For Christmas, my partner bought me a PS4 game, the hotly anticipated Red Dead II: Redemption. I am not really a gamer – I mean, I could be, if I had much more time at my disposal – I have it in me to be one. These days, I use so much of my time to write and whatnot. However, I have enjoyed spending some evenings getting into it. It has taken on aspects of story-telling gameplay, such as with Telltale Games (or with the incredible Life Is Strange) – these are like your “choose your own adventure books” that some of you might have once read or “played”. In the game, you get to choose from options of what your character does or says. The graphics are super-realistic and you get a real sense you are living and breathing the Wild West.
So why the hell am I talking about this here? Well, here’s for why.
I was also playing, over the Christmas break, some simple strategy games with my kids, like Guns Up. This is a video game whereby you set up your base with different articles of warfare to defend it from attack, and you go and attack other bases. In so doing, you blow up a few hundred people, firebomb bunkers and generally “do war”.
And you feel nothing, psychologically speaking, other than the drug-like hit of game addiction. You happily blow up these miniature soldiers, these reflections and replications of human beings.
Now forward wind a few days and I am playing Red Dead II and I’m in a barn in the snowy West. Our gang has captured a rival gang member, and I have him up against the wall. Smack! We have a punch-up, and I beat him into submission. I have him by the scruff, on the floor, and the game gives me the option to punch him. I do. It’s a full on punch to the face. I do it again. It gives me the option to continue doing so, and to kill him, or to let him go. I let him go.
For any of you who have watched Westworld, you can probably see where this is going.
I find myself acting morally. I treat this as a truly moral situation that sees my character as a moral agent.
Of course, the character is a reflection of me. So, really, I see myself as a moral agent.
But what I am doing arguably has no real-world ramifications. No one can see me and no one would know if I continued to viscerally punch this computer-animated character in the face until he died. Just as in Westworld, where you can go to an AI theme park and commit whatever actions you want (that on people in the “real world” would be crimes and morally abhorrent), you can do so in this game. Indeed, contextually and morally, the game is a version of Westworld. So, are such actions moral or not, such computer-constructed animated choices?
The gameplay hijacked my psychology so that the animated pixels of my character punching another character brought up emotions akin to me punching another human.
The ramifications of all this might well be invisible and without any consequence to the rest of the world, but they have internal consequences that affect my sense of self, my sense of my moral self. These actions that I commit on the big screen in my lounge, animated superbly to closely mimic real life, are part of feedback loop that gives me a sense of who I am that I take into the real world as I properly interact with other humans. Does my humanity inform my gameplay or does my gameplay inform my humanity?
In one game, I was destroying hundreds of “humans” willingly and was excited as I could build up my capacity to extend my damage. Whoopee! In the other game, I was struggling to punch someone in the face. It made me feel pretty awful.
With the ability to dial directly into our psychology now, we are blurring the lines between reality and virtual life, so that one that so closely replicates the other seems to become the other. Need we be careful about how we play these games?
As Friedrich Nietzche once said: He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
So, what did I choose to do? Well, I’m a liberal leftie, right?
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