I’m currently visiting my family in Ohio, which means catching up on all the gaming I’ve been too busy for during the last five years. My 12-year-old brother and I have a nice symbiosis going: he has a Windows machine, which meant I could install Skyrim on it, and I have a purchased copy of Skyrim. So we take turns watching each other play.
Last night, while I was adventuring through the Kilkreath Ruins on a quest from the Daedric Prince Meridia, my brother remarked that he found the cave scary–the creepy noises, the unidentified black mist near the ground–and that started off a discussion about the emotional effects of games and how we feel about them.
My brother said that he’s actually glad that the game is making him feel things again. He has previously played it on Xbox (claiming, in fact, that he “beat the game”), but he said that after a while, he stopped feeling bad when people died or feeling scared by the parts that were meant to be scary. But he prefers to feel those things even though they don’t feel good, because otherwise he worries that he’s becoming unempathetic, somehow cruel. This, he said, is why people should be careful about letting little kids play games: you need to make sure they don’t get used to not feeling things.
I hadn’t actually thought of it that way before, though it seems obvious now. I had always been frustrated by how deeply I felt things that happened in games, and how much that actually restricted my gameplay. My ethics as a game character are not very different from my ethics as a real-life person: I don’t steal (unless, hypothetically, it’s vitally important), I don’t fight anyone who doesn’t fight me first, I try to avoid injuring innocent people with splash damage unless it’s totally unavoidable, I try to persuade people rather than bribing or threatening them, and I don’t hunt wild animals (except the ones that attack me).
But despite everything my brother said, we soon discovered that our styles of play are actually quite different (besides the fact that I play slowly and deliberately whereas he tries to get through quests as fast as possible, a difference that he had already remarked upon in frustration many times). After the Meridia quest, I ended up doing another quest in which I was falsely accused of multiple murders and ended up in a prison mine with people who had attempted (and failed) to recapture the city from people they thought were oppressing them. Together with them, we escaped from the mine, since they all turned out to be very capable mages.
Outside the mine, the escaped prisoners were confronted by prison guards. I had planned to fight alongside them, but here my brother started insisting that I kill the prisoners instead. Why? Because they have really good armor, I wouldn’t get a bounty, and I could kill them easily now that I had my own armor and weapons back. I said, “But they already gave me a set of that armor as a gift.” My brother said, “But it’s really expensive and you could make 10,000 gold just from selling all of theirs.” I said, “But I have other ways to get gold.” He said, “But it’s so easy! Just kill them!”
I knew one thing for certain: I had absolutely zero desire to make 10,000 gold by killing these men. At that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do less than to kill them. The idea just felt bad.
And so I told my brother, “Remember how you felt so scared of the cave you asked me to turn the sound down, even though you knew it was irrational? That’s how I feel about killing the men. It would make me feel bad. The point of playing a game is to have fun. That would make it very un-fun for me.”
He immediately stopped trying to convince me to kill the men and never brought it up again.
It’s true, refusing to kill the men was an irrational choice. Within the game, there were no disadvantages to killing them, and one huge advantage to killing them. But outside of the game, the advantage seemed so small–what’s 10,000 gold, really?–and there was also one glaring disadvantage–the fact that I would feel crappy and uncomfortable, partially defeating the entire purpose of playing the game to begin with.
Earlier I might’ve found this frustrating. I thought that I let myself get way too affected by virtual things. I’m the sort of person who would treat even a fairly rudimentary robot as I’d treat a human or a non-human animal.
Now, having had the first conversation with my brother and the subsequent moral dilemma with the prisoners and the guards, I started to think differently about it.
After all, we (I include myself in this) are more likely to think of it as a feature, not a bug, when we experience emotional reactions to things like films and shows and novels. (That, in fact, is what I reminded my little brother when he called me crying after finishing The Little Prince, and again when he called me crying several years later after finishing Flowers for Algernon.) Playful teasing outside, feeling terrified or very sad during movies is pretty standard. Why not in games?
Maybe it’s because we assume that the point of film and literature (as a fan, not a scholar) is to be absorbed into a story. The point of games, some might argue, is more tangible: to shoot stuff, to solve puzzles, to build cool things, to become the best. Stories may matter in games, but they don’t matter the way they matter in films and novels.
And there are definitely games I would play purely for those tangible aspects. I don’t get emotionally invested in the story of my SimCity creations (though maybe some do). I care slightly for the plight of Fez’s Gomez, who has literally had his entire world as he knew it torn to bits, but mostly I’m just there for the cool puzzles.
But with games like Skyrim, I come for the fighting and stay for the interesting narrative, and that generally means starting to feel immersed enough in that world to feel bad when people die needlessly in it. The experience of considering (and strongly rejecting) the idea of killing the escaped prisoners for their valuable armor reminded me of something I think I already knew: that much of ethics, at least for me, is based on automatic emotional responses. Stealing feels bad. Threatening feels worse. Killing needlessly feels even worse.
There must be ethical systems out there that rely on something besides emotion and that still result in minimal harm to other people, but they feel alien to me. In any case, I doubt that those systems would transfer over to virtual worlds. Why bother?
Sometimes I wonder if other people feel that way, and if other people end up playing about the same way that they live (give or take a few magical abilities and badass warhammer techniques, of course). If there are gamers who feel bad when they kill NPCs, I wouldn’t expect them to ever say so, because nobody seems to talk very much about the emotional experience of gaming in general, and because of the hypermasculine culture of it.
But for me–someone who has no interest in participating in or belonging to any sort of “gaming community” and who wouldn’t even take up the label “gamer”–it doesn’t feel like a big deal to say that games make me feel things. Not just general things like excitement or fear, but specific things, like I feel sorry for that man who died even though he’s just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. Or I wish I didn’t have to kill that dragon; it would feel much better if we could just be friends. (That one might be influenced by the fact that I recently saw both How To Train Your Dragon movies and really liked them.)
And now I’ve finally decided that I like it that way. It’s more rich and fun that way, even with the bad feelings too. Like my brother, I like myself better when I feel those things. Embracing that irrationality feels more human to me.