e-Murder most foul?

Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is; But this most foul, strange and unnatural. (Hamlet, Act 1. Scene V) 

According to US President Barack Obama; video games are a clear and present health hazard that is endangering the American people. While many still consider video gaming to be a geek-dominated, unsavoury fringe activity, Gamasutra.com offers in-depth analyses of the way games and digerate cultures interact.  Gamasutra is a website dedicated, as its masthead declares, to ‘The Art & Business of Making Games.” Created during the late 1990s, Gamasutra offers news, opinions, features, job connections and general information about and around video games.  In an evocative opinion piece, Gamasutra contributor Benj Edwards (himself an avid gamer) poses an intriguing question:  Can Games Become ‘Virtual Murder?’ 

A few years ago, Jack Thompson, a self-styled crusader who fights against the use of sex and violence in all channels of entertainment, came out with what he called “A Modest Video Game Proposal”, a public challenge for the video games industry, consisting of “creating and distributing a game, in which (Thompson’s arch-rival) Paul Eibeler, CEO of Take-Two Interactive … is to be killed in a disturbingly violent manner.” Thompson promised to donate $10.000 to Eibeler’s favourite charity organisation if this game were to be made.  The offer made quite a stink and Thompson backtracked, arguing that it was all a joke. A group of developers, however, did release a Thompsonesque game called “I’m O.K – A Murder Simulator”. According to Wikipedia “the reference to a ‘Murder Simulator’ refers to what Thompson regularly proclaims all violent computer games to be.” 

Edwards argues that, with superior technology taking over old, technically inferior tools and clunky designs of the past, “our computer simulations of the real world … (will) begin to effectively duplicate reality.” When this happens, he says, “the issue of video game violence won’t be a matter of artistic merit or censorship anymore. It will quickly become a matter of morality, ethics, and law.”  In ten to twenty years, computer simulations will be super realistic – making it impossible to distinguish between computer life and reality. While this may sound like an idea that will launch a thousand Hollywood-schlocks – it actually poses a serious challenge to future digerate societies, when “your virtual victims … could look, sound, and behave exactly like a real human would if you stabbed him in the neck or shot him in the gut. There’d be plenty of blood, screaming, and carnage to go around. You could watch as they bleed to death in agony. The funny thing is — and I’m just guessing — you wouldn’t want to do that in real life to a real human, so why would you want to do that in a video game?“ 

Existing technology protects us, to some extent, from mistaking fiction for reality by being far from perfect – TV, Movie and Computer screens are so obviously imperfect that we have no problem in mistaking what we are seeing as being the real thing.  What would happen, asks Edwards, when technology is so good, that it makes fictitious situations look real? 

In July 2000, a US Congressional Public Health Summit debated the issue of the impact of entertainment violence on children – and published a joint statement that – while listing sincere fears concerning negative influence of entertainment violence on children, was very careful to add the following afterthought

“We in no way mean to imply that entertainment violence is the sole, or even necessarily the most important factor contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes, and violence. Family breakdown, peer influences, the availability of weapons, and numerous other factors may all contribute to these problems. Nor are we advocating restrictions on creative activity. The purpose of this document is descriptive, not prescriptive: we seek to lay out a clear picture of the pathological effects of entertainment violence.”   

Are we facing an ethical implosion that is inspired by gaming? I have been discussing this with virtual friends online and the general feeling is that ethical issues are somehow removed from our ‘gaming brains.’ We can live our lives without hurting a soul – yet have little problem with killing thousands of digital people gleefully while playing a game. Doesn’t this – asked an online mate – show symptoms of acute ethical malfunctioning? Why otherwise would anyone spend hours doing such horrible things? It was time to introduce my discussion partner to Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.

Flow, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (cheek-scent-me-high-ee), consists of “activities in which there is a match between high challenge and high skills.” When this happens, he says, “the ego, or self-consciousness, disappears, after which people report feeling stronger and more vital.” In a fascinating book named Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi defines Flow further as “‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’”  [Csikszentmihalyi quotes are from the article “Understanding Video Gaming’s Engagement: Flow and Its Application to Interactive Media” by Dr. Erik Gregory, available online here.) 

And so, when we achieve superior game-playing level, and as we observe the killing fields we’ve created so skilfully, we will experience a unique sense of elation & of well-being emanating due to Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. The interesting thing about the Flow, says Gregory, is that the conditions for flow have been observes universally – they are not culture based or location specific, age or gender related or attributable to any specific psychological background “over 8000 interviews from individuals around the world including Japan, Korea, India, Europe, and the United States were collected to validate the universality of the Flow experience and its characteristics” he says.  Flow exists in each one of the following conditions (or some of them, or all of them): 

  • “Goals are clear–an individual is aware of what she or he wants to do
  • Immediate feedback–an individual knows how well he or she is doing at any moment
  • Skills match challenges–the skill level of an individual is in balance with the task at hand
  • Concentration is deep–the individual focuses all attention on the task at hand
  • Problems are forgotten–the individual is able to dismiss irrelevant stimuli that may interfere with concentration
  • Control is possible–a feeling of mastery is gained
  • Self-Consciousness disappears–an individual feels able to transcend the limits of the ego
  • The sense of time is altered–an individual either loses track of time or time seems to pass with rapidity
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding—the experience is worth engaging in for its own sake”

Unfortunately, each of these conditions exists as we interact with video games, even the most horrifically violent ones.  

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