Editorial: Pixelated Mirrors–How Games Showed Me I’m Not a Good Person

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*Sources of screenshots are listed in their respective file names.

*Pertinent Scriptures (and occasionally, websites) are highlighted with blue lettering–click to view them.

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In the face of a world that mocks the God who came to save them as well as us, admitting our common heritage as sinnersnormal people saved by the grace of God alone–is difficult. So, many Christians attempt to cultivate an image of unpolluted righteousness, forming themselves into apparently shining examples of moral fiber.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. We’re certainly meant to be examples. I’m asking the question: What do you do when even one of those jagged lines you drew in the sand turns out to be a facade? What do you do when you’re placed in an environment without real-life consequences (such as that found in a video game) and confronted with blocked progress, pain, or just basic desire?

I can tell you what I did.

Fail.

NEO Scavenger Screenshot 1

Pictured is the aftermath of an encounter with another survivor in NEO Scavenger
I couldn’t stop. I drove my crowbar into his lungs for the last time…

I didn’t have to sleep with the married woman in Westerado: Double Barreled, or construct a voodoo doll in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. I didn’t need to seduce a Struggling Artist’s Model or rob a drunken cavalry officer lying in a ditch in Fallen London. I didn’t have to pray to an Old God in Eldritch, or beat a man until his bones shattered and lungs burst in NEO Scavengerconsuming his body to stay alive for one more pitiful day.

But I did.

In some cases, I excused these actions in the name of ‘research.’ After all, if I’m going to tell others about Biblical and moral issues in titles, I have to go down the proverbial rabbit hole myself, right? In other cases, I wanted to test what a game would allow me to do. Can I use super-strength and a can of beans to turn a soldier’s head into a bloody pulp? Find a way to murder a family (of cannibals, it turns out) and still be seen as good?
What will the consequences (or rewards) be? And perhaps more importantly–does any of this actually matter when I can simply reverse my decisions by loading a previous save?

Jack of Blades picture from Giant Bomb

Pictured is Jack of Blades from the original Fable. He said I’d win a “special prize” if I murdered my friend in the arena for the pleasure of the crowd. 
Guess what I did.

This line of thought was concerning enough, but when I found what horrible things I could do when my actions weren’t judged by a binary in-game good-or-evil morality system…That’s when I really began to question myself.

Why do I feel guilty, even after I go back and make the ‘right’ choice? Am I still a ‘good person,’ regardless of what I do or feel in-game? How evil is ‘too evil?’ What is wrong–for me? Is my perception changing with spiritual maturity and liberty…Or plummeting standards?

What if I’m compromised?

What if I’m not alone?

I took to Twitter (with the unexpected help of @ProceduralJOYE–many thanks) to ask if the games people played had ever affected them in real life. The responses were astounding.

Stories of feeling sick or guilty after murdering in-game characters, of restarting games whose length spans dozens of hours to change a single choice. It’s a testament to the power of video games as a medium–living proof that this so-called ‘disposable’ entertainment can make a serious difference, for good or ill.

And the saying, “It’s just a game?” It’s emblematic of a mindset that is willfully blind to these experiences.

It suggests that the actions we commit inside these virtual worlds–the decisions we physically choose to make, their consequences, and the resulting personal feelings they evoke–are meaningless. That we’re monkeys plinking time into a shiny box to escape the reality that we’re monkeys. That at the end of the day, there aren’t human beings with thoughts, consciences, and emotions behind every screen.

Anyone could look at an immoral act committed inside a video game such as murder or theft and say “That’s bad, so why don’t you stop playing?,” but that would be missing the point. I don’t personally care about shooting waves of mindless drones in Call of Duty or Battlefield. However, that man in NEO Scavenger?

I wanted him to die.

Interactions and gameplay systems are mechanical in nature, the resulting scenes shaped out of pieces of art and lines of code, consequences reversed with the load of a save, but their effects on our hearts and minds are undeniable.

In real life, I’m constantly afraid of giving a wrong impression and being seen as a bad person. I edit every tweet, examine and qualify every statement…Though I have genuine intentions, I exert so much effort appearing to be good that I end up “believing my own hype” and forget my basic, flawed humanity.

And then I play a game.

I see how callous, selfish, and petty I can be. I see myself. The part I hide from the world–that we all hide, to a certain extent. Pretending these sides of ourselves don’t exist is easier than confronting the darkness lurking at our collective core, revealed by the most unlikely of sources:

A Pixelated Mirror.

Prince of Persia Level 4 Mirror from YouTube--CLASSIC GameChannel channel

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*More from Video Games and the Bible.

About Nelson

Writer, amateur #gamedev, and Founder o' Video Games and the Bible. My interviews bring the boys to the yard. Featured from Kotaku to Rock Paper Shotgun. Dropsy.
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One Response to Editorial: Pixelated Mirrors–How Games Showed Me I’m Not a Good Person

  1. SeirX says:

    [Preamble: I’m not writing to bring you down, attack you, or otherwise cause harm or issue with your article. I think it was written well enough and you bring up some good points that give me cause to reply, is all]

    Heyhey,
    Couple things:
    I’m an `old school` gamer. Donkey Kong wasn’t new when I started playing it games. It was new after I’d been playing for a few years.

    First and foremost: It ain’t good or right for christians to put on their `shiny example` coat and stand up to be looked at. That’s bad. That’s what the church in north america has been doing for 60 years and it keeps declining. Wonder why, ehn? Simple.
    While we are still sinners, Jesus paid for our mess. While we hate, revile and spew our bile at God, He covered the costs of making things `right` with us – so we could be right with Him.
    So put on these airs of `how good I am!’ comes off as `my morality is betters than yours!`, judgemental and ultimately hypocritical, because we still mess up.

    Be who you are – sinner saved by grace, adopted to be an heir, now an earthly vessel designed to be a conduit through which God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness flows.

    Secondly – I’ve never played a game that made me feel bad about what I was doing in it.
    Maybe I don’t get attached – maybe I’m a different generation, a more cynical, self-aware generation, or maybe it’s just me – hard, and able to box things up – `oh, it’s a hooker in GTA, I’ll just whack her in the head with this baseball bat and get most of my money back` *and*it’s*okay*because*it’s*a*game. Just a game.. not real life – I can tell the difference, I can think through consequences to my real-world actions.

    You mention feeling bad about some choices. `All in the name of research`.
    Research besmirched! Call it whatever you want – but you know what it really is.
    See that fruit, give it a whiff..smells good, don’t it? Lick it. Just lick it… licking it ain’t eating it. That’s okay, right? Oh no, some got in your mouth. …uh-oh. You know where this is going.
    The best advice for `gray areas` like this I can possibly give is what was given to me years ago:
    If it causes your conscience to stir, it’s a sin. The bible may not speak directly on it, but if *you* get a bad feeling about the thing, don’t do it – ’cause for you, it’s a sin.
    I may be able to buy and eat the discounted meat from that goofy altar without a second thought, but if it pricks your conscience, don’t you do it!
    Make sense?

    Did I feel bad blowing up Megaton? [Fallout 3] No. Did I change save-game slots? Yes. I want to see what happens, but not ruin one experience. [I was actually disappointed the mechanic lived from Megaton.. I thought I was done with that annoyance]
    How about killing Benny? Or allying with any of the factions? [New Vegas, a.k.a., The Real Fallout 3]
    Or, going more old-school, did you ever have misgivings about becoming a porn-star, mafioso, or pimping out your spouse in Fallout 2? Or, for that matter, marrying the same gender? How about making a chemical engineer continue being a drug-peddler for profit – or just killing him, instead of rescuing him?
    [Fallout 2 was ahead of the curve in a lot of things for the time it came out]

    Did I feel bad getting chewed out by team members in KOTOR and KOTOR 2 for choosing different paths? No, more annoyed. Granted, those games were heavy-handed in their `good/bad` morality decisions. Ultimately, if you wanted powers of one side or the other, just do generally bad or good things to build up that `karma` [or lower it], and away you go.
    This is especially at play in [again, heavy-handed] games like Infamous
    But, what if you played Grand Theft Auto, would you feel bad taking a baseball bat to the back of a hooker’s head after purchasing her “wares”, so you could get most of your money back? …you’re a ruthless, vicious criminal [in the game], after all – why should you feel bad? You’re supposed to be bad – maybe not outright evil, but definitely bad by society’s standards, why feel bad for being what you are by nature?
    [Eventually this argument will come up in court on some fantastically horrible case, wait for it]

    Did you get freaked out about certain situations in The Last of Us? Not a lot of morality-choices in that game, but it’s very cinematic and very well-told, story-wise.

    A friend’s daughter gets caught up in the show The Walking Dead, to the point where she cried when the baby was *threatened*. I gave her a bit of venom. It’s a TV show, why are you crying?
    It’s TV, this ain’t the comic where [SPOILER!!] the events that lead up to the kid dying were more horrible than they showed on the TV.
    This girl got so emotionally invested in *fiction* she was crying at a scripted *threat* to an actor.

    Maybe I’m just hard, or maybe I can more easily keep that suspension-of-disbelief at bay when I get into games and other entertainment, because none of the games I’ve played, or the movies / TV shows I’ve seen, have elicited the kind of emotional response you speak of. And it worries me a bit – for both you and myself, because one of us is too far to the edge of the slider here.

    -SeirX

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