114: Are You Evil?

Are You Evil?

"In the search for true evil, I discovered a man known as Mordred. Taking his name from the traditional Arthurian villain, Mordred told me he only played villainous characters. To him, it wasn't a challenge or a task, he merely chose the dialogue or actions he felt he would say or do. 'The first time [playing through] is always how I, personally, would react in that situation, and I always end up evil at the end. No surprise to me, though,' he said."

From the Stanford Prison Experiment to Grand Theft Auto, Greg Tito examines what it means to be evil.

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One problem with the expression of evil, or personality in general, in RPGs is the reliance on dialogue trees. A position thrown at you a lot is one covered in the article: demanding payment for heroic services rendered. If I were playing a game through "as I would do it" I would probably accept as reward as possible for my actions, but actually saying "I think I deserve more gold than this," or "Hand over more or your daughter dies by my hands," just seems ridiculous.

I don't know if this is an especially solvable problem, but I did recently find an RPG that successfully tempted me into evil actions: Vampire: Bloodlines. Even though her creation was originally a "humane" act, I found myself more and more willing to accept the power I held over "my ghoul", ordering her around brusquely, accepting the money from her college loans, and was made really uncomfortable by how natural the actions felt.

As for are players evil in RL because they are in the game. I don't think so, I mainly play evil characters to laugh at the acting, etc. ( the same reason i watch horror movies) and it's always different whereas most good sides of games tend to be similar and very predictable.

But with games like GTA:SA i think something needs to be done, because we don't have a problem with orc-killers in our society but we do have a problem with gang violence and that game definitely glorified gang violence.

I totally agree that the "goody goody or prick" choice that most games give you are highly unsatisfying, but it doesn't help that most gamers will play that way. Neither the games nor the players are stepping up to the challenge of looking at these issues in a more complex manner. One of the few games I've seen that gives you greater choice is Neverwinter Nights 2, which is pretty surprising considering D&D's black and white alignment system. The characters that joined your party had motivations that, while still fairly primitive, were much more interesting than good and evil. The dwarf fighter that joins you early on is, while still an out and out good guy, always looking for a good punch-up. So, despite alignment differences, a violent, evil character is more likely to gain favour with him than a diplomatic, good one.

Interesting thoughts, although it'd have been nice to have more research in the article.

I think games, since they are really not real life, tend to have little or no prohibitive reaction to anything bad done in them - the most that is lost is a life, or the end of the game (so you reload and try again), or a bit less cash, or some guards rush in, who you then kill. For instance, stealing in Oblivion you can be thrown in jail for a while - by omnipresent guards - but you can bribe your way out of it. Grand Theft Auto, arrest means the loss of your weapons, and nothing much more (a larger penalty later in the game of course). Being utterly evil in front of saintly NPC's never gets much more then a sideglance and of-hand comment on how bad the thing you did was, no stand is really taken.

Of course, it is because they are entertainment, and so most of the evil is, even when it is "real evil", not something that is impossible to do - you never have the game instantly end if a law person arrests you in a game (usually, you can just kill the law person and run away scott free) - it is entertainment to become the evillest thing you can, and sometimes the game actively enforces it in the story or missions where all you can do is criminal acts (quite a few RPG's do this with "thief" quests), although there isn't much a feeling of doing wrong, especially when the designers give you no other option!

And I sometimes wonder if the good options are really that nice either. Action games usually give no option to let anyone surrender, RPG games regularly have you killing off wild animals who would likely rather be left alone, and usually absolutely no option is made to arrest or imprison another NPC who has done wrong - perhaps even the same wrong which the player themselves would get arrested for. Makes evil part of the game, if everyone does it and gets away with it too!

I think the Escapist would know that people do play the games to escape (hohoho), be someone else most of the time, fill the boots, be in another world. I think morality, like the setting, the mechanics and suchlike can be up to the player how it goes (or what they choose to play and do) - and its not a bad thing to play the evil side (and like above, sometimes it is funny, and the article states some play it anyway to get all the content too), and certainly most people would not do those actions unless forced in real life.

The multiplayer angle is interesting. If killing or looting does break some form of law, or make the victim worse off, it is problematic - but some see it as pure mechanics or mathematics I guess, and others just like to annoy people, and others do like to do bad things, but that's fair enough, some people are mean and bad - better then them doing it to people in person.

This is a very thought provoking article. I personally tend towards the trend of the hero even in games that let you be a bad guy. Hell, I fell bad even when I kill the really evil dudes sometimes. I just don't have the potential for evil in me most of the time. Just the same, the potential is there, say I'm really angry about something or just in one of those moods. I can turn into one sadistic bastard. Though by no means does this reflect my normal state of mind.

Mr. Tito, did you happen to read Phil Zimbardo's new book? I just finished it and I had the sense from your article that you'd read it as well.

I don't remember its name, but the one game I've ever heard of with the greatest potential for sadism was some kind of pet simulator, with a relatively primitive but flexible AI, enabling you to reward or punish the creature at any time for any reason. The description I read of it included a scrawny little animal, constantly trembling, afraid to sleep and afraid to go to the bathroom. Cruelty in games is more or less finished, thuggishness and brutality are overdone, and role-playing evil is being explored very well; now how about some real villainy? Games have given me countless ways to sin, but the only ways they've given me to get away with it are bribery and murder. Where are the machinations? Where is the forethought? There's so much more to evil than wanton bloodshed.

Here's one. Make me the leader of a country, and let me take over from there. If I so choose, I can make my nation into the proverbial City on a Hill, fully expressing its Manifest Destiny, uniting the world in peace and happiness under its flag and leading mankind to a golden age of prosperity and enlightenment. Alternately, I can get my Machiavelli on, whip my people into a genocidal frenzy, utterly divest them from their empathy for their fellow man, use secret police to crush all dissenters and keep them in line. We've got Civilization, but I can't recreate 1984 in it.

Here's another one. Grand Theft Auto with real repercussions for your actions. Commit a crime and the police track you down in real time using real evidence that your actions leave behind no matter what. A population that learns from your actions organically. For the simple example, you decide to become a serial killer, and all your victims are women. In response, women walking around look frightened all the time, there are fewer of them, and more of them are escorted by men. If they know what you look like, they may scream when they see you, but if you don't know, then they'll just sort of shy away the same as they do for anyone. Let me frame somebody else for the crime. Let me even go to his trial and see if he's convicted. If he saw my face, have him rant and rave as he's being sent off to the slammer that I was the one, and they don't listen. Let me kidnap a character's girlfriend and tie her to the railroad tracks, and have her make a series of increasingly desperate offers for her life, which I may accept or refuse, and if I refuse them all, she gets run over, and now her boyfriend is determined to hunt me down and kill me. Give me a real sense of the lives that I'm ruining.

If you can't commit real evil in your game, then it can never really sicken the player's morals. You know it's not real. It's like you're just a Bond villain, there to fill a role. Real evil has consequences. Real evil makes you feel powerful, not just because you succeeded, but because you are feared. A game with real evil can make a more compelling argument for goodness than any game without it possibly could.

One has to beg the question of whether Mordred was telling the truth, or if he was merely role playing in his correspondence.

Not that there aren't an unsettling number of people like that out there.

In the experiments mentioned, were these people paid?

That's something I instantly think of when I hear them - yes, they were volunteers, but I've volunteered for experiments and been paid for it.

Is there the possibility that these people were thinking they wouldn't get paid if they disagreed with the authority figures, so went along with it?

There are things we do every day that, if we weren't getting paid for, we simply wouldn't do. Most of them aren't morally reprehensible as shocking someone, but in my mind most employment is immoral and unethical because I'm a bit of a commie...

FunkyJ: I hate to feed such an obvious troll, but: if I want a person to do something for me, then it's immoral to give him an incentive to do it? Or is the shoe on the other foot, and it's unethical for me to accept compensation for my work?

Moving on to the article itself.

My main gripe with the Milgram experiments were its assumption that putting human subjects in a laboratory produces the same psychological neutrality that you'd get from, say, a lab mouse, or from a human being in his natural environment. There's also an expectation that if something has gotten to the point where you are experimenting on a person (as the Milgram subjects thought they were, though in a different way than they truly were), then it's probably safe. Combine with that the reasonable belief that the "subject" actor had given their informed consent to be electrocuted, and it hardly makes a person a monster to prefer the belief that everything is all right to the belief that the entire world has suddenly taken a turn for the sadistic.

The Milgram experiment can provide a wealth of data, but the susceptibility of people to being coerced by authority in a natural environment are not among them. All it really proved is that people are more likely to obey instructions from people they trust more than pleas from people they trust less. I don't think that it has been accurately interpreted in most of the places where its data are examined.

Bongo - my answer would have to be neither.

I think it's immoral/unethical that we don't get proper reward from the effort of working.

But I don't think we can really get into that here ;)

On topic now...

I think my biggest problem with the whole Good/Evil thing is that on the whole it's set within a Western Christian context of good/evil.

And as someone who doesn't believe there is evil and good in any real sense, that good and evil are only social constructions which change over time and vary from culture to culture, it's sometimes difficult for me to accept I have to kill someone just because someone else (usually an authority figure) tells me they are "evil".

That's what I loved about Bioshock. Without giving away spoilers, I was shown a certain person was apparently "evil" through their actions, but when I was given a choice to kill them or let them live I let them live - they were insane not evil, and moreover they didn't attempt to harm me directly...

One thing really valuable about fiction, and about games in general, is that you can set up the world any way you want it to. If you want "good" and "evil" to be real in your setting, or vice versa, you can make it that way. It requires great skill, however, to communicate these ideas to an audience who doesn't exist in that setting. I suppose what we're waiting for is for a game to be made with that skill.

I, personally, am already feeling rather blasé about fiction that "challenges" my morality with increasingly unoriginal depictions of the concept that good and evil don't exist. Certainly, it's in the eye of the beholder - and now, I'm in the mood for a story about a beholder who doesn't think that being in his eye causes the concepts to be diminished.

If there's been a writer - in any medium - in the past fifty years, or longer, who has done justice to the sheer power behind the concept of "evil," then I haven't encountered him yet.

I really don't think that even as games get, well less suttle and you do start to take on roles as moraly questionable player, either by choice or storyline, it is just pretend at the end of the day. I know it, you know it.

I could club baby seals in hitler simulator XII all day and I would still help a lady across the street, or give a child his ball back! Once I even paid for a kid who dropped his ice cream. That was after running around on Vice city with a flame thrower burning everyone and everything what crossed my path!

We only use it as a way to relax, none of us would really go down to our virtual protagonists level!

The thing about morality in video games, and Bongo has mentioned this, is that there's no repercussions for these evil actions. A player may slaughter thousands of enemies, but they won't get anything more than a slap on the wrist and some sort of fine. We gamers have become accustomed to the slaughter of Nazis, Orcs and Goblins, but games have never presented us with any sort of ramifications for our actions. We aren't able to see a grieving family, we aren't able to see a widow awaiting her husband's return, we aren't able to see a child grow up without a parent.

The issue of morality in gaming is made more redundant with the lack of choice in gaming. At our current technological level, we can't effectively use technology to the extent that we could simulate the actions stated above. It would be cool to find a man chase after you, attempting to avenge their parent, who's blood is on your hands, but it's not possible without scripting. Our current technology also can't allow us to perform many truly evil actions, actions that would make even the most sadistic villain cringe. As is, we're given a choice between Saint, Onlooker and Saturday Morning Villain. In order to truly be able to test someone's morality in video games, we need to be able to do things that most sane people would never think of, but we also need to be able to feel the repercussions of those actions. As is, we do some measley actions that no one really cares about.

This brings me to my issue with the experiments: Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't the guards/teachers told to be sadistic, or at least were not to face any repercussions should they inflict significant harm onto the subject. The experiences removed any threats of repercussions. The threat of consequences stops the average human from doing many things, like murder and rape. Sure, we as a society have instilled taboo on those things, but take away the threat of repercussions of those actions, and people will have very little to hold them back. War is an example of this, where men often kill, rape and pillage to their hearts' content, paying no heed to law, since, Who's gonna make them?


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