Editorial: Oh, the Humanity!

Good day, Lusiponderers! I come to this article with my mind open to my own psyche to proclaim that I have been desensitized almost completely to human violence within the confines of media. If it is the main character’s goal in a video game to save a human life, I will. However, given enough freedom in a game, I will not hesitate to go on a rampage in the middle of a busy town, cutting down everyone in my path. Doing so brought an incredibly satisfying end to my playthrough of the frustratingly poor game known as Fable.

The answer to both questions is nobody.
Who is that guy? The better question is, who cares?

However, the same murderous indifference with which I treat simulated human beings does not extend to other creatures. For example, a friend of mine recently showed me Skyrim. After I watched him play for some time, he informed me that his character was a lycanthrope, and that he could change form once per day of his own accord. I told him that he was obligated to show me by massacring the nearest town. I was almost gleeful as he tore through villager after villager, and I actually laughed when he discovered that he could recover health by devouring innocents. Soon, though, he came across a lone horse in the middle of the settlement. As he approached it, I asked him what he thought he was doing. He responded by cruelly slaughtering the horse in the middle of the street. I called him many unkind names and made sure that he understood that what he did was wrong. I made sure he knew that horse had done nothing to him, and did not deserve to die like it did. He responded that it was just a horse. I told him that I knew that animals could be important in Skyrim, and that one example of the importance of animals in the game was that a player could adopt a stray dog as a companion. He then informed me that he had no idea. Whenever he ran into a stray dog, he killed it. I told him that was messed up, and cruel, and pointless. I then had a realization that I have had many times before: I care about animals in games more than I care about humans.

When rationalized, it makes sense. In most open-ended games, very few townsfolk are given anything resembling a background story. The player is given no reason to care about the people within the game other than the fact that they, like the player, are human. The player does not know their hopes and dreams, nor does the player know or understand their emotions (other than fear). They are soulless simulated automatons, destined to die by the player’s hand. Animals, on the other hand, can be different. Many people find small animals, such as dogs, to be adorable. How could someone be so heartless as to kill an adorable little puppy? Even larger animals have reasons to be left alive. Horses are pack animals in some games, and are almost always used for transportation. They are living creatures who know nothing other than to faithfully serve their master, who is most likely the player. The game means them to be companions, and most people would not knowingly kill a faithful companion.

They fight, and fight, and fight, and fight and fight.
It most certainly is.

Some might argue that this reasoning is flawed. They would say that Skyrim has human companions for the player and most players do not think twice about them. I would disagree about how much compassion should be extended toward these companions. Perhaps they are loyal, but it is incredibly difficult to feel compassion for anyone that decides to run directly in front of oneself while one is tossing a rather large fireball or firing a poisoned arrow. It is as if a player seeks companions who willingly go to their deaths, young men and women with nothing to their name but a death wish and a new-found means to commit suicide.

There are other ‘people’ in games who I have more sympathy for than humans. Nonhuman people, like Elves and Dwarves, often appear in video games as minor or major characters, lost in a world full of humans. More often than not, these characters are rare in the context of the game that they are in, and they are given extensive background stories and are often main characters. I find it much more difficult to kill an Elf whose parents were killed by wolves and who actually has a name than some nameless human I find walking the streets of Whereversville.

In the end, I have come to believe that the human psyche is conditioned not to care too much about people we have no emotional attachment to. Likely this is for our own protection, for if we cried over every human that we heard died or saw dead, we would probably find it impossible even to get up out of bed in the morning. So, kill away in your video games, readers, for I believe your indifference (and my own) toward simulated personalities is indicative of a healthy individual!

7 comments

  1. Despite what the media might say about Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto turning all gamers into blood-thirsty psychopaths, I think that it serves as a much healthier outlet for frustrations that we face due to other people. In even the most civilized societies, not everyone will get along, and someone will get butthurt. Hell, I’m butthurt over something right this moment, but rather than go kill the hobo that keeps pooping outside the apartment and thus exterminating a real life, I loaded up Fallout and went on a killing spree not unlike that of your friend. Video games are not about reality and acting the same way that we would in normal society; they serve as a form of entertainment that, like any other form of entertainment, allows us to get a temporary reprieve from acting like upstanding, productive members of society.

    Unless you’re the hobo that poops outside of people’s apartments. I guess this means every day is a video game for him. Jealous.

  2. Hmm, I would agree with you totally about not harming animals in video games (and outside of course); it’s just right out. But do you think that maybe you’ve been conditioned TO kill innocent people by video games? Gamers have been given the option so much now that it doesn’t seem unnatural. There are many people out in the real world who you have no emotional connection towards, but I doubt killing them randomly is the first thing that comes to mind (unless they piss you off for some reason). Yet it’s okay to in the game.

    And of course I mean the “royal” you, not necessarily you the author (a cruel ambiguity of the English language).

    Yellow journalists and biased researchers who deign gamers to lack the ability to seperate video game logic from reality are wrong, however. Most people can clearly see the difference and seperate ethical structures.

    I don’t think that not having an emotional attachment to even a simulated virtual individual equates to killing them. That manner of conducting business earns you an “evil” alignment. Isn’t there some kind of mayhem or retribution in this game?

  3. It really depends on the game, Matt. I feel like a game that meets the goal of making alignment seem important is a game that makes you feel real emotion for (at least some of) its NPCs. A game like Fable, where most players (such as myself) gives negative alignment points for killing innocents, but it doesn’t actually make the player feel bad for those innocents. Sometimes it is the goal of the player to move to the negative side of the alignment spectrum for certain character bonuses and attributes. I don’t feel that that is a bad thing if the player gets into the game enough that he enjoys the slaughter. I also feel that there should be dire consequences for killing innocents, except in cases where there are no witnesses. It makes no sense for guards to go after someone due to some psychic ability to see all that happens in all places at all times.

    I feel like the best way to make a player think twice about killing an innocent would be to develop that innocent’s character to where the character would feel guilty about killing them. Unfortunately (at least I feel it’s unfortunate), a whole lot of players either don’t want to be emotionally invested in a game or its characters, and some simply can’t. I also feel that any attempt to make innocent villagers, ripe for the slaughter, at all appealing to the player would bring down a whole new wave of “Killing in video games is wrong! It’s so violent and inappropriate!”

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that while emotional attachments (or lack thereof) don’t necessarily imply inability to kill the subjects of those attachments, the attachments certainly make it less likely that a player like me will kill them. But perhaps other gamers are cold, with dollar signs where their hearts used to be.

  4. Thank you for elaborating. It’s an interesting subject that you’ve brought up, and one that allows for many different viewpoints to get into the issue (so I didn’t mean to criticize but to start more discussion on a good topic).

    I’ve been thinking about it, and there are very good reasons for a player to act out being “evil,” but there needs to be some kind of logical recourse in a game. Again where village idiot Molyneux fails in his hubris.

    I think it’s definitely not a generalized evolved psychological mechanism to act amorally towards people who you may not have an emotional attachment to, but there are games for all types of folks I suppose. Nothing wrong with that.

  5. I think it’s important that the penalties the game imposes on players for wrongdoings is related to circumstances in the game. If the player is not seen by a guard or a person, there is no reason for the game to send guards after the person at any point. Obviously in situations where there are more powerful or omnipotent beings, players would be unable to avoid detection, but in the average fantasy setting, a person could commit a murder easily without ever being suspected or caught.

    I also think that there should not be an unlimited number of guards in any town or city. Eventually, the player should be able to have killed all the guards. If the player accidentally destroys quest chains or ruins the story because of it, it is the player’s fault. The player should learn to restrain themselves from indiscriminate slaughter. There are nearly always penalties for things that one does wrong, and the game should not prevent these penalties from applying by making certain plot-important NPCs unkillable.

  6. Plus, I gotta be honest: Sometimes I just want to kill the questgiver. I want to shove a bomb right in his smug face.

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