Violence in Video Games Part 6: Who Am I When I Play?

[originally posted on November 12th 2013]

By Lord Yabo

Like all good writers (or procrastinators), I've saved the toughest for last.  The question of who I am when I play (referred to as Agency) is very important when discussing violence in video games.  And while I haven’t heard anyone in the church use the term, everyone I've met has strong feelings either way.

What is Agency?

I was completely focused on my Playstation 3 when my wife entered the room and collapsed on the couch.  She watched the screen with no interest until a moment when my character received a cell phone call from a woman.  When the call ended, my wife asked:

“Who was that?”

“Oh, my girlfriend.  She wants me to come over and do something.”

“Girlfriend?!  Why do you have a girlfriend?”

“I don’t, but my character does.”

“I don’t want you playing a game where you have a girlfriend.”

Though my wife doesn't know or use the term Agency, you can hear she definitely has a strong opinion on it.

Avatar; Not Just a Movie

Novels are often written in a way that reveals the protagonist’s inner thoughts.  This subtle way of writing allows us to see, feel, and think as if we were the character in the story.  My rational mind knows I am not a 4 foot hobbit named Frodo, but I feel as if I have endlessly climbed those stupid rocks with my good friend Sam.

When the character in a novel makes a choice we disagree with, we may be so invested as to yell out loud “Nooo!” and then quickly read to see what happens.  This is a time where the oneness of the protagonist and ourselves breaks, and we dislike it.  Games are a unique form in entertainment in that they do not have this problem (to the same degree).

In every game there is something to represent the player’s progress in the time and space of the game world.  In monopoly it is the little metal shoe that says whether you are staying at Park Place or Jail.  In gaming lingo this is called your Avatar (or Character).

When we play a game, we blur the lines between Me and the Avatar more than we do with a book.  When we play monopoly, and our little shoe is in jail, we say “I’m in jail” not “my avatar is in jail”.  When we play World of Warcraft PVP and someone shoots lightning at us, we say “Uh! He hit me!” not “Uh! He hit my high poly three dimensional animated avatar” and we may be personally offended and angry.  Our sloppy language reveals our thinking.

The difference between a book and a game is that every move we make in a game we actively, consciously choose.  We may not want to do it, we may be forced by rules, or resources, and have no other options, but we actively choose each action we take.

If this is the case, are we then not responsible for our choices in the game world as we are in the real world?

Not so fast.  We need to explore agency further through Denzel Washington.

Denzel’s Dilemma

I have not personally met Denzel, but as far as I can tell, Denzel Washington is a Christian.  Even if he isn’t, let’s assume for our purposes that he is.

As an actor, the characters Denzel has played do some pretty terrible things.  I’ve heard him swear, hit a woman, shoot people in anger, vandalize property, drink himself stupid, sell drugs, and many other terrible actions.

Now most people will jump to Denzel’s defense and say “Ya, but he was only playing a character.  He wasn’t actually doing those things.”  And I tend to agree, to a point.

Denzel is a married man.  Is it ok for him, as an actor, to kiss another woman?

I just asked my wife, and she said that was fine.

How about Denzel, as an actor, putting his penis in another woman?

My wife says no, that is adultery, and don’t be so crude.

So in acting there is a difference between tongue placement and penis placement.  So when does he stop being the character, not responsible for his actions, and start being Denzel responsible for his actions, when he’s working as an actor?

My wife has no answer.

Kirk Cameron is a Christian, and we can’t get him to shut up about it.  Upon his conversion he made requests of the Growing Pains writers to get more in line with his new Christianity.  For instance, there was a scene where he was supposed to enter his girlfriend’s apartment and he had a key.  He balked at this, saying if he had a key, that implied he slept over, and he didn’t want to play that kind of character nor did he want to model that for America’s youth to see.

I bring up Kirk to show that even professional actors do not agree on where the line of character ends and actor begins.

Analyzing another art form has shown that there is some line, but has not made it clear where it is.  So let’s forget about lines and focus on circles!

The Magic Circle

Johan Huizinga was a Dutch historian and one of the founders of modern cultural history. In his book "Homo Ludens" (1938) he presents the idea of the "magic circle".  It is best encapsulated in its modern context in Zimmerman’s article as "the artificial context of a game... the shared space of play created by its rules."

In the real world, if you kick a ball into a net all it means is a ball went into a net.  But within the context of the magic circle, say the game Soccer, you scored a goal.  The actions taken inside the magic circle have special significance or meaning that they do not outside the circle.

While this is not Huizinga’s intent, the magic circle has come to mean “Don’t hate the player, hate the game”, implying that whatever happens within the circle is off limits to societal norms, morality, and responsibility.  If anyone has ever said “It’s just a game”, they are making an appeal to the magic circle principle.

However, as anyone who has been griefed in an MMO knows (a situation in massively multiplayer games where someone purposefully ruins your play experience because they can and you are powerless to stop them), players can be real jerks inside the magic circle.

So our look at magic circles has resulted in the same conclusion as the line: there is stuff within the context of the game that is OK, but isn’t in the real world.  And performing a game action, like bankrupting a character in monopoly, is not the same as doing it in real life.  But like the actor there are actions you can take in the magic circle that are not ok even though it’s in the circle.

Jesus’ Magic Circle

If exploring bad actions in games is muddied waters, I believe analyzing the good actions will give clarity.

In Matthew 23:37-40 Jesus shares:

‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?

And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?

And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

I have played role playing games where a virtual beggar asks for a small amount of gold.  It is not part of the main story line, it is totally random and up to me whether I want to give the beggar money.  I have, on occasion, given them money.  They say thanks, my money goes down, and they go on their way.

Now when Jesus was saying those words in Matthew 23 was he talking about giving virtual bread to virtual beggars?  Virtually clothing the virtually naked?

The question is not as silly as it first seems.  Those who are very conservative about agency, in that most if not all their actions in a video game really do matter, to be consistent, have to say yes, Jesus actually does care when I give virtual alms.  Those who are liberal in their agency would say no, it makes no difference at all, it’s inside the magic circle.

Taken at face value, if you don’t believe Jesus cares about virtual alms, then I don’t see how you can argue Jesus cares about virtual killing.

Having said that, I want to add three qualifiers.

First, I have played World of Warcraft, and there have been times walking through a big city, like Orgrimmar, where a real player person has begged me for some gold so they could get transport from one city to another.  (I’ve been on the other side of this where I forgot to save cab fare while shopping)  I have given them money.  I do believe this is a real form of charity.  One reason is that it is a real person with a real problem, not a collection of bytes and if statements pre-programmed with a virtual problem.  I’m being generous out of a real sense of empathy.

So if giving to an avatar controlled by a real person in a game can be real sharing, does that mean killing a player avatar controlled by a real person (like Call of Duty multiplayer) sinful?  No, I still don’t think so.  Even though it is a real person on the other end, they have stepped inside the magic circle where it is kill or be killed.  They, by virtue of playing, have already agreed I can kill them.  In a really bizarre twist of the golden rule, I’m not doing anything to them I wouldn't allow done to me.

Second, I do think there are actions you can take in games that are like “soul training”; To practice in game for the real world.

A few years back, I was working on a game design for a Caribbean island business game.  One of the real world issues Caribbean’s have with foreign investment is profiteers that come in, build hotels, rake in all the money, and the local people and economy don’t benefit much.  I wanted the game to have an option for the player to put money towards various philanthropic initiatives, like buildings schools, or hospitals, to help make a difference to the virtual population.  Over time the player could see (visually) the results of their charity.  There was no “game mechanic reason” to do it, like a better educated island led to higher worker productivity, and this was on purpose.  I wanted it to be true charity: giving with no strings attached, no expectation of receiving, no selfish gain (boy, do some of our church members need this lesson).  My reason for putting this in was I didn't want to make a game where the only option was to purely profit off the natural beauty of the island.  I wanted players to practice humanitarian charity with the tiny hope it may rub off in real life.

Thirdly and finally, I think intent is very important when it comes to determining morality of my avatar’s actions.  If I have a sense of “Yippee! I can’t do this in real life, but at least I can indulge in it in the magic circle” the problem is self-evident.

For example, I have never been to a strip club, and I plan never to do so.  If I am really excited that Grand Theft Auto V has strip clubs my avatar can visit virtually, even though it’s in the magic circle and they aren’t real women, I think intent matters here.  I think if my character went to the virtual strip club, Jesus would be disappointed.  Probably because in this case it would bring me one step closer to doing it in real life.  Once again, we encounter soul training.

Wrapping Up

So, can my avatar have a girlfriend?

If my thought pattern is excitement about pretending to have a relationship outside of my wife, then the answer is no.  But if I don’t care, then I think what happens in the magic circle stays in the magic circle.

And this is where I think the answer lies for violence in the magic circle.

I was at a gun range a few weeks back shooting a WWII MP40 submachine gun at a target.  The paper target had a picture of a person in an army uniform on it so I had something to aim at.  I got some good hits and plenty of misses (how they ever hit anything in WWII, I will never know).

Does Jesus care if I hit the paper target person in the head, and by extension, in a video game?

I think the answer can really be this simple: only if I do.