When We Bring The Bad Guys Home

Video games have a controversial reputation for encouraging crime and violence, and “glamourising” behaviour that just wouldn’t be tolerated in a civilised society. Vocal activists on both side of the debate argue about the relative benefits and drawbacks of video games that seem to be getting more and more graphic in their depiction of the darker side of human nature.

It’s good to be bad… right?

Today, video games can be played on almost every tech device known to man. Even the device we euphemistically call a telephone comes loaded with games ranging from simple to very complex indeed.

And in many of them, the “hero” is a bad guy.

A quick Google search along the lines of “video games with bad guy protagonist” delivers more than a million results, showing just how popular this genre is. Examples include the Spec Ops series, Mortal Kombat, Warcraft, Starcraft, God of War, and Tie Fighter.

An obvious candidate for this list is Grand Theft Auto (GTA), where crime is glorified in a massacre-ridden spree of destruction and violence. There’s actually a theory online that GTA was originally designed to offer players the choice to be either a criminal or a cop… but the criminal element in the game was so popular with players, that the law enforcement scenario was quickly dropped from development.

Controversial role-playing game (RPG) Saint’s Row sees the player start off as a prisoner who breaks out of jail. The player then has to steal and murder to get back into the gang.

A game series whose very name makes no bones about the role a player takes, Thief is a described by Wikipedia as a series of stealth video games in which the player takes the role of Garrett, a master thief in a fantasy/steampunk world resembling a cross between the Late Middle Ages and the Victorian era, with more advanced technologies interspersed.

More and more, game developers and editors are offering players the role of thief rather than cop in the narrative. In these games, players get to practise the craft that goes into skilled theft. Realistic scenarios expose these players to the kinds of things that could go wrong during a burglary or robbery. What’s more, theses games create a consequence-free environment in which to experiment with a range of approaches until one works.

The robbery is a success. And players hone the art of thievery.

The choice is yours

Often, the choice to be either good or evil is left up to the player, with complex storylines having been created for each path. However, the nuanced and intricate storylines and wider range of expression can make for more interesting game play from the perspective of the antagonist.

What’s more, many games include a route in which the player is generally a good person, but sometimes has to make hard decisions that could potentially including the wholesale destruction of sleeping villages for the greater good. Hypothetically.

By making these kinds bad choices normal and even understandable through the weaving of complex character arcs it’s true that savvy game developers are offering players a more balanced view of the challenges their characters could face in those actual situations. However, this approach also has the potential to reduce the shock factor of actual criminal activity, normalising it to some extent into mainstream society.

Do good choices come naturally?

With this in mind, developers of new games are creating virtual worlds that offer players the chance to be a law enforcement officer. A good example of this is the game All Points Bulletin (APB), which is growing in popularity.

Even then, though, the character is nuanced and his motives are layered with human motivations. This means he can still perpetrate acts that, at best, fall into a grey area when it comes to classifying them as either good or evil. (More on this here.)

Another good example of this is the Max Payne series, starring a revenge-bent DEA agent on a spree to inflict his version of vigilante justice. The main character of La Noire is a troubled detective who wants good to triumph, but his means don’t always fall within the bounds of the law. Driver’s protagonist is an undercover police officer who spends most of the time trying so hard to blend in with his underworld fellows that it is difficult to distinguish his actions from actual crime.

It seems, though, that in the face of public backlash to growing criminality, game developers are changing tack. Games like Crack Down and Swat are more obvious candidates for straightforward cops-and-robbers gameplay where the player is the good guy and the baddies get what’s coming to them.

Sadly, this genre isn’t always as popular with the players. The Crime series focused on different kinds of crime, with the player trying to prevent or solve each case. It was scrapped by the third season as it just wasn’t popular enough to justify its existence.

Do video games really make society more violent?

The debate surrounding the role of video games in societal violence rages on. Proponents contend that regular exposure to violence and crime dulls one’s sense of shock at these kinds of behaviour, making it more acceptable in real life.

Psychology Today reported a study showing that video games lower players’ level of self control. The outcome of the study is sobering:

“Results showed that teens who played a violent game cheated more than did those who played a nonviolent game—over 8 times more.” 

In the study, teens were divided into groups. One played violent games, while the other played strategic or constructive games. After playing the games for a short period of time, each group’s relative moral judgment was assessed. The group that played violent games such as Grand Theft Auto experienced a noticeable shift in values compared to the group that did not:

“Compared to the illegal things people do, taking some things from a store without paying for them is not very serious”

While the games that promote antisocial or violent behaviour are often marked with an age-restriction, few parents enforce these boundaries – or even realise that they exist. Often video games are seen as being harmless fun.

On the other hand, opponents point out that massacres on the scale of the Spartans vs the Greeks, the World Wars, and pretty much every atrocity known to man in the millennia before the late 1950s happened without any virtual intervention or PC game assistance of any kind. It seems that we as a society get on with criminality just fine by ourselves. We don’t need a device to show us how it’s done. These advocates tend to share Aristotle’s view that watching violence, crime, and tragedy creates a sense of catharsis that frees the watcher from any need to act on his or her darker tendencies in real life.

Most likely, the truth lies somewhere between. Video games may not be to blame for the alarming increase we’re seeing in break-ins and home invasions. Yet there certainly is an increase in these kinds of crime. Games that glamourise theft and murder don’t instantly turn every person who plays them into a violent criminal. But they do reduce levels of empathy and a clear understanding of right and wrong.

Players become potential perpetrators as their senses are dulled by repeated exposure to morally ambiguous or downright antisocial scenarios. What sets this new breed of potential miscreants apart is that they are motivated to steal not just because they need the money or the item they’re stealing. They steal because of the visceral thrill that they now feel entitled to, and can no longer get via a game. They become inured to the idea theft as a bad thing, and see only the fun of the conquest.

That’s why it is more important than ever to be prepared. You need to know that your safety is never more than the press of a button away.

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