Violent video games and movies permissible
I went to see the SAO’s showing of “The Hunger Games” last weekend and stayed around for the discussion. Prof. Van Dyke, from philosophy, opened the discussion by asking whether it was immoral to watch the movie. One of its themes, although this was not as well-developed as it might have been, was a critique of a society that watches people suffer and die for entertainment. The irony was that we had all come out, even paid, to watch a movie where people suffer and die.
I reflected in a similar way when I was playing the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV” this summer. For the unfamiliar, the game takes place in a very realistic city modeled after New York. It is a “sandbox” game, where there are missions to accomplish, but you can completely ignore them and do whatsoever you please. There are no wrong choices.
There are also no consequences for any of your actions. You are very difficult to kill, and don’t get hurt inside cars, no matter how badly you crash. It is quite easy to outrun the cops. You can steal cars and kill bystanders without being caught. When you do die or get arrested, you lose some money and sometimes your weapons, and get respawned back on the street. The game is set up to let you experiment with behaviour that is not possible in real life.
Because the game is crime-centered, it pushes you to do things that would be immoral in real life, like stealing cars, murdering and conducting wild car chases. This is why the game needs to be crime-centered: if you were not forced to do transgressive things, you wouldn’t realize the power you have in the game. You wouldn’t feel the same sense of absolute freedom.
The disturbing part is that it didn’t take long for me to do violent things voluntarily. Given a virtual world where I could do whatever I wanted, with no consequences, I drove on the wrong side of the road, ran over pedestrians, and got into gunfights with the police.
Once conclusion, perhaps supported by Calvinist theology, is that there is a moral monster inside me that looks for chances like “The Hunger Games” and “Grand Theft Auto” to get out. Try as I might to cultivate a moral character, I cannot fully repress the darker urge inside me that is drawn to violence, transgression and death. I am like Alypius, unable to keep my eyes closed at the amphitheater. I am not a morally perfect person, so I often feel a genuine sense of moral conflict where I can give myself good reasons to go either way.
At this point, all the groundwork is laid to make the case that I ought not to watch violent movies like “The Hunger Games” or play games like “Grand Theft Auto” in which I am entertained by doing things that would be illegal in the real world. I am going to take the harder position and try to show the opposite: that there are no moral problems with watching such movies or playing such games. However, I do wish to say that I am not advocating this position, but trying to put forward how the position could be made.
First of all, there are actually no moral system in the fictional world. I am able to make a separation between the fictional world and the real world, where morality does apply. When engrossed in a story or playing inside a computer world, I know both consciously and at an intuitive level that I am in an imaginary world. I don’t feel any inclination to drive down 28th Street as fast as my car can go. If there was a gladiatorial deathmatch on Commons Lawn, I would have absolutely no inclination to go and watch.
There is a similar distinction to make between watching a people suffer and die, like a gladiator fight, and watching a movie with artificial suffering, like “The Hunger Games.” In the movie, characters suffered and died, not people. In “Grand Theft Auto,” it doesn’t take long playing the game to realize that the characters are computer simulations that are modeled after people, not humans themselves. Characters and computer models are humanlike, but I know both consciously and viscerally that there is a difference.
Because of the separation of the fictional world from the real world, and characters and models from real people, even when I watch or do things in the fictional world that look similar to the real world, there is something completely different going on. In the case of the video game, what I am doing is little different than Super Mario crushing the Goombas or shooting spaceships down in “Space Invaders.” Think of the ending to Ender’s Game, where whether he was playing a game or not made a huge difference to Ender. This was because of the vast difference between real life and virtual life in a game.
Therefore, because there is no necessary morality in fictional worlds and I am not even doing the same things in the fictional world as I would be doing in the real world, there is no problem with violence in them, even if I caused it.
The preceding argument is not fully satisfactory to me, because even if the fictional world is not the real world, I am the same person that is taking part in both. When I am watching a film or playing a game, I do think my real moral character is exposed, the same one that I use in the real world, both in the sense that it comes into view and that it is vulnerable to injury by my actions.
Aquinas’ moral theory has an explanation for how this works. He casts moral formation in terms of habits. By doing something enough times, by forming the habit, our actions have momentum inside of us. The way we train ourselves to act is the way we will act in the future, for good or bad. In his view, by performing violent actions in video games and watching violent images over and over, we are morally forming ourselves in a certain direction. He would chastise me for taking how powerful this process is too lightly.
However, there are other moral patterns we are easily able to keep completely separate between areas of life. Most people I know swear and curse with their friends, but never at work. Swearing is a habit, the good use of which takes time to cultivate. In a formal meeting, however, nobody ever swears. The division between the rules in these areas of life is enough to overcome the habit formation that people have acquired in a different area. By analogy, it would not be impossible, or even difficult, to separate out the virtual world sphere of our lives from the real world.
As an aside, Charles Taylor has make the observation that secular Westerners are among the only people who have ever been able to make these kinds of distinctions, and that this is why we even have problems about people being a different person at church than at home.
My last point is that the depictions of violence in these media are not violent for the sake of being violent, but towards some other end that the makers hope warrants the means. “Grand Theft Auto” can be seen as a critique of absolute freedom: the main character came to Liberty City to make a break with his past of organized crime, but given open possibilities, fell back into it. As a player, given absolute freedom with no consequences, you tend to break the rules. The reason I think it is a good game is not because of the violence, but this critique. The critique, however, would not be possible in the same way without the violence. I didn’t go to see “The Hunger Games” so that I could watch depictions of violence. I went to see a story, of which violence happens to be a part, in the hopes that the story would be valuable. I have a good purpose in view when deciding to go to the movie or play the game, which the content of the film or game is independent of.
In these ways, I think the question of whether violent movies are moral to watch or violent video games moral to play is a complex issue with good arguments on both sides. I have offered some arguments for the seemingly more difficult side, that they are not problematic. Part of the project of discernment is making a case for why you choose or choose not to use certain forms of entertainment. I think that neither side has the burden of proof — both participating in and deciding to refrain from watching or playing a particular piece of entertainment require reasons.