Yesterday, the New Yorker posed a question to its audience: How evil should a video game allow you to be? The ensuing article noted a user on a forum for the recently-released hit game Grand Theft Auto V, who wished to have his game's character be able to kidnap, hold hostage, and repeatedly rape a woman. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative subsequently argued today that video games are morally evil, and that playing them shapes a person's morals to be specifically more sinister. However, while it is plausible that video games can present immoral situations for players to enjoy with no consequence, it is obtuse to think that in doing so, a person's own morals can be changed, and for the worse at that.
Rod Dreher uses as his thesis the belief that, if a hypothetical video game would allow him to play the role of vigilante, striking vengeance and creating his own brand of justice, it would "release a daemonic instinct within [him], one that could easily take possession." In other words, by playing these games, Dreher gains a violent and morally repulsive mindset that he applies to the real world. Dreher dismisses the notion that video games serve as an outlet to let off anger, and instead claims that playing them only increases a person's sadistic or dark tendencies.
The problem with Dreher's belief is quite simple: It assumes that a gamer's moral compass is constant, whether that person is playing a video game or not. This is a moral standard far higher than we give to any music, film, or literature that has evil overtones. In those cases, the audience watching, reading, or listening combines a suspension of judgment, which allows them to accept that what they are consuming is fiction, with the suspension of disbelief, which allows them to believe the fiction. If morals are actually shaped, they are simply reinforced. This means that a person that believes in certain immoral beliefs are not being shaped by the media, but rather that they are drawn to it because it falls within their beliefs.
Video games should be allowed that same standard, where the suspension of judgment allows them to accept that this is not real, regardless of how real it looks or feels. Granted, video games has a distinct difference from other media, in that the user shapes the direction of what s/he is seeing and hearing through play. But video games are still fiction, so that does not suddenly mean those actions take on a real-world consequence, or affect real-world thinking. Many video games that have a specific moral or political agenda, such as the hit game series BioShock, utilize a fantastic setting to enforce those mentals suspensions.
Yes, the user requesting a rape option in Grand Theft Auto V is asking for something immoral and downright sinister, but that user is already coming from a very dark place to ask for that sort of thing. Rod Dreher cannot explain away the evil in this person through the game itself, or any other. Video games did not make this user evil, they merely reinforce this user's immorality, and they sought to reinforce it further.
There are even games, like Papers Please, which present moral quandaries and their consequences. (Screen Grab)
It should also be noted that, in recent years, video games have started to make their players think about the actions they take. Consider Papers, Please, one of the games mentioned in the New Yorker, where you play the role of an immigration agent. True, the New Yorker is correct in that you are able to systematically reject refugees. But Papers, Please makes it possible to do the exact opposite: Save as many refugees as possible, risking the wrath of your government in the process. Both approaches are morally questionable in certain ways, and play with the player's conscience.
Games like Grand Theft Auto V, on the other hand, do not make the player think. Games of that nature, especially given their blockbuster appeal, tend to play out as tools of entertainment, not unlike Iron Man 3, or the TV series The Following. The gamer is explicitly not meant to think about the morals of any situation, much like the viewers are not meant to think about Iron Man killing and/or injuring dozens of people over the course of a two-hour film.
If a person is immoral or evil, it is not because of the video games they play, but how they were raised or the environment they lived in. Video games can do no more to change that than hip-hop or horror films. The added depth of user interaction does not automatically mean that there is an increase of the conscious thinking required to involve morals. What video games mean and do to a person depends more on the person than the game itself.