Ethical responsibility for video game content – yes or no

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With advancements in technology, video games have become more engaging and realistic via better graphics, special effects and the ability to depict more complex and visceral actions on screen.  This increased realism can sometimes push, and cross, ethical boundaries, bringing to question the responsibility that content creators have when creating video games.  The same can be applied to authors and silver screen directors, the difference being that video games offer an interactive experience.  These player-controlled experiences sometimes put a player in position to go against ethical standards and morals.  That said: content is likely to be received differently by different players.  Video game developers and content creators should not be held to an ethical standard because the artistic nature of their craft allows for freedom of expression, and it is each consumer’s responsibility to filter his or her own video game content intake.

When video games first gained mainstream popularity in the 80’s and early 90’s they were considered toys by many adults.  Over the years, the video game market grew up with the children that first played them and now more adults are playing more games with mature content. Video games are no longer a toy, but a cross-generational entertainment medium.  The larger audience spawned a larger variety of content, some of which is considered unethical and offensive by some.  This subjects video games to criticism and blame but has helped push it into the mainstream form of art and communication.

This popularity has enshrined video games in pop culture as art.  In 2012, the Smithsonian American Art Museum featured an exhibit “The Art of Video Games” which focused on video game evolution over the last 40 years and how it evolved as an artistic medium (Gillespie, 2012).  Art is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings is designed to evoke emotion.” (Art, 2014).  Video games certainly evoke emotion and this can open us up to new ideas and beliefs that we would not otherwise be exposed to.  For example, Bioshock Infinite, a game about exploring a fictional world with the goal of saving someone you care about, offers the player a choice to throw a baseball at a transracial couple (PhatSteve7, 2013).  This is meaningful because it can start conversation about an otherwise difficult topic.  That’s not to say all video game content has a serious tone or message, but video game developers should have the right to tell a story in the artistic manner that they feel is necessary.  Without violence depicted, an entire side of the story is being ignored. This misrepresents the world we live in, where violence is commonplace.  It’s difficult to spark thoughtful conversation if developers are limited to the topics they can cover.

In 1994, the Entertainment Software Rating Board implemented a video game rating system to help consumers determine if these stories are appropriate for them or their children (Business Wire, 2014).  This system serves as a guideline, but the purchasing decision is ultimately left with the consumer, although, most retailers have adopted policies that limit the sale of mature content to those over the age of 17.  Even with these policies, it is becoming increasingly difficult to limit access to these materials, especially for parents.  The concern is heightened by claims of video game violence contributing to violent crimes in the United States. In an effort to mitigate this concern, PCs and consoles offer a set of parental tools that can filter content and limit when and how long a game can be played.  However, this doesn’t filter all content and mature games still find their way into adolescent hands, bringing to the question the impact such games have on developing minds.

Cyberpsychology published a story in 2012 called Mirrored Morality (Weaver, 2012).  This study found, that when presented with the option of choice, the majority of players made moral decisions for their game characters as if they encountered these problems in real life. Player choice is something that isn’t always offered, but when it is the player has the opportunity to choose right over wrong, they often choose right.  When players chose the morally wrong option the study found that the feeling of guilt increased.  This shows that most players are morally sound prior to accessing the game and it wasn’t able to prove that video games have a direct impact on a person acting out in real life.  The article “getting ‘virtual’ wrongs right” (Seddon, 2013) also tried to make a connection between virtual violence and reality.  It concluded that the players of violent video games often have a playful attitude while committing violence in a virtual space, but the line between virtual and reality is thin when it comes to evaluating the moral character of the player and their capacity to commit violent crimes in real life. Since video games often put players in situations they would not find in their real life, establishing a direct link between virtual violence and reality is difficult.

When video games do not offer the player a choice whether to participate in violence, it can put them in a predicament.  The player is supposed to be a hero, while at the same time murdering thousands of enemies.  That may be a turn off for some players, but again, those players are not forced to play games they are not comfortable with.  However, some video game developers are becoming cognizant of this conundrum and even acknowledge it.  In Far Cry 4, a hyper-violent action game that puts you in the shoes of a ‘hero’, the antagonist tests the player’s morals by asking “Now, to whom am I speaking? The son who has returned to scatter his mother’s ashes? Or the lunatic, who has murdered his way to the top of my mountain?” (GameSpot, 2014).  In this example, the game brings up the possibility of your character’s heroic intentions being swept away in a torrent of gunfire and bloodshed. It pries and pokes at the player’s morality.  This topic of intentions versus actions speaks to real-world conflicts in our society and video games are one more artistic medium through which we can converse and debate issues which evoke deep thought and emotion.  This artistic freedom, which should be and is expressed in other forms of art is protected by the first amendment in the United States Constitution.  When done right, issues deeply engrained in US politics and society can be successfully discussed in a different and important way through sensational, controversial and mature motifs of video games.

In addition to single-player games, online multiplayer games have opened up new experiences that can promote cooperation and communication.  That’s not to say the online environment is without hostility and competition, but much like ethical responsibility of game content, it’s still up to the player if they want to interact with others in this environment. Further proving this point is that the ESRB does not rate the online content of video games.  According to a 2014 study in Cyberpsycology (Blinka, 2014), social motivation and social self-efficiency are positive traits associated with online gaming. Furthermore, players that reported negative experience in online gaming trust their social skills less, this doesn’t represent a short-coming of the game, but speaks to the lack of responsibility of those who willingly participated in an optional environment in which they may not be comfortable.  Again, the responsibility of intake is on the player, not the developer.

If we regulate the content of video games we have no choice but to examine all forms of art and entertainment.  Video games give people an outlet, and it shouldn’t be up to regulations to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for consumers.  We have rating guidelines, and retailers strictly enforce those recommendations, putting the responsibility on the parent and consumer.  For these reasons, developers should continue making the games that they want while the consumer decides if it’s appropriate for them or their family.