The Ethics of Computer Games

May Daouk
May Daouk
Nov 17, 2018 · 7 min read

According to Orland (2011), Grand Theft Auto V is an action-adventure video game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. Set within the fictional state of San Andreas, based on Southern California, the single-player story follows three criminals and their efforts to commit heists while followed by a government agency. The open world design lets players freely roam San Andreas’ open countryside and the fictional city of Los Santos, based on Los Angeles. The player can use melee attacks, firearms and explosives to fight enemies, and may run, jump, swim or use vehicles to navigate the world (Orland,2011). In regards to GTA 5 two perspectives persist to it; on one hand it is admired for its advanced production but on the other, it is criticized for the so claimed “harmful” impact its content has on the users.

GTA is admired for its advanced graphics, its storytelling and soundtracks (Ore, 2013). Some claim that this games grants them liberty and the freedom of interaction that a player enjoys, which is not found in any previous game. According to Reynolds (2002), during the game the player can interact with just about any character, vehicle or weapon that they come across. Players drive where they want and can even take a train across town. They also add that this game is exaggeratedly fun where it has no impact on the player and grants them a way to escapism; however we ask that even if violent games like GTA don’t have a direct effect on our behavior, if the games are just an escape, what does that say about how we escape? Is this our definition of ‘fun’ now? Is this how we ‘play’? (Reynolds, 2002).

Contrary, some argue that the game has generated several controversies related to its violence and depiction of women. According to Macdonald (2013), a mission that requires players to use torture equipment in a hostage interrogation polarized reviewers, who noted its political commentary but felt that the torture sequence was in poor taste. The mission also received criticism from politicians and anti-torture charity groups. The game became subject to widespread online debate over its portrayal of women, particularly in the wake of backlash against GameSpot journalist Carolyn Petit when she claimed the game was misogynistic in her review. After Petit’s review webpage received more than 20,000 largely negative comments, many journalists defended her right to an opinion and lamented the gaming community’s defensiveness towards criticism. According to Jackson (2014), television personality Karen Gravano and actress Lindsay Lohan both filed lawsuits against Rockstar in allegation that characters in the game were based on their likenesses. Their lawsuits were later dismissed. Australian department store Target pulled the game from their 300 stores following a Change.org petition against depictions of violence towards women in the game. In short, GTA is charged with being: sadistic; in bad taste; having a tendency to reduce the players sense of responsibility, respect for property or respect for rules of any kind; degrading to women; encouraging of violence and lastly — not the sort of game that a member of a civilized society would play.

According to Pri.org (2010), countries from Australia to Saudi Arabia have banned games in the “Grand Theft Auto” series for their violent content and glorification of criminal lifestyles. But a Brazilian court blocked the sale of the latest installment, “Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City,” for a more surprising reason. The game features the song “Congo Kid,” which a Sao Paulo court ruled is an unauthorized remix of the song “Bota o Dedinho pro Alto,” by the Brazilian composer Hamilton Lourenco da Silva, sung by the composer’s 8-year-old son. The judge ordered the game pulled from shelves worldwide because of the copyright violation.

Games like GTA 5 enjoy a high level of liberty in the content they produce and shield themselves under the armor of free speech. The controversy appointed by video games whether they should be protected by free speech or governed makes us question if it’s the users’ responsibility or is it that of the game manufacturers that people may get influenced by online games- that is if these games can influence one’s behavior in the first hand.

According to Takahashi (2014), when it comes to the ethical choices that game developers make when they decide what to put into their creations, they face the same moral issues that artists in any other communications medium face. They must struggle with balancing their rights to free expression with the tastes of consumers and be concerned about the effects their content has on their audience. While it’s easy for games to enlighten and enliven the human experience, they are still a form of media and expression, and thus possessed of the ability to influence those that play them. But because videogames are a newer medium, game designers are still struggling with what kind of ethics code they should adopt. Legally, games qualify as a form of expression that is protected under the First Amendment. Legally, consumers are also protected and here is where age restrictions come in place (Takahashi, 2014). A lot of games as movies are categorized under ratings in which some ages are banned from some games, however, with the lack of responsibility of the sellers and with the spread of piracy these age restrictions are of no use. Which makes us question, in this case, are the game developers or designers to be blamed if under aged children get their hands on certain games? Or are their guardians and the pirates to be blamed? Moreover, judgments about which games are unethical depend on the eye of the beholder. And the gravity of the debate depends on what games really are. If they are just a form of entertainment, then they need not pay more attention to ethics than movies do. If they are works of art, then they should be held to higher standards. In other words, it is the design goals themselves that put ethical limits on game designers (Takahashi, 2014)

According to Reynolds (2002), unlike any other media, computer games are unique in their nature — they are interactive. The fact that a video game is necessarily interactive means that if we play a game we must make choices. Sure we make a choice to see a film or read a book and each of these are moral choices that say something about us, but the difference with a game is that we make choices within the game itself — these choices are the game. So when we choose to kill something in a game, we have in a very real sense made a moral choice to kill. But context plays a large role in the moral status of this choice. Thus if we should say that games should be restricted or governed more than other forms of entertainment media we should first prove that they can influence our behavior through the only distinguishable feature they have which is interactivity.

Firstly, scientists don’t have a large enough sample group to study the connection between playing video games and participating in mass shootings. However, some scholars, notably Craig Anderson at Iowa State University, say that there is enough evidence to show that playing violent video games is one factor leading to violent behavior. A skeptic of the connection between game violence and real-world violence is Chris Ferguson of Texas A&M University, he says none of the studies were adequately conducted to show a definitive connection between video game playing and violent behavior. Thus a clear answer is not provided to us (Kilhefner, n.d.).

It is worthy to mention that, fictional realism of games needs to be sensitive to the historical conditions in which it operates. According to Takahashi (2014), in analyses of history and representation, we get farther by thinking about how these representations close down the possibility of imagining history otherwise, whether through counter history or by creating narratives that push players to experience histories that actually recognize different subject positions. That is the tyranny of realism. It forces game makers and critics alike to focus too much on questions of accuracy, rather than emancipatory possibility. It is also indicative of how imagined audiences over-determine the stories companies are willing to tell. If we can only imagine new ways of viewing what has been, we never get a chance to imagine what might be.

Finally, we acknowledge that some games can be violent, and although age restrictions persist, a lot of under aged gamers can have their hands on any game with the spread of piracy and online hackings. However, censorship and bans are not the answer, they are just a way to shelve a problem rather than solve it. Instead of putting all our efforts to suppress freedom of speech when it comes to gaming we can employ them in digital media literacy. When gamers are well informed and specially if surrounded by good morals and principles, this game or any other won’t an issue no more. Besides that studies did not yet show a direct correlation between violent games and violent acts thus saying that GTA 5 is fundamentally harmful for allowing people to kill characters is not backed up with evidence.

References:

Orland, Kyle (14 September 2011). “Grand Theft Auto IV Passes 22M Shipped, Franchise Above 114M”. Gamasutra. Retrieved 21 September 2011.

Takahashi, Dean (7 April 2014). “‘Mr. Tetris’ explains why the puzzle game is still popular after three decades (interview)”. VentureBeat. Retrieved 12 May 2016.

Jackson, Mike (27 February 2014). “Mob Wives’ Karen Gravano suing Rockstar over GTA V character”. Computer and Video Games. Future plc. Archived from the original on 7 July 2014. Retrieved 15 April 2014.

MacDonald, Keza (16 September 2013). “Grand Theft Auto V Review”. IGN. Ziff Davis. Archived from the original on 16 September 2013. Retrieved 16 September 2013.

Kilhefner, J. (n.d.). Ethicsin Game Design. Retrieved from http://work.chron.com/ethics-game-design-22838.html.

Reynolds, R. (2002). Playing a “Good” Game: A Philosophical Approach to Understanding the Morality of Games. Retrieved from: http://www.igda.org/articles/rreynolds_ethics-s.php.

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Media Ethics and the Law