After the mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, President Donald Trump blamed video game violence for the "glorification of violence in our society." It's an old refrain, and players and their allies usually respond by pointing out the facts. We lack evidence to support a causal relationship between video games and violence, and although some studies have found links between violent video games and aggression, which is different from criminal violence, the effect is small.
But while research is important, this plot line loses an important point. Although some video games are casual, thoughtlessly violent, many others explore violence with nuances, placing it in a social context and giving players the practical opportunity to explore moral puzzles that they would never face in real life.
Like many other art forms, games are a means of telling stories that reflect and criticize the society in which we live. Its unique strength lies in the deeply immersive experience it offers in relation to other media by giving players the ability to directly impact the world around them.
Sometimes that means exploring the various scenarios, characters and reasoning that give rise to violence with deliberation and nuances, a standard that our national dialogue has not yet reached. In the hugely popular Grand Theft Auto IV, the recent immigrant Niko Bellic is forced to work as a hired weapon despite having escaped a similar life in Europe. If that was not a powerful social comment in itself, the tragedy of his criminal involvement eventually culminates in the death of his cousin or his romantic interest, depending on the choice made by the player.
The Uncharted series criticizes the increasingly destructive obsession of treasure hunter Nathan Drake with his legacy and the inability to leave a profession that endangers him and his loved ones. In Uncharted 4: A Thief & # 39; s End, players stand directly in the middle of Drake's internal conflict, divided between the excitement of their last adventure and the guilt of lying directly to his wife. The interactivity of the game encourages players to experience what Drake is feeling and to better understand the obsession that had previously taken him away from his wife and led him to the kidnapping of his mentor and father figure.
While some games use these moral dilemmas primarily to frame their plots, others have their roots in sophisticated morality systems that guide their game. These games subject players to a series of difficult decisions and demand that they interrogate the circumstances and justifications that frame the violence they choose to commit. The most interesting morality systems move away from the simplistic dichotomy of good and evil and ensure that players feel the consequences of their choices.
In the psychological thriller Heavy Rain, players are tasked with hunting a serial killer who kidnaps and drowns young children. One of the four playable characters is the father of a kidnapped child, who must undergo tests assigned by the murderer to rescue his son, including the demand that the player kill an unsuspecting man. The game has 17 different endings, from the capture of the murderer and the survival of the protagonist's son to the absolute failure at all ends.
While Heavy Rain allows viewers to make decisions according to their values without pushing them in any particular direction, other games have their own ethical frameworks and try to encourage players to adopt them. The character of the player in Undertale is a boy who has fallen underground, an isolated world populated by monsters that were banished from Earth after a war with humans. Encounters with monsters can be resolved by fighting or spreading mercy, and game design encourages players to opt for peaceful mediation. This can be an especially challenging option when the player faces an opponent like Undyne, a guard who tries to provoke the player to a physical confrontation. But the game urges us to question how we respond to the conflict, especially in the context of our treatment of marginalized communities.
And Fallout: New Vegas takes an interesting turn to morality systems by using metrics that measure both a player's reputation and karma, and putting them in tension. Predominantly set in post-apocalyptic Nevada, the game features factions at war. Killing members of an opposite faction could decrease your karma. However, in a grimly precise reflection of our society, it will undoubtedly improve its reputation with its allies because it is using violence in a way that suits its interests.
No other media offers its audience the same opportunity to fight directly with the way we justify violence. If we want Americans to think seriously about the issue, we could be better if more of us play video games.
© The Washington Post 2019