More Thoughts About Video Game Pacifism

Back when that guy was playing Skyrim as a pacifist monk, I wrote about it. In fact, I had lots of things to say, and the conclusion that I came to was this:

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.

A couple weeks ago, Drew Dixon wrote a similar article for Gamechurch (thanks to Critical Distance for the link).

We come to similar conclusions: violence is necessary in games, and eradicating violence is as problematic as indulging in it absolutely. But there are also some massive differences, and that is what I want to talk about here.

Dixon writes:

I saw the selfishness inherent to Mullin’s pacifism. Playing the game this way would require running from dragons while they ravaged Skyrim’s villages literally killing hundreds of people. It would involve regularly turning a blind eye to injustice and allowing bandits and ruffians to continue to terrorize the innocent when I could do something about it were it not for my “convictions” against violence.

Playing peacefully sounds interesting, challenging even. I can see why such a tactics appealed to a committed gamer like Mullins. However as the experience unfolded in my mind, playing as a peaceful monk served to further highlight what I was, in actuality, doing. If I played this way, I would be constantly reminded that I am merely playing a game. A game that can be exploited and one in which I can do whatever I want free from real life consequences. One that I could even reset if its consequences proved too unpleasant. But who cares if I flee the town when the dragon attacks using the villagers as bait so I can escape unnoticed? It’s just a game, it doesn’t count.

There are two things going on here:

1. Pacifism is selfish because the Dovahkiin can kill dragons who would otherwise kill people.
2. Pacifism destroys immersion.

This leads to Dixon making this assertion at the end of the article: “Pacifism in Skyrim is neither virtuous or immersive.” These two qualities don’t really show up in the text between the block quote above and the end of the writing, so I think that those two qualities come from the 1 and 2 points above. This is a lot of framing, so I’m going to stop now and actually get around to the point that I am making.

I cannot imagine a world, real or fictional, in which preferring to kill fewer beings could ever be less ethical than killing more beings in a game. Dixon asserts that performing in-game killings because you can, and because the game’s goals want you too, is virtuous is problematic for me; I am not sure that great responsibility actually comes with great power. The same logic that Dixon puts forward in his article is part of a long-historied logic of power that legitimizes the use of violence and colonial action against weaker beings. Obviously, that is the normal mode of video games. In games, we are all Nietzschean superpeople who are beyond good and evil simply because we are obliged to be–the game rules, the magical arrow, points us in a direction, and we know it is correct even if it doesn’t make sense to our personal ethical barometers.

Beyond this, I really don’t understand how immersion can be broken with pacifism any more than it is broken by every action in the game world. It is a choice made by the player. That choice is based on a knowledge of the game rules and how certain actions can be taken and are or are not supported. It is the same as if you wanted to play a pure mage–dealing with melee characters becomes a process of saving and reloading that looks very similar to the broken immersion that Dixon is talking about.

Maybe it comes down to this: the whole article seems to be an apology for the way that games treat violence. Dixon seems very comfortable with the idea that violence in games, by its very nature, is virtuous because the game demands it. I think we need to be critical of the ideological choices that make things virtuous.

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5 Responses to More Thoughts About Video Game Pacifism

  1. Drew says:

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my article.

    I think you have missed the point of my article. I think, however, you have misread my article and my intentions. We both seem to agree that violence is at times virtuous in Skyrim. We both agree that there are times when it is not. At several points in my article I expressed frustration that videogames tend to offer up violence as the go-to solution for problems. I think I made that clear enough throughout the article.

    Thus I think it’s pretty unfair to claim: “Dixon seems very comfortable with the idea that violence in games, by its very nature, is virtuous because the game demands it.”

    Anyway, thanks again for reading and responding!

    • kunzelman says:

      But I do think that is the reading that comes out of your post. It seems that, for you, virtue is tied to a fidelity of to the programmatic and thematic rules of a video game. If violence is part of that, you seem to be pretty hands-in-the-air “what can you do?” about it.

      • Drew says:

        No that wasn’t the point. The point was the playing pacifisticly (sorry) in Skyrim and many other games actually takes you out of the narrative and negatively affects immersion.

        That isn’t to say, its not worth attempting. I applaud guys like Mullins in their attempts and I do hope that games would give us more significant and interesting pacifistic options.

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  3. Just thought I’d add that in the context of Skyrim, as long as you don’t do too far into the main storyline, dragons don’t attack villages, so that hasn’t been an issue for me, as for trying to do the main storyline, I say forget it, i’ve completed it a few times using violence, but not non-violence, as it would seems to be damn near impossible, but if people wanna try it, be my guest.

    Just as with real life Pacifism, I have to think about cause and effect of my actions, going down the mainstoryline whould set off the chain of events that causes dragons to attack villages.

    I did like the paragraph and concept around ” video game scenarios can be a testing ground for ethics”, that’s very true, Case in point: Grand Theft Auto, despite the outcry around being able to kill innocent people etc, the thing I noticed is the game/missions never tell you to kill innocent people, when I choose to beat someone up in GTA or run them down, like a journalist I saw saying about GTA:SA “within the space of five minutes I had attacked and killed x type of person”, it’s not the game or makers who caused that to to happen, It’s all the choices of the gamer.

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