Monday, December 5, 2011

Can video games be immoral?



A 2006 article about a “new” video game is once again being circulated on the internet. It’s probably a fake, although Snopes.com doesn’t have anything about it. The alleged game is based on the Left Behind series of books, and involves the player pretending to be in a gang of Christians killing Jews and atheists who refuse to convert. The (probably fraudulent) story has sparked outrage both from people who are offended at the violence against particular groups and by people who feel it misrepresents Christianity. There are also, predictably, people who argue that the Jews and atheists in question deserve it and others who claim that this is entirely consistent with the history of Christian power.

My reaction as a philosopher, however, is different. I ask, first, what the substantive difference is between this and the endless number of other video games that kill all kinds of people, and then I ask whether or not being rude is indeed a violation of freedom of speech.The latter, of course, forces us to ask about the relationship between the law and morality, a question that is endlessly complex.

Let me explain: First, what makes this (likely, fake) game different is that it is aimed at a particular subgroup – Jews and atheists – not enemy soldiers, robots, or egg-stealing pigs. It is easy to see why there would be outrage if there was a game about lynching African Americans or raping women, so why shouldn’t there be equal outrage if Jews and atheists are the victims? But, the opposition can argue, the game is make believe (more on this in a moment), so no actual Jew, atheist, African American, or woman, is actually being harmed, and since no one is actually being harmed, it becomes fairly easy to dismiss the outrage.

But that's not really the argument against the game. Instead, the implicit reason for the anger is that video games shouldn't teach hate, either in the name of Christianity or otherwise. But if this is the argument, then the game is certainly legally permissible, even if it is, on some level immoral (is it?), because declaring hate is protected by free speech. And again, if brute violence is immoral, then why isn’t Grand Theft Auto or other video games where the player kills prostitutes or, heck, anyone else who gets in their way, immoral as well? (Or, are they?)

Some Christian theologies still hold that the only way to redemption is through Christ (although certainly not all hold this opinion). Some of these also hold that violence and compulsion are acceptable means of conversion (although, in this case, these are in the vast minority). Are not these people entitled to their own video games? Again, they’re not actually hurting anyone. They’re being rude, they’re teaching hate, they’re misrepresenting a religion (most people think), but they’re not hurting anyone any more than Saw, Harry Potter, or Saving Private Ryan are. It’s all pretend. That is, it’s pretend, unless it can be shown that the video games actually inspire people to act on their hate or to hate people more than they might otherwise do without playing the video game. This is where the twist in the story comes in.

According to the article that everyone points to in their outrage,

The [video game] company is offering a free demonstration model to churches. "We see it as a beacon of light that could shine in the dark world of video games," said Jerome Mikulich, "director of outreach ministries" for the company. "The most important thing is that it helps kids realize there is power in the spirit world, and that by praying they can endure and get through their real-life situations."

In other words, the video game is not just teaching hate, but teaching that the slaughter of Jews and atheists is a “beacon of light,” and that people should want this to come true. So, the real objection is not that the video game is teaching people what to believe (to hate), but that it is teaching people how to act. 

If this is indeed the case, what is the impermissible part, teaching people that they should act this way or people actually acting this way? No one seems to be doing the latter, just like no one actually committed suicide because Ozzy Osborne told them to. Thus, the only things that is genuinely objectionable in the story are people's desires. Legislating against wants is a tricky business, although ironically, it is Christianity that has had the most consistent argument that individual thoughts can indeed by sinful.

On some level, a video game like this, if it were real, would infuriate me. On another level, though, I don’t even know if I would react at all. It seems totally consistent with the kind of hate and tolerance that permeates the world (and not, obviously, just from Christians). In fact, there seems to be something soothing about it being out there for all to see. To show this, I will conclude by quoting something that several different black students have said to me in private conversation over the years, all independent of one another, and most in very different geographical locations. Each of them reported that they would rather live in the Southern United States than in the North because while both regions are incredibly racist, at least in the South “you know where you stand.” In this respect, the likely-fake video game has its merits. If I am ever in someone’s house and I see it on the shelf, I know both where I stand and I know how fast I have to leave.

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