is just silly war porn, but the main problem with those games isn’t the killing. It’s the justification for the killing.

So I don’t think that it’s particularly “radical” for a player to avoid killing in a game, and I also don’t think that it’s very novel. It should be noted that a number of games in the 1990s fully supported a noncombat approach to a game with combat; Fallout can be completed without ever drawing a weapon, if you so choose. It’s really hard, but it can be done, and the game is designed around that decision.

In any case, I don’t think that video game pacifism really means anything. I am much more interested in video games that allow the player room to think through their actions and, if need be, give a space for violent action. Violence, and violent tendencies, can be worked out in the safe space of the video game, and more than that, video game scenarios can be a testing ground for ethics. I would much rather a player commit a crime in a game, even a brutal murder, if the game makes the effort to make the player have a genuine affective response to that. My posts over the past few days about Grand Theft Auto IV reflect this; the simulation of murder created real emotions and regrets, which impacts my real world ethical relationships and feelings.

I think that the example of a teenager named Brock in the latter part of the article really sheds light on this kind of thinking.

Today, after wearing down his parents with wit and good grades, Brock has a PlayStation 3 that he plays on a denim beanbag chair in the basement. The double zeros in his online identity, BrockyBoi00, come from an old football jersey that hangs framed above the television. But Mr. and Mrs. Soicher still don’t want any violent titles in their suburban Denver home. Brock can’t have any game that has a rating above “T” (Teen). Recently, when Mrs. Soicher found a copy of a shooting game called “Kill Zone,” she laid it on the kitchen counter so Brock would know he’d been busted.

This overt and extreme policing of video games seems ridiculous to me. The elimination of the violent video game as a legitimate medium of expression is the same as the elimination of the violent novel, film, or any other kind of aggressive act. I worry for Brock. I wonder what kind of activities he’s investing his aggression into–is hitting another kid really hard on a football field any different than driving a virtual car or fighting a virtual war? Both scenarios are spaces for working through aggression, but turning another kid, a physical person, into an object to be injured could be problematic. Safety in simulation might be healthier in the long run.

In any case, the short of it is that I think violence in video games is fine. It offers reflection. Football or the War on Terror rarely does. That’s all I have to say.

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