The moral cost of video games

Violence is bad enough. But here's the worst part.

In the controversial new video game "Manhunt 2," you're required to sneak up behind innocent victims, hit them over the head with a garden spade and then use that same weapon to decapitate, them. The whole thing is pretty graphic, because the game has, well, pretty graphics. As blood gushes, you're supposed to feel satisfied that you're ready for the next challenge.

To some, this scenario captures everything wrong about video games. "They're too violent," detractors say. "And they glamorize violence. Children might be tempted to copy them." While this is an understandable concern, it misses more obvious problems with many video games today: primarily, an utter lack of moral consequence.

Countless studies have tested the alleged links between virtual violence and its real counterpart. Conclusions vary, but I certainly don't need a panel of academics to explain to me that the teen across the street isn't going to attack me with a garden spade.

Still, if you're a parent, the sheer intensity of violence in many games today ought to be a valid concern. You wouldn't let your children view online pornography, so why let them decapitate people in a video game?

Yet many parents buy their children games rated inappropriate for anyone under 17. Why? Perhaps it's a hangover attitude from the "Pac-Man" past, when all video games were presumed to be harmless fun. Or maybe they just want their kids to think they're cool. Whatever the reason, there's clearly a disconnect between the level of parental angst and parental tolerance.

One of many dubious arguments against violence in video games is that children find it hard to distinguish between "real" and "virtual" situations.

If that's true, is CNN not a more pernicious peddler of unsavory material for kids? When kids turn on the TV and see footage of soldiers shooting each other for real, is there any substantial difference between that and playing a first-person shooter game?

Years ago, after the tragic shootings in Columbine, the news media were quick to lay blame at the game industry's door. Could they not as easily have turned that criticism on themselves?

What's surprising about the media's obsession with violence in games is that it overlooks more serious lapses in values. By concentrating on the bloodthirsty and dramatic, they're ignoring influences that are much more harmful to children long term.

Take, for instance, the idea of ruthless competition, that for every winner there are necessarily losers. Regardless of what game you're playing, the message is almost always the same: Do whatever it takes to win, even at the expense of everyone else.

Imagine if that were the moral of every movie and TV show you ever watched. Would the world be a better or worse place? Would you let your children play a game that promoted such a dog-eat-dog mentality?

Fundamentally, most games operate within a moral framework: good versus evil (or vice versa). But what games conspicuously lack is moral consequence. Once you've killed someone, stolen something, or blown up a building, that's usually the end of it – you'll rarely get to see the emotional impact of your actions on the characters around you.

Every bit of mayhem becomes just another item on a video-game to-do list. Games ignore moral consequence and emotional nuance to focus on the purely visceral. There are only two types of decisions you can really make: the strategically correct one or the strategically incorrect one. There is no "right" or "wrong" – only success or failure.

Unbridled competition combined with no moral consequence eventually leads to a lack of compassion. And without compassion, humanity is lost.

What games risk instilling, not just in kids, but in anyone who plays them, is a kind of sociopathy: a dearth of conscience. Whether this might be imitated outside of gaming is beside the point. What we should be asking ourselves is if we really want to spend ever more time playing things that encourage these values. That's a moral question, one that's easily sidelined in favor of simply having fun, but it's something we all must consider as the pastime grows more popular.

I'm not calling for stricter regulation of the video-game industry. Rather, I hope to widen the debate to include issues that might not be considered if we believe the sensational, trivial hysteria of the media. By concentrating so heavily on the immediate (and short-term) effects of video-game violence, we're distracted from discussing more important moral dimensions. It's time for parents to stop asking what is appropriate for their children and to start asking what is morally right.

Matthew Devereux writes about the video-game industry and is a former staff writer of Edge magazine.

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