…and in the game! ho ho! Ahem. Not very long ago a small discussion broke out on twitter between me and our old contributor-turned-journalistic-superstar Jaz McDougall. It surfaced when someone pointed out a fan-made page for a proposed tenth TF2 class – The Guard Dog. Jaz reeled at the idea; he didn’t like the prospect of killing a dog, even if it was armed to the teeth. In fact, he continued, he doesn’t like killing any animals at all in games. This seemed absurd to me – “But you kill people!” I said “Why won’t you kill animals? What if they are attacking you? And if it’s ethics what about the elderly, kids, civilians in GTA?”. With this bombardment of questions being difficult to address in 140 characters or less, Jaz instead opted to draft out a proper answer…
I guess, you could ask: “Why does it matter if you shoot something in a game? It’s not real!” I understand this question, but I think it doesn’t account for all the things you can show in a game that would be universally frowned upon. Imagine a game where you could rape people? I might play the game, I might even, as a journalist reporting on the game, trigger the rape scene, but I definitely wouldn’t make a habit of it.
Games are supposed to affect us. I just read something on Gamasutra about the Scribblenauts-Sambo controversy, where Ian Bogost warned against dismissing the issue because it’s “just a game” – games should come under fire for the situations they make possible (although not necessarily be condemned for them). In the end, I played Oblivion with hunger mods, I killed wolves, I hunted deer for their meat to survive. I’ve hurt animals in games when I’ve been forced to.
It’s that which I resent; being forced to, when in real life, I’ve never been forced to hurt an animal. Resident Evil 5 was slated for featuring black people – I don’t think anyone really felt that Capcom were using the game as a delivery system for malicious racist imagery, but as N’Gai Croal rightly pointed out, “this imagery has a history”. Resident Evil 5 was about an indiscriminate virus hitting an area with a genetic predominance, but what if the T-Virus in that game only affected black people? What if you’d be talking and trading with white people, but the moment you saw a black person, they’d look up at you and grunt and run at you, L4D style? Wouldn’t that be horrible? Wouldn’t that disturb the hell out of you? Wouldn’t that pop into your head on a street full of white people when a black person looks up at you from their food, teeth bared?
It’s about imagery. Seeing a dog lying on its back with blood across its mouth conjures memories of dead pets, pets I loved because they were my friends. It doesn’t help that I’m ferociously pro-animal ethics, passionately fair and respectful in my treatment of animals. I spent nearly ten grand shipping my cats here (one of my cats has a disorder that, while perfectly painless and uninhibiting, often panics ignorant owners to the point where they needlessly put their cats down.) to the UK so I could look after them. I still get misty eyed when I remember Hampton, my beautiful hamster that passed away last year.
When I kill a rat in Oblivion and it reminds me of that bleak morning I woke up to find a beloved, innocent friend lying stiff and open on the ground, I just don’t feel like killing rats anymore.
Kids are a no-no for much the same reason as animals are – a child is an innocent, and I’ve never been forced into killing one by a game, so I never have. Bioshock did give me the option, though, in probably one of the least sophisticated moral dilemmas I’ve yet encountered (brilliantly parodied by Anna Anthropy in this glorious train wreck). I gather that Bioshock doesn’t actually let you toss aside a little child-corpse.
This is where my virtuous aura vanishes. I kill innocents in GTAIV. I kill innocents in Hitman, and in Fallout 3, and in just about everything. Not all the time, of course – my play habits are very role-play oriented, and I like to get inside my characters. Niko isn’t a bad guy, but he’s been scarred by war. He needs a car, so he looks around for the fuzz, whips out his pistol, and puts one into the driver-side window.
I don’t have a problem with this because, essentially, the people in GTAIV aren’t people, they’re puppets. They’re toy soldiers to be knocked over and called dead. You’ll run into multiple copies of the same one just driving around. This applies to the animals and the children too, but, being fundamentally innocent creatures with a lot less observable complexity in the real world, their virtual counterparts bridge the gap of representation a lot better. A pigeon in a game hops around pecking, and so do the pigeons hopping around in real life. The real pigeon has (as I see no reason to doubt) thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, while the fake one is a simulation, but they’re identical in appearance and behaviour. It’s this predictability, this apparent simplicity, that too often trivialises animals in our minds. We humans, with our bold endeavours, our fashions and our moods and our unpredictability, look upon these self-absorbed industrialists with a sort of aloof disgust.
So, in a game where nothing is real and no lasting wrongs can be committed, I’ll spare a pigeon because it looks just a little too real. I’ll run over the businessman so he’ll say something candidly-cynical about his health insurance, so people will run screaming and call the cops, to get at the delicious social commentary and acerbic humour that runs in a fat vein through GTAIV. Take Team Fortress 2; two teams of identical people wearing different colours, fighting over a series of mirrored landscapes. It’s commentary. That’s what war can seem like, sometimes; pointless, opportunistic, and cruelly willing to expend a few soldiers for the prospect of some gold or oil.
It doesn’t bother me that I’m seeing something that looks very like a dead businessman, because it looks identical to a dead rapist or a dead sith or a dead soldier. A dead person in a game, even a dead child, is a symbol, and it can represent something; revolution, heartbreak, corruption, hubris. A dead animal can too, but it’ll be something contrived like “nature”. Show me a game that compels me to feel something when I kill that absurdly snarling wolf in Oblivion, that pack of rotting attack dogs in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., raging to the point of hyperbole – show me a game that makes that more than a throwaway enemy, and you’ll have shown me a developer who understands the creatures they’re representing in their game.
I understand Jazs reasoning and somewhat admire the fact that someone feels like this, yet I still can’t agree. Yes, virtual animals are a closer representation to their real selves than what people are, but I can’t help but feel it’s irrelevant. For me, a virtual representation is always just that – a virtual representation. I have no qualms in killing anything in a game unless (and this happens a lot) the narrative has given me an attachment to it. Random people/animals are fodder – there for me to fulfil my god-complex urges and hold their life in my hands. I wont kill the vast majority of them for obvious reasons, but I know that I could, I might, and that it wont affect me if I do. I’ll probably just kill the odd one just to let the others know that I can.
Do I have a soul? Probably not. I’m fully aware I can be callous at the best of times; and in games which allow me, I pretty much turn into a socio-path. Should I feel guilty over this though? I don’t think so. It’s virtual after all, and it’s not like I do it in real life (damn ‘laws’). Where do you stand, dear reader? Will you happily kill anything that moves, or do you draw the line somewhere? What differentiates killable and not killable? Give us your hearty opinions below, but if anyone says “and in the game” they are banned from the internet.