Well, that seems to be the impression Patrick Bach, executive producer of Battlefield 3, has. When questioned by a competition winner from Rock, Paper, Shotgun he remarked, “If you put the player in front of a choice where they can do good things or bad things, they will do bad things, go dark side – because people think it’s cool to be naughty, they won’t be caught… In a game where it’s more authentic, when you have a gun in your hand and a child in front of you what would happen? Well the player would probably shoot that child.” As a subsequence Battlefield 3 is not going to be keen on letting you strafe any civilian life you encounter. Personally I think his comments are a little naive and at best uncharitable to us gamers.
One of my research students has recently interviewed some adolescent gamers (15-17 year olds) on this very issue, exploring the roll of morals and ethics in young gamers. What was her most interesting finding? That it’s fine to shoot other players and NPC’s who might impede your game progress but it’s not the done thing to liquidate neutrals, women or children just for the fun of it. In fact these adolescents went as far as saying such things are frowned upon in their gaming circles. Now I’m not saying there won’t be some players somewhere out there who enjoy such things but I’m arguing the majority of us would try to avoid them if they were not central to progressing the plot line.
I have played hours upon hours of Red Dead Redemption and can only remember shooting three NPCs that I didn’t have to. One NPC wondered aimlessly into my line of fire. The two others were shot on purpose – not motivated by pure inherent gamer evil, but by the need to meet a game challenge, which involved staying alive and becoming ‘most wanted.’ In fact, in the same game, whilst online, I have actually heard other players chiding co-players for shooting civilians, only for them to argue that they hadn’t meant to, etc.
My point is that I don’t believe players always adhere to the evil stereotype. I do think games allow us to experiment with the environment, in a kind of “what would happen if I did this?” way. Surely, this is simple curiosity. It’s the same as if I sat you all down in front of a desk with a large glowing red button on it – how many of you would want to push it or wonder what happens if you did press it? That’s one of the big draws of video games; they allow us to experiment with curiosity in a fun and safe environment. How many of you, if you encountered a real dragon on your way home from work, would strap on a shield, grab the nearest sword, and advance confidently on it? Not me. My car would be in reverse all the way. Gamers know that what they are playing isn’t real – even the majority of seven year-olds fully understand that what they can do in a game they couldn’t or shouldn’t do in reality. So do you really need to be banned from shooting civilians to save yourself from your own evilness or should game developers just give you the choice and hope you’ll do the right thing?