How Mormons get away with murder in videogames
I like playing games where I can do things I’d never do in real life–things like verbally harassing strangers, stealing library books, killing people, and having sexual relationships before (my character’s) marriage. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but I feel bad for some of the things I’ve done in videogames. I accidentally punched a woman in Assassin’s Creed. I can’t believe I chose to commit genocide in Bastion. As a child I vowed to never make my princess in Princess Maker 2 into the queen of darkness, but as a young adult I went ahead and did it anyway. Obviously these things would be wrong to do in real life. But when is it wrong in a videogame?
In Mormon theology, we do have lots of commandments, but it’s up to the individual to interpret how to obey them. If God had to give a commandment for every single thing, we’d be obsessed with keeping track of all the rules and not figuring out for ourselves what’s right. It’s part of our scriptures that “he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant.” Sure, the whole no-coffee thing is pretty darn specific, but things like media consumption are up to the individual. For example, when I was growing up, we weren’t allowed to watch cartoons or play videogames on Sundays, since that’s how my mom decided we’d keep the commandment of keeping the Sabbath day holy. But now that I’m an adult, I can decide if I want to play videogames on Sundays. Sometimes I do.
But are there times when playing a videogame might be wrong? Virtual worlds are a lot like someone’s imagination. And imagining murdering someone isn’t necessarily a sin; it depends on why someone is imagining that. If I’m imagining how I could kill someone I know, in incredible detail, I find this far more disturbing than if I’m imagining a fictional universe where I’m toying with the idea of what it would be like to be an assassin. Maybe that’s why the Hitman series is more disturbing to me than Assassin’s Creed; Hitman has players planning out detailed, modern murders with various accidents and hiding the bodies, while Assassin’s Creed is less focused on the killing and more about running away and hiding (in my mind); it doesn’t feel like something I would transfer to my daily life.
The fantasy aspect of a game is necessary to distance ourselves from videogame violence, and by extension, intending to apply it to real life. It’s the reason why most parents are perfectly comfortable with their children slaughtering innocent goombas, but get nervous about them playing Uncharted. If videogame worlds are completely unlike the real world, it’s harder to transfer the virtually practiced actions of killing (unconsciously or otherwise) to real life. In real life you can’t jump high enough to jump on top of your enemies like Mario does. But you can carry around a gun and shoot someone in the head like in Uncharted.
[Editors note: Initially this article had a paragraph that was offensive for its sentiments around sexuality and desire and accidental endorsement of misogyny. I want to apologize for that, and cop to making an error in judgement. We will try to be more mindful next time.]
Most people who play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare don’t have a malicious intent. I think we can all agree on that. Let’s look at some hypothetical situations to further explicate the theory that the intent of one’s action determines its morality: Jamie gets angry with her sister, but instead of hitting her, she brings up Mario and jumps on every enemy in sight. According to her intent, she’s doing a good thing; she’s redirecting her aggression to avoid hitting her sister. What if she just broke up with her boyfriend, and now she’s imagining killing her ex over and over? I think Jesus would say that she’s already murdered her ex in her heart; to be so overcome with hatred that she’s given herself up to these feelings that Christians should want to replace with charity. In the same vein, Ender in Ender’s Game never meant to commit genocide, yet he was tricked into doing so. He did not sin in his heart, and in my interpretation, isn’t responsible for his actions.
I know it might be kind of a longshot to believe that our intent in playing a videogame can affect our souls. But the things we do in virtual worlds affect us in the real world. Videogames can help us learn to calm down, forget trauma, and ignore pain. Videogames can also affect us unconsciously. One study on how videogames can affect us unconsciously was done with Halo 2 co-op. Specifically, after playing in co-op mode, players were more likely to engage in tit-for-tat strategies to maximize outcomes for everyone. Not all game effects are good; playing a violent videogame made men more lenient and women more judgmental of those who committed violent crimes. Playing violent videogames makes some people more anxious and angry. These are just a few psychology studies, but they show that games can also can unconscious effects on our real-life behaviors. The studies also show that playing a videogame affects different people in different ways, further reinforcing that the context of a game—why you’re playing it—is important in knowing how to interpret your actions within that game.
Maybe any player of any game would say their intent is to have fun. I can only judge my intent in playing a violent game; if a game gives me some sort of sick pleasure from harming others, I should examine why I’m playing that game. There are still some games I wouldn’t choose to play, like Hitman, but it’s not my job to judge if that’s wrong for others. That’s for the player and her heart to decide.