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Opinion: Can Games Become 'Virtual Murder?'

In a thought-provoking, charged opinion piece, writer Benj Edwards asks if advances in video game technology toward photorealistic gaming experiences make virtual killing more and more disturbing.

June 30, 2009

16 Min Read

Author: by Benj Edwards

[In a thought-provoking, charged opinion piece, writer Benj Edwards asks if advances in video game technology toward photorealistic gaming experiences make virtual killing more and more disturbing.] You know, I used to laugh at the term "murder simulator" when it was bandied about by knee-jerk opponents of video game violence some years ago. Preposterous, I said: video games are video games -- easily distinguishable from reality, and reasonable people know the difference between fantasy and reality. That was in the Mortal Kombat and Doom era, where the violence seemed cartoonish. And I love those games. Then I played BioShock. For the first time, hell started to freeze over, and I found myself beginning to understand the critics' point of view. As real-time computer graphics inch ever closer to absolute photorealism (which some industry professionals believe to be no more than 10-15 years away), violent video game critics' arguments are slowly beginning to look more sane. And yes, you're reading this from a life-long video game fan who staunchly opposes institutional artistic censorship. But censorship is peanuts compared to the conundrums we'll be facing in the future with our favorite hobby. Once our computer simulations of the real world (still called, somewhat quaintly, "video games") begin to effectively duplicate reality, the issue of video game violence won't be a matter of artistic merit or censorship anymore. It will quickly become a matter of morality, ethics, and law. The coming storm is inevitable: turn one way, and you'll see ever-more realistic portrayals of graphic, gratuitous human violence in games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto 4, and Fallout 3. Then turn the other and observe the exponential explosion of computing power and graphics rendering potential driven my Moore's law. Put two and two together, and you've got quite a mess brewing. Welcome to the Slippery Slope Within the next 10-20 years, your virtual victims in Grand Theft Auto 6 could look, sound, and behave exactly like a real human would if you stabbed him in the neck or shot him in the gut. There'd be plenty of blood, screaming, and carnage to go around. You could watch as they bleed to death in agony. The funny thing is -- and I'm just guessing -- you wouldn't want to do that in real life to a real human, so why would you want to do that in a video game? The violent scenario above seems silly now, but the stunningly realistic, PS3-era violent games we play today would have seemed unthinkably graphic just fifteen years ago. At the moment, we rationalize our simulated violence with statements like: "It's just a game. It's not real. The people don't suffer." All this is true (at the moment); but as the experience of virtual murder becomes ever more realistic, I believe that we as players will begin to suffer emotionally every time we cause realistic suffering to any virtual person, just as if we caused suffering to real living creatures. With each act of violence, a piece of us grows cold, calloused, and uncaring towards the well being of others. Repeat that, and we become slowly desensitized to pain and suffering. As gamers, we've already begun desensitizing ourselves to simulated murder, or else we wouldn't be able to play the violent games we have now. Games featuring endless killing for points are nearly as old as video games themselves, with Space Invaders, (1978) probably being the most influential. Back in 1992, Wolfenstein 3D was the most graphically realistic simulation of murder you could find in a video game. It shocked people (including the author) at first. But as the body count racked up, each Nazi became easier to kill until we no longer had a second thought about the act. The same desensitizing effect stretches back to every violent video game that pushed the limits of realism -- all the way back the early arcade title Death Race (1976), where players mowed down human-like "gremlins" with a car. Today, we see older violent games like Wolfenstein 3D as primitive and cartoonish, but technology didn't stop there. As the years went by, graphical realism in violent games continued to ratchet up as each generation of software took advantage of the increased computing power available to it. As violent graphics have grown more convincing, we as a gaming populace continued to de-sensitize in tandem. Despite leaps and bounds in graphical rendering power, Death Race's kill-everything gameplay stayed the same. We're still killing those gremlins and Nazis, but today they look a lot more like people you'd find on the street. In fact, due to our continued cultural desensitization toward violence in video games, certain game developers kept pushing the limits culturally thematically with ever more violent, gory, and shocking gameplay than before -- what was once forbidden was forbidden no longer, so it took a greater controversy to get attention. Thankfully, this quest for controversial violence is not a universal goal of the industry, but there are always the standouts who effectively "push culture forward" by testing the boundaries of what we consider acceptable. So, for the moment, we're ok, right? Photorealistic graphics aren't here yet, and we continue to justify our violent entertainment by saying "it's not real." But if we're not careful, we'll be justifying our consumption of violent games all the way to, say, 2030 when, thanks to photorealistic graphics and improved mind-machine interfaces, the experience of virtual murder may be nigh-but-indistinguishable from reality. As technology improves, the well-defined boundary between reality and fantasy provided by a TV set and hand controller might evaporate, making the gaming experience less like a game console and more like Star Trek's holodeck. (And we needn't wait two decades for that boundary to start blurring: with Microsoft's Project Natal -- a camera that captures motion with no other peripherals required -- the line between real and virtual is already disappearing.) If, in this hypothetical future, we're capable of stripping away our empathy and compassion to murder a 99% realistic virtual human (and maybe even enjoy it), will we be psychologically any different from people who actually murder those of flesh and blood? Having perhaps unintentionally trained ourselves to become cold-blooded killers through systematic desensitization, will we be emotionally capable of doing the same thing in waking life? With that kind of realism, we're not talking Pac-Man blip-bloop video games any more: to give you an idea of what we're really in for, imagine walking up to someone on the street outside your house and shooting them in the head. By 2030, the video game experience of murder could be exactly that realistic -- if we choose to make it that way. As Common as Murder In our modern western society, death is a relatively rare event. One can live 50 years and know only of a handful of personal friends or family members dying. Those deaths usually result from an illness that strikes in the later years of life, or occasionally from accident or suicide. But how many murders have you personally witnessed in your lifetime? How many people have you killed? When someone kills one real live human, it's a terrible tragedy that makes the local news. They usually go to prison for life. When a crazed gunman shoots down eight of his coworkers, it's called a massacre, and it stays in the national headlines for months. Last year, a grand total of 31 real live humans were murdered in Raleigh, NC, my city of 380,000 people. But that figure is chump change for a video game: just the other day, I murdered 40 virtual people in one BioShock session. If eight is massacre, then what's 40? Wholesale slaughter? Systematic genocide? Every real murder has far-reaching effects that ripple through the fabric of society, tearing apart the lives of both the murderer himself and the victim's friends and family. Each murder influences the practice of law and law enforcement and compels people to feel a little less safe and a little more paranoid about their neighbors. But we simulate the act all the time. For fun. Speaking of BioShock, it's not like murder is incidental to the main premise of the game. The developers have specifically created a virtual world where you are forced to kill realistic humans to succeed. The fact that you're inflicting suffering and death upon very realistic humans is a key game mechanic. That's a very large part of why it's supposed to be fun. Take away that, and you take away the game. These BioShock victims aren't like cartoonish Doom monsters anymore. They're definitely humans, and they look very real. They talk and rummage about, then run at me and attack. If I bludgeon them with my wrench, they scream in agony and blood gushes forth until his/her limp body falls to the ground like a rag doll. To maintain the persistence of reality, that bloody, lifeless body stays where it is on the floor, able to be trampled, pushed, and even bludgeoned further if so desired. BioShock's designers have put a lot of thought into making the experience as realistic as is practical on today's hardware. And they should be commended for this technical feat -- BioShock is an incredible work of art. But dagnabbit, it really is one of those once-mythical "murder simulators" we've been hearing about for years. This sort of interactive death-as-entertainment is very mainstream (BioShocksold over three million copies, including one to me) -- but only in the video game world. Show BioShock to a non-gamer -- someone who hasn't been desensitized to killing virtual people -- and watch their reaction. Show them how you bludgeon people to death with a pipe wrench. If they don't wince and express some form of shock at what's taking place on the screen, they're either seriously disturbed or they're a seasoned gamer. Industry Ethics Ethics and morals vary by region. They vary by culture and religion, and they vary from person to person. Dare I say it, but ethics and morals can be downright arbitrary. Despite this fact, and despite the wide spectrum of opinion on what is right and wrong, there's one moral I think most of us can agree with: killing humans is usually bad. World legal systems made that judgement long ago and codified it in law. In spite of this, if many popular mainstream video games were your guide, killing humans is also incredibly fun. Then again, many video games are fun because they let us do many things that are impossible and/or illegal in real life. But the fact that murder has become a ho-hum event in mainstream video games is something that should make us re-evaluate our hobby. As a card-carrying member of the human race (one of those things you're pretending to kill), I can't help but feel that such a profound and tragic event as human murder or even "justified" human killing should be a rare and powerful statement in games, not a common theme. With the ever-increasing power developers have in their hands to rip apart virtual lives, I think it's time to re-examine the use of death and killing as a core game mechanic. Perhaps the public is already beginning to tire of wantonly violent gameplay with its enthusiastic embrace of both casual games and the Nintendo Wii's lighter fare. Many players are flocking to innovative, less intense games that make the "hardcore" (read: "mostly violent and/or realistic") gaming world shudder. If the video and computer game industry doesn't begin to show concern over widespread and flippant depictions of realistic human violence, game publishers will soon be asking players to regularly murder scores of astoundingly realistic virtual people, enjoy it, and defend the practice from critics of the art form. (Actually, they already do, but I digress.) But the industry shouldn't be asking this of its loyal fans and customers. This is not just a financial issue between publishers and their wallets; it's an ethical issue that will increasingly affect our laws, culture, and society on a deep level. But make no mistake: not all violence in video games is bad. After all, I love Doom, and Monolith's Blood (1997) is one of my favorite games. I alone have been responsible for the deaths of countless thousands of residents of the Mushroom Kingdom over the past two decades. Despite this, I am reasonably confident in saying that my violent video game escapades have left no lasting damage on my psyche. Nor do I feel that any violent game play necessarily hurts any of us at this moment. But if things get as realistic as what I've mentioned above, they very well might harm us in the future. My concern centers solely on gratuitous and graphic violence against ultra-realistic virtual humans -- the kind you'll be seeing more and more of in video games over the next decade. Some violence will always be necessary in games that portray the human condition. There are many times when very decent people in our real world have been forced to kill to survive. It would be a disservice for the exquisite and singular art form that is video games to restrict portrayals of violence or human suffering outright. If handled properly and sensitively, violence and even murder can be a powerful political, ethical, or artistic statement. But the use of gratuitous, gory violence against realistic humans as the main point of any game needs reconsideration. We should start rethinking these issues now before we all slide down the slope together and can't pull ourselves back up again. Or, even worse, before governments step in and dictate what can and can't be depicted or simulated in video games via legislation. But then again, if things get as realistic as I'm predicting, there might not be anything we can do about it. A Legal Quagmire All this brings us to the question of what we can do -- or what we'll have to do -- as a society about this fast-approaching issue. If, as I have postulated, certain video games eventually become so realistic that they convincingly mimic reality, then no self-imposed rating system like the ESRB will cure the problem (i.e. It doesn't matter if it's an "adults only" game -- even adults shouldn't murder realistic virtual people). In 2040, the only difference between killing a virtual human and a real one might be whether you're linked to a computer when you do it. And the virtual humans you kill might very well be representations of real people in a massively multiplayer online world like Second Life, leading to all kinds of confusion between what's "real" and not. And we're not even scratching the surface when it comes to AI that could be close to human-level sentience by then. As a result, governments might have no choice but to step in and define a legal ethical limit to virtual killing and simulated suffering, opening up a can of worms that will only be untangled through years of difficult deliberation and hand-wringing. If we come to that, should it be illegal to simulate player imposed suffering of photorealistic humans in video games? If so, where do we draw the line with regards to realism? For example, BioShock is "OK" now, but how much more realistic will the virtual human's appearance and behavior have to get before virtual murder is considered genuinely and irreversibly harmful for the player? Will it matter if it's done "by hand and knife" in a holodeck-style brain-machine interface, or if it's executed through a 10-button game controller? Will it matter if it's a quick death or a slow, drawn-out one? Will it matter if the human-killing enacted by the player fits the legal definition of murder or if it is done in self-defense? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that they won't come easy, especially if the game industry fights back against government regulation. As we grow ever closer to 100% graphical and situational realism in games, hopefully game publishers will decline to encourage the stunningly accurate simulation of gratuitous human suffering. My concern is not that these violent simulations described will happen; they probably will at some point. I'm concerned that we as an audience will continue to consider gratuitous virtual murder a form of mainstream entertainment. The kind of violence I'm describing should be relegated to the bottom, back-corner shelf of any game store -- not by law or punishment, but by consumer demand. Forget the Kids Contemporary opponents of video game violence inevitably mention "the children" and how we need to shield them from evil media like video games. Yes, 100% photorealistic violent video games of the future would have a profound impact on children. But you know what? It's not the kids I'm worried about. It's the adults. After all, reasonable parents can protect their children from exposure to harmful media, as they (ahem) have been doing for decades with movies and TV. But when adults -- the supposedly responsible people of our world -- find it morally acceptable to enjoy the realistic suffering of others as mainstream entertainment, we have a real problem on our hands. Obviously, what makes an acceptable game play experience for each player is a personal choice that should be judged on a person-by-person basis (or on a parent to child basis), and I believe it should stay that way. As for me, I'm already drawing the line at BioShock -- I can barely stomach the game as it is. Sure, I could play it more and desensitize myself, but I don't want to. And that's just me. It's up to you and a million other adult gamers to decide what's best for yourselves and to draw the line on virtual violence where you feel most comfortable. And it's up to the video game industry to recognize exactly where they're taking us, because quite frankly, it isn't looking good. The next time you load up your latest, greatest super-gory shooter, stop and think about what you're doing. If you weren't already steeped in the video game culture of thematic violence that stretches back to the 1970s, would realistic simulations of human murder like BioShock seem acceptable? In case you've forgotten how a non-gamer thinks, show these violent games to your grandparents, or better yet, a WWII veteran. You'll get a better look at the moral compass of people born before the video game generation, and it might make you take a second look at that long, steep slope you're already sliding down. Because, honestly, we don't know how deep it goes. [Benj Edwards is a freelance writer who specializes in video game and computer history articles for publications like PC World, Gamasutra, Ars Technica, and 1UP. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to vintage technology.]

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