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Virtual Reality Games, and Real Vices

Victor Vasnetsov. A Knight at the Crossroads.
(Victor Vasnetsov. A Knight at the Crossroads. Source)

1) Introduction

Video games are quite popular these days, and many young people spend hours playing them. But does this mean playing video games is a good thing? Are these games good or evil?

2) Video simulations of reality are not intrinsically evil

Many of us are alive today because of video simulations. For example, most airline pilots must regularly practice emergency procedures on flight simulators. Surgeons more and more will be practicing difficult operations using video simulators. In general, computers let us re-create an aspect of reality (what software engineers call a "mini-world"). This means that almost anything material, which is difficult and important, can be simulated by computers, so people can improve their skills without endangering anybody. Therefore, some video simulations are intrinsically good, and we are lucky to live in an era where they are more and more common.

3) Harmless games are not intrinsically evil

Many games are harmless in themselves. Whether it's playing hockey, or Scrabble, or just skipping stones on a beautiful lake after a hard day of paddling in a canoe, we have all experienced that some games, in some situations, are good for us.

For whatever reason related to our human nature, we cannot work continuously. If we don't periodically rest our bodies and our minds, our effectiveness decreases and can even be totally eliminated. Hence, in order to be able to do as much good as possible, we sometimes have to play some games, in a certain way.

4) How can playing good games be bad?

Playing games that are intrinsically harmless can become bad, in certain circumstances. Let's look at a few examples:

4.1) While we're playing, we're not working. If you're a father busy conquering the Universe on your computer, while your kids are starving because nobody is thinking about supper, something is wrong! Games exist so we can do more good, not less. Even harmless games are bad when we're not supposed to be playing.

4.2) While we're playing video games, we're not exercising. Remember the main reason we play games is to relax. More and more, in our high-tech society, "relaxing" means "relaxing from mental labour", not physical exertion. So in theory, our games should be more physical than, say, a hundred years ago. But as far as I know, the current trend is the exact opposite. Many physicians warn that people in general, and youngsters specifically, are not getting enough exercise. We're not talking about a few doctors warning us of some silly fashion trend: we're talking about the entire Medical Profession warning about large numbers of heart attacks, disruption of our Health System, huge losses for our economy, etc.

Of course, using sophisticated technology, you can "wire" a player to motion sensors, eye-movement detectors, "kinesthetic body suits", etc., such that a player's physical movements can be detected and incorporated into a virtual reality. So in theory (and soon in practice), you can "play" a game of baseball or hockey, without a baseball field or a hockey rink. So you would get some physical activity, but while still playing inside a "virtual reality".

I see several problems with this. First, insofar as you leave the "virtual reality" to come back inside the "real reality", well of course you can reap some of the benefits of "real reality"! (That's a bit like claiming cigarettes aren't so bad, because you can get reduced nicotine cigarettes!) But if you're going to put one foot back into "real reality", why not go all the way, shut down that darn computer and go play outside? Second, it's still not reality, no matter how sophisticated the technology, and the natural tendency of game manufacturers (since they want your money) will be to keep mostly the pleasant aspects. So "partially-virtual" golfing, skiing, dancing, etc., will tend to leave aside the difficult learning processes, the physical pain, the rough edges of reality which teach us perseverance and patience, etc. In other words, these games will tend to avoid teaching you what you need to succeed in real life!

4.3) While we're playing video games, we're not socializing. Many video games are networked and multi-player, so in a sense you have to interact with other men. But this interaction is extremely limited, and often intensely unreal. Compare that with going to the old folk's home and playing a game of cards with your grandfather, or having tea in your nieces imaginary castle just outside their apartment, next to the bush and the big pine tree. Learning to know and love other men is not just an accessory skill in our lives!

4.4) While we're playing silly video games, we're not playing more intelligent games. "Harmless" unfortunately doesn't necessarily mean "intelligent" or "useful". Yes, jumping around in Maya Temples and clobbering nasty dinosaurs with bowling balls can fascinate a player, but it's a pretty empty fascination. Often, with little or no effort, an educational game can be substituted to a mindless "crash and bang" type of game. Chess can teach you to plan ahead and not just react at the last minute. Making and flying model airplanes can teach you many things about aerodynamics and construction techniques. There are many educational video games that kids can enjoy, while learning about Mathematics, History, Chemistry, etc. Many harmless but silly video games mostly reward luck and quick reflexes. Life tends to reward sustained and intelligent effort, not to mention self-sacrifice and love of your neighbor!

4.5) Sitting down in front of a stolen copy of a game is always bad. Whatever the circumstances, playing with a stolen computer game is a sin. Stealing somebody else's property is not a way to relax. It doesn't matter if many other people have stolen that game, or if the game's manufacturer is already rich, or this game was stolen by your roommate and not you, or whatever other lame excuse you can come up with: stealing software is bad, period.

5) How can games become intrinsically bad?

So I've just said that, depending on the circumstances, playing intrinsically good games can sometimes become bad. But can games be intrinsically bad? Are some games bad, whatever the circumstances?

Trying to answer this question can become very complex. Understanding why some video games are bad requires a fair knowledge of Morality and Psychology, and unless you have that prior knowledge, my explanations won't mean much to you. Please also understand that I'm not an expert in the field, so you should also refer to good authors.

It seems to me that a video game can be intrinsically bad, if it is somehow related to an intrinsically bad act. If you claim sin doesn't exist, or that intrinsically bad acts don't exist, then stop reading this essay! You first need to brush up your Morality!

Given you admit that some intrinsically bad acts exist (like murder, or theft, or rape, etc.), we can try to see how video games can be "contaminated" by such acts.

6) Contamination method #1: Evil acts are not fully presented as evil

An easy way for a video game to become intrinsically evil is to portray evil acts as being good, or even as less evil than they actually are. Obviously, this is not only true of video games, but of just about everything around us. A father who teaches his son that "Beating your wife is fun and easy" is committing a serious sin, even if he doesn't actually beat his wife. A book that teaches that "Morality is just a social convention" is a bad book, even it it's "just a novel". A video game is intrinsically evil if, for example, it presents car theft as "just another hobby", or murder as "something that is just a tiny bit evil, since it makes you lose a few points". Saying that "video games are not for real" doesn't change the very real message transmitted by those games.

7) Contamination method #2: Evil acts are not portrayed with enough discretion

Even if an intrinsically evil act is presented as evil, it can be portrayed without the appropriate discretion. Suppose for whatever reason that some video game includes a scene of murder, and moreover that murder is presented as a horrible crime. This game could still be intrinsically evil if this scene was presented very graphically, with vivid and realistic pain, terror, sadism, etc. This would be the same for rape, or any other intrinsically evil act.

This is because "An idea inclines us to perform the act it represents" (See among others New Year's Resolutions: A Satanic Plot?, point 2.1). Notice the idea inclines us, it doesn't force us to perform the act it represents. Yet, anything that inclines us to murder or rape or theft certainly doesn't qualify as harmless entertainment!

Another way of saying this is "Don't de-sensitize the audience to evil". Some acts are repugnant, and should remain so. Making them seem less evil by portraying them over and over is just another way of inclining the audience toward those acts.

8) Contamination method #3: Evil acts are consented to

Not only must evil acts be presented as evil, and portrayed with appropriate discretion (if at all), but the players must never be placed in a situation where they would have to consent to such acts, or be encouraged to even seek such consent.

The fact that video games "are not real" is partly irrelevant. Yes, if you kill a truckload of men in a video game, you won't be arrested by real flesh-and-blood policemen, and taken to court in front of a real judge! But morality is not just physical acts. Morality in fact deals more with things that stay "inside you".

For example, suppose an assassin is waiting outside an office building to kill someone. Fortunately for the poor target, an accident occurs and a garbage truck hits the assassin, just as he is pressing the trigger. Even if this assassin ends up in the hospital and doesn't commit murder that day, he has nevertheless committed a serious sin by consenting to murder. This evil "stayed inside" the assassin, but it's still evil.

The story happening inside a video game is not reality, but the consent that a player gives to evil acts can be unfortunately quite real. I think evil video games fall somewhere between the case of a 6 year-old boy playing war with his little green plastic soldiers, and that assassin who consented to murder without being able to pull the trigger. Yes, a video game player is not consenting to a real murder, but he's not consenting to helping a little old lady cross the street either! It would seem that as the player becomes older and more responsible, and as the game becomes more graphic and realistic, the consent to evil acts given by the player becomes more and more dangerous and blameworthy.

9) "Virtual reality" and the human heart

Is giving full consent to murder or rape in a video game a serious sin? A few Bible quotes come to mind, among others:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
[Mt 5:27-28]

There is also the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, which specifically refer to "non-actions", things that "happen only in our hearts", and not "out there, in external reality":

Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbor's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbor's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is thy neighbor's.
[Dt 5:21]

Human actions, whether good or bad, don't just "pop out of the blue". They originate from the inner depths of ourselves, what is colloquially known as "the heart". Drowning our hearts in spiritual filth is not a very good way to train them to produce good acts!

In order to explain this last point fully, I would need to explain what are virtues and vices, how they are acquired, and what is their impact on someone's life. I'll have to summarize here by saying that good habits (virtues) are necessary to attain happiness, which is subjectively the most important thing in our lives! We acquire virtues by repeating good acts with as much consent as we can muster. So repeating bad acts with consent leads us into vice, which by and large is the worst thing that can happen to us! This is not exactly a rousing endorsement for evil video games!

10) Conclusion

If you claim that "those rules are too strict, nobody can respect them", then you've been hanging around with "video morons" for too long. Shut off your computer, and go for a walk. Talk to some virtuous people. Read serious books. Visit good web sites. Soon, you'll realize that there are real persons starving in real Third-World countries, that there is real pollution that must be eliminated, that there are approximately 40 million young people missing in your generation in North America, because they were exterminated in very real abortion camps.

If you are old enough to read and understand this text, you are way beyond playing video games, whether good or evil. It's time to work, and there is plenty of it.

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