As people have probably noticed I have become addicted to video games. I have an X-Box 360. I belong to X-Box Live. I post on the Bioware Social Network. I’ve written a Mass Effect fanfic story. And I ended up in an interesting debate/discussion with two couples at a dinner party last week. These are folks I know from the barn. We are all roughly the same age, and level of education. The couple hosting the dinner party were teachers at an elite school in Connecticut. The other couple are both psychiatrists. Very bright people, very thoughtful people, very well educated people. I, however, am the weird geek in the mix — the novelist, screenwriter, the gamer, etc. Craig asked me if I thought video games were making out culture more violent and if they had an effect on people. (By extension violent movies were included in this.) I said no. I did say I thought perhaps the lack of consequence in many of the games might be coarsening people, but I didn’t believe we could blame levels of gun violence on games and movies.
The two psychiatrists disagreed. Firmly, profoundly. These are people I respect. They deal with mental illness so that had me questioning my position. Was it just a knee jerk reaction because I love these games so much, and because I write movies and television? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this since that dinner party. Then I came across an article that talks about the fact that video games are ubiquitous in Japan, and that many of the Japanese games are far more violent, sexual and downright odd then the American games. Yet this is a culture with an extremely low rate of violence. So, I begin to think this goes far deeper then the games we play or the movies we watch. This is baked into the culture. We’re a relatively young country, stitching together a culture out of very disperate fabrics. We’re not a homogeneous population. We have the stain of slavery. We have a celebration of the “rugged individual” because we had a frontier that didn’t exist in Japan or Europe.
I do think there should be more consequences to the choices you make when gaming. In Dragon Age: Origins, if you play as a right bastard you are going to end up at that final battle with virtually no companions. I know because a friend of mine tried it. She took every ugly, mean spirited choice just to see what would happen. She had virtually no one with her for the final battle. And that’s how it should be. Unethical and evil choices should come with a cost. These games should be about more than just racking up experience points by killing things and collecting shit. Perhaps they can model behavior without being preachy. Dragon Age certainly succeeded in that.
Entertainment that preaches or stands on a soapbox is no longer entertainment, but there are ways to subtly suggest that being an morally bankrupt person maybe isn’t the best approach to life. We all want to be the hero of the story. Maybe we should have to earn that.