Video Games Are Making Us Jerks

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, July 29, 2011 at 9:00 am
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The question around games always seems to focus on violence. Can playing super-gory games like Gears of War or Call of Duty turn a normal, law-abiding citizen into a kill-crazy maniac? The answer, obviously, is no. Or else we'd be living in a world full of mass murderers. But that doesn't mean that videogames can't help re-enforce more subtle behaviors -- like being a selfish, inconsiderate jerk.

That's pretty much how we all behave when we're playing games. We rifle through strangers' houses in search of loot, we kill innocent chickens and we wreck cars just for kicks. Most everything we do in videogames is for our own betterment, with litter concern for the feelings of others. We may be saving the world, but why do we have to be such jerks about it?
A recent article in The Guardian intersects with my train of thought. In his story "How the internet created an age of rage," writer Tim Adams outlines how anonymity has made an a-hole of most everyone who has ever posted a comment or joined a message board. For me the key point made in the story is around the notion of de-individuation. Geeks may know this as The Greater Internet Dickwad Theory. It's a phenomenon that occurs when a person joins a large group or has their identity concealed. They're able to easier side-step social norms when they lose themselves. 

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One experiment found that kids dressed in Halloween costumes were more likely to steal money when they had their masks on than when their faces were showing. What are videogames, but highly complex masks? 

I'm a huge proponent of fantasy. I value videogames because they let me act out on impulses that I'd never honor in real life. I'd never steal a car or point a gun at another human being. But in videogames I do both unconscionable acts with frequency. And I'd like to think that my ability to get those virtual kicks prevent me from ever feeling curious about doing the real thing.

But games are often played with other humans. And I hate to admit that once or twice I've fallen into the trap of anonymity. Once, while playing Left 4 Dead I berated a stranger in a way that I'd never do face to face. In fact, when I first signed on to Xbox Live to play Crimson Skies, the first things I spoke into my microphone were cruel jabs at other players. My first impulse was to heckle my opponents mercilessly. I thought I was being funny, but I was just being a dick.

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I try very hard to be a nice person when playing videogames now (though my wife says I still use my "bossy" voice when playing Left 4 Dead with friends). If I'm playing World of Warcraft I won't pick an herb if I notice somebody standing near it, fighting a mob, on the offhand chance that they got jumped while trying to pick the flower. Of course not everyone is so thoughtful. The funny thing about World of Warcraft is that while you're soloing it is much like a single-player game. Outside of cities you barely see other players. But once, while running through quests with my sister Outland a stranger took the time to call us "noobs." The fact that someone would bother to type an insult at us for no reason other than to make us feel bad really bummed me out. 

I learned a lesson about being the dick last weekend while playing the board game Power Grid. I found myself in a position where I could encroach on two other players. That's the point of the game. You're competing with other players to build a network and the space is limited. That's part of the design. I chose a valid strategy. I blocked my friend Jason in a corner rather than let him box in a large cluster of cities for himself. And in starting this entanglement I allowed my opponent on the other side to flourish and eventually win. The smarter play was to co-exist. But, as often happens, I got swept up and let my hunger for consequence-free aggression cloud my judgement.

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Of course there are tons of ways that games can help us learn to work together, co-operate towards a common goal and do good. But there's something inherent about games' ability to let us slip into new roles and shed our own that worries me a little -- especially as more and more games become about interacting with other people. 

When asked where I live my impulse, often, is to say that I live in Southern California half the time, the Internet the other half. But the Internet is an increasingly ugly place. Maybe it was always that way. My worry is that our lives in games are doomed to become that way too. I'm just now beginning to understand those oddballs who only play single-player games. Sartre was right when he said, "Hell is other people." I pray I don't become one of them. 

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa that paints all gamer with the same broad brush.


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