Setting the Order of Things

Considering the moral code of sex and violence in video games.

This starts a good while ago, when a good friend had a turn playing the computer game 'Grand Theft Auto' at a friend of ours' house. In the game one assumes the role of a violent criminal, walking around and interacting with the surrounding city, realistically portrayed with cars, people, trees, pets, the whole lot. You can steal the cars, beat up the people, burn the trees, and shoot the pets - indeed this is the whole idea: the game has a loose narrative where challenges and goals always involve a bloody mix of the previously mentioned. Running after and beating up an innocent bystander becomes a comical affair, though it certainly isn't acted out as such on screen. Indeed the vividity of it almost makes it hilarious. You run off to find the next person. A little way in, my friend cheerfully asked 'Wheres the rape button? '

He said it ironically of course, for the reasons we are about to discuss. However the point was lost to all those around us - silence descended momentarily, and resulted in my friend having fend off the outrage of most of the rooms occupants. It certainly struck home the point - that in this context at least, grievous violence can be an enjoyable past time, but rape remains just as disgusting as if it were real.

The reason for this distinction is usually simple: usually in a videogame involving violence some kind of pretext or justification is presented: fighting the Nazi's in 'Call of Duty', avenging ones family in 'Max Payne', saving the world in 'Half Life'. What makes 'Grand Theft Auto' so unique is that absolutely no pretext is offered - the violence is unprovoked and gratuitous, with no flimsy offerings to safeguard moral well-being.

Setting the Order of Things

So, what do we find more despicable - rape, or murder? Clearly this is a complex issue. We can look at the problem in three different contexts, and might come out with different answers. Our first can be a judicial perspective. Now presumably our judicial system, our shared system of justice, is based loosely on a shared moral code, and the punishments for different crimes ordered as such: The man who steals a magazine gets a slap on the wrist, but the man who violently attacks his neighbor is punished severely, locked away to twiddle his thumbs for a set amount of time. This seems about right. How about the man who murders his neighbor, vs. the man who rapes his neighbor? Up until the late 20th century, both were punishable by death in some parts of the US. Today in the UK, there are few circumstances where rape carries as heavy sentence as murder (and thats if rape is actually established - an extremely low prosecution rate raises other alarming questions). So, generally speaking our laws perception is that murder is worse than rape. Whether the general public (context two) would agree with that would I'm sure vary wildly upon who you asked, and an opinion here would be contentious and irrelevant. It seems clear though that a correlation between this human judgement and that of our judicial system is blurry at best. In contrast, compare these two verdicts with context three - what we consider acceptable in a video game - and the issue is suddenly, even obviously clear cut: bloody violence and murder is ok, humorous even - but rape is absolutely not. What isn't as immediately clear is why.

Three game scenarios may help illustrate this. Scenario one can be exactly what we find on a high-street shelf - a war game in the first person, where you as the soldier are armed with and assortment of weapons and blast your way through the narrative until completion. Call of Duty is our real world example. Judging by its success, we can assume this gameplay is acceptable.

Compare this with Scenario Two - your playing a first person emulation such as Call of Duty, and in addition to gunning down innumerable foe, your character then rapes a woman. That realism would instantly become far more real - the accurate graphics, movement, sound... it immediately becomes repulsive.

Juggling the roles in these first two scenarios sheds a little light. Scenario Three - like Scenario One, but with female enemies to shoot and kill instead of men. This one leaves us a little more uneasy than the first. When thinking of Scenario One, most would picture men killing male soldiers, which is indeed the case with Call of Duty. I suppose a story-line could be concocted where an all female military enemy was the target in a role playing game just as Call of Duty, but it would still feel a little...off.

There is an instinctive orderability of how acceptable these scenarios are, and I think this order rests largely on our perception of the victim. Someone might play a bloody video game, even one as chillingly realistic as Call of Duty, and feel morally unattached: the game revolves around shooting and killing nameless faces, however real those faces are becoming as gaming realism accelerates with technology. There's no victim as such here - these graphical entities on screen can be firmly pigeonholed as non-real, something contrived and quite separate from reality, and therefore immune from any moral reckoning. The blood spilling from that near photo-realistic person isn't human blood, its just a collection of pixels, a drawing, an idea. A 'bot' as they are referred to in gaming circles - a dim witted and traditionally poor emulation of life.

Jump to Scenario Two, and things look different. The bots and graphics may be unchanged, but now they act as symbols: instantly we have a real aggressor, men, and true victim, women. This is where I believe the distinction lies - it taps into a social anxiety that people are too uncomfortable with to repackage in the same way they can can with violence. It exposes a vulnerability in women that isn't conducive to how we see things - that men and women are equal. Enjoying a reassertion of male dominance is not permissible - women would have every right to feel personally violated if someone is seen enjoying rape in a videogame. So, why don't men feel violated when seeing violence in a videogame? Two cultural truths spring to mind: Rape is always wrong, and violence is sometimes right. Why this is the case would be the subject of another essay.

Looking forward

What makes this is intriguing is that we are fast approaching the day where video game technology produces such photo-realistic characters and environments that they might become interchangeable with reality. Video game characters - bots - will no longer be stupid entities that walk into walls and run in circles - they are fast becoming complex and dynamic beings, real enough to match the increasingly naturalistic game environment that they inhabit. What then - will teenagers, happily gunning down their digital opponents, suddenly recoil in disgust? I don't think so.

The fact is that we've been exposing ourselves to realistic violence for a good many years already in the form of cinema, and have enjoyed it all immensely. Blood and violence on screen is as life like as the real thing - and we consume it in a huge quantity. Our taste for the gratuitous extends to a recent spate of movies so bloody and violent that they have given rise to a whole new genre, aptly named 'Torture Porn'. Of these the 'Saw' movie franchise (now in its 5th episode) exemplifies the criteria, providing a stunted narrative absolutely bursting at the seams with the most horrifically concocted gore I have ever seem. It seems people are becoming harder to shock, and is this happens, they want it more.

A sombre note to end on! I suppose trust in our human ability to differentiate between what is real and what isn't is crucial here, and most people seem to be able to do it. Do games like Grand Theft Auto condone anti-social behavior? Or are people quite capable of stepping outside of social rules for their enjoyment, and stepping back in again? More questions...

Written by Tom Bates