I have walked out of many movies and finished many books feeling any number of emotions: awe, elation, sadness, horror, revulsion, you name it. The one feeling I don’t feel is guilt. After all, I didn’t do it.
Darth Vader did it. Jigsaw did it. That psycho ex-husband did it. That jerky boss. That unrepentant rogue.
I love Grand Theft Auto. Yet, I feel guilty for things that I have done in God of War. (Yeah, pushing that caged man over a bed of flames to solve that block puzzle? Still not over that.).
I like the chance to be the good guy. I like saving the world. I like the chance to play the bad guy. I like being really bad.
And I like that I feel badly about it sometimes.
Yeah, yeah, I know you “it’s just a game” guys. “Dude, it’s just a game.” I’m not an idiot. I know I’m not Tommy Vercetti. I know I’m not an albino-skinned guy with two blades chained to his hands who gets perturbed easily. I know I’m not a fat Italian plumber.
But I do worry about you guys, sometimes. You do know that all those pixels on a screen mean something, represent something, communicate something, right? You do know that the flickering images on a screen make you feel something, make you laugh, make you cry because, you know, they’re familiar, not real, but they remind you of real circumstances, real moments of joy, real moments of tragedy?
And you do know that the game as a medium can make you think about what you choose to do even though you still know that it isn’t real? By the way, that’s the cool thing about the medium. Darth Vader’s acts don’t create the illusion of my own personal involvement with a genocide. But Bastion made me think about whether, given the circumstances, such a thing was reasonable at times or not and why people make really terrible, horrific decisions sometimes.
Maybe I was baptized Catholic and maybe you weren’t. Maybe you should have been.
If I, and others, are more attenuated to thinking about choices and consequences, it seems to me that this medium might be very well suited to us. Maybe this isn’t the medium that you’re looking for. Maybe this isn’t the medium that you are ready for. Because this is a medium that makes you complicit in making the choices and witnessing the consequences.
Witness the blood soaked walls and floors of that level of Hotline Miami that you just completed. Indeed, the game made you do so. It won’t let you end the level without walking through it again, without witnessing what you have done, what you have “accomplished.” There are no dissolving corpses to save on framerates in this game. It’s a game that makes you explore the battlefield after the fact, that focuses you on the consequences. Maybe this medium wants you to think about consequences in ways that other mediums can only vaguely attempt to do?
Infamous decrier of video games, Jack Thompson, likes to refer to video games as “murder simulators”. He isn’t altogether wrong in many instances. Games simulate a lot of behaviors. Like any good simulator, like the airplane simulators that commercial pilots practice emergency scenarios on, the goal is to consider responsiveness, to consider reactions, to understand how we respond to certain kinds of stimuli, to certain kinds of choices. Thompson may fear this notion. I wonder if it isn’t a useful mechanism for considering exactly these kinds of notions, for testing our moral responsiveness, our own impulses, our own inability to act or to not act under certain circumstances because, not in spite of, the fact that “it’s just a game” and not a real emergency, not a real moral quandry.
One things that games teach is failure and foolishness. When I go diving off that cliff for the second or third or umpteenth time in Super Mario Bros., I become more and more aware of revising my actions in the future. When I make moral decisions in The Walking Dead, I want to consider whether revisions might be necessary for another playthrough or for when things familiar to such situations happen in real life. Sure, it’s a game about zombies. But really it’s a game about people.
I think it’s helpful to know ahead of time my failures and foolishness. It might improve my chances the next time, unreal or real.
Certainly, context matters, and inevitably, the fact that I know that it is all fiction might make me more reckless in Liberty City than in New York City. But the fictionality of the aforementioned airline simulator might be said to do the same thing. Actually, it allows one to test one’s limits, to see what is reasonable or not and to fail hard without really failing hard. “It’s just a sim, dude.” Then, improving on those failures repetitively trains one to behave differently, more effectively, more appropriately. Is making moral decisions in video games a possible form of developing muscle memory for the soul?
Maybe. Or maybe, “it’s just a game, dude,” and games don’t teach us anything, don’t develop skills, reasoning, or our capacity to think about choices and when and why they matter. After all, games aren’t about rules, are they? Just bleeps, bloops, and the passage of idle time.
Disclaimer: G. Christopher Williams is not a Catholic, but, yes, he was baptized Catholic. He feels guilty about a whole lot of things. Like I said, he was baptized Catholic. Some water doesn’t dry off that quickly.