This is a story I’m not sure I should tell.
When we were in the acne-ravaged grip of adolescence, my friend and I would play The Sims. You know, the delightfully pedestrian mundanity simulator, where you create spindly doppelgangers of you and everyone you know to make them play house. As you interfere in the minutiae of their lives, you realise you are not so much a God controlling fabulous beings you have fashioned in your own image as you are a hapless pet-owner, slave to the endless cravings and desires of an impulsive digital pet. Young boys undergoing the hormonal skirmishes of puberty are prone to bore easily and restlessly, so as the appeal of The Sims started to wane we found ourselves pushing the boundaries of what was possible in the game world.
The house-building mode was, and remains to this day, one of the most compelling features of the Sims franchise. It was basically the sort of game mode that people who watch Grand Designs have wet dreams about, letting you construct enormous palatial complexes full of gaudy novelty knick-knacks and luxurious furniture. What my friend and I discovered was that this mode could be exploited to build things around your Sims or remove bits of furniture while they were still in the room. For one Sim, we built an Olympic-size swimming pool in his back garden. In the house it sat beside, we had already built one room large enough to house four pool tables, and there were, at my insistence, hot tubs in every room. That was some of the initial fun of The Sims, creating mansions with a kind of rock ‘n roll excess and filling them with an amount of tacky crap so gratuitous it would make Akon blush.
When our Sim had finished watching TV in the kitchen hot tub, my friend and I directed him to go and take a swim in the pool we had recently furnished him with. He jumped in with a theatrical dive and started leisurely paddling around. My friend and I paused the game as our Sim was midway through his comical backstroke, and changed to the house-building mode. We then removed the two ladders at opposite corners of the swimming pool and unpaused the game. Our Sim, after completing another few laps of the pool, decided he had had enough aquatic whimsy for one day, and tried to get out of the water. Except, without the ladders to climb up on, our Sim was now stranded in the pool. He began garbling sentiments of frustration in his impenetrable language, and eventually started thrashing around in the pool, yelping cries of anguish and fatigue. Not soon after, he gave a final spirited attempt to keep afloat, before the deep finally claimed his weary head.
I’m not sure what that story says about my friend and I, but it can’t be good. I don’t think either he or I have grown into particularly deranged psychopaths, but then again, that story displays the kind of pulling-the-wings-off-insects behaviour that gets people seen to by a specialist. It was somewhat relieving to learn that other people have taken part in similar acts of nihilism whilst playing The Sims, or at least as relieving as it can be to discover that other people are just as mentally disturbed as you. I heard one story of a guy who would seal his Sim into a room by removing the door and then just watch him starve to death.
Does this mean the world is full of covert misanthropes secretly satisfying their blood lust through The Sims? I don’t think it does, but I do see how torturing a character in a game is pretty transgressive. More than anything, I think it necessitates looking at the relationship we have the denizens of game worlds, and how we really respond to them. Some could argue that, indeed, because Sims themselves are purely digital creations, they are not strictly speaking “alive” or “people” at all, and while that doesn’t necessarily make it ok to torture them, you’d be doing it to a collection of pixels and algorithms, not a real person. So it can’t be that bad, right?
The Sims are not people per se, but they have human likeness and behaviours. We should relate to them on some level, surely. Maybe their vaguely anonymous faces and simplified emotional range make them harder to feel compassionate towards because they feel less human. I’m not saying that justifies mistreating them, but perhaps it’s more valuable to consider the psychological processes that allow us to do this in games.
It’s fair to say that, as a gamer, you’re going to spend a lot of time shooting dudes in the face. How you feel about that kind of depends on how you view those virtual “people.” David Wong of Cracked made a salient point when he said that he doesn’t want graphics to get that much better, because he doesn’t want the guys he kills throughout the course of a first person shooter to look too much like actual people. Perhaps we can only kill so many digital bad guys in videogames because we understand, on an implicit level, that they are not real, that none of it is real.
Zealots against violent videogames have a very low opinion of gamers, and often do not concede that we are intelligent enough to distinguish fantasy from reality. People who play Modern Warfare 3 are not satiating a deep compulsion to kill that lurks deep in their psyche, nor do they become more talented at mass murder through playing violent games. Games are fantasy, and a suspension of disbelief is required, just like in any other medium. No one who watches The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo really believes they are actually in the Scandinavian wilderness, they know it’s fiction.
The interactivity of games scares a lot of old-medium types, because they believe it conditions impressionable young minds to treat murder and violence with detachment. But fantasy is a part of what makes it possible and unthreatening. The only way we can murder about four thousand people through the course of a Grand Theft Auto game is because we know they are not real, we know this isn’t really happening. It is freedom from the consequences of reality that allows us to inhabit those worlds and do what we do while we’re there.
In many executions during the days of the First World War, every member of a firing squad except one would be issued a blank cartridge, and none would be told whose gun had the live round in it. Every man on the firing squad would be able to entertain the notion that the fatal shot didn’t come from their rifle, and they could all say to themselves: I didn’t really kill that man. I’m not going to say that this mirrors the experience of shooting someone in a videogame, but it does provide a helpful analogy; you can shoot an armed assailant in games because you know: I didn’t really kill that man.