More than mindless fun and death

As with any other medium, violent video games require critical thinking to navigate their worlds

November 5, 2014 | Young Voices
Glenna Schowalter | Special to Young Voices

Video games are fun. They can be seen as an escape from reality, but often provide an opportunity to overcome challenges. Many of them are violent. However, for every violent shoot-’em-up, there exists Goat Simulator or 10 business management games. A wide variety of genres exist for players both young and old.

I find myself playing all sorts of games. I am a big fan of point and click puzzle adventures, which require clever use of objects and environments in order to achieve certain objectives. I also cannot resist a good dungeon-crawler, where I enter medieval times and go underground to find treasure and useful items.

Sometimes the treasure is guarded by some huge monster or a room full of bandits, and I find my character having to chop her way through the guards. That is definitely not a Mennonite response. How can I, as a Mennonite and self-proclaimed pacifist, enjoy leading my avatar to cut out the entrails of a virtual monster?

Yet I do. Is this wrong? If the game provides me with a challenge that requires perseverance and good timing, I’m proud of myself for succeeding. It provides a satisfying feeling of being superior to an enemy designed only to prevent me from achieving my goal.

That said, if I can achieve the same goal without resorting to violence, I will. It’s a little-known fact that several modern games allow the player to choose her own path. Using stealth is a favourite of role-playing games, giving the player the option to sneak past opponents, rather than spill their animated blood. It is an equally effective technique to attaining the objective and allows for quicker progression through the game. Sneaking past a room full of guards can be even more rewarding than single-handedly murdering every last one of them. I appreciate the option to exercise my real-world morality in-game.

Not all games allow for this, unfortunately. However, many games implement repercussions for a player’s actions. Some games, like the Fable franchise, have a sliding “morality” meter, which shows whether the player is being good or evil. It’s a simplistic mechanism and makes for a black and white morality, but at least it encourages the player to think through her actions before making them. Other games, like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, not only allow the player to make choices on how to approach an obstacle, but will yield different results based on those choices.

Often, there is no “right” or “wrong” choice available, challenging the player to choose wisely. If I choose to dethrone the tyrant king or ruthlessly execute a repentant criminal, I have to deal with the consequences of my actions. Rather than glossing over violence or glorifying it, these games force the player to take stock of what violence does. If these games had no violence at all, they would be ignoring the issues they bring to light.

Other games, particularly in the horror-survivor genre, take this notion one step further and prevent the player from engaging in violence, while giving her ample opportunity to suffer from it. Part of what makes games like Silent Hill and Amnesia scary is that the player has no chance to defend herself from the violence of opposing often supernatural forces. The argument could be made that this is gratuitous violence. However, these games force the player to look at repercussions of violence in a personal way with little or no chance at redemption. Grim though it may be, this mechanism allows for serious thought on the experience of being on the receiving end of senseless violence. The result? Terror.

Other games make violence the only means of earning points. A popular franchise called Manhunt features a death-row inmate and requires the player to brutally murder enemy gang members to proceed. Higher points are rewarded for more savage murders, with gory animations to match. Manhunt was banned in several countries for its graphic violence and had to be re-released with censors. I cannot think of a single redeeming quality of such a game. One might argue that the point of video games is to be able to do things one could not or would not do in real life, but that kind of violence makes me sick to my stomach.

Ultimately, it is up to the gamer to make prudent decisions regarding which games she plays. I allow both my sense of morality and my sense of enjoyment to influence which games I spend my time and money on. It is important to be able to differentiate between games that have complex moral choices, games that have violence for violence’s sake, and games that focus on an enjoyable experience without much philosophical thought.

It is fine for a game to be mindless fun. One must be able to take a step back and understand a game for what it is. A critical mind can allow for both enjoyment and learning from video games, even the ones that include violence. They do not have to be completely avoided. Like any other form of media, games offer a wide variety of perspectives on varying issues, as well as new and exciting ways to have fun.

Glenna Schowalter, 20, attends First Mennonite Church, Edmonton.

—Posted Nov. 6, 2014

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