Tropico Depressions

“If you’re not taking part in any backbreaking labor activities, grab a swimsuit and come to the beach!”

-- DJ Juanito

A year and a half ago, amidst the media fiesta surrounding the release of Resident Evil 5, N’gai Croal issued what I (at the time) considered to be an inflammatory, somewhat excessive denunciation of the game’s imagery. I wrote off the controversy as a hypersensitive tempest in a teacup.

I didn’t have any particular objection to what N’gai said. While I could see a certain misstep in the general plot -- alpha-male Chris Redfield traversing the Dark Continent, slaughtering savages and establishing a bulwark of civilization -- at the end of the day I felt this was a bit reductionist and probably well beyond the scope of the game’s design. The Las Plagas Spaniards were, after all, just as feral. It appeared to me that Croal had read too much into this one title, because, after all, “it’s just a game.” A game that happened to feature African zombies, but a game first and foremost.

It was very easy to dismiss talk of controversy for this very reason.

There is, of course, a problem with that line of thinking. I like to talk about the possibilities of games, to conjecture about the growth seen in narratives, story-telling mechanics, characterization. But at the same time, my conception of “controversy” seems to begin and end with the machinations of the industry. I rally to the side of writers suddenly displaced by changing tides. I decry the bottom-line mentality of studios farming intellectual properties until they’re depleted husks. But when it comes to games, I jump to defensive stances. Mostly because they’re games, not social treatises. How can we possibly object to entertainment?

Lately, N’gai Croal’s words – their insistence that there are greater cultural issues behind the games we play – have been spinning through my head. Not because of any current events. Not because I’ve been playing through RE5. Not even because I thought to review the words thrown about on either side of that particular argument.

It’s because I’ve played through the Tropico 3 demo, and I find that I’m not entirely comfortable with the world it depicts.

On History and Worldbuilding
Perhaps it is because I feel that I haven’t been “Latin enough.” Or maybe it’s the Latin American literature classes I took four years ago whispering sweet liberal-progressive epithets into ego. Whatever the root cause, there is a growing sense of unease as I navigate the hills and shanty towns of Tropico island.

Behind every choice, the implications of my actions affect the state of life on Tropico. Citizens, foreign nations, and disgruntled nationalists take note of every failed policy, every fiscal misstep, and every blunder. Occasionally, Tropico’s only employed radio personality, DJ Juanito, will issue a tongue-in-cheek report on the health of the nation. While the mechanic should make for endless chuckles and laughs, I found myself growing increasingly unhinged by the DJ’s observations. (It's something like hearing a morning zoo crew make humorous comments about the state of relief efforts in Haiti). Hearing wise-cracks about the dismal state of the economy, living conditions, or food supply does nothing but bring to mind the hardships and historical problems commonly associated with Latin American nations. Hardships, one should note, that are not necessarily confined to the dusty tomes of history books. Problems, one should realize, that continue to shape policy and life to this day.

Tropico 3 attempts to draw comedy from issues such as corruption, effusive propaganda machines and impoverished-but-hardworking citizens because these are well-documented abuses of power common to Latin America. It no secret that Cold War tensions ran high in the Caribbean and Central/South America as U.S. and Soviet interests attempted to influence national politics. Often, government coups caused economic and social instability as these power plays restructured national policies. Caught in the crosshairs were the working class, the intellectuals, the impoverished, who had to adjust to a destabilized national image. With limited recourse, they took up arms, fled, and attempted to fight against changes they thought harmed themselves and their home. Tropico 3 includes these people only as annoyances, barriers to achieving your own grand plan.

And since I’m the knucklehead in charge, I know that the people’s suffering rests squarely on my shoulders, that it is a direct result of my actions. In Tropico, I’m lucky enough to have a smartass radio personality lampoon El Presidente’s handling of the state. In the real world, such a figure would quickly find himself on the wrong side of a firing squad. Or worse. The incongruity between the two realities often serves to keep me from indulging in the game’s humor.

In an online walkthrough, Timo Thomas (Kalypso Media employee and product manager for Tropico 3) describes the essence of the game as “basically a Dictator simulator.” It would be one thing to say that a fictional island in a fictional Caribbean archipelago had to contend with fictional despots in a way that conveniently mirrored reality. Somehow, including historic figures as actual game characters (such as Castro, Guevarra and Pinochet) dilutes my ability to accept this all as lighthearted parody or smart-tongued satire. It would be the equivalent of having one of the September 11th hijackers as a radio traffic controller in the next edition of Pilotwings.

Part of this discomfort comes from the game’s success at compartmentalizing history into equal parts popular culture and apocryphal experience. In the intro screen, I am treated to a time-lapsed survey of life in Tropico. From the impending nuclear holocaust of 60s-era cold war tensions, through revolutionary warfare and socialist growing pains, to a hedonistic 80s tourism haven, the life of Latin America is quickly and conveniently retold. I see camouflage-clad rebels fight with military forces as heads-of-state are greeted by an entourage of military commandos. This is all very romantic, but ultimately sterile. Like some abstracted idea of Latin America’s greatest history hits, a military-garbed “Presidente” issues charismatic edicts as tin-eared music rife with maracas and exuberant, brassy horns syncopates in the background. I understand that there is a certain quaintness to the idea that this all happened at some distant point in time – the same kind of lightness with which people regard The Communists or The Clinton Administration. The universal joke is that this was the result of a less-developed time, the inevitable outcome of a people who were too simple to understand the global effects of their actions. The sticking point is that it is very easy to present these situations as humorous or hyperbolically Machiavellian, but when it comes to addressing the underlying truth behind the setpieces … well, that can get complicated.

Solitude Speaks Out
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez weaves together memory and fantasy to create the fictional Latin American village of Macondo. Partially modeled after his own childhood home, Marquez infuses Macondo with the stuff of legends: roving gypsy tribes, a citizenry populated with similarly-named ancestors, pig-tailed infants, ephemeral townships and apocalyptic prophecies. In doing so, Marquez subtly comments against the tendency to ascribe supernatural, mystic qualities to the region, comments against the tendency to accept the marvelous in place of the historic. Amidst the fantastic, Marquez writes of a fruit company massacre that is instrumental in driving the small pueblo to ruin. In the midst of a strike, hundreds of workers are gunned down by soldiers, their bodies secretly thrown into the ocean. As a result, the town experiences over four years of rain, loses most of its crops, and slides into decay as the multinational banana company leaves the region.

Sandwiched between resurrections, executions and cataclysmic winds, the massacre hardly seems like an event of great importance. Paradoxically, it is the one of the few events drawn straight from life. This juxtaposition between Latin America as a source of continual wonder and Latin America as a historic entity, fuels Marquez’ novel. Marquez’ novel juxtaposes Latin America as a historic entity and Latin America as a source of continual wonder, and the novel is fueled by the tension between the two. The Banana Massacre transcends historic tragedy and fictionalized account. Its importance is more than a footnote in the town charter, more than just a series of red marks in a company ledger. It becomes a portal through which the reader can understand how the fractionated views of Latin America and its history become mythicized.

Even more dangerously, Marquez warns that these illusory views can come to supplant the truth. When Macondo experiences a plague of insomnia, the citizenry simply adapts to their new lifestyle. Along the way, they begin losing memories, names of things and people, even a sense of their history. They continue in this fugue “until they sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.” This is the critique that rings throughout 100 Years directly into the hearts of Latin American nations: Losing the ability to remember history results in a history that is skewed, falsified, or utterly lost.

Unlike Marquez' story, the core realities that inform Tropico 3's scenarios aren't really used to promote a greater message. The famines caused by Castro and Guevarra, the banishment or execution of political dissenters, the jack-booted thugs that consume cities and rural villages, they're all present on Tropico island. But there's a thin layer of disassociation that prevents, to some extent, the horrors of reality from crashing against the world-building aspects of the game.

I wish that Tropico 3 could approach such a deft handling of history and narrative. (Perhaps it does. Admittedly, I’ve only played the demo). But while it models people and events roughly after history, that’s it. No greater comment on the reasons why it sucks to live in Tropico. No real acceptance or rejection of Soviet or American propaganda or the nations’ long-term effects on Latin America. It seems merely to be a sandbox with broad goals, but no real message as to its influences. Even worse, it perpetuates the legend-building that Marquez works against. Players walk away with a false sense that they've experienced history, that they have learned something about the state of Banana Republics in the 20th century. In reality, they've experienced a cliff-notes version, one that, once again, rewrites political and historical reality.

Facing off with the Game
From a gameplay perspective, Tropico 3 does a good job of reflecting what a fledgling communo-socialist dictator would have to deal with in the 1960s. I can be the second coming of Emiliano Zapata, or just another Soviet/Yankee puppet looking to line his Swiss bank account (players are rewarded for funneling state money into an offshore fund). I can try to improve the lot of the people on my island, build schools, healthcare facilities, universities, or I can turn the place into a nation-wide sweatshop. I can give my citizens substandard housing, but issue proclamations guaranteeing social security and ample food supplies. No matter what is done, I, as a player, can’t help but feel a personal failing when I see plank-board houses pop up, or see citizens expire because of poor healthcare. That I actually care about digital peons is surprising. That I never stopped to think about them before is a little worrying.

This is a concern that far eclipses Tropico or Resident Evil, one that might even go back to the halcyon days of Custer’s Revenge. As an aficionado of this particular entertainment form, I routinely enjoy, perhaps even benefit from, the situational blinders that can be employed to guarantee my enjoyment of a particular game or scenario.

“Those aren’t Iraqi/Afghani rebels, they’re generic Middle-Eastern soldiers.”
“Yeah, they’re Nazis … but they’re fictional Nazis. Amoral, non-real Nazis.”
“They’re just zombies. Doesn’t matter what color they are, they’re a commentary on our own inhumanity. Plus they’re full of squishy bits.”
“They’re oppressed workers in a tropical climate. Could be anyone, any country. Doesn’t mean they’re historic.”

I’m not saying these defense mechanisms are inherently flawed, not advocating for greater cultural sensitivity amongst gamers, not pointing fingers and urging people to educate themselves. What I am saying is that Croal’s comments (especially “If it's just a game, then why do we care about how culturally relevant they are?”) point towards a truth that I, as a consumer of games entertainment, have been wary of addressing:

I might be uncomfortable with something in a game.

This is uncharted territory for someone used to running over pedestrians, used to consuming the genomes of faceless soldiers to be used as health, used to plowing cars straight through high-rise buildings with nary an ethical qualm. I realize that just because something is designed as entertainment, it doesn’t get carte blanche to tread through moral gray zones. I am no less disgusted by Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom because it is a film. Though its imagery is unsettling, I would be equally repulsed were it a graphic novel, script, or audiobook. I am no more moved by The Diary of Anne Frank if I encounter it in written, staged play, or documentary form. But to be moved on a base level, not by fear, joy or squeamishness, because of the images and concepts portrayed in a game? That was unthinkable to me until Tropico 3 opened the door.

I realize that if I am to accept games as cultural art forms, I also have to be comfortable enough with the medium to apply the same aesthetic and cultural judgments I apply to other media – films, books, television, theatre. In most cases, that will find me praising a work. In certain cases, it’ll challenge me to find exactly why I am uncomfortable with something.

And here is where I come to my one grand proclamation:

If we want our games to grow, to mature, we must also grow as consumers. We can continue to laud productions for their fantastic visuals, to heap praise over immaculate voice acting. We can bandy about progression in game design and writing as evidence that the medium is coming into its own. We can commend scripting and cutscenes for capturing a certain cinematic flair. We can keep praising the cogs and circuits for their glittering intricacy, but without a greater message, we are relegating ourselves to critiquing well-executed action movies. We must allow for the possibility that our games will work against something deep within us – spirituality, literary theory, racial depictions, political reality – which we ourselves may be uncomfortable addressing. We must work against the idea that our idle playthings can both move us, but are inconsequential enough to brush aside when they present upsetting imagery.

That means we must afford our games the chance to be more than playthings.

Comments

Quintin_Stone wrote:
rabbit wrote:
Have you read A Theory of Fun For Game Design?

I cannot recommend it enough.


I have not, but I'll try and scare up a copy.

Ordered it on Amazon, thanks for the tip.

Great article Alex. I'm pondering the subject, without anything coherent to add right now (and probably nothing in the future that hasn't been already said better here).

I usually roleplay these kind of bottom-up games. I never played Tropico 3, but in Tropico 1 (which is apparently very similar except for the graphics) I tried playing as a benevolent leader. It resembles real life in that it's much easier for someone in power to oppress and fill your pockets than to actually try to improve the lives of your fellow man. This opposed to 99% of other games (especially RPG's) where being righteous is rewarded equally or more. In reality, being a good guy is never the path of least resistance.

Also, that Tropico made you feel uncomfortable probably makes it a better game than those in which you commited genocides without batting an eye.

If anyone's on the fence regarding Theory Of Fun, let me push you towards reading it.

wordsmythe wrote:
If anyone's on the fence regarding Theory Of Fun, let me push you towards reading it.

So now we're book-enablers as well?

We weren't before?

wordsmythe wrote:
If anyone's on the fence regarding Theory Of Fun, let me push you towards reading it.

Now I won't read it.

One thing I appreciate about the Tropico series is that they parody the "benevolent dictator" god games like SimCity where the player is expected to be a good and altruistic ruler, looking out for the welfare of their citizens, when in reality we all know they build up a city a good amount and then lay waste to it by chaining various disaster events. I appreciate the honesty in dropping the façade altogether.

Solitude Speaks Out, second paragraph:

Spaz wrote:
This juxtaposition between Latin America as a source of continual wonder and Latin America as a historic entity, fuels Marquez’ novel. Marquez’ novel juxtaposes Latin America as a historic entity and Latin America as a source of continual wonder, and the novel is fueled by the tension between the two.
I think this is the same sentence in two different revisions. This is a hell of an article, and thank you for writing it and getting my thoughts going.

There are lots of games that place "fun" as a secondary objective behind a message. They usually show up on the front page of this very site with a big red DOWNLOAD NOW link at the bottom of the description. Some people like them, some people don't like them, but they're out there in one form or another, and this movement isn't anything new. Whether you love Terry Cavanaugh or think Jason Rohrer is full of himself, it exists. And I heartily recommend checking it out, if for no other reason than to broaden your horizons wherever possible. http://www.tigsource.com is a reasonable place to start; I hate the equation of "indie" with "high art", but the actual contents of this site include a bunch of interesting games (and some really entertaining ones, too).

doubtingthomas396 wrote:
For me to even consider playing a game, I have to be willing to put myself into the role of the main character. He (or she) is not just my avatar, but my agent in the game-- someone doing things that I know I'll never be able to do, but would be okay with doing given the same set of circumstances. That's a fancy way of saying that if a game expects me to shoot someone, it better be darn clear to me that he's a bad guy.

I thought I was pretty unique in this view, and maybe I am. But this article, and the response to it, have shown me that maybe it's not so radical to reject certain games because I have a moral objection to the content.

I think its entirely fair to reject games because of a moral objection to the content. But I wonder if such objections are based more on mere existance of the morally objectionable content, or the treatment of the morally objectionable content?

I personally am able to distance myself enough from games that I don't really have a problem running over digitized hookers. But I fully recognize that GTAIV is letting you play a full sociopath with very little consequence. I think a more interesting game would be one where running over digitized hookers had very important consequences - a game where there was morally objectionable content but recognized that it was morally objectionable, and made you think about it.

I guess what I'm wondering is if its more useful to create experiences that avoids such content altogether, or create experiences that might challenge our attitudes on what we consider moral and amoral. Running over hookers is clearly bad, but I think there are a lot of gray areas with interesting room for exploration. Games like Dragon Age include such gray areas, but the consequences of your decisions are still very superficial. I'd like to see games go further down this road.

Dysplastic wrote:
doubtingthomas396 wrote:
That's a fancy way of saying that if a game expects me to shoot someone, it better be darn clear to me that he's a bad guy.

I personally am able to distance myself enough from games that I don't really have a problem running over digitized hookers.

I'm with Thomas on this one. It's not a question as to whether you're desensitized enough to watch or participate in evil acts. Rather, the important thing is that running over hookers shouldn't be fun unless you're a crazy person. That's not to say I don't like Dungeon Master or similar games, but they specifically ratchet down realism by adding humor, whereas GTA ratchets up realism.

I agree with the original article. I was imagining the next game in the genre: you play a king of a west-coast native american nation which is dying from syphilis and foreigners stealing land and shooting your people, with no nod to who the foreigners might be.

You know, I'd say that Tropico is indeed a form of art, because it got you thinking about the history of Latin America.

Games, first and foremost, have to be fun. They have to gloss over the depressing realities, and often resort to parody, in order to even work as games. It's really difficult to work biting social commentary into that kind of environment, and I'd say that most games, perhaps all games, that tried that would suffer as a result.

If you want literature in computer form, that might be possible, but it's going to be a tough sell. I'm not sure that financially successful games can do much more than hint at deeper truths; they might, perhaps, offer some links to books on their subject matter, for those who are interested in more accurate portrayals of reality.

You probably see this every time you visit these forums:

Warren Spector wrote:
Anytime reality gets in the way of fun, fun wins.

Game companies that don't do that go out of business, replaced by game companies that do.

Nathaniel wrote:
I'm with Thomas on this one. It's not a question as to whether you're desensitized enough to watch or participate in evil acts. Rather, the important thing is that running over hookers shouldn't be fun unless you're a crazy person.

While it's kind of off-topic, and mostly just corellary to my actual point, I do want to address this. I agree that running over hookers shouldn't be fun - but I distance myself enough from the game to recognize that I'm not actually running over hookers. I'm running over digitized representations of hookers with no feelings, families, or shred of anything that makes them human apart from their graphical model.

I don't begrudge people who can't achieve this kind of separation, but I disagree that GTA ratchets up realism. Just because it's not humerous, doesn't mean it's realistic. A realistic game would be one where the people you hurt have actual personalities and families that you're confronted with, and one where there are real consequences for your amoral actions.

If I ran over a prostitute in a game, was caught, went to jail, went to trial, had to stand in front of a grieving family, and was admonished by the prosicution and the judge for being a despicable human being - you'd be damn sure I wouldn't want to do that. In most games, you're presented with a world where pedestrians aren't people, they're pylons.

All of which to say, I'm not crazy!

Malor wrote:
If you want literature in computer form, try Alabaster.

FTFY. Granted, it's IF (text adventure), so it's not flashy and it won't ever be popular. But steps in this direction are already out there. They're just not carried in GameStop. You just have to look for them.

Nathaniel wrote:
I'm with Thomas on this one. It's not a question as to whether you're desensitized enough to watch or participate in evil acts. Rather, the important thing is that running over hookers shouldn't be fun unless you're a crazy person. That's not to say I don't like Dungeon Master or similar games, but they specifically ratchet down realism by adding humor, whereas GTA ratchets up realism.

Did you mean Dungeon Keeper?

GTA doesn't ratchet up the realism; they ratchet up the illusion.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
Nathaniel wrote:
I'm with Thomas on this one. It's not a question as to whether you're desensitized enough to watch or participate in evil acts. Rather, the important thing is that running over hookers shouldn't be fun unless you're a crazy person. That's not to say I don't like Dungeon Master or similar games, but they specifically ratchet down realism by adding humor, whereas GTA ratchets up realism.

Did you mean Dungeon Keeper?

GTA doesn't ratchet up the realism; they ratchet up the illusion.

You must have not seen Los Angeles in the 80s/90s, San Andreas is a pretty spot on depiction of living in the hood. Besides the Rocket launchers of course!

Great article Alex!

Gregory Weir posted on his blog yesterday about murder and Red Faction: Guerrilla. I found his piece to be a nice accompaniment to this one.

This seemed to me like a basically pointless article. It boils down to that you think the Tropico is not representative of the Latin-American experience, which is trivially true. You also think that games should be subject to the same kind of (literary) criticism that other mediums are, which is also trivially true. These are not grand revelations.

It also needs editing. "Fractionated"?

Dysplastic wrote:
Nathaniel wrote:
I'm with Thomas on this one. It's not a question as to whether you're desensitized enough to watch or participate in evil acts. Rather, the important thing is that running over hookers shouldn't be fun unless you're a crazy person.

While it's kind of off-topic, and mostly just corellary to my actual point, I do want to address this. I agree that running over hookers shouldn't be fun - but I distance myself enough from the game to recognize that I'm not actually running over hookers. I'm running over digitized representations of hookers with no feelings, families, or shred of anything that makes them human apart from their graphical model.

I don't begrudge people who can't achieve this kind of separation, but I disagree that GTA ratchets up realism. Just because it's not humerous, doesn't mean it's realistic. A realistic game would be one where the people you hurt have actual personalities and families that you're confronted with, and one where there are real consequences for your amoral actions.

If I ran over a prostitute in a game, was caught, went to jail, went to trial, had to stand in front of a grieving family, and was admonished by the prosicution and the judge for being a despicable human being - you'd be damn sure I wouldn't want to do that. In most games, you're presented with a world where pedestrians aren't people, they're pylons.

All of which to say, I'm not crazy!

This kind of gets right the my point.

They say Character is what you do when nobody's looking, ie. when there are no consequences for your actions. If you're home alone and you drink milk directly from the carton because you don't want to wash a glass, then you're a person who would do that and the fact that you don't most of the time is only because your wife objects to the practice.

Video games are kind of the ultimate playground for our psyches. We're able to enter a world and be just about anything we want to be, without consequence. That is to say, where nobody's looking.

When I look at a game, I have to decide if I'm okay with performing the actions the game allows/encourages. I know a lot of people don't think like that, and I don't judge anyone else based on their gaming preferences, but speaking just for myself I just don't want to be the sort of person who enjoys running over hookers. Just because the particular hookers I'd be running over aren't real doesn't really matter, because it's not about doing actual harm, it's about being right with myself.

I know that's a bit Kantian for someone who has Thomas Hobbes for an avatar, but that's where I sit.

(Incidentally, I have played and enjoyed Evil Genius. My only justification for this hypocrisy is that strategy games tend to be abstract enough that my moral core is untroubled by what's going on. That, and putting superagents in a giant mixer to make them dizzy so they forget where they are is always fun.)

i saw dasein wrote:
This seemed to me like a basically pointless article. It boils down to that you think the Tropico is not representative of the Latin-American experience, which is trivially true. You also think that games should be subject to the same kind of (literary) criticism that other mediums are, which is also trivially true. These are not grand revelations.

It also needs editing. "Fractionated"?

You need to do your homework before you bring accusations in here about the editing.

XOXO,
The Editor

doubtingthomas396 wrote:
I know that's a bit Kantian for someone who has Thomas Hobbes for an avatar, but that's where I sit.

I'm glad you called yourself on this so I didn't have to.

Not being as much a Kantian, I like to look at the ethical dilemmas (both explicit and implicit) posed by games as a sort of exercise room for my ethical muscles. It's a safe place to push myself with heavier things as well as to increase my flexibility and range of motion. The human moral sense is something that grows and develops as we grow, but that often stagnates by the time we reach adulthood. I'm more than happy to keep leveling up my experiences in that area.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:
Just because the particular hookers I'd be running over aren't real doesn't really matter, because it's not about doing actual harm, it's about being right with myself.

I'd like to discuss this more, not because I totally disagree or because I want to convince you that you're wrong - but because these kinds of issues are clearly important to both of us and I find it interesting to discuss them with someone who has a very different (and well articulated) viewpoint. Hope you don't mind

I think there is a big difference between doing something when nobody is looking (Ie, when you can't get caught) and doing something in a videogame. When you drink out of the milk carton, while there might not be any personal consequences for you, your action still has a consequence in the real world. If you passed on a severe bacterial infection to the milk, and then passed it on through the milk to someone else who drank it, your action had a serious consequence. To me, the idea of "consequence" has nothing to do with not getting caught (personal consequence) but rather, any kind of tangible change ocurring as a result of your action.

In video games, there is no consequence, period. It's not just that nobody's looking, it's that there's nobody at all.

You suggest that videogames is a playground for our psyche because we can do stuff "with no one looking." This implies that if running over pedestrians in GTAIV is fun to a player, then this is a reflection on his psyche - this person would also find running over pedestrians fun in real life if there was no way he'd get caught or exposed to the consequences of his actions. But the simulation has much stricter restrictions than just not getting caught - it also presents the player with a situation where the people you're running over have no emotions, no family, and feel no pain. In most ways, its much more akin to getting in your car and running over a set of mannequins.

This is where my personal hypocracy comes in - I have no interest in getting in my car and running over mannequins dressed in clothing. If I saw someone doing it, I would probably think he was twisted. While I would understand that no one was getting hurt - that it was a situation without consequence - I would wonder why someone would feel the need to run over mannequins. I would wonder why it was fun, and whether this person felt some need to simulate running over people without actually hurting them.

Which is exactly what you do in GTA IV, and what I've been defending. Yet somehow, I feel like there is an intrinsic difference. I'm just not sure what it is.

Perhaps it's related to the amount of physical resources involved? In a videogame, everything happens in the ether, everything is an illusion, a trick in the mind.

Running over mannequins causes some real feedback: the impact on the car, the sounds of the materials being crushed, everything is real.

I think that is why a paintball videogame will never find an audience. Although paintball has very intrinsic rules, it shares the same purpose as an online shooter: the simulation of armed warfare. While paintball does provide a more physical experience, the online shooter usually goes for the mental side of things.

So, I think you can apply this "sensory" logic to ethics too. The more you have to construct the experience inside your mind, the less you'll feel of an impact.

Dysplastic wrote:
I think there is a big difference between doing something when nobody is looking (Ie, when you can't get caught) and doing something in a videogame. When you drink out of the milk carton, while there might not be any personal consequences for you, your action still has a consequence in the real world. If you passed on a severe bacterial infection to the milk, and then passed it on through the milk to someone else who drank it, your action had a serious consequence. To me, the idea of "consequence" has nothing to do with not getting caught (personal consequence) but rather, any kind of tangible change ocurring as a result of your action.

So you think this is about risk (or consequences), in a sense? I can hang with that. I still think it's a bit of a hybrid for me, though: the risk-free (or at least free of tangible, real-world potential consequences) protection of the Magic Circle combined with the ability and encouragement to wrestle with questions and circumstances that we don't or couldn't face in reality.

Dysplastic wrote:

I think there is a big difference between doing something when nobody is looking (Ie, when you can't get caught) and doing something in a videogame. When you drink out of the milk carton, while there might not be any personal consequences for you, your action still has a consequence in the real world. If you passed on a severe bacterial infection to the milk, and then passed it on through the milk to someone else who drank it, your action had a serious consequence. To me, the idea of "consequence" has nothing to do with not getting caught (personal consequence) but rather, any kind of tangible change ocurring as a result of your action.

Getting back to Kant, he would argue that in your case your action has no moral standing because you're not refraining from drinking the milk from the carton simply because drinking milk from the carton is wrong, but rather for fear of the consequences of doing so.

I disagree with Kant on this front; I would argue that nobody does anything without considering the consequences to themselves and others. That's the Hobbes in me talking: Man is inherently wicked, or at least lazy.To prevent that wicked or lazy nature from taking a toll on society, then coercion must be employed. This is my take on the central argument of Leviathan, anyway.

Even so, everyone has to go to bed and try to fall asleep with the person they were that day. Whether I did harm to anyone, intentionally or not, or whether I enjoyed pretending I was doing so, is something I'll have to resolve to myself before I can get any rest. My solution is to not put myself in a position where fancy mental acrobatics are required to get a good night's sleep. I have enough trouble with that, given the four month old who sleeps down the hall from me.

Dysplastic wrote:
You suggest that videogames is a playground for our psyche because we can do stuff "with no one looking." This implies that if running over pedestrians in GTAIV is fun to a player, then this is a reflection on his psyche - this person would also find running over pedestrians fun in real life if there was no way he'd get caught or exposed to the consequences of his actions. But the simulation has much stricter restrictions than just not getting caught - it also presents the player with a situation where the people you're running over have no emotions, no family, and feel no pain. In most ways, its much more akin to getting in your car and running over a set of mannequins.

This is where my personal hypocracy comes in - I have no interest in getting in my car and running over mannequins dressed in clothing. If I saw someone doing it, I would probably think he was twisted. While I would understand that no one was getting hurt - that it was a situation without consequence - I would wonder why someone would feel the need to run over mannequins. I would wonder why it was fun, and whether this person felt some need to simulate running over people without actually hurting them.

Which is exactly what you do in GTA IV, and what I've been defending. Yet somehow, I feel like there is an intrinsic difference. I'm just not sure what it is.

They say hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. What that means, in my understanding, is that as human beings we're all flawed. Some would say that those flaws are reasons to have no standards of behavior. Others would argue that those flaws are precisely the reason to have high standards. Then there's the big gray swath in the middle that doesn't really think about it much and just tries to be a good person in between rounds of Hitman Contracts.

The example you submit (ie: running over mannequins in a car) is interesting. I've often thought about the line here, because in addition to playing Team Fortress 2 I've also played paintball and lazer tag games, which are significantly less abstracted from the actions they're simulating.

After all, pushing a button to backstab someone as a spy in TF2 just feels different from actually squeezing the trigger on a paintball marker and tagging someone out. Indeed, the very human need for some abstraction is the exact reason why paintballers use the words "marker" and "tag" to describe a gun and a kill, respectively.

It all depends on where a persons personal line is. Your line is between digital simulation and meatspace simulation, at least in the mannequin example. Someone else's line, say Tipper Gore to pick a contentious figure, is well within the digital simulation such that my totally unfair and glib summation of her argument is that nobody should ever play any game other than something involving caring for simulated animals with a "Z" appended to the end of the title.

The person who is running over the mannequins, or playing paintball, would say that the line is between meatspace simulation and actually doing harm. A typical paintballer would never have any interest in taking a dozen Glock 17s and a case of shells out with some friends and play a game of capture the flag, but actually running around in the woods causing welts on their best buds in between rounds of cheap beer is just fine.

And that's okay, because at the end of the only person who has to live with his actions is himself.

I fully understand that my point will be misinterpreted to be that I think anyone who plays GTA4 is a bad person. I don't. My point is that I'm a person who tends to overthink just about everything, and I have a hard time sleeping at night if I can't justify my own actions to myself, simulated or not.

This is why I prefer games with very thin stories, or that offer enough freedom that I can act how I want to act. For example, in Mercenaries 2 I never shot a civilian, nor did I steal a civilian's vehicle. If my car blew up, I walked to home base, or to an enemy outpost and steal a vehicle from them. This made the game take a lot longer, but I was happy that I could say that my acts of violence were limited to people I had designated "the bad guys."

But then I'm a freak.