Morality in Video Games

Posted by Conor Murphy on September 20, 2012 in Gaming Lifestyle -- Share:

The debate over whether video games can cause real-world violence has been going on for a while now, but a recent Forbes article written by Erik Kain asked another question: “Do real-world morals have a place in video games?

Games have the same interesting problem as other forms of fiction. Video games present stories within made-up universes, so they have their own rules, and those rules don’t always align well with the way the real world works. Not even the laws of physics can stop characters with gravity-defying powers. But the question of whether video games have a moral responsibility depends on the cause of violence and whether playing a game impacts behavior in a negative way.

Video Game Ethics

“I’ve often written in defense of video game violence,” Kain wrote. “This is because I do think most people can tell the difference between a game and its rules and moral expectations and what we do and accept in real life. Too many times, the media has pointed to video game violence as the cause of real world violence. While this may happen from time to time, I think it’s much more likely that violent people do what they do for other, perhaps less obvious, reasons.”

And that is the root of the problem – behavior is a complex thing, but many people prefer simple answers. It might actually be our love of stories that has led to a significant number of headlines blaming video games for real-world problems. As a Scientific American article pointed out, humans use stories to make sense of the world. While the article gets into some of the finer points of what makes a good story, there is one element to every narrative that could offer an explanation for why the headlines like to place the moral burden on video games.

Every story needs an antagonist – someone or something that creates a conflict for the main character – and real situations don’t always clearly define who or what fits that role.

The entire plot of a good Mystery game often revolves around figuring out who the antagonist is, but when it comes to real violence, identifying the antagonist is even more of a mystery. Despite what newspapers would have you believe, there isn’t always a clear reason for why people do things. But, because we understand situations better if we can follow a narrative, the newsrooms need an antagonist. It just so happens that video games often become the scapegoat.

The bottom line is that video games have been operating on their own morality for some time now, and research has shown that claims linking video games to violence are false. A study from the Journal of Psychiatric Research found no link between playing violent video games and real-world violence, even among adolescents. The study also criticized earlier research for using improper experimental methods. Video games are like any other form of media, you have the choice of the type of content you wish to engage with and it’s up to parents to decide when their children are mature enough to understand the difference between fictional violence and similar acts in reality.

Video games are in a unique position because they have evolved to be able to tell their own stories. And those stories are helping people deal with serious issues. For example, one video game design project developed games that have created a better understanding of issues ranging from global warming to drug trafficking. Games like those enable people to consider complex issues within a safe environment. Maybe not every game follows strict moral guidelines – or even abides by the rules of gravity- but games have had a significant positive effect when it comes to dealing with legitimate issues. And that is pretty far removed from the idea that gaming is the antagonist of the story we call “life.”

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Conor is a Marketing Manager with Big Fish, working out of the Seattle office. In his spare time he enjoys watching science documentaries and playing old school adventure games. Get in touch with him on Twitter! or Google+