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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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On Crime in Video Games

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Phil Hartup's latest post for the New Statesman offers a review of some recent heist games, such as Payday 2. In passing, he makes a comment which I want to interrogate more deeply in this post.

"Theft," he observes, "occupies a curious place in the moral pantheon of video games in that it isn’t really considered wrong to steal in most games." As he points out, most game worlds have been set up for the player's disposal, and very few offer penalties for thieving or taking objects, coins, food, and other ephemera from chests, cupboards, the floor, or wherever else loot happens handily to be lying around. Hartup points to an important and interesting structural principle that underpins most games (with the possible exception of puzzlers, strategy games, and simulations).

Take something seemingly innocuous, like Super Mario. Super Mario presents a world in which objects are favourably placed for our exploitation. Hit your head on a box, and whatever comes out is rightfully yours. Spot a magic mushroom, and you can gobble it up. Find a coin, put money in thy purse. In the real world, we would not presume if we came across at £10 note that the money was automatically ours. Yet in the game world,  the innate presumption is that anything that is out there in the world is in the commons, ripe for public consumption - the public in this case being a public of one, me as the player. Indeed, this presumption is coded very deeply by the fact that without taking, most games would be impossible. Extra lives, health packs, coins, or other icons offer an internal "currency" which we must then "spend" at key points to progress.

Of course, some stuff in the game world is not in the commons, but owned by enemies, who drop it when killed. Here too the presumption is that anything that attacks us is at our disposal. We can defeat it and, having defeated it, take all its worldly goods. It is a behaviour that is so unconscious and instinctive that it almost goes without saying, yet it is actually interestingly different to our unconsciously coded behaviour in the real world. If we are attacked or threatened on the street, we presume our right to defend ourselves with reasonable force. But we do not presume that we then have the right to take whatever possessions that individual owned, even if the reason for the original confrontation was to try to thieve from us. An eye for an eye applies in an absolute ratio in the game world, but not in our own. Thus behaviours in the game world are licensed as normal - indeed, are essential to success - that would be considered abnormal or antisocial in our reality. Hartup is right, then, to note that crime and immorality are at the heart of the gaming mechanic.

On the other hand, as they become more narratively complex many games have begun to draw our attention reflectively to this problem, and to make themselves more correspondent to our real-life moral codes. As Hartup notes, in role playing games such as Fallout 3 or Mass Effect, a karma penalty is applied when players steal. This affects, often with quite serious consequences, the way non-playing characters behave towards the player; for example, shopkeepers may refuse to sell essential goods to a past thief.

Sandbox games, too, typically have some sort of mechanic for crime. In Skyrim one can be locked up for stealing. Such mechanisms are, indeed, often imperative in sandbox games, which in principle allow a player free reign - but which must in practice constrain or nudge the player down certain pathways. For example, picking the lock of a particularly dangerous castle might give the player early-game access to high-level loot that would make playing the later game an unbalanced and dully easy affair. Thus the consequences of picking that lock may be that a particularly large number of guards will come running and almost certainly arrest the player, or mete out summary justice by killing them.

Here, though, there is something of a paradox that again distinguishes the structure of game morality from that of the real world. To be pursued by the law in reality is to undergo something subversive and problematic: we run because we have done something that we know is wrong, we live in fear of the consequences if we are caught for our past misdemeanours. Though I have never been worried by the law myself, I presume it is not on the whole a pleasant experience (though for some, joyriders for example, it may be exhilarating).

Yet even in a game world which has systems of justice, these systems are not entirely punitive. For in the game world, running from the law often entails fighting, evading, navigating mazes - exactly the same mechanisms that are involved in abiding by the (game) law in order to complete a quest or pass a level populated by enemies. Being punished by the law thus facilitates player behaviours and thrills that are on a par with the processes and aims of play that are considered normal and "good." Whether being good or bad, the net experience is very similarly rewarding.

Hartup is right, therefore, to wonder, "if thievery is par for the course in gaming where does that leave the heist game?" The troubling answer is: not much different from a moral point of view. Many critics have seen the likes of Grand Theft Auto, in which breaking the law is key to the game, enjoyable and rewarded accordingly, as worrisome because it seems to present antisocial and immoral behaviours as acceptable. Players then carry these behaviours over into the real world. However, on a deeper, structural reading of games we can see all games as rewarding crime - something that presents a much bleaker picture. Breaking the law and evading the justice of the good guys, and abiding by the law and meting out justice to the bad guys, are two sides of the same coin. They both satisfy our itchy trigger fingers.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:09 pm

4 Comments:

Blogger Alistair Brown said...

@charlespalmer provided the following reply to this post via Twitter:

@LevelTwoRogue @alibrown18 I've got to say you guys seem to be barking up the wrong tree. For a start defining find things and picking them up as theft depends on context to a large degree. There has to be an owner for a start. Do the ghosts in Pac-Man actually own or even care about the dots? If not then how can Pac-Man collecting them actually be theft? Similarly coins in Mario or rings in Sonic. Alastair picks up on that here with reference to the real world:

"In the real world, we would not presume if we came across at £10 note that the money was automatically ours"

That really depends on where you came across that note. In someone elses wallet? On the street? Down the back of your couch after a party? Down the back of your couch without having visitors in months? Even finding a tenner in the street it's far from clear what the morally acceptable options are given the sheer unlikeliness of coming across the person who dropped it.

Some games do provide a context and if the game rules were translated to reality we would be trespassing at will and stealing with abandon without the threat of punishment. However the games rules explicitly allow this behaviour. It's essentially morally permissible in the game and players can experience culture shock due to that. Whilst players often take on the mantle of a character in a world we are still essentially visitors in a foreign environment and to extent culture. Similar to reading Iain Banks Culture series or much more explicitly sharing the culture shock of William Mandella as he jumps through time in The Forever War. Quite a lot of the time we really enjoy this dissonance as it is without real consequence.

Then we have situations in real life where a moral imperative to act allows us to do things we would consider morally taboo otherwise. The ends justify the means. It's permissible to ransack the countryside in order to rescue Princess Peach as it serves a greater moral cause. On a more human scale we would probably consider it permissible to invade the privacy of a teen in order to find them if that teen went missing. Or stealing food from supermarket bins in order to avoid starving to death.

7:44 am  
Blogger Alistair Brown said...

@charlespalmer provided the following reply to this post via Twitter:

My real problem with with Alastair's last paragraph:

"Hartup is right, therefore, to wonder, "if thievery is par for the course in gaming where does that leave the heist game?" The troubling answer is: not much different from a moral point of view. Many critics have seen the likes of Grand Theft Auto, in which breaking the law is key to the game, enjoyable and rewarded accordingly, as worrisome because it seems to present antisocial and immoral behaviours as acceptable. Players then carry these behaviours over into the real world. However, on a deeper, structural reading of games we can see all games as rewarding crime - something that presents a much bleaker picture. Breaking the law and evading the justice of the good guys, and abiding by the law and meting out justice to the bad guys, are two sides of the same coin. They both satisfy our itchy trigger fingers."

This basically attempts to apply our morality to that of the videogame with the explicit threat that the videogame really does have consequences in the real world in reducing moral behaviour. However I don't think it's warranted. That many critics say something does not make it true and I don't think the idea that all games reward crime isn't defended sufficiently. It's quite possible to imagine a game set within the confines of the players own possessions for example. Gone Home is I think (having not played it to completion) a good example. Rather more worryingly there is an implicit suggestion that if videogames do have negative effects to morality in the real world perhaps something should be done. Mary Whitehouse time!

All I can end up noting in the end is that morality in a lot of videogames is different to morality in our society. Is that a bad thing? In my opinion it's without demonstrable consequence so no, it's not and in fact can be used as a teaching tool. I'm far more worried about the different moral codes that exists in the real world with their real consequences for people.

7:44 am  
Blogger Alistair Brown said...

In defence of my first observation about the availability of objects in game worlds being different to that in the real world, I think it's important to note that I didn't say that in the case of Mario collecting coins, mushrooms etc. this particular example constitutes theft. What I am getting at is that we presume an a priori right to take these objects without first considering possible issues of ownership, whereas in the real world questions of ownership are embedded deeply in our moral unconscious (certainly in a capitalist society, perhaps less so in more socialist or "primitive" societies where the notion of the "commons" still prevails).

You note, rightly, that whether we feel compunction about taking a £10 note in the real world would depend upon the context. But your list of questions exactly proves my point. In the real world we DO think about these things, run through those sorts of questions. It might or might not be theft depending on, for example, if we found it down the back of the sofa. But in the game world we DO NOT think about these things. We just presume that the game world is available for us as a kind of play room, with objects being ours for the taking.

Similarly, when it comes to taking loot from enemies. I'm not saying that it is morally wrong to do that in the game context. However, the point is that we presume it is perfectly acceptable to take whatever a defeated enemy drops, whereas in the real world we might or might not loot someone - but either way we would pause to think about the consequences before doing so.

It is the fact that games code for automatic presumptions of ownership rights which I'm interested in - not whether it ultimately is right or wrong for us to take things in the game world. Of course, as you say, games usually do frame it as right, because "the ends justify the means." Situating the player as hero, game worlds conceptualise a situation where the player-hero is licensed to do things without feelings of guilt (when killing an unambiguously bad guy) or anxiety (when weighing up whether or not that object belongs to me or someone else). These are feelings and pressures that guide us in the real world, from which we are thrillingly freed in the game context. (Interestingly, more narratively complex games such as Bioshock or Mass Effect complicate this, by lending consequences to our moral actions.)

7:45 am  
Blogger Alistair Brown said...

So then to my last comment, which I'll admit was perhaps a bit more controversial than is legitimate on the basis of the evidence. There is certainly a great deal of unjustified media hyperbole (and hyperbole from people who should know better, such as Susan Greenfield) which laments the fact that games are creating deviant young minds. However, most of the peer-reviewed evidence (including extensive meta-studies) seems to show that there is little effect from gaming into real-world moral behaviour. If the media's view were true, indeed, then with several million GTA players around the world, one would expect to have seen a peak in car and gun crime - which is clearly not the case.

Nevertheless, flip the issue around. Given that games are so prevalent, and given that (as you seem to agree by the end of your reply) "morality in a lot of videogames is different to morality in our society," it is pretty inconceivable that there is NO effect at all on players - even if it's not simply that players will go out and rob people in the street. Just because the consequences are hard to demonstrate does not mean they cannot be there. Indeed, you seem to admit as much when you suggest, quite rightly, that games can be a good teaching tool. One can't have it both ways. If it is the case that games can inculcate prosocial behaviour, then such didactic effects must be able to run the other way as well.

Quite how deeply they run and in what ways is the point my post aimed to provoke. I still stand by the fact that games do tend to present a different moral framework to our own world because they implicitly code that we can presume that a) we are the hero and that b) as hero anything in the world is available for our taking or exploitation. Exactly what the effect of this is, I'm not sure - so I'll backtrack somewhat on my apparent Mary Whitehouse moment, whilst standing firm that there is a difference between much game world and real world moral coding, and that this difference must spill over into life.

7:45 am  

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