The Ethics of First-Person Shooters

The Ethics of First-Person Shooters

Is pretending to snipe people good clean fun?

Let me make something clear: not only do I own Call of Duty: Black Ops, I’ve stayed up until four a.m. twice in the past week, blasting my way through the jungles of Vietnam and Laos until my eyes stopped focusing and I staggered off to feverish dreams of endless spiderholes. So when I make the case that there’s something inappropriate about this game, it’s kind of like a guy wandering around a bbq talking about how inhumane modern slaughterhouse conditions are, while chomping down on a giant burger. I’m a big hypocrite, and I would be grateful if someone in the comments could convince me that these shooters are totally wholesome fun.

It was this commercial that got me thinking:

There’s a really fascinating perspective trick at play here. Notice that we don’t see anybody get shot. There’s no blood. But from the POV of a Call of Duty player, which all these people are meant to be, all you are focused on is the enemy being ripped apart by your bullets. So in the commercial, we see the blissed-out expressions of people in the act of committing unseen acts of violence. It’s a celebration of bloodlust. Believe me, I know how those guys feel. There’s something deeply, disturbingly satisfying about crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of the women. But while first person shooters are a pleasure, maybe they’re a guilty pleasure.

I’m going to propose that it is Wrong to derive pleasure from the virtual killing of other human beings, especially when it’s simulated with a maximum of realism. I’m not saying it’s wrong because it makes us more violent; that may or may not be true, and I really don’t want to start linking to psychology journals here. So pretend for a minute that it was a scientific fact that first person shooters had no effect whatsoever on your real-world behavior. I’d still say it’s Wrong to enjoy simulated killing. I’m not saying that first person shooters should be banned and I’m not saying I don’t indulge, a lot. I’m saying that intellectually, assembling a highlight reel of your greatest headshots seems like a questionable way to get your kicks.

I know that statement deserves a thousand words of intellectual defense which I’m not going to offer today. I’m putting the cart before the horse. Everything that follows should be Part 2, and Part 1 would be proving that simulating something immoral is itself immoral in any way. For now, I will only say that regardless of your feelings on first person shooters, you probably do not approve of certain Japanese videogames in which you get to stalk women.

I’m not saying those games are exactly equivalent to shooters. I’m saying there’s probably a line somewhere; not everything that can be simulated for entertainment purposes, should be simulated for entertainment purposes. The questions that remain for another day are:

  1. Where is this line?
  2. How much of our discomfort with these games comes from the feeling that they will negatively impact the behavior of the players, and how much of it is a conviction that this should simply not be fun?

Getting back to shooters, I know there’s a big difference between a military scenario and a murder spree. But you have to remember that the large majority of first person shooter hours are logged in multiplayer. In that context, the player isn’t role playing some noble defense of democracy. If anything, the player is unleashing bullets at somewhere wearing an American uniform. So I’m not sold on the idea that shooters are okay because you’re the “good guy.”

Now when I say all this killing is “Wrong,” I realize, of course, that I’m indicting the majority of videogames ever made, which all feature enemies to slaughter. I think Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the crowning achievements of Western civilization, and I don’t want to concede it’s a little Wrong too. But maybe it is. How many times have you started shooting civilians just to lure in the cops, so you can see how many cops you can take out before the helicopter gets you?

But if getting pleasure from killing is wrong, doesn’t that mean a lot of your favorite action movies are wrong? What would Die Hard be without the body count? But Die Hard has characters, a plot, and dialogue. If Die Hard is opium, than a first person shooter is heroin. The killing is front and center, and everything else is a skippable cutscene.

In all honesty, I need to point out that I’m making this argument intellectually, not emotionally. My gut says violent games and movies are harmless fun. But my gut also tells me that my five-year-old son should not play Black Ops for another ten years. Doesn’t that say something?

Like I said, I’m casually skirting around some very complex philosophical issues at the core of all popular entertainment. But I would rather discuss videogames than Kant today, so I’m moving on.

Not all first person shooters are created equal. It seems to me that even if simulated killing is wrong, there are different levels of wrong.

LEAST WRONG: The games where you’re not supposed to be killing real people. In Halo, it’s aliens. In Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead, it’s zombies. I’d even put Team Fortress is this category, since the characters are cartoony.

MORE WRONG: Games which attempt to make the killing as realistic as possible, but create a fictional conflict for the killing to take place in. The big one here (in my apartment, at least) is Modern Warfare 2. The developers obviously took tremendous care in making the enemies act like real people, both before they are shot, and while they attempt to drag their bleeding bodies to safety before sprawling on the ground dead. Anyone who has played the infamous “No Russian” mission knows how disturbing this can be.

MOST WRONG: Games in which not only are you killing real people, you’re recreating a real war. In Modern Warfare 2, Russians invade Washington DC. You have to fight your way into the White House to call off a bomber attack. The killing looks real, but the story is not only fake, it’s a purposefully implausible Red Dawn homage.

But consider the recent game Medal of Honor. This game takes place entirely in Afghanistan, set in 2002. In other words, this is a piece of entertainment based on a war that’s still going on. You were supposed to watch the commercials for this and say, “Oh, the war in Afghanistan looks awesome!” If you heard about the game’s questionable decision to let you play as the Taliban during multiplayer, than you can understand my concern.

It’s actually even weirder than that. The makers of Medal of Honor obviously labored mightily to make this the most realistic depiction of the Afghan War possible. They consulted with real Special Forces soldiers, and may have inadvertently worked real military secrets into the game. In other words, this is a depiction of an ongoing war that’s so accurate, it may actually be endangering the soldiers actually fighting the war.

Now obviously, people like Tom Clancy make a lot of money writing novels about ongoing conflicts, while working in lots of fetishistic detail about weaponry and technique. I have no problem with this. I am arguing (and feel free to disagree in the comments) that there is a big difference between reading stories about things other people do and actually stepping into a simulation, even if that simulation is placed in the context of a story.

Now of course, Black Ops isn’t meant to teach people about the Vietnam War, just as Super Mario Brothers wasn’t meant to teach you about plumbing. But consider: with its first 24 hours, the game sold more than 7 million copies. That’s easily more copies than The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brian’s classic collection of Vietnam War stories. A lot of people are learning about the Vietnam War from this game, and Black Ops has its own take on things. The game doesn’t capture any of the moral ambiguity of the war. For instance, the quintessential Vietnam cliché is the squad of men patrolling the jungle, looking for Charlie. But in the first Black Ops Vietnam mission, it’s the NVA that’s the aggressor. You’re driving around a military base, catching up with an old friend, and suddenly the enemy is closing in from all sides; it’s a bold, broad-daylight sneak attack. By placing the first mission during the Tet Offensive, the makers of the game couch the war in a little Pearl Harbor righteousness. If the Vietnamese are going to storm your trenches, you don’t have to feel bad about using that 50 cal on them, right?

Black Ops isn’t going to teach you much of anything about WHY the Americans got into Nam in the first place. But you do learn, if the game is to be believed, that the Vietnamese are pretty much puppets of the Soviets. It’s the Russians who are pulling all the strings over there, providing equipment, intel, and even supervising the POW camps. And elsewhere in the game, you learn that the Russians are plotting to unleash a horrible neurotoxin all over the United States. So by the transitive property of evil, it is totally okay to kill Vietnamese people, since they’re complicit in a plot to kill Americans. Somewhere, Robert McNamara is smiling. (Actually, he’s doing it in the third mission of the game, in which he escorts you to the Pentagon.)

If you thought that there’d be a nod to the My Lai Massacre, or a naked little girl fleeing a Napalm attack, or a South Vietnamese general shooting a handcuffed prisoner in the head, you’d be wrong. In fact, Vietnam is apparently a country without women or children – just waves of identical-looking, emaciated men wearing straw hats. At no point does the game even gesture towards the futility and human misery the war entailed.

Rereading that last sentence, I realize how silly I sound. Hmm, this first person shooter does not reflect the geopolitical complexities of the Vietnam War? You don’t say. Of COURSE a FPS is going to reduce its scenario to the most black-and-white clichés. But that’s my point. The Vietnam War was a real war that really sucked. It sucked for everyone involved. Making a FPS out of it was inevitably going to make it seem exciting and fun. Something inside me says that it should never be fun to pretend you’re fighting the Vietnam War.

But in fairness, I have to address a counter-example: what about WWII? There are lots and lots of shooters out there in which you blast away hordes of Nazis (starting with the granddaddy of them all, Wolfenstein). And I admit I don’t know what I think about this. I am totally onboard with killing Nazis. But when a game starts trying to recreate the D-Day landings, I get a little uncomfortable. That was a real, historical thing, in which lots of people died. The idea of re-creating D-Day for fun and profit seems wrong. So basically, my gut is telling me:

Vietnam and Afghanistan: general recreations inappropriate

WWII: only recreations of specific battles are inappropriate

And on that note of inconsistency, I’m wrapping for now. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface here, much less come up with a consistent theory about what makes a videogame Wrong or Not Wrong. But ironically, Black Ops has used up all my time and energy this week. So I invite you all to comment, and maybe I’ll write more in the future. Should I feel bad about loving this game? As long as a pastime doesn’t harm anyone, why should it make you feel guilty?

70 Comments on “The Ethics of First-Person Shooters”

  1. dewfish #

    interesting. I pretty much agree with your analysis, seeing as how I also enjoy 1st person shooters (TF2 and L4D2 mainly. Its not that I have anything against “realistic” 1st person shooters, i considered getting MW2 at one point but was too busy with the games I already had.) I do think the central part of this discussion is the “slippery slope” argument, and the ethics of playing a game that involves unethical acts. Maybe video games are similar to comedy in this regard, in that nothing is really off limits if done correctly. And like comedy, a lot of it boils down to personal tastes. Just how some people’s sense of humor is “less considerate” than, and sometimes at the expense of others, a person who has a problem with a certain group of people probably wouldn’t have objections to killing said group of people in a virtual setting.


  2. Brett #

    I know you were addressing FPS campaigns, but I often find FPS multi-player modes to have a much different ethic – Black Ops multi-player included. You randomly get assigned a side and have about a 50% chance to fight as the “other guys.” Of course, the theme doesn’t affect how you play – you just want to win. So whether you’re the Germans or the Nazis or whatever else, you’re what you are and the other team must die. What emerges from multi-player, thematically, is that it causes war to be divorced from ideology and ultimately appear as just silly little game played by people with guns.


  3. dewfish #

    “it causes war to be divorced from ideology and ultimately appear as just silly little game played by people with guns.”

    Sounds true-to-life to me…


  4. Wade #

    One other thing to consider is how these games dramatize death (dramatize may be the wrong word). Granted, I haven’t played very many of the Call of Duty/Medal of Honor games, but the vast majority of first person shooters feature enemies making some kind of guttural groan as you shoot them (if they make any sound at all). Then there are the instances in which games give your cannon fodder dialogue as you shoot them. In Wolfenstein 3D, various Nazis will shout “Mein leben!” as you kill them. For the time it was amazing to even have characters talk a video game, but it’s also a humanizing touch that reminds you that you’re killing people, not just monsters (those would come later).

    The one that really sticks out to me, though, is Perfect Dark. There, your enemies get a number of different ‘last words’. From “You got me…” to “Why…me…?” to perhaps the most disturbing, “My God…I’m dying!” Even today, when I hear that last one, it sours me a bit on the experience.

    Is there anything like this in Black Ops or Medal of Honor?


    • dewfish #

      I think that is both a good and bad quality about modern “war games”. Depending on the type of war game, it makes it easier to kill in a game when everything is cartoon-like and/or funny. TF2 seems to go out of its way to make what is on the surface a war game into a fun sort of free-for-all. Its definitely more Super Smash Brothers than Mortal Kombat. Same subject matter, but like I stated earlier, it is all in how it is presented. The author even says as much in how “wrong” the game is sort of relies on how true-to-life it is.


    • glockblob #

      I thought of Perfect Dark the minute I saw this. I was an avid video-game-watcher as a younger sister, and it was the only game I just couldn’t even do.


  5. Darin #

    I find that the issue being discussed is actually not one of intention. To be clear, technology has increased such that we can have FPS and then to have extremely realistic FPS. As we know, people will try new things with new technology and then follow the money.

    As for the black-and-white dynamic and the lack of women and children in the game, I’m very curious under what circumstances game designers include them. Griefers and whackjobs will play games and use the civilians as play toys. Others, like myself, would use digital advantages by hiding behind them or using them as leverage. This type of thing played out over 10 years ago with Counter-strike. When the hostages were used for strategic advantage, the players had to choose between humanity and winning; the choice was always winning. I’m not saying that using digital hostages gave me an advantage because of humanitarian feelings of my enemies. Rather, the game mechanics penalized the rescuers if they shot the hostages they were supposed to save.

    I want to highlight that Black Ops: Vietnam story has already been done before…over 40 years ago WHILE the vietnam era was going on. Two points if you remember it before I give it to you after the jump.

    It starred John Wayne and was called “The Green Berets”. It aired in 1968 and was a very pro-Saigon while insinuating that the communists, Chinese and Russian alike, were helping the NVA.

    @belinkle: It sounds like you have a cognitive dissonance reconciling gaining pleasure from the interaction of killing digital versions of familiar humans. Is this true?


    • Hemjon #

      The Characther John Wayne plays is based on an actual Finnish mercenary called Lauri Törni, or Larry Thorne anglicised.

      Törni first fought in the Finnish wars against the Soviet Union, then joined the Nazis in their final efforts against the Soviet Union and eventually joined the USA to fight against farmers in djungles in Vietnam. He was a true war nut, who for some reason is considered a hero here in Finland.

      He was also a member in the childrens’ division of the paramilitary White Guard, aka Suojeluskunta, Fenzel’s favourite vigilante organisation. The childrens’ division was like the Boy Scouts or the Hitler Jugend.

      Therefore we can conclude, that it is camping which turns small boys with rosy cheeks into cold-hearted war-mongers, and not video games.


  6. Jamas Enright #

    And what of America’s Army? You know, that sleeper hit classic that the US Army got developed to be an FPS to encourage people to go out and kill people digitally so they’d want to join the army?
    You aren’t supposed to be sickened by these games, you’re supposed to be patriotic

    [Note: I’m not American, and I am moderately patriotic towards my own country…]


  7. 1More #

    I haven’t decided what I think of war FPS yet. I only moderately enjoy them, mostly taking pleasure in the pains developers must go through to marry environmental realism with varying degrees of “on the rails” narrative (as opposed to cut-scene narrative).

    However I’ll attempt to weave a few thoughts into a thread. First of all it is interesting that you would be provoked to this response after playing a Vietnam simulation FPS. I am currently reading Susan Sontag’s short book, “Regarding the Pain of Others”, in which she explores war images, especially war photography. One point that she makes was that photographic journalism of the Vietnam war was a seminal point in realistic images partly because television journalists were now, the most managed journalists. WWI had its pacifist backlash as well, but the justifiability of WWII undid this trend. So following Vietnam war photography the anti-war film proliferated, more so than after WWI. And now here you are, reasonably comparing video games to film, and responding to a Vietnam themed video game.

    What might be one more source of this absence of ethics, is that video game enemies might be approaching the Uncanny Valley for you. I haven’t played Black Ops but I’m in a place where video character do not seem human to me, so I don’t have access to your reaction. Couple that with the culpability of game playing (as opposed to the neutral observer position of most media), and with the historical significance of the Vietnam conflict in popularizing violence intervention culture and you have yourself a questioning blog post.

    That isn’t a proposition for an answer though because you also seem to be asking broader questions about war representation, and violent participatory entertainment. In my opinion those are big questions that might deserve more treatment than publishing a hit-and-run comment.


    • Darin #

      Well put. I couldn’t read “photographic journalism” without being loaded and saying “photo” “graphic” journalism as in graphic photo journalism.

      As for the Uncanny Valley, I think it won’t matter when the realistic slope is crossed. I cite numerous real-life games of boys playing shoot ’em up before they even touched a console. BBgun fights, cap guns, fake guns, rubber band guns all end with a winner and loser albeit without death. That’s not to say that little boys didn’t sometimes dramatize a death for fun. As long as the consequences aren’t actually death and the participants believe that, I bet we will have a future where an avatar of an actual face is placed on my player. I could play myself including body shape and mannerisms and shoot ’em up with my buddies. Top seller.

      Props for “violent participatory entertainment”.


      • 1More #

        Thanks for the props.

        I guess I was just throwing out some leads for “readings” of this topic. I’m not terribly confident in my use of The Uncanny Valley for instance.

        As an undergrad, I do have one paper I want to write on the topic of video games and rhetoric, and therefore I think I have a few thoughts already lined up.


  8. John #

    It is all personal for instance almost everyone thinks that racism is bad and yet comedians making clearly racist jokes are funny to most of those same people. So what is the difference with war games? War is bad but war in videogames is fun to alot of people. Trying to generalize what is wrong, imoral, good, bad or indifferent in any work of “art” is impossible…I think Dewfish hit this one on the head…it is up to your own personal taste. So if you injoy the game but dont want to let your young child play it for the same reason you do then go for it and have fun.


  9. stokes OTI Staff #

    Okay, how would you rank these on a scale of bad to worst? Assume that when I say “historical” I mean any specific person that has lived but is living now, and when I say “actual” I mean a person that it is still kicking around today.

    1a) Violence towards cartoon in cartoonish frame: Mario stomps on a Goomba
    1b) Violence towards a realistic person in a cartoonish frame: Punching heads off in Mortal Kombat (although some of those characters are pretty cartoonish… you get the idea)
    1c) Violence towards a historical person in a cartoonish frame: killing Brutus in the Dante’s Inferno video game.
    1d) Violence towards actual person in a cartoonish frame: one of those flash widgets where you “shoot” [random celebrity X] by clicking on their face.

    2a) Violence towards a cartoon in a realistic frame: shooting aliens in Area 51
    2b) Violence towards a realistic person in a realistic frame: taking on the cops in Grand Theft Auto
    2c) Violence towards a historical person in a realistic frame: a mod for Grand Theft Auto that lets you make all the cops look like Hitler.
    2d) Violence towards an actual person in a realistic frame: a mod for Grand Theft Auto that lets you make all the cops look like your friends and family

    3a) Violence towards a cartoon in a historical frame: shooting the Walking Mecha bosses in Wolfenstein (which I’m counting here as a depiction of WWII, although it’s arguably too cartoonish)
    3b) Violence towards a realistic person in a historical frame: shooting the random Nazi soldiers in Wolfenstein
    3c) Violence towards a historical person in a historical frame: the bit in Wolfenstein where you kill Hitler (before he comes back as another Mech)
    3d) Violence towards an actual person in a historical frame: a mod for Wolfenstein that turns all the enemies into the cast of Dawson’s Creek

    4a) Violence towards a cartoon in an actual frame: a custom level for Super Mario Brothers that lets you stomp goombas in the white house
    4b) Violence towards a realistic person in an actual frame: a mod for Counterstrike that lets you fight off terrorists invading the white house
    4c) Violence towards a historical person in an actual frame: a mod for Counterstrike that lets you fight off Hitler as he invades the white house
    4d) Violence towards an actual person in an actual frame: a mod for Counterstrike that lets you kill the cast of Dawson’s Creek as they invade the white house.

    We might even need a fifth category for frames and people that are both actual and personally known to you. Like, the most immoral game of all time would probably be one where you can load in pictures of your science teacher and a floorplan of your highschool and then stalk one through the halls of the other with a chainsaw.

    We could also ask the following about historical figures:
    • are some of them too cartoonish to count as historical any more? I have more of a gut reaction against a game where you kill Pol Pot than I do with a game where you kill Hitler, even though I’m pretty sure Pol Pot was a bad guy.
    • what’s the statute of limitations on this kind of thing? Assassin’s Creed has you murdering Cesare Borgia. My gut doesn’t so much as twitch.
    • is there a difference between pretending to kill historical figures in counterfactual circumstances and killing them the way they actually died? Like, if you play a Civil War game that has you shooting Grant or Lee to death at the climax of the last mission, I’m less bothered by that than I am by one that has you play as John Wilkes Booth…


    • Darin #

      In the latest Call of Ops Duty Bang FPS War thingie that made a ga-jillion dollars, I was under the impression you could kill Castro.

      Apparently the statue of limitations doesn’t exist, living figures are fair game.

      Please don’t suggest killing Lee! Noooo…!!! ;)


      • dewfish #

        Now I could definitely play a game where you kill Robert E. Lee. Like I said before, all about personal context.


      • lee OTI Staff #

        I would be honored if I were a killable character in a first person shooter video game.

        Also, I honestly wouldn’t be too surprised if a John Wilkes Booth first person shooter or some sort of video-game representation of the Lincoln assassination was released within the next few years, especially with the 150th anniversary of that event approaching in 2015. It may be done as a crude joke, or it may be done as a crazy neo-Confederate tribute to Booth, but I’m pretty sure it will happen.

        If it hasn’t already happened. Not going to Google that at work, but someone else can be my guest.


    • AnneBonney #

      “I have more of a gut reaction against a game where you kill Pol Pot than I do with a game where you kill Hitler, even though I’m pretty sure Pol Pot was a bad guy.”

      I think Nazis (but not the Khmer Rouge, because honestly, that is not a commonly known piece of history), at this point, are just like humanoid aliens and zombies: killable objects that are meant to stimulate the cathartic (? I don’t know how else to describe that feeling, but that doesn’t seem right either) enjoyment one gets from stimulating the death of another human, while trying to sidestep this whole ethical business, because they aren’t “real people”. They aren’t something have to feel anything towards at all, other than pleasure at their deaths.

      It’s been like that for a long time in video games, whereas movies and lit about the same subjects derive so much of their meaning from exactly the opposite place. Nazis are terrifying because they were real, and the capacity for evil they represent are present in the audience; zombies represent a civilization-wide catastrophe and much of their horror is in their degraded humanity; and aliens pull in the generalized fear of the other and the knowledge that even humankind’s best traits (the desire to explore and learn and grow) can be disastrous in certain contexts. This is what makes art about them compelling.

      It’s always confused me how, like Belinkie brought up, video games reduce so much intellectual or emotional complexity into black and white, when you’d think that the ability to be in a story would make it easier to think more deeply about the scenarios. How is it that simulation is more reductive than passive watching? I’ve been a gamer for almost all my life, and I have never understood that and have always wanted more from games.


      • Hannah #

        “I think Nazis… at this point, are just like humanoid aliens and zombies: killable objects that are meant to stimulate the cathartic”

        I agree with your assessment of video game/mass opinion of Nazis, which I think can also be taken as a microcosm of video game representation in general (and reinforces some disturbing ethical points present in the article). Nazis have become such stereotypes for evil that it is no longer morally reprehensible to kill them, in video games, fantasy, or if people were given a time machine, in real life. I feel this is an ethical problem, however, though I CERTAINLY detest Nazis in general. I would site both the films “The Reader” and “The Pianist” (the Nazi soldier that saves Adrien Brody’s life) as works that do the nearly impossible task of humanizing Nazis and complicate the notion of “ultimate evil” so many have totally accepted. Hitler, true, was evil in my opinion. But the actions of millions of Germans can’t be confined to a belief that they are “all evil” and in fact that sort of simplistic thought is what motivates much violence/ethic cleansing.
        Though I’ve seriously digressed, the way I tie this into the article is about the part where the author talks about how video games teach/reinforce two-dimensional views of conflict. This, again, is what makes video games entertaining, but I think it also seriously cripples our critical/philosophical reasoning ability. ummm, that is all!


    • Hemjon #

      “is there a difference between pretending to kill historical figures in counterfactual circumstances and killing them the way they actually died? Like, if you play a Civil War game that has you shooting Grant or Lee to death at the climax of the last mission, I’m less bothered by that than I am by one that has you play as John Wilkes Booth…”

      Play JFK Reloaded and then watch the Zapruder tape. If you do not feel guilt, you have lost some of your humaninty. You do not have to feel sorry for JFK, but the look on Jackie’s face her husband’s skull explodes in front of her eyes…

      oh man.


  10. bluemonq #

    Question! Setting aside the fact that most people playing Halo spend a lot more time in multiplayer and are therefore much more likely to be killing fellow SPARTAN-IIs, how do you justify killing sentient beings – as the Covenant are – in a fictional battle versus humans in a fictional conflict? The Covenant characters display – certainly in the cutscenes, and somewhat during the game – intelligence, anger, fear, and many other emotions and psychological characteristics one would call “human”. So why is it ok to kill a sentient alien, but not a sentient human? Same with Mass Effect.


  11. Sternhammer #

    ‘If anything, the player is unleashing bullets at somewhere wearing an American uniform. So I’m not sold on the idea that shooters are okay because you’re the “good guy.”’

    I don’t see why shooting simulated American’s in a game is less ethical than shooting other nationalities (or sentient aliens for that matter). The patriotic perspective (it’s our tribe so it’s OK) is distorting and indefensible. Having said that perhaps it’s appropriate for a video game:

    “Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.”
    ~ Bertrand Russell


  12. Kyu #

    I think before you can ask the question, “Is it wrong to like pretending to kill people?” you have to answer the question, “Why is it wrong to kill people?”

    If the argument against murder is “murder is categorically wrong because I said so”, then yes, any time elements of that are found somewhere else it’s going to be uncomfortable for you, with increasing discomfort as the situation gets more realistic.

    I consider murder to be wrong because it’s destructive, and of very valuable things–a life, a unique perspective, a person beloved by family and friends, etc. But a virtual life is none of those things (assuming a lack of true artificial intelligence).

    Put another way, if in the real world, people you shot were not killed but merely slightly inconvenienced before respawning perfectly fine just the way they were before, would shooting them be wrong? Or enjoying it? I say it’s the consequences of killing which are troublesome, and are the reason to avoid killing; and since the virtual world is consequence-free, there’s no reason not to enjoy it.

    I think the real root of your emotional response to these games is that they offend your sense of murder as not just profoundly ill-advised but as taboo. With the implication that if people are willing to break that taboo in the game world, perhaps they will be willing to break that taboo in the real world–a naturally disconcerting notion, if you believe the taboo is all that stands between them and a killing spree.


  13. Anthony Abatte #

    As a long time gamer and fan of action movies and shooters, I see both sides here. I simply think that it’s not so much who you shoot or what you do to the characters but the game experience itself. I don’t even own a gun, but playing Black Ops after a bad day at work is simply cathartic. The fantasy of blasting people away in GTA is BECAUSE it’s a fantasy.

    I have no desire to shoot anyone in real life but how many things do we indulge in via simulation that we’d never have a chance or desire to attempt in our real lives?

    I’ve killed many people on GTA and beat the crap out of endless opponents in Tekken. That’s why we love games. Most of us will never consider doing these things outside of that world.

    Should it not also be considered wrong to enjoy racing games where you run from the cops? Or, what about God of War’s taking liberty with mythology? Will kids think Perseus ripped the wings off of harpes and had sex with Aphrodite?

    We love these things because we can’t and shouldn’t do them in real life. The fantasy of Die Hard mixed with that story is why I root for John McClane.


  14. Lysenko #

    Speaking not just as a fan of First-Person Shooters, but as an OIF Vet with a certain amount of first-hand experience and as a result of military service someone who has dealt with the moral questions of the use of lethal force not just as an intellectual exercise but as part of their day-to-day moral decisionmaking, I’d like to add a few things.

    Above, Kyu referenced the idea that “murder is categorically wrong”. While I agree with his general point, the choice of word is poor. Not all killing of human beings is murder. Murder is the -unjustified- and -illegal- killing of human beings within a given legal framework. So the above statement avoids being a tautology only if you have as an implicit assumption “killing human beings is always unjustified, and therefore all killing of human beings really is murder regardless of the relevant legal codes.”

    Some people actually believe that, or ascribe to a weaker version where “killing people is always morally wrong, but sometimes it’s a necessary wrong to avoid a greater one”, the good old ‘necessary evil’. I think that both those groups of people are fundamentally mistaken. Categorically assigning moral value to all forms of an action in a complete vacuum from circumstances, context, and so on is a great way to create bad and inaccurate guidelines to good behavior, at least if you care about maximizing the amount of good in the world rather than simply making sure that you don’t have to do anything you might find personally distasteful. “Killing people is wrong” is every bit as stupidly simplistic and ignorant of the real world as “Lust is a Deadly Sin”. In fact, I think that there are even cases where killing a human being is not just morally praiseworthy, but morally obligatory (that is to say, it is immoral to -refrain- from acting), but that’s really another entire argument. Suffice to say that I take issue with the assumptions that underlay much of the article and the discussion to date.

    On the issue of geopolitical complexities and the horror of war, I have a mixed response. On the one hand, I agree that the lack of civilians from most games (outside of ones like ArmA which started out as training tools for the military) is problematic on several levels, and it’s something I’d like to see addressed more realistically. On the other, one man’s “brave attempt to convey the ambiguity of war” is another’s “selective, one-sided hack job on history” or “jingoistic, imperialist propaganda” depending on where you stand on a given conflict. The massacre that was skipped over and that jumped out at me was the eliding of the -Hue- Massacre, something that was actually occuring at the exact time and place of one of the game’s missions (Of course, to this day certain people still find it acceptable to deny the existence of the Hue Massacre).

    On the issue of civilians and war in general, there are two things I think that should be added to most realistic war games:

    1) Civilians in realistic places, and behaving with realistic ambiguity. That is to say, I’m not impressed with a scripted sequence where you play a mole asked to gun down dozens of civilians at an airport, or molotov a bunch of surrendered German POWs, to take two examples from the Call of Duty series. What I’m interested in are scenarios where the combination of atmosphere, pacing, and the lack of good information combines with potentially threatening behavior to the point where you can have a true accidental killing of a civilian…or vice versa, where an attempt to avoid shooting someone on -suspicion- forces you to live with the consequences of men killed and wounded in an ambush or attack you saw coming and could have prevented but didn’t.

    2) Suffering. This is going to sound gruesome, but it has a point. One of the most effective aspects of MW2’s “No Russian” mission was some of the scripted animations played out by the victims of the terrorist attack. People dragged themselves across the floor, trailing blood. They curled up and wept, clutching chest or abdominal wounds. I remember at least two reviewers mentioning this aspect of the mission specifically when they described how affecting it was for them. Yet when you shoot someone in the rest of the game, they drop without a sound or with a canned scream every bit as emotionally wrenching as the hoary old “AIEEE” of Wilhelm or the “MEIN LEBEN!” of the Wolfenstein Nazi. It ends up acting as either a reward or a simple indicator that yes, you killed that one and can move on. Sometimes, yes, you can drop people cleanly and quickly, or at least quickly enough that there’s no prolonged suffering or reaction to being shot. But sometimes you can’t, and I think that seeing the enemy soldier who got his guts ripped out by shrapnel from your grenade trying to hold them in while whimpering for his mother, if done -right-, would go a long way towards taking the edge off at least some of the kills. This should apply to -everyone- in the game, mind you. Enemies, civilians, and friendly soldiers alike. Oh, and kids, too. Of course, what I’m describing almost requires an AO rating, which is a whole other problem.

    Finally, here’s the really tricky part, and again I’m speaking from personal experience here: War is awful and terrifying, AND it is fun and exhilarating, sometimes at the same time. Any attempt to take war seriously whether in video games or in some other form needs to at least try to address both halves of that equation, or it’s every bit as shallow, deceptive, and morally questionable as anything that’s been objected to so far, whether it’s tone glorifies OR condemns war. The most relevant quote here is also found in the CoD series. Its authenticity is somewhat iffy, but there’s enough sourcing for it that I’m relatively confident that something -like- this was said at the time. The relevant quote is “It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it” and it was supposedly spoken by a confederate general watching his men stop and then bloodily rout an attempted charge by a Union unit. He was watching the close-in and rather ugly work of men with bayonets against other men with bayonets when he spoke of the tendency of men to “grow too fond” of War.

    Any work that hopes to have serious merit has to capture THAT ambiguity.


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      The tricky thing about 1) is that, gamer culture being what it is, you would always be able to create a situation where you had perfect knowledge of who was a civilian and who was a combatant by save scumming or by reading strategy guides. The only way to capture the aspect of actual war that you’re looking for here would be to make the civilians and the combatants randomized, so that they’re never in the same place twice… and this typically does not make for truly exciting gameplay, although I suppose the technology for procedurally generated content is always improving.


      • AnneBonney #

        I think that that’s more of a technical limitation — engaging but randomized NPCs and enemies — than a gamer culture one. Though, the cultural limitation would be that so many of the FPS (and many other games) stand as a point of comparison between other gamers: completing a scenario quicker, cleaner, with more points or headshots or whatever. That function of the games, one-up-manship among players even when they aren’t in a vs. or coop mode, would make randomization seem unnecessary or unenjoyable.

        Lysenko, that was great and really thought-provoking, and I would play the hell out of any games you made or consulted on.


  15. Nathan Hanks #

    Forgive me if this has been touched on but I don’t think the ‘Ethics’ part has been cleared up.

    Aren’t our ethics derived from how our actions affect the experiences of others?

    Holding to your opening hypothetical, if games don’t make it more likely for people to commit violence or increase the aggression of people who do commit violence, then what could be the problem? What could be wrong about *not* harming people?

    If we get the urge to hurt someone and don’t because we’re playing a videogame, isn’t that good? Isn’t harmless, virtual agency a rather hopeful outcome of videogames?


    • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

      Nathan –

      You’re getting at one of those tricky foundational issues I purposely sidestepped. Yes, I suppose at a dictionary definition level, ethics is just about how you treat other people. So if, as I posit for the sake of argument, violent videogames HAVE no negative effect on our behavior, logically there can’t be anything unethical about them. You even suggest (cleverly!) that violent videogames might serve as a RELEASE of negative emotions, therefore making the world a better place.

      I like this idea, actually. Man is an imperfect creature, created with an instinctual lust for violence. Perhaps a shooter videogame is taking the lemons of male aggression and making lemonade – something safe, social, and very fun.

      Of course, here’s the rub: I’m pretty sure violent videogames DO have a negative impact on people, at least if you play them a lot. I don’t really want to get into a dueling studies thread, but there’s a reason we don’t let children play those things.

      – Matt


      • AnneBonney #

        “there’s a reason we don’t let children play those things.”

        Err, but “we” do, I think. Though the first generation of gamers are well into adulthood and have kids of their own, there is still a stigma about video games in general that they are “for kids”, and aren’t perceived on the level of film or literature as mature entertainment.

        Moral panic and ratings systems aside, I really don’t think that there is much of a real effort to keep FPS or other violent games out of the hands of, say, middle schoolers, who are arguably mature enough to be exposed to themes of violence, sexuality, complex moral thinking, etc., but when left to draw their own messages from games that maximize gory fantasy over nuanced realism without any other guidance, often take things like games at face value.


  16. Simber #

    It’s a hard issue, and I agree with Matt’s gut feeling. Interestingly, it will only get harder the next few years as humans in games are getting more realistic. Is it conceivable that beyond the uncanny valley fps just aren’t any fun anymore? The game that Lysenko implies above seems to me to relate to current war games as Michael Haneke movies do to Die Hard. I mean, realism is definitely a major issue: chess is also an interactive war game, just more abstract.

    I’m thinking about hypothetical games that would be truly morally reprehensive (talking ’bout guilty pleasures…):
    – Stokes’ example of an fps filled with people you know
    – A game in which you oversee the smooth running of a nazi extermination camp (I could actually imagine that as an art project, in the vein of the Lego Konzentrationslager by Zbigniew Libera)
    – Saw, the game; in which you play as Jigsaw, putting together constructions to torture and maim people
    – Computer generated children’s pornography in which no children were involved whatsoever (ok, that’s not a game, I just find the possibility quite disturbing)
    (Of course you can do better, I don’t know if we should want to)

    Is that all okay, because there are no real world consequences? I would argue against that, and Kyu is probably right that the term taboo has something to do with that. So is this maybe a hard issue because we’re as a society unsure of the moral status of murder (as Lysenko’s argument suggests)?


    • Nona #

      Computer-generated child pornography went far past hypothetical a long time ago and has been a legal thorn for at least a decade if memory serves.


  17. Brian #

    Also what makes this a difficult subject is it seems really about lamenting the loss of simplicity and the frustration at finding justifiable ways of making something increasingly complex fit back into it’s simpler more “wholesome” beginnings; or the loss of something that was an escape from complexity getting co-opted by the very complexity it was trying to escape. Which is probably why WWII is so prevalent as a video game as it’s viewed as such a black and white event, which of course it wasn’t, but we view it as such because its in America’s interest and feeds the human need for understandable winnable escape from a frustrating and competitive world; which, to view video games as only escapism, to me is a tremendous waste of the potential of video games.

    But the FPS specifically was designed as this PuNk R0cK experience, I think the guilt and lament comes in at the realization the whole punk rock aspect got co-opted when you’re playing as the fantasy version of a real war where the establishment really fucked up, Vietnam, and you’re complacent in rewriting history so they can make the same mistakes all over again. I don’t think you can stake claim you’re satirizing the military industrial complex by playing a game that’s a McNamara wet dream- it would still be weak satire even if at the end they tacked on a cut scene of him waking up with wood grabbing a smoke and gazing with wistfully grin as the game credits roll.

    It used to be that playing games at all was kinda punk rock, but the complexity and power they’ve reached as a storytelling medium is going beyond that of movies but people still want to treat them as a gimmick because video games are one of the last places that are “wholesome” in a world that’s contradictory and complex beyond control. Where can you go for wholesome fun once video games are corrupted with complexity?


  18. Nathan Hanks #


    This whole thread is excellent and I was thinking today of your point on not letting children play violent videogames. Being wrong, however, is not why we should feel queasy about letting children play violent video games. It is because children are not able to seperate and maintain seperate realities as well as adults and that inability makes the likelyhood of copying violent behaviour in innappropriate, or Real, contexts greater.

    Young children can’t keep secrets or imagine what it’s like to be an Other very well. Whereas an adult is more capable of being a Sunday-Druid and a Monday-Employee.

    That, I think, is why children should not play violent videogames. Not because they are wrong but because, for children, it’s not yet fiction.


    • Nona #

      I think the relevant factor where children are concerned is not so much fantasy bleeding into reality but empathy. Empathy is something that can be learned and unlearned but a lot of it – like much of the brain’s structure – is hardwired early in life. Behavior in early development that erodes empathy can have some pretty nasty consequences.


  19. Ann #

    I LOVE Half-Life 2! It was the first game I had ever completed by myself. As a female, I used to avoid video games, but MAN this game gave me such a rush! I have the Orange Box and currently on Episode 1. The game also includes Episode 2, Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. I have Life 4 Dead 2, but that game is too much for me. 60 zombies attacking me at once and when I get the hang of it, one guy decides to kick me off the team! grrrrrrrr


    • dewfish #

      Ann is right. left 4 Dead 2 is fun sometimes, but the level of idiocy that goes on makes the game harder to play.


  20. Gab #

    I think I’m in the same chapter or section as you, Belinkie, but not on the exact same page. I find the realism thing gets in the way for me when playing any war game, regardless of the war it’s portraying. Realism is also why I don’t enjoy the GTA games, or can only play them for a very short amount of time before feeling somewhat dirty. I actually had this very conversation with my younger, teenaged, sister, over the Christmas holiday because we both felt weird/uncomfortable playing Call of Duty 3 but were having a blast with and couldn’t get enough of Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles. She and I both shoot zombies as a way of finding that “release” Nathan discussed, but we feel worse if our targets are humans- and the more realistic the game, the worse we feel or less we can handle. And with those zombie games come other, similar games where you’re running around killing THINGS, but not necessarily people. Further, the more believable the setting and environment are, or the more realistic the mechanics make gameplay, the more enjoyment I/we get. (We were positively giddy the first time we blew the head off a zombie in RE 4 because this was the first time ‘YOU CAN SEE THE SPINE HOLY CRAP THAT’S AWESOME!’) The GTA games are rather superfluous in what you get away with, but I think the fact that there seems to be less of a real goal in those than in war games makes them just as unsettling as war games- they feel, at least for me (and her), more like shooting people for the sake of shooting people. And I think that’s what gets my ethical gears going: I’m realistically killing people, so my, “Ew,” instinct kicks in. I do wonder how I’d feel playing Red Dead Redemption, since it’s basically GTA on horseback, spaghetti Western-ish- that whole world of the “Wild West” has been so romanticized and barely represents anything historically accurate any more, so it’s basically a fantasy world nowadays. So since I do so enjoy DnD type things because they’re fantasy-killing, I have a feeling I may actually like that one.

    I suppose I’m sort of rambling now. But my point is I realize I get a rather sick pleasure out of shooting zombies and dinosaurs and aliens, so killing things- and the more realistic, the better. And any tournament-style game like Tekken is right up my alley, even though those have at least some rather realistic people. But the more realistic the setting, the less I enjoy shooting people in games.


    Red Dead Redemption: If you like spaghetti-Western stuff, play the card game Bang! It’s totally made of awesome.


  21. Mr. Lazo #

    I’m with Nathan here. I think been able to distinguish reality from fiction its the whole point, and that’s why we don´t let children play this kind of games -which is actually a big fat lie because they obviously do, but for the porpurse of this discussion let just say they don’t-.
    From my point of view, not been an american, and from a country that hasn’t been involved in a war conflict the likes of Vietnam or WW2, it’s actually really difficult to feel this games as realistics portraits of war because our knowledge or memories of this conflicts are all based in films, tv shows or documentaries. We know Vietnam sucks because the americans culture tell us it does, but we didn’t experience the consequences this war or the most recent ones had in the american society. So in fact my own perception of this events its pretty much based in fictional accounts -even if some of this accounts are based in true events-. For me at least the whole idea of being in a war seems quite unreal (till the yanks invades us, of course), but I imagine, for a war veteran playing a game like Black ops could be disturbing. The more unplausable the scenario seems to us, the easier it is for our brain to separate reality from fiction, and that’s why GAB and other posters here can embrace games like Resident Evil or Left 4 Dead 2 more comfortably than Black Ops (for the same reasons then, you should check out the Zombie Mode of this game, its a blast!).
    In any case, one could argue that most american players of Black Ops weren’t alive during the years that the Vietnam war took place, so actually their whole perception of this war would be heavily fictionalized too, and so they should be able easily to recognice the gaming experience as fictional. I find a lot more troubling the Medal of Honor case, because of the recent nature of the subject matter.

    Great thread!


  22. Nathan Hanks #

    Mr. Lazo-

    That one generation receives a fictionalization of another’s, as with Black Ops and the Vietnam war, is an important point and I don’t think it’s obvious. I think considering whether Violent Videogames are ethical or not, has been steeped in arguments over whether individuals are more likely to act-out violently.

    But, to your point, we could imagine a much greater harm if people who played War Videogames lost sight of War In Reality. Do people have a more or less realistic image of war from videogames? And, how do those beliefs about war translate in effect?

    Anyway, I think your point stretches the dimension of the problem especially in a Democracy where aggregated beliefs are effected in policy and law.


  23. maverickps #

    Chess is a simulation of war. Is that morally wrong as well?


  24. Nathan Hanks #

    That point was made earlier in the thread but I don’t think taken up. I’d suggest though that the problem many have with Videogame War, as opposed to Boardgame War, is the detail in experience.

    The rich realities in videogames bring people virtually closer to the acts of violence than, say, ‘Go’.

    If that’s the take, then it’s interesting that while humanity is becoming more domesticated our representations of violence are becoming more visceral; news reports, CSI, Hostel, etc.


  25. Jesse #

    I didn’t read all the comments so this might be redundant but I have played my fair share of FPS’s (Counter Strike [& CS:source], COD4, MW2, Black Ops, COD:WaW, most of the Rainbow Six’s and Left 4 Dead 1&2 (for, literally, hundreds of hours)) and I think that the real fun (and this is only personal opinion) comes from the tactical aspect of it. This is speaking mostly from my Left 4 Dead & Counter Strike experience (even though you dismissed L4D as irrelevant to your subject matter).

    I think the most interesting part of these games is that, on a competitive level, they are like a chess game. It’s less about murdering as many people as you can and more about beating your opponent. Your team has complex strategies for winning and the opposing team has them as well. Although your teams personal ability to kill is important, it’s more about how the team functions as a whole. I was in a competitive league for Left 4 Dead(and l4d2) and, after 500+ hours of play, it’s no more about killing zombies than CoD is about killing people, it’s about beating your opponent. At the core, you’re still killing (humans, zombies, whatever), but you’re main goal isn’t to kill, it’s to win. At that point, it’s no more about murder than Madden, it’s about winning.

    That’s just my personal opinion. You’re not playing for the story; it’s not about if the survivors win or if the OpFor capture the bases, it’s about if your team is strategically superior to the other team. That’s where I derive my pleasure in FPS’s, not in the murdering of (literally) hundreds of thousands of other people. That’s what I believe lies at the heart of FPS games. It’s not the human instinct to kill others, it’s the competitive spirit.



    • maverickps #

      ^^ This is exactly what I was trying to say. It is all about competition just placed into some sort of context. Sometimes with little plastic pieces, sometimes with a ball and a hoop, sometimes with 1s and 0s that end up looking like violent acts. But at the core it is all just about coming up with a better strategy than your opponent.

      One supporting point would be how much developers try to balance game play. Or look how many fighter jet games are geared towards fun and ease of play than true to life simulations. Same with FPSs.


      • Brian #

        But it’s not all about “competition JUST placed in some sort of context.” The context is everything, if it was just the strategy and spirit of competition everyone would be happy with chess; what’s immoral is stripping all the context out of the Vietnam war to make it just about strategy, and in some twisted way that’s suppose to make be alright because “Obviously it wasn’t JUST about strategy.”

        But why do it if you have the power and tools NOT to, which they very much do, why destroy the context of Vietnam? Why do they need to remove all emotional and historical integrity when video games have the capability to include all of that, like OmniDesol said of Fallout 3? Why can’t cafeteria food be heafy?
        I guess some people just love the smell of napalm in the morning.


    • stokes #

      I don’t think you can say it’s all about the tactics. Partially about the tactics, even primarily about the tactics, sure. But not all. How would you feel about modding all your FPS games so that they used paintballs instead of real guns? And so that when people got shot, rather than writhing realistically on the pavement and trying to push their guts back into their torsos, they stood up and walked off camera?


      • dewfish #

        that is actually irrelevant. Like I said before, its the style of play that matches your personal tastes, not simple blood and guts or nothing. For example, there is plenty of blood in TF2. But some of the servers you go to, the players explode into tiny presents and gears rather than body parts. Doesn’t change the gameplay at all, and I have never heard anyone complain about the lack of blood when they shoot someone. Like it was said before, its more about the goal of winning rather than simply seeing blood and guts. When I am on the server, I’m usually angry that the team is not working together, not because they aren’t “shooting up” enough people. In fact, the main problem on most public servers is that a lot of the new players try to use the game as a “deathmatch arena”, and routinely lose because they are not working together.


        • Brian #

          Then realistic violence is very relevant, because without the spectacle of it there would be no inspiration to treat it as a deathmatch arena.


          • Brian #

            Also if it was irrelevant no one would feel the need to make and play a presents and gears death setting.

          • dewfish #

            still missing the point. blood or not, its the same game. And the people that play it as a “deathmatch arena”, don’t do it for the blood, they do it beacuse hey want to be top of the leaderboard in kill-death ratio. In terms of FPS games, Kill-death ratio is the equivalent of a scoreboard in a sports game. No one is doing it for the “blood and guts”, but to get the highest score.

          • Brian #

            I think your kidding yourself that blood and guts is irrelevant, as said strategy is the main thing, but it’s not the same game blood or not. I remember specifically with Mortal Kombat on snes taking most the blood out from the arcade version and everyone complaining about it because it wasn’t the same game, it was a lame version even though all moves are the same.
            I sincerely doubt no one would complain if all bullets became Hershey kisses and characters became non-anthropomorphic blocks with walkie talkies for guns.

          • dewfish #

            Once again, this isn’t Mortal Kombat. As I stated before, TF2 is more like Super smash brothers than anything as far as FPS shooters go. I used to play MK religiously, and it was one of my favorite fight game franchises, and I bought the Sega version because it had the “blood” version, but TF2 is not MK. The point you are trying to make is invalid.

          • Brian #

            The easy irony of highest score = most kills is invalid as well? We’re dancing around the issue that even in TF2 you can’t win unless you kill people, its not a strategy game like Madden because you kill people, its friendly cartoonish yeah, but the fact that you kill people in a cool way is part of why you play, if it wasn’t the game wouldn’t exist because everyone would be happy playing a civil game of Madden or god forbid football in real life, and everyone would be complaining that you have to kill people to play this otherwise awesome strategy game.

          • Brian #

            I mean way more strategy and team dynamics would go into two teams having to plan and build desalination stations to provide clean drinking water, but I don’t hear gamers calling out for that game. You would have to add a level where you hire and play as mercenaries to fight off war lords for people to even think about looking at the back cover of the box.

          • dewfish #

            still missing the point. like I just said, killing isn’t the end goal, winning is. The same way that football isn’t about getting a touchdown, its about winning the game. You can help your team win a football game without scoring one point if youre a linebacker. defense and support is just as important as offense. The exact same thing is true for TF2. The goal of the game is to get the enemy’s intel or gain a control point. Mindlessly killing dosent win the game. There are plenty of support classes that your team will not win without. Engineers work better on defense rather than offense. You can play as a medic, heal other players, and never directly kill anyone the entire game. I have been on plenty of servers where the enemy has high scores from killing people with snipers, but the don’t win because they dont guard the intel, which is the point of the game, not simply killing. Your point is invalid.

          • dewfish #

            and as far as games that people “call out” for, there are plenty of games out there where there is no killing at all, played by many of the same people that play FPS. Yes, I loved Mortal Kombat, but I spent way more time playing Tetris on my game boy. Instead of stereotyping everyone who plays these games of having some uncontrollable bloodlust, try looking into reality.

        • stokes OTI Staff #

          If you personally don’t care one way or another about whether there’s blood or not, then I’d say yeah, my point doesn’t apply to you. And maybe doesn’t apply to TF2 in general?

          But I’m not talking about just the one game. I’m talking about FPS games in general, which are far more likely to feature “death” than not to. Where’s the laser tag FPS? Where’s the pie-throwing FPS? Where’s the water gun FPS? I agree that you could make these games, and if they were strategically brilliant, they would even find an audience. But they don’t actually get made… or at least not nearly as often as games that push the envelope in realism and gore. Either this is because of the personal taste of the developers, or for no damn reason at all, or (far more likely) in response to market pressures. If it’s in response to market pressures, then gore does matter.

          I would agree that the gameplay is the MAIN point, though. Nobody would buy a game that was strategically rubbish just because it had incredible gore effects.


          • Brian #

            I get your point that TF2 is not a bloodbath machine. I’m saying that by definition even strategy heavy FPS have killing in them and that’s not irrelevant, which was, unless I misunderstood, your point. That because killing does not win TF2 that the killing in it is irrelevant. Yeah, irrelevant to winning, but that doesn’t make it irrelevant to its affect, just like the fact the characters are cartoony doesn’t change the end goal of the game, just because its not the end or main goal doesn’t make it irrelevant.

  26. OmniDesol #

    It’s a rather interesting point. I, for one, play a lot of games. While I’ve played quite a few FPS games, I don’t really pick up war games, unless I’m at a friend’s party. So the closest equivalent to a game with any form of man versus man conflict is probably Fallout 3 (unless you count the Civil Protection from Half-Life 2 as humans; I believe they are at least somewhat modified).

    Fallout 3 creates an interesting look as violence as entertainment. The setting of Fallout 3, and the mechanics it has, are sort of a personalized social experiment. There are actions the game says are “good”, which would be giving fresh water to a thirsty man, or giving a Violin to an old woman, instead of selling it for an amazing profit. These actions are not heavily rewarded; they do not offer many “bottle caps,” the currency of the game. All they offer is Good Karma, which is so trivial to acquire, and only useful in a handful of situations (partners labeled “Good” will only help you if you have Good Karma, and it changes how people respond to you).
    Then there are the actions labeled as “Bad”. Nuking the town of Megaton is the game’s headliner for the “Bad” action, but you can lose Karma for stealing, shooting innocent or good people, hacking owned computers, and breaking into people’s houses. These evil actions come at the cost of angering the people affected, but pay off quite well. You will progress faster if you commit evil acts, with little-to-no penalty. It will prevent you from getting the “Good” partners, and if you listen to the radio, in-game, you’ll get bad-mouthed in-between The Ink Spots music, but your main penalty will be towards your own morality. Is it wrong to sell a bunch of junk to a Scavenger to buy a shotgun, and ammo, and use the same shotgun to headshot the sucker, as soon as his back is turned, looting all that you sold him, along with any valuable items he has? That’s your choice to be made, in the world of Fallout 3.

    So, while I don’t know how it is in war games, all I know is that Fallout 3 caused me to ask myself some questions about what I thought was “right”. Do the desperate times of a post-nuclear war make committing the evil actions actions in Fallout 3 justified? Or is that just an excuse to be part of the problem, rather than a solution?


  27. Nathan Hanks #

    If you think about pushing someone off a roof, but don’t, is that wrong?

    I just want to highlight that we’re talking about virtual acts. If we conclude that there is something wrong about imagining/playing as a killer, then we may necessarily be talking about Thought Crime.


    • Brian #

      I think everyone here agrees you should have the right to these virtual acts without imprisonment. Yeah, it’s hard to say if virtual acts have ill effects, there’s not a whole lot hard evidence right now, and the article hinted not to cite any studies, but what if scientists do conclude there’s something wrong? I guarantee we are locked into the FPS as it is and people will defend it like people defended cigarettes, and FPS will just become an act of rebellion. But along with that, people will make better games that can actually help people in more than a crude punching bag way, as the military is already using video games to help with post traumatic stress disorder-as well as train for combat.

      So imo, yeah virtual acts carry a weight that translates into “reality.” And like cigarette smoking, when we couldn’t deny it was bad it became some form of rebellion that keeps it from being “wrong” because its fighting the bigger “wrong” of “thought policing” what people can do with their bodies. FPS are pretty much “thought cigarettes” right now.


  28. rtpoe #

    You know, with regards to that commercial, I have to confess that the first time I saw it, I was convinced it was a recruitment ad for the US Army up until the first wide shot at about the 0:53 mark. Certainly the idea that “There’s a soldier in all of us” is something the Army would not disagree with.


  29. Nathan Hanks #


    “Better games that can actually help people,” sounds great and here’s a whole TedTalk:

    But even the speaker doesn’t address how a game could be helpful. How does the game come out of itself to help people in reality? What affects can games have on people’s interactions? Without knowing that, we can’t judge a game as either ‘bad’ or ‘helpful’ because we aren’t sure what they’re really doing.


  30. Brian #

    Her example of helpful was the ancient Lydians distraction from famine by playing dice games, which then became their means of deciding who would immigrate and who would stay, the losers stayed. She claims games make people more collaborative and optimistic even when one person lost really bad, she only had 20 min so I’m not going to blame her for not citing sources every 8 secs, but all her points seem valid.

    But even if research concludes FPS instill healthy collaborative problem solving skills and optimism, I think the whole rewriting of history, of the Vietnam war or any war or school shooting, becomes an issue here. Because we have to admit the dirty truth that kids are learning history from games, and I see no reason why games can’t have journalistic integrity. I think what these games do is instill that “Pearl Harbor American self-righteousness” and it may be unintentional just some less then clever game designers wanting a Call of Duty style blockbuster, but even with naive intentions it doesn’t mean its ok, free speech and all that a given of course, I just think it’s a stupid lazy uncreative naive harmful way to approach history and gaming.


  31. Badger #

    If recreating “certain battles” in WWII is “wrong”, I’m curious to know at what point you would consider it “right”? Let me explain my question. I’m going to make a couple of assumptions for my hypothesis, so tell me if they’re wrong. I’m assuming you have no objection to an FPS set during the Battle of Carrhae, or the Battle of Pharsalus, or the Battle of Actium. How about the battle of Trafalgar? Or Custer’s Last Stand? So – my question is – is it just a matter of time? In 100 years, will it no longer be “wrong” so set a videogame during the Battle of the Bulge, or the fall of Singapore in WWII? And if it is simply a matter of time, why not do it now anyway?


  32. Nathan Hanks #


    Agreed on lazy journalism, it’s the sensation of being super-soldiers that’s sold. Kids absolutely are learning from games which is startling if you go back to Jane MacGonigal’s Talk on the 10,000-hr parallel education track in videogames.

    Though I think she misses the point with her Lydian example. “Eating one day and playing games the next,” helped the Lydians get through famine, sure. But that wasn’t enough and the people who ended up “saving their culture” were the ones who stopped playing games and left the city to begin again. The success of those few motivated Lydians had nothing to do with distracting games, it actually might have wasted the expedition’s resources for 18 years.

    Anyway, it’s hopeful if gamers really are better communicators. Though what we’re communicating really needs to be brought into focus.


  33. Hemjon #

    There’s a lot of discussion going on, so I will direct my questions at nobody in particular.

    These games are propably most harmful (if one admits they are harmful at all) as they limit the imagination. The players just obey the orders of the machine without thinking.

    In regard to the matter of the graphic violence: does it really matter whether the computer game charachters are firing bullets or paintballs? It is still the same simulation of killing that is the core of the activity. A water pistol and an assault rifle function on the same principle: point, use, win. The socialization function is ultimately the same. The only way to win is to destroy the enemy.

    By the way, Nerf Arena Blast was a game that allowed children to play with Nerfs virtually. It ran on the Unreal engine.

    One of the Rainbow Six Vegas games (can’t remember which one) made fun of the lack of diplomatic solutions in games. There was a imaginary game which NPC’s talked about. It was spoofing GTA and was called Global Diplomacy 4, or something like that. I can’t quite remember. The RSV games could be intresting to overthink. The first Rainbow Six games were hardcore tactical simulation games (only a few enemies, that could be taken down non-lethally and one shot was lethal even for the player) while the Vegas games were (probably due to McDonaldisation) made into basic armed-übermensch-against-the-world action spectacles (thousands of enemies, millions of bullets and the player is immune to projectiles). The games were French, so it could be that it was taking a piss at the American testosterone oozing machismo. For example, the main character in the first game was an irritating Texan who had a very black and white view of the world. In the end, the talking terrorist NPC’s reveal that the incompetent canon fodder NPCs were illegal immigrants. It was very dark humor. Kind of hilarious.
    You gotta love the French. Only they have the balls to make a game that insults the industry and the gamers.

    The world needs more German-style board games. There are plenty of peaceful, entertaining and perhaps even educating games for the PC, but very few for consoles.

    But the PC also has JFK Reloaded.


  34. andre3 #

    I want to throw out that Black Ops seems from the discussion here (I have never played it) as a kind of weird mirror-image of M*A*S*H. Where M*A*S*H was really a story about the Vietnam War, but set in the Korean Conflict/War, Black Ops sounds like a story about the Korean Conflict/War but set in the time and environment of Vietnam.

    There are many parallels that I can’t talk too much about now (stupid work) but the idea of a sudden aggressive attack by the Communist forces and the overt control of a major Communist power (Russia in Black Ops and China in Korea). Also the looming threat of larger world war which was much more prevalent in Korea than Vietnam.


  35. Steve #

    I agree with most of the posts here, but have played mostly Crysis (and just the first one at that). First time I played through eliminating all of the North Koreans/Aliens as I went, but after wanting more difficulty and playing at higher level, found it was easier to simply walk through virtually all the levels without being seen. This game tends towards the stealth approach mind you, with it’s cloak mode. But the interesting point is, being rather conscientious myself, I found myself enjoying the challenge of not killing as many as possible. Trying to play the game without killing any of the targets that are hell-bent on your destruction. Unfortunately there were times, for example clearing the landing area of air support, where you couldn’t progress without killing. Maybe if in the future most games had that option, even if it was stupidly hard, it might even become a badge of honour to be good enough to play the game without killing / using only non lethal force? Crysis also had the Tranq dart option too, which was great. Anyway, all I wanted to post originally was this game : as interesting to the discussion. Seriously enjoyed Lysenko’s post though. Interesting note would be that thought crime is a crime, taken from the only source with the authority to define our conscience, our creator, (who I believe is Elohim with good reason). Tough words to swallow I know, and sorry to bring it up but I feel as this article touches on human morality in general it is moderately relevant.


  36. El Matador #

    Why do people always take exception to Vietnam and not WWII or Korea? The NVA weren’t plucky rebels, they were indoctrinated conscripts from the north, and they WERE armed, funded, and supported by the USSR and communist China. 300,000 red Chinese troops were deployed to North Vietnam. The North invaded the south with main battle tanks and shelled major cities like Saigon with rockets indiscriminately. So why the exception? Because the home situation in those years was tumultuous, and because far away Vietnam was the first time America watched Jimmie get shot on foreign soil in living color, on live television. Before then, everything was in newsreels or in short snippets that sugar coated war. All wars have had ugly things happen in them, even the “good war” that is WWII (but that doesn’t mean that we were no better than genocidal nazis). It’s shallow and frankly insulting to the generations of men who fought overseas – and most of all, it completely ignores the narrative of the dead. The ARVN is hardly ever mentioned in modern depictions of the Vietnam War, but they fought back against the communist invaders for two decades, sometimes heroically, against all odds.


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