Guest writer Benjamin Wallis is the Senior Editor for the Cross and the Controller and podcaster on No Avatars Allowed, a twice-weekly videogame and theology podcast. He is a Postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, an M. Div. Student at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, father, and avid gamer.
The following article was first published at The Cross and the Controller and has been adapted for publication on our site.
When I was a kid I was always the Cop, and never the Robber.
I loved “playing make believe” (or role-playing as I like to call it now). Make believe was the best game of all. I would explore different characters, from knights in shining armor, to army commanders in the heat of battle, to government agents hunting down drug lords. I had a strange and imaginative childhood. This play led to a love of writing. I would “self publish” short stories, writing them out into little books with self drawn cover art. Even though I loved to write, the writing served primarily to fuel the play. It always came back to make believe, an elementary form of live action role playing. I was LARP’ing long before I ever rolled a d20.
Every day millions of other kids around the world engage in this form of LARPing. They pretend to be Jedi and Sith in an endless battle of good vs. evil. Before there was Star Wars they were Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers. No matter how those roles are filled they’re always representative of the same concepts: good and evil. When kids play this game it usually ends the same: good triumphs over evil. My nephews play Jedi vs. Sith, but of course the Jedi always beat the Sith. The Cops always catch the Robbers. Good beats evil. This kind of fantasy violence helps children learn the difference between good and evil. This make believe also prepares children to cope with real life situations. Often, children will pretend to play a baby lion whose mother has died because they’re afraid that their parents could die and they’re learning to cope with real life possibilities.
Videogames provide us with similar opportunities. Heavy Rain gives players the chance to face the death of a child. Halo: Reach gives the chance to stand and fight against genocide. Many games let us play the good guy, but other games let us play both sides. Counter-Strike reenacts battles between terrorists and counter-terrorists. Some games let us explore our dark side. Grand Theft Auto is notorious for letting you steal and kill in a sandbox city, an open exploration of crime to your heart’s content. Now, in Kuma Games’ game KumaWar it’s the Navy SEALs vs. Osama bin Laden and company. If children’s play allows for the exploration of fear in a safe way where the good guys usually come out on top, videogames take the exploration even further. They let us explore our own dark side, and even blur the lines between good and evil. This generates a lot of buzz and criticism. It’s easy to understand why you would play as a hero, fighting against evil and injustce. But why would anyone want to play a game where you shoot unarmed civilians in an airport? Why would anyone play a game where you can defend Osama bin Laden against American troops?
These games are appealing to us because they are an adult version of the old Cops and Robbers. They allow us to struggle through our fear of real life possibilities. They help us explore our world in a safe environment: an isolated, simulated environment.
In his article on KumaWar, Brian Crecente asks some tough questions about the morality of playing this kind of game: “Is this essentially the same as ‘spiking the football’ after a victory, something President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he doesn’t want the U.S. to do? Is this a game that is cathartic, educational, or just ghoulish?” The game designers claim that the purpose of the game is to help us experience the events of bin Laden’s death in a way that photos and news articles can’t do: through interactive experience. Videogames present an opportunity for powerful virtual experiences that have emotional potency but exist safely in interactive fantasy.
It’s true that some might play this game with different motivation. There are some who may get a sick sense of pleasure out of killing unarmed civilians. With any art medium there is the danger that it will be enjoyed outside of the intention of the artist. This liability is the byproduct of a free society, and there should be boundaries that we decide upon as a society as to how far games can go. Mostly, we are drawn to these games because there is still that child in us who is unsure and afraid of a world beyond our control.
These games teach us not only about the world but about ourselves. As I said before, I never played the Robber; I was always the Cop. When I look back on those games I can see now there was another fear hidden inside that little boy: the fear of seeing anything dark or scary in myself. Each of us struggles with issues deep within ourselves and games can be a source of empowerment and a way to overcome the stumbling blocks along our life path. They help us face our fears. They teach us to problem solve and overcome obstacles. Just as children’s play develops these skills, videogames at their best have the power to do the same for teenagers and adults.
These games can also lead us to ask difficult questions. They should help us explore moral possibilities. It is for this reason that I find myself now, as a self-avowed pacifist, defending violent games. The real ethical question is not “is it wrong to play as a bad guy” but “how should justice be carried out?” We should be asking “what kind of war is just” and “is vengeance the same as justice.”
So yes, I will play the “Osama bin Laden kill game.”
And I will take my turn playing the Robber.