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  • Sydney Baty

On the Great Video Game Debate and Situational Ethics

A screenshot of Borderlands 3

**some of the content within this piece contains discussion of violence within the context of video games.

Today’s scapegoat for the vices of society is video games. Surprisingly, this is not the first time that nerdom has been framed as nefarious.

In 1979, a bright young boy named James Dallas Egbert III went missing. Unknown to those in his life, he left his promising university career to hide out in Louisiana, where he attempted suicide. When that didn’t work, he returned home to chaos. In his absence, a private detective hired by his parents had concluded that Egbert had gotten lost in the steam tunnels beneath his university while live-action roleplaying his Dungeons & Dragons character. While Egbert was having his depressive episode, his parents had painted his hobby as a death trap filled with demons (Ewalt).

Dungeons and Dragons had recently become mainstream when Egbert’s case took the news by storm. The roleplaying game found itself in the midst of several cases over the next decade, including the suicide case of Irving Lee Pulling. Despite those in his life who claimed he had other issues that led to his suicide, Pulling’s mother, Patricia Pulling, was so convinced that her son’s Dungeons & Dragons habit was the cause that she founded Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD). The one-person activist group was among several religiously-based movements against the roleplaying game.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Pulling’s anti-Dungeons & Dragons rhetoric mirrors much of what we hear today regarding video games. In a booklet published by BADD, various quotes are juxtaposed to show just how dangerous D&D is. BADD is largely concerned about the irreligious symbols of the game, saying, “we cannot afford to overlook a ‘game’ that teaches witchcraft, Satan worship and a cult-like religion not to mention specific suicide phrases.” D&D is not a “healthy release for suppressed hostilities” and suggests teens learn to use “situational ethics” or else, “their traditional values are erroded [sic].”

For those following the video game debate, these are not unfamiliar arguments. While the issue has become on the surface more detached from religion, the ideas of “situational ethics” and “suppressed hostilities” are also present when discussing violence-based video games.

An equivalent group to BADD is the Parents Television Council (PTC). In their bid to protect children from violent media, video games receive their own page on their website. The PTC criticizes video games that allow “children [to] ‘role-play’ as murders, cop-killers, gang members, auto thiefs [sic] or any number of human-like characters carrying out mind-altering tasks with realistic graphics.” The PTC criticizes these games that “reward killing and encourage violent criminal conduct.” The page cites “scientific proof” for “irrevocable damage when children play violent video games.”

In the 1980s, the overwhelming fear for BADD was suicide. In the 2010s, the fear is that parents are raising future mass-murderers.

What is it about participatory games that creates such a fear?

On one hand, perhaps it is a paranoia stemming from not being in on the game. It can be jarring to see someone engrossed in some complicated conversation. Whether it is a D&D group talking animatedly about the components necessary for the spell Unseen Servant or fourteen-year-olds rapidly telling their teammates the location of enemies in Counter-Strike Global Offensive, these games come with a vocabulary and understanding completely of their own. It can almost seem like a cult for those who don’t have that same understanding.

Another fear could be of that idea of “situational ethics.” BADD and the PTC both describe fears that children no longer have traditional ethics ingrained in them. In both video games and D&D, killing other creatures or people is often a requirement for proceeding, and it is often rewarded in experience points or in-game items. Players can be congratulated by their peers for killing something or someone in a novel way. Parents fear that children will approach killing in real life in the same way.

It is interesting that so much of gaming culture contains violence of some sort. Even “peaceful” games like Stardew Valley, a farming role-playing video game, does allow the player to battle fantasy creatures. Interactions in games almost always mirror interactions that we humans can perform; there is talking, picking items up, performing set tasks. Arguably games, both role-playing and video, feature such heavy emphasis on combat because they evolved from fantasy and science fiction roots (though the discussion of why combat is so prevalent in these genres is another conversation). Combat provides a striking way of interacting with the game world (pardon the pun).

A parent who happens upon their child shooting civilians in Grand Theft Auto probably has a right to be concerned. Games perhaps have a normalizing influence, since repetition is almost always involved in gaming. Dungeons & Dragons players must fight to gain experience in order to level up, and leveling up requires killing many things. (There are other ways to gain experience, depending on the game master running the game, but this often requires or assumes combat). To proceed in any of the Borderlands games, player must kill hundreds of bandits.

Normalizing efforts can only go so far, however. Eventually, the gaming community pushes back. For instance, a game developer planned on releasing a visual novel centering around raping women during a zombie apocalypse titled Rape Day. The game garnered so much bad press that Steam, the online marketplace set to sell the game, was pressed into responding. Steam approaches game content in a rather laissez-faire manner. Anything is allowed as long as it is not illegal or a deliberate attempt to “troll” anyone. At first, Steam refused to interfere, claiming that if they banned this game for rape, they would then have no excuse to keep up games that contained murder and torture. “Most people can separate fiction from reality pretty well, and those that can’t shouldn’t be playing video games,” Steam wrote in a press release. However, pressure to remove the game only grew, and eventually Steam removed it, citing “unknown costs and risks” (Hernandez).

While game sellers apparently trust their audiences to separate fictional action from real-world action, parents seem not so sure. The issue lies in the different between the real and the virtual world.

Where does a sense of morality take hold? What is the ethical value of actions performed in a virtual world filled with only signifiers and no signifieds? Where is the line?

Cheating on your significant other in The Witcher?

Stealing from peasants in Skyrim?

Killing enemy soldiers in a Dungeons & Dragons game?

Performing brutal killing moves in Mortal Kombat?

Torturing characters in the Saw video game?

Participating in an airport shooting in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2?

Hopefully, some of these do not sit well, but the issue remains that none of these virtual actions (or in-game actions in Dungeons & Dragons) are “real” crimes. Still, some certainly don’t feel moral. While the Satanic Panic surrounding D&D and the certainty that video games promotes sociopathic tendencies aren’t supported by fact, there is certainly still a question there of just how real virtual actions are.

Works Not Otherwise Linked

Ewalt, David M. Of Dice and Men. Scribner, 2013.

Gearbox. Media; Screenshots., 2019,

#videogames #roleplaying #ethics #morality #gaming

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