Are videogames a bad influence? I’ve been hearing that question since I was a child. With its adult content and unique participatory element, virtual entertainment has been considered a social threat since its very inception, the discourse over the past four decades centered on the impressionability of its audience and what their direct engagement with the material might mean about their developing sense of morals.
Years later the discussion has stagnated as the industry has all but refused to broach the topic, in fear that moral panic will reignite talks of legislating against the artistic and creative freedom of videogames. But with emerging studies that examine our sense of ethics as manifested in virtual surroundings, it may be that there’s now finally something to talk about. We know whether or not videogames turn us into bad people. We’ve just been afraid to look at the data.
Recently I wrote about The Sims and what the series tells us about player motivations, noting that games are a personal experience for the audience because they are allowed to manifest aspects of their identity, either real or idealized, through their digital avatar. But what does this really mean? What do we do now with this information? How does our concept of self play into the actions we take in a fictional setting?
This past week, an amusing Tumblr post making the rounds on social media brought the topic to my attention again, from user acoolguy.
I love it because it’s not meant to be taken seriously but makes a valid observation about player motivation. One might interpret it as an honest comment on the inherently selfish nature of what motivates a player during gameplay but hidden in there is a nugget of truth: what players do morally is often dependent upon identity (even if the performance of that identity has no audience outside of themselves). Games writers and designers often mischaracterize or misunderstand the priorities of their audience. They’re not so much swayed by the events of a game, so much as they are likely to make a decision based on how those events affect them as a player. One step further, they prioritize how it will affect their self perception in alignment with their personal values, even favoring self expression over advantageous in-game rewards, as in the above dilemma over ugly armor.
Self-centric vs Selfish
Let’s pause for a moment to discuss the difference between selfish and self-centric behavior. All social interactions are at least somewhat selfish in that almost everything we do has the ability to positively or negatively impact other people, and we decide how to behave based on our desire for a self-beneficial outcome (most often, to avoid social conflict, because it’s uncomfortable). However, this is more along the lines of self-centric behavior, where the decision is made in the interest of self but is not inherently malicious. Selfishness, by contrast, is when certain actions are taken despite their negative social impact on other people. It’s a negative form of self interested behavior. How this plays into the fallacy of morality in games narrative is that we need to understand that players are not so much selfish, so much as they’re self-centrically motivated. They are more likely to engage in positive behavior, but more so when it reflects on who they are as a person both in-game and out if it’s “only” on an aesthetic level.
This can help us put into a better context the nature of player’s motivations, in that, instead of framing them as inherently negative and antisocial, we can instead see what shapes those motivations and harness them in a more positive player reward system.
Since virtual environments facilitate a sense of self exploration while providing a platform for self expression, it makes sense that the identity of the player themselves plays strongly into their in-game moral decisions. Morality is pretty complicated. How it is developed and manifested can be descriptive, such as the social rules received from a group or organization like a religion, or it can be normative, as with the social rules that are generally understood by all of a society’s individuals regardless of affiliation. A state of moral engagement, that is, taking into consideration the consequences of our actions and their impact on other people, is known as moral activation. Moral disengagement, a process we use to justify our actions in order to alleviate guilt is its opposite. There is a strong correlation between the positive or negative social actions taken within a game, and whether we, as individual players, lean more towards moral activation, or moral disengagement. Social cognitive theory dictates that people are more or less likely to morally disengage depending on their own aversion to participating in morally questionable behavior.
This means that if you were already a bad person going into a game, you’ll probably be a bad person coming out. It also explains why data shows that gamers who play either the good or bad choice in a videogame experience the same levels of satisfaction. They are playing to their personal moral alignments, supported either by descriptive or normative social rules, or their personal desire to disengage. That alignment is manifested both in real and virtual spaces, and at least one study as shown, our active adherence to that alignment, even in a digital setting, increases our enjoyment.
This does not mean that a game will turn you into a bad person. Rather, games can reinforce a tendency towards negative social behavior by being permissive of it. In one survey-based study it was concluded that, generally, people do not play games to experiment with their morality. Their actions are informed by their personal beliefs, but also guided by the game’s narrative or mechanics. They can easily be swayed in a different direction. That direction, I would argue, can be dictated by reward incentives for self-centric, over selfish, player behavior.
Some games have already learned to modify the player’s behavior in this fashion. For example, in the Fallout series, there’s a karma/reputation system that will affect the player’s ending and what missions and side quests are available to them. The three moral paths, Good, Neutral and Evil, all will offer their own unique scenarios and outcomes depending on how the player acts, although the “Good” path arguably offers the most diverse array of available missions and sidequests to play (a comment, I always felt, on the social advantages of human cooperation). Another example might be Undertale, or Always Sometimes Monsters, although the latter may offer outcomes that are too unpredictable to provide any real incentive for player behavior one way or another, at least until the second playthrough.
The Sims series is also a good example, offering a wide range of social consequences to their virtual worlds and ensuring that for every player action there is an equal reaction; if you cheat, act mean, or neglect your friends, you’ll be feeling the impact from other Sims in many of your interactions. Sometimes the loss of reputation can even negatively impact a Sim’s pursuit of relationships, or lower their overall mood (due to rumors or loss of friends) for several days, in a real-world parallel making it more difficult to manage their basic needs.
Going further, when I play the game with cheats and make maximum use of various obscure buffers, the game completely changes from self-centric (acting in self interest but not to the detriment of others) to selfish. The factors for consideration in exercising restraint are gone, and suddenly everything rich people have ever done, though inexcusable, makes complete sense. My Sim, with unlimited cash and no obligation to work or build a career, acts out some of the worst of human behavior. She spends most of her time decorating, exercising or pursuing celebrity status, then goes on extravagant vacations where she can cheat on her partners away from the prying eyes of locals, only to come home for two days and start all over again. When she gets bored and has nothing to do, she hops over the bar, makes everyone fall in love with and fight over her, then runs home to her butler-girlfriend to get yelled at for cheating. One Love Charm later, the fight is smoothed over, she resumes eating gourmet food and lounging poolside until her Travel Moodlet clears and then she runs off to another country again. Lately she’s even taken to practicing witchcraft so she doesn’t even have to bathe herself. She’s a monster.
However, this, I realize, is the kind of unrestrained hedonism I would indulge in, if the environment were consequence-free and no one ever really got hurt. Some of my Sims’ patterns, especially the romantic ones, mirror some of my worst behavior—the evil shit I no longer do now that adulthood has instilled a sense of empathy. In an absence of boundaries, mischief flourishes. In games, this means that permissiveness in the game’s design itself (or in my case, cheats) becomes an outlet for negative social behavior. But it is easily curtailed when the player is given an even slightly better option, even if its superiority relies on an outlet for self expression over a reward related to the player’s in-game progression. While our personal values play a factor in our satisfaction, how we act in games has more to do with how we view ourselves and our impact in the real world, rather than arbitrary adherence to rules and social order for their own sake.
In the end, the question is rhetorical. Virtual environments are often permissive of anti-social behaviors by not establishing proper reward incentives. As it turns out, for the many players who play both the “good” and “evil” paths in games that allow a character alignment, most don’t identify with the negativity they exhibit in the more socially negative playthrough, and even less profess to enjoy the experience. The data indicates that players are more enticed by an exercise in moral ambiguity than they are acting out their latent anti-social tendencies. It’s not that they want to make a bad choice in a game, it’s that they desire the chance to deliberate and debate over which choice to make. For many, it’s just an experiment, one that loses its appeal when there are consequences, as there are in real life. Indeed, as one researcher, Assistant Professor of Film and Digital Media at Baylor University Daniel M. Schafer, outlines, while past studies on the topic have observed that players will pick up on certain clues in a game’s narrative and subsequently disengage their sense of ethics in order to justify the actions taken therein, they do feel a sense of guilt over certain violent in-game actions, especially if there was no moral justification involved. While we do engage in a moral negotiation that diminishes our culpability in virtual settings, the opportunity to make those decisions holds enormous appeal. This means that while we sometimes act poorly in videogames, we approach and play them as ethical beings. We do not leave our morals at the door when we play videogames, rather, we take them with us when we cross the threshold.
Videogames reinforce, rather than inform, the social patterns that feel familiar and comfortable to us. With this understanding, we can channel player behavior to more effectively steer them towards the experience that reflects our creative perspective.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.