Video Game Violence: The Military and Game Developers Can't Both Be Right

An ethicist explains why the debate over on-screen homicide is more complicated and worthwhile than we might think.

The debate over violence and video games is in its petulant teens. In a sense, the conversation is just a re-skinned hash of the Black Sabbath and Dungeons & Dragons debates of the late 1980s and 1990s. The key difference is that metal and dice games aren’t used by the government to train soldiers. Video games are — now more than ever. Does this imply a link between anti-social impulses and joystick excellence? Absolutely, and trying to square that with the developers’ tautological argument that violence is violence and games are games is only getting harder.

Thanks largely to unmanned drones, the line between video games and warfare has gotten a lot blurrier. Battle is conducted on screens by men and women who are both divorced — and extremely not — from the reality of conflict. This is what fascinates Prof. Robert Sparrow of Australia’s Monash University, an ethicist who set out to reconcile the video game industry’s claims of innocence with the history of battle simulators and gamified war. His research was far reaching and profound, but he couldn’t manage the trick.

Professor Sparrow spoke to Inverse about why dismissing the connection between video games and violence is intellectually lazy and why that’s bad news for both warriors and gamers.

I’d love to start today by discussing an earlier paper of yours called War Without Virtue where you look at the idea of military ethics in the age of war as a desk job. Tell me about the “Good Warrior”.

The conception called the Warrior Virtues or Martial Virtues that gets into “role morality”: the idea that certain people— doctors, lawyers, soldiers— have both special moral privileges (soldiers are allowed to shoot people) but also special responsibilities moral obligations. An American woman named Shannon French has sort of pioneered this as an approach to military ethics— how important it is that members of the armed services need to understand what they’re doing is moral and worthwhile because that’s crucial to their ability to reintegrate to reality. When you come home you need to be able to be able to think of yourself as a good person. Soldiers have an easier time going back to being citizens if they’ve acted in accordance with their own moral code as reinforced by those around them.

There’s a lot of questions around this now because of the operators of remote drone aircraft and a bigger debate about whether they should receive medals and awards for service that are equivalent to combat medals. Some say “well, you’re not really going to war” but we see these operators burdened by guilt and an inability to reconcile actions against a moral code and it isn’t reflected consistently by those around them. How do we understand the ethics or what these people are doing? Is it brave? Do they act with honor? What does it mean to demonstrate mercy through a video screen?

You’re saying that the military has a hard time understanding whether drone fighters are technically fighters?

Moral courage can haunt you but there’s also a perceived disconnect with the idea of unmanned drone pilots and “physical courage,” which is a central concept in the role of being a warrior. So I’m fascinated by the role of those media screens in the transmission of the moral reality of warfare.

Here’s the issue: We don’t treat drone pilots on the same way because what they’re doing is easy to criticize. It’s the gamification of warfare; “video game warfare” as critics call it. But we do reward and honor the pilots of manned aircraft like B-52 bombers. Drone pilots make the case that the pilots of manned aircraft fly very high over their targets, and drop payloads on a set of GPS coordinates. That’s warfare that everyone understands and these pilots understand their place within the warrior code. But drone operators use their technology to spy on targets and observe them for long periods of time. They learn who these people are and follow them through their daily life, and when the time comes to execute them they watch these people bleed out, and then take note of who comes to mourn the body and bury them. That’s obviously a much more personal, emotionally invested experience than dropping bombs on a set of map coordinates. Now you have these drone operators experiencing PTSD and guilt and being met with accusations that what they do isn’t “real heroism” and I think you can see the problems.

So you came to video games via an interest in military application and the disconnect that screens provide to warfare?

I wasn’t much of a gamer— I actually developed repetitive stress injuries from typing so that was problem. I got around that by starting to play more games on my phone. Also, by including my colleague Brendan Keogh on the paper, because he’s more at home in the world of games.

I wasn’t playing Call of Duty for fun when I got into this. My interest was originally the role of video imagery and then the literature on video simulation. I wanted to get past the media effects of representation, which you’re well aware of. There’s a debate about whether books lead people to kill each other, so I’m not trying to prove that videogames have the same effect. It’s about the causal power of any particular medium. It’s particularly clear with video games, where there’s some panic and there’s literature on the panic and games study literature that says it doesn’t really affect people. So when you tried to write in that area you can get trapped there.

What I wanted to say is, let’s put that aside. There is a lot of money being poured into video games being used by the military to train people, and to recruit people. On the most basic level, if something is being used as both a genuine training tool for military purposes and as entertainment, does that seem problematic? Some of these games for the military are even designed to increase your respect for human life, but if it can be successful in changing you in that way, doesn’t that imply you can be changed in negative ways too?

Wait, so you’re saying that either the military is well aware that games have the power to change people or that they’re lying to themselves at great cost?

No, I’m trying to make readers make a choice. I am opposed to the claims of the inertness of games. I tried to under commit as to who is right here, because I think there are cases to be made on both sides about the effectiveness of what is going on here, but on the most basic level you cannot claim that video games, or any medium, exists without impacting a person. In simplest terms, if you keep playing a video game you will get better at that video game. That proves that video games do change you. So what do we want to do with that information?

Me, personally, I think advertising works. If that works then games can shape behavior. It seems likely. There are gun manufacturers who are paying to have their guns placed in video games because they think it is marketing for people to buy their gun in the real world. If they didn’t think this was an effective marketing tool, with real world implications, why would they waste their time or money on it?

So if games are being used to train people, and games affect gamers, we have to re-examine what we’re being taught?

I wanted to raise the possibility that the military is just engaged in PR. And if it is just a recruitment tool—and if you can recruit using it— then you can reshape the behavior. You don’t want to conclude that everyone who plays games is going to turn into a monster, but you aren’t the same person after playing three months of Call of Duty as you would be having never played it — that’s equally implausible. I do not want to be arguing that games shape behavior. Either they do or they don’t. We need to look again at what recreation gaming is teaching us, and the paper is designed to force people to reconcile the claims about the utility of military gaming and the claims about the inertness of entertainment gaming.

Where is your work heading with this, since you seem to have an overarching interest in the media disconnect of warfare?

The paper is part of a larger project about virtual worlds. If you approach ethics through the lens of “what kind of person would do that” or “what does that show about me when I do that” — this virtue-ethical lens— one of the questions I’m interested in is could a gentle person cheer when the bombs go off in the video game? Who sits down at the controller to take part in this? Does a Buddhist or Pacifist play shooters, and when they do, what does that say? It’s a question of character that’s a central concern.

Some of the games you’ve pointed me towards in the realm of military produced training include claims that they are making soldiers more culturally aware and respectful of human life.

One way to make that argument about character is to show that the game can indeed change you. If it works this game wants to say it can make you less racist. Can a game make you less racist? Could you be racist in a video game space? If you play a game but make the choice to only shoot the characters that are African Americans or if the game itself had a racialized set of targeting systems… I would think that was racist. Maybe that’s you or maybe that’s the game but by most definitions that clearly displays an element of racism. The impact of games is often measured by, “Is there impact on your future actions” but also, what do you demonstrate about yourself when you exist in these spaces? If I only want to shoot people with blue hair or if I only want to shoot women — does that display sexism? Can the game change that?

In The Gamer’s Dilemma by Morgan Luck he counterposes CGI child rape games to first person shooters. If someone were playing a child rape game, most people would feel profoundly uneasy. What would your partner say if you were raping children? Not real children, but you were raping digital children and then you came down to dinner and said “Sorry, I just had to finish with that child rape.” That’s horrific. But there are lots of people who come down to dinner and say “Sorry, I just had to finish the level where I blew up all those people,” and no one has the same reaction to that. If you don’t believe the games will affect you— why do we think you’ll become a pedophile if you’re playing a child rape game? This is about representation in our attitudes towards sexual and physical violence.

Your paper looks a lot of the ways we might explain the disconnect between what is entertainment and what is designed to train us. Is there any way to tell or is it all about intention?

I don’t think there’s going to be easy mapping of training versus entertainment. The gamification movement is about making training entertaining, right? One of the first uses uses of military applications in gaming was a Marine training Doom mod and they were running small unit tactics in game.

You can look at the intention of the designer. A common problem in media ethics is that things get taken out of context. People take things produced for one purpose and make a different use — either more entertaining or more actively educational. Then there’s the intention of the person playing. You can be playing a training game for fun. One of the things thats fascinating about the medium is how the power changes at levels of representation — killing someone can be shown on screen as their body fading to gray or a penguin hopping up and down with coins popping out or exaggerated viscera can spray the walls. It makes this question about the relationship between world and image so fascinating. People do have a pretty clear notion of what defines violent or sexist games — but when you push it’s hard to pin down. Whether what you’re representing is war in Iraq or war in Imagine-istan.

Your paper also gets into the idea that maybe games aren’t effective training tools for what they claim, but I think that ignores some basic concepts like “teamwork” which I feel like I can develop around a game of Mario or something simple like that. It seems like it must be hard to prove or debunk some of these general training concepts and positives that the military wants to assert.

There’s a real and basic sense that the games can teach skills because you get better at the games. Can you take that same skill and apply it to a real world activity and get the same increase in performance? If you were training manual dexterity and had the right controller you could get this out of Mario Brothers— but you might not able to be to transform into a great violinist or surgeon just from proper button mapping.

The Player-Subject is brought up as an idea of ethical transference— how it becomes difficult to measure any of these changes because of what the player has to project into this space.

There are two way to evaluate what’s happening in the game ethically — the impact on the real you in the future. That’s not controversial— what’s controversial is can they make you different morally. We need to be clear— it’s not the medium alone, it is also the content. Presumably they can also make you a nicer person. It is highly unlikely to only make people more violent— there’s an entire spectrum of effects. The other sense of ethical measurement is to evaluate the behavior in-game independent of future— is the game a racist game? Is a game called Jew Killer existing independently of its future effect on their behavior. You think you’re playing this to avoid going postal, but we don’t usually think we’re more likely to do this thing in the real world.

Oh, I see what you’re saying. That moment where someone says “I need to blow some people up as stress relief because my job was hard today.” No one says that because they think they need the game to prevent them from becoming a murderer?

Stress relief is fascinating because it pre-supposes that the games do change your behavior: ‘I feel like going out to shoot up a school, oh thank God that Grand Theft Auto was here to stop me!’ If a game can relax you, it can wind you up. But what does it say about that kind of person who has come to enjoy the fantasy of killing people?

It’s a test case for the consequences. If piloting a drone can induce people with PTSD why isn’t it happening to people with Call of Duty.

Screenshot from Call of Duty

Are people coming away with PTSD from video games?

That’s why drones are so fascinating in this perspective. I was writing about the ethics of robotics and autonomous weapons, and as drones took over I got into the robot war action. It’s one of the first things you hear in any debate about drones — they are video game warfare and they make killing too easy — so thinking about how they are like and unlike video games says a lot. Ender’s Game, the reactionary sci-fi book, that character finds out he’s been fighting a war but he didn’t know because of the screen between him and the world. And that’s what drone pilots are up against now. Some of them are having to deal with the repercussions of taking human life, but because they never stood there and looked down on a body they don’t know if they’ve ever really killed someone or if this is a thought experiment.

You brought up the empathy of drone pilots. Can we display empathy through a digital screen?

There’s an old book about TV called Four Arguments For Elimination of Television. The argument he makes in one chapter is about the limits of television for environmental activists. How do you get people to care about a swamp by putting advertisements on TV? It’s easy to show gleaming results and it’s so hard to show the value of a complicated ecosystem that has a rhythm and physical presence that you can’t get across on a small screen. This is about the limitations of the medium for conveying the moral reality of what’s presented. What’s the relationship between the drone pilot and the person they’re observing or the moral relativism? How much of that can be transmitted via video feed? If it can, then why isn’t it being transmitted by a game in which you play a drone pilot? It’s not just an empirical question; it’s important in having a moral relationship. It’s a hard question and that’s why I’m interested in it.

Note: More of Prof. Sparrow’s work can be found here. On “Playing For Fun”, the following authors are also credited: Rebecca Harrison, Justin Oakley, and Brendan Keogh.

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