Random RPG Thoughts #6: How Psychopatic can Our Games Be?

This week, Breivik was first brought to court. He showed no remorse for the seemingly random bombing and shooting of over seventy victims in Norway last summer. In fact he said that what he did was the right thing to do from an ethnic and political perspective. Family members of the victims were rightfully not amused.

Now you could call Breivik a psychopath, or a sociopath. And he probably is, perhaps in addition to being extreme rightwing or a foreign secret agent with an extreme mission. Nobody goes out shooting like that. You just don't. Except when it's war. Or except... when it's a game.

When Zzzoom for the Spectrum came out you could also shoot at civilians. It didn't give you points, but they flew through the air in such a fun way that I couldn't resist shooting them. Naturally they were just bits and bytes. Later I played Carmageddon, and drove over poor grandmas with shopping carts. Bits and bytes, no more. More recently I played GTA III (I stopped there), and found that shooting hapless civies or driving over them was... something you just could do. And when you reached cheat mode, or were bored, you could climb on a rooftop and start shooting everyone in sight with your sniper rifle and scope. Bloody and sick. But even if the police helicopters came and suicide by cop was the only end to it, I'm sure I tried this more than once. Shooting civilians ad nauseum. Bits and bytes.

But if it were real, I would have been like Breivik, without a cause.
And I'm not by long the only one who played these games, or played them this way.

Table top roleplaying games sometimes have even more disturbing situations. No, let's say it differently. Most fantasy role players at one time or another must have stumbled on a goblin village, and burned it down. If they didn't do it for the experience points and the loot, they might even have done it for “the good cause”. That's almost like Breivik with a cause. Unless you call burning a goblin village an act of war, in which case it may be a straight war crime. You could also say its sociopathic.

I remember my players have done things like it, at least in our teens. Sure, a game is a game. And blowing off steam can be a good thing. You could even see this killing for the killing as a way of exploring possiblities. Thoughtful game masters have confronted me and fellow players with the moral consequences of killing. They confronted us with the victims, and the different sides and truths of a conflict. That was enlightening, and an experience I don't regret. I'm also very thankful for having it in a game world and not for real.

But to be honest, I've also seen a lot of senseless game killing without consequences. And also refraining from killing without consequences. When you think about it, and try to imagine the bits and bytes or fantasy creatures as in some way real... isn't that sad?

What kind of game do we play then? Do we feel inside like little Breiviks? Or like traumatized people from the horrors of a war? Do we? Why? Not all of us are players from former war zones. Are we?

Or are we just frustrated and bored? Or worse, is Breivik also just... frustrated and bored?


  1. You forgot to add most modern action movies to the list. They have huge body counts, often with no purpose than "they're on the other side". Or horror movies. They show all sorts of torture scenes. I think there is a big gulf between violent games or entertainment and real world violence. If watching violence caused it in even one out of a million people then we'd be awash in blood. While these crimes are distubing, they are rare. In the US there are twice as many suicides as murders. And over 3/4 of the time the victim knew the murderer. Both of these are statistics that don't fit with our common sense because we hear about the exceptions much more often.

    Personally I think that being able to have ways to express violent urges nonviolently probably reduces the murder rate. It's not a settled scientific issue, but there are a number of studies supporting this conclusion. I suppose that there has to be some variation, even among violent sociopaths. Some of them would need less stimulation to satisfy those impulses. Even if a fraction of them blow virtual people away it's good for society. Heck, this isn't the first time I've heard killers say they've killed out of boredom. Games are designed to fight boredom. Therefore, teaching sociopaths to game could save lives!

  2. @Philo:
    For me, I'm not sure which way the causality lies, or whether there is an underlying variable. Studies point both ways, I guess. So you might be right - and the reverse might be true at the same time: that seeing all this violence in games (&movies/news) makes it a more "acceptable" alternative.

    What I find disturbing is that the boredom, violence and even nihilism seem to be for us like water for fish. They have become part of our environment. They're (almost) commonplace.


  3. Perhaps it only seems more commonplace? After all, we hear about all of the sick and twisted murders everywhere in the world. Serial killers, mothers killing their children, cannibalism. I don't think they are any more common, but we hear more about them. That is what has become commonplace.

  4. @Philo: hahaha :-) I didn't mean MORE commonplace, and I wasn't talking about the real murders. I work in the media, so I'm very aware how the media may influence our awareness and ideas about the world.

    I meant that the in-game and in-movie violence are (almost) commonplace. And how that may affect how we feel - or reflect how we feel. Either way, I find this food for thought - or observation.