The most violent video game is rated E

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.
—Attributed to Joseph Stalin
It’s been a while since I’ve seen any uproar over violent video games. I’m sure there’s some background level of complaint about it, but I guess with three actual wars going on and a terrible economy, most people have other things on their minds.
Nevertheless, I’d been thinking lately about one of the (many) ways in which objections to such games are misplaced. The most socially objectionable games are generally taken to be those in the Grand Theft Auto vein that allow players to run around committing heinous crimes against innocent people. (Of course, even in the GTA games one is more typically attacking “bad guys”, i.e. other criminals, but the sandbox game style gives the player the free will to go on random killing sprees.) However, if the immorality of the in-game acts of violence is the measure by which they are judged, it seems to me that there’s a category of game that’s literally orders of magnitude worse.
After all, when we think of history’s greatest monsters, we don’t think of gangsters or even serial killers. No, we think of Jimmy Carter, because of The Simpsons. But after that we think of guys like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who killed millions and caused the suffering of millions more. What if there were a video game that put the player in a role like that, allowing them to institute a fascist police state, launch wars of aggression, and even wipe out entire nations of people?
Indeed there is such a game, and the ESRB rated it “E for Everyone”. I refer, of course, to the Civilization series. In Civ IV it was even literally possible to play as Stalin or Mao; the bounds of good taste (and the German video game market) kept Hitler himself off the roster. So why is it that we never hear about Civ from the video game moralists? Why is it bad to let children play with a single simulated machine gun, but not an entire army of machine gunners? Why restrict access to virtual rocket launchers, but not virtual ICBMs?
It’s clear that the issue is somehow graphic violence. But again, why is that? It’s certainly true that violence in Civ is depicted in a manner closer to pieces moving on a chessboard than the gorefests of Mortal Kombat. But this must be if anything even worse. What is more desensitizing than viewing millions of people’s lives as a number on a screen to be erased at the push of a button? That ESRB badge hilariously lists only “mild violence” for a game in which entire cities are routinely sacked, pillaged, and burned to the ground with no survivors.
One could argue that children can more easily pick up a gun and emulate the antisocial behavior of a GTA installment than they can seize control of a country and try for world domination. But clearly some children do grow up to be crazed dictators. And even if only one kid in ten million is a potential Hitler, isn’t it important to keep him from turning out that way?
Now, anyone who’s looked at my Steam stats knows that I’m actually a big Civ fan. And if I had kids, I’d totally let them play too. So all I’m arguing here is that there’s something strange about a moral intuition which says we need to prevent kids from playing GTA, but that playing Civ is fine. As for the potential Hitlers out there, I’m just hoping they develop a crippling addiction to “one more turn” and stay away from the actual levers of power.

8 thoughts on “The most violent video game is rated E

  1. Mason Porter

    I have three reaction:
    1) Pillage, then burn.
    2) I’m not prepared to refute your argument, but I’m not so sure that I buy it either. The literal fact that things are playing pieces in the Civ series is a much different statement of the psychological effects of Civ versus GTA. Are there any relevant psychological studies that apply to either of these? (This lack is also why I am not prepared to refute your argument!) Relevant studies should be done to see of what effects can be discerned. But without evidence, I don’t think it’s clear what the moral intuition actually should be—but I see no reason why intuition can’t be developed by evidence here just as it is in other contexts.
    3) When are we going to play?!? (I just got to Montreal, but I return to Oxford on Monday. So how about next week?)

  2. Tim Elling

    That quotation is surprisingly relevant for an additional reason: in games like Civ, a million deaths really is just a statistic — the population is modeled as an aggregate, and there are no individuals. In GTA, that hooker you just ran over was treated, at least in part, as an individual in the game world (more precisely, one of many instances of same).
    When Tycho is old enough to start playing games, I will be more comfortable with games like Civ than GTA, though I plan on (eventually) letting him play both — though I also plan on being involved with said play, talking to him about it, etc etc etc.
    Does anyone dare say what their own darkest gameplay experiences were? GTA, Civ, or others? I’d say my own worst behavior ever came while playing… The Sims. That’s by my own standards, though, and the fact that each individual is simulated with so much detail is partially responsible for that.
    Oddly, as I’ve gotten older, I find my gameplay choices more and more restricted by my own morality. It gets harder and harder to play the bad guy (in the choose good or evil games).

  3. Arcane Gazebo

    Mason: Yes, we should play at some point! I’m not sure when I’ll have time; all of September is likely to be too busy, but I might be able to get in a game before then.
    Tim: In the spirit of the original post, my objectively worst behavior was destroying entire planets and species in Master of Orion 2. But in terms of what squicked me out the most, I would say it was selling people into slavery in Fallout 3. I had otherwise played a good-karma character, but did that quest to get the achievement. It definitely made me feel dirty. I feel the same way as you about playing the bad guy, and it’s particularly acute in the Fallout games (maybe because they almost always present you with an unambiguously good option).

  4. Mason Porter

    I’ll have to think about my worst video game moment. I think I just didn’t play a lot of the games where one could do some really nasty stuff (though that was because of genre preferences and not for any other reason). I’ll get back to you on the question — which is a very interesting one — after I have had time to ponder. I am about to fly from Montreal to London, so maybe during the flight?
    And on a related note, how about this week for some Civ V given that September is out for you?

  5. Josh

    Civ needs parental controls to lock out the Domination route as a means of victory… I say that as a joke but it would definitely be interesting to see a no-armies, no-aggression version that required you to think in terms solely of proper balance in peaceful expansion and cultural/research accomplishment… not so much a battle as a race.
    I myself have no problem making morally ill choices for the sake that they are morally ill. I really got a kick at devouring the Little Sisters in Bioshock, I guess would be the closest example. What makes my gut churn a bit is when I make a decision that doesn’t follow the story in what I consider to be a loyal way. Though they’re trying to expand video game stories in “choose your own adventure” style modes, usually there are very clear indicators of the “good” path and that the good path is the one to follow (with a few exceptions, the choice at the end of Blood Omen followed story as the “evil” choice when they expanded the world in order to accommodate a greater good), when you’re defying the story’s progression, and sometimes for me it feels like screwing with the story’s intended direction just for the sake of screwing with it. I have a real problem whenever I come to a crossroads and go outside the bounds just to prove I can…
    This is why I admire and resent the Bioware games to a large degree, as well, IMHO. They’re doing promising things in exploring the openness of storytelling but the consequence seems to be a weakening of the story or rather making the specifics as generic as possible in order to accommodate the most options with the least divergence. I think once that ground starts getting covered we’ll see the “next level” of gaming reveal stories that progress down specific paths that all have strong and individual narratives, rather than being other ways to explore a quest or two.
    Of course, when I make this critique, I’m just referring to “choose-your-own-adventure” games as those with a narrative, such as the Bioware games. Civ is certainly “choose-your-own-adventure” in its own right but the playing field not focusing on a narrative goal and rather the board-game style goal of simple victory means it doesn’t suffer these weaknesses… at least in my book.
    I went off on a tangent there!

  6. Tim Elling

    I just don’t think it’s as easy as all that. It’s just impractical to have both freedom of choice and a well-fleshed-out story. The amount of work involved in doing so makes it not at all worthwhile (from a developer’s perspective).
    They typical good/evil cheeseball moral choices we see a lot of in games these days are typically a single story with a bit of flavor thrown in along the way. Sometimes small side branches have 2 (or, gasp, 3!) solutions, but the amount of writing involved doesn’t go far beyond what a strictly linear plot would entail (there are exceptions).
    Part of what makes this possible is that most choices aren’t far-reaching. Once you get to the next town, there’s typically very little that carries over from your choices beyond just how good/evil the game has judged you to be.
    Now, there’s the whole possibility of emergent gameplay, etc, but weaving that into a pre-written story gets really complicated.
    Look at it from the perspective of an imaginary DM, asked to give the players a significant amount of freedom, but also to never improvise (stick only to things prepared beforehand).

  7. Arcane Gazebo

    We need machine learning technology to get to the point where we can feed an AI some appropriate source material plus the contents of and it will create a narrative in real time in response to the player’s actions…

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