Killing in Games-How Morals and Games Sometimes Don’t Mix

I’ve played many games that involve killing things, from Space Invaders-type games in the late 70s and 80s to today’s Skyrim and Gears of War games. In the early days, you killed spaceships or vague blobs on the screen and it wasn’t terribly personal. Your mind made the games intense and interesting, even if the graphics were blocky. As game graphics improved, the enemies became more and more recognizable as either monsters or people, which has led some whack-jobs to call games “murder simulators.” For the most part, I profoundly disagree with that position, but there are some cases where games and my morals don’t mix well, which is the subject of this post.

Typically, I don’t mind killing baddies in games, mostly because they deserve it. If the enemy is a zombie, or a space monster, or even a necromancer or bandit in Skyrim, I’m happy to kill them, loot them, and move on. If anyone did a real body count during most of these games, gamers would exceed the most extreme mass murderers by a hundredfold. In Skyrim alone, I’ve killed thousands of baddies. Same in LOTRO, Gears of War, etc. Heck in Star Trek Online, Sins of a Solar Empire, and X3, I wipe out huge enemy spaceships with no regard for the imaginary lives of the crew.

The dilemma for me starts occurring when I have to kill innocents or commit cruelty in an up-close and personal manner. In the Dark Brotherhood quests in Skyrim, most of the people who are killed early on are baddies who attack you on sight, so killing them causes no pangs of conscience. Last night, however, the Dark Brotherhood boss ordered me to kill a woman (a relative of the Emperor, hence the mission) at her wedding. I had spoken to the woman on my travels around the city, so I didn’t like it much. I realize it’s a game and she wasn’t real, but it still bugged me. Almost as crazy was that I just had to pay a fine to avoid being hauled off to jail and was out so quickly that I was able to return to the wedding and speak to the groom and parents and all the guests. They didn’t attack me, which was even more surreal. The remaining Dark Brotherhood quests look like they will involve more unprovoked (at least directly) killing, so I will have to steel myself for that.

This is not the first game that has bothered my conscience. I really wanted to like Grand Theft Auto IV and got a few hours into it. I had a girlfriend and a crappy car and a place to sleep, but then I was ordered to go rough up some shop owner to pay some protection money or something. I did it, but didn’t enjoy the cruelty and quit the game. Here was a game that was supposed to be an open world sandbox, but to progress in the storyline, I had to do things I didn’t like, so I decided not to bother.

That doesn’t mean I’m totally opposed so such games. I haven’t played Saints Row III yet, but I have a hunch I won’t mind killing “innocents” in it, because it seems so over the top that I won’t associate them with real people. But in GTA IV and Skyrim, the people and actions are normal enough to give my morals a workout.

I don’t have any good ideas to fix this sort of thing. Sure, I could have avoided joining the Dark Brotherhood in Skyrim, but it’s a significant body of story, so I didn’t want to miss it. I know there are moral choices in many games, such as one of the companion missions in Mass Effect 2, where I could save people (which I did) and let the bad guy escape or kill the bad guy at the expense of innocents. In many games, such as Dragon Age II, the moral choices are overly contrived and forced, but the consequences were less personal, in my opinion. Perhaps game developers should provide a way to move forward in quest lines without having to kill innocents, though perhaps with a lesser result or more work.

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