In recent years several times game developers and game players have clashed with the moral majority about the content of some new games. This has lead to the rejection of already-developed games by publishers, to legal action being undertaken against game companies, and to proposals of new legislation in multiple countries. The outcry of gamers against such opposition to their chosen form of entertainment is usually clamoring for absolute freedom for game developers in creating games. And while I personally think that such freedom is a good thing, I wonder whether most game developers realize the amount of responsibility that freedom brings.
The main argument for complete freedom for game developers to create content (after “Freedom of Speech”, of course), is that whatever happens in a game is limited to the game environment. A common counterargument is that unethical situations in a game might lead to people having fewer reservations to behave unethically in the real word. In the past often the behavior of extremely violent people was linked to them playing violent video games in their spare time. However, in my view the assumption that they became violent because of these games is overly simplistic and probably outright erroneous. The fact that violent games are played by millions of otherwise mild people shows that it is far more likely that these criminals were violent before they ever laid a hand on a game.
Regardless, we know that a person’s behavior is influenced by any and all of his or her experiences, which means that games do have an influence — and a pretty strong one too, as they are highly engaging and a lot of time is invested into playing them. I am not saying that in-game killing leads to real-world killing. In-game killing is such an explicitly vile action that it does not translate into real-life actions. No player will think for one moment that killing someone in real life is even remotely similar to shooting down a bunch of pixels in a game. So there is a negligible influence on the player of the ability to perform such clear and explicit unethical actions in a game. However, there is much danger of hidden influences in the undercurrents of a game: the political structure of the game world, the selection of deeds that are glorified, the choices that a player is allowed to make.
For example, the common image that scientists are people to be mistrusted because they place their experiments above public safety has been fed to the world by Hollywood movies, and is now such a stereotype that it has permeated games too — the Half-Life, Deus Ex, and Fallout games are all recent examples of highly popular (and otherwise good) games which are populated with “crazy scientists.” Even the mages of the Elder Scrolls games reinforce the dangerous stereotype of bookworms that toy with forces of nature that should be left alone. I challenge the reader to think of a game in which the most prominently featured NPC scientist is NOT a crazy megalomaniac. This stands in high contrast with the glorified stereotype of the wise and revered sage, who provides the player with insight and important assistance, using spiritual guidance received from religion or nature. We now live in a world where multitudes spend their life savings on faith healers and charlatans instead of getting effective medical treatments for their ailments. I would not be surprised if this misguided behavior is somehow linked to the reinforcement of the stereotype of evil scientists in modern media.
From the perspective of game developers, stereotypes are an easy way to tell a story. They do not need any exposition: a scientist in his laboratory filled with big glass cylinders that contain glowing green goo is at worst a main enemy and at best a muddling, dangerous fool. Whatever he is, he should not be trusted. And if you hit or shoot him — well, he had that coming. On the other hand, hitting an old man who is sitting in front of a straw hut is clearly not the right thing to do. So, hitting a scientist is more acceptable than hitting an old man? If games are to be believed, certainly.
I think game developers should, in general, be more concerned with the message their games bring than they are today. They should be fully aware that the glasses through which game players see the real world get colored by their game experiences. There are a few games that try to depict an environment that is not black and white, and not filled with a plethora of cliches. But most of them still end up as cheap SF and Fantasy rip-offs in which politicians and scientists are constructing evil plans to destroy the world with a doomsday device, old men are spiritual guides with a deep insights in the future of nature and the world, opponent forces make Nazis seem like the Salvation Army, stealing from the rich is extolled, all women are between the ages of 18 and 30 and are oblivious to the fact that their skimpy outfits are designed to show off their copious and gravity-defying natural assets, and rebels righteously refuse to lower themselves to the methods used by their oppressors. Because most of the people on the development team want to remake Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings and either don’t know any better or have unshakable beliefs about what will sell.
And don’t tell me that many games do not have a message. Most of them do, even if it is not intentional. For games to grow as an art form, it is necessary that game developers realize this.