You Are What You Play: Part 1

Scott Farrell Comments:

In my article, Deathmatch Chivalry, we explored how video games are like the tournaments that knights used to promote and strengthen the Code of Chivalry in the Middle Ages. Dean brings another important issue to the round table: Why? Why does it matter what characters we choose in our role playing games? Does what we play identify who we really are? This article, originally published in the Nov. 2004 issue of Gamestar, provides some insightful reflections on how video games can reflect upon us.

Values and Video Games

dean-takahashiWe bring our own baggage to the characters we play in games. Here is mine.

I lost my brother Tracey to senseless gang violence. It was 11 years ago in 1993, but the flashbacks of those awful days stay in my mind. I was at a trade show in Las Vegas, and I received a late-night phone call from my fiancé. She said Tracy had been shot. I packed quickly, and I drove home wondering what could have happened and if I could make it to him in time. I pounded the steering wheel in frustration when I became stuck in that “only in L.A.” nightmare: at traffic jam at 2 a.m. I didn’t make it to his side in time.

My brother, a 30-year-old chemist, had been mistakenly shot by gang members who were looking for someone else. It was around midnight when they hopped out of a car and pounded on the door of a house. They opened fire at the guy who opened it and then ran off. But they had knocked on the door of the wrong house. The gang member who lived next door told police later that he believed they had been looking for him instead. The police caught the alleged shooters and put them away for life. At their sentencing, I told them that life was not like a video game. When you pulled the trigger in real life, the bodies don’t just disappear.

That experience turned me away from games for a long time. I flinched at the sound of gunfire. Gradually, my mind healed itself — I was able to separate escapist fantasy and reality again. I came back to games through mildly violent historical games. I eventually even started playing violent shooting games again.

Now, many years later, I’ve got the stomach for everything from Far Cry to Doom 3. But try as I might, I can’t sustain the role of an evil character. I just can’t put all of my heart into it. Call me paranoid, but I feel like there is someone watching over my shoulder, approving or disapproving of the actions I take in a game.

The Good Guys vs. The Bad Guys

When it comes to playing good guys or bad buys in video games, I prefer the good. That says something about who I am. I became sensitive to this choice only after I lost my brother. Few gamers may find themselves in circumstances similar to my own, but everyone would benefit from looking at the choices they make in games — it may sound silly, but games can teach us something about ourselves.

I want to be the hero, and often times the underdog. In World War II games such as Combat Mission, I play the Americans even though the Germans have the better tanks and weapons. That reflects my own national bias and my faith that cleverness can prevail over military might. The American troops are greener than the German veterans, and they have to overcome armored Panzers and cement bunkers.

It’s not that I won’t play the “bad side” at all … it’s just that given the choice, I gravitate to the good. I don’t enjoy games where you have no choice but to be bad; that means games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are off my play list.

I realize that many gamers aren’t with me here. There is a certain appeal to being bad. Jack Emmert, lead designer of the hit superhero “massive multiplayer on-line role playing game” City of Heroes, says that when Cryptic Studios and NC-soft launched the online game this year, the number-one question was, “Can I be the bad guy?” Emmert had to make sure that the superheroes in his game could do only good things because he feared what happens when you allow people to be bad with no consequences.

“It becomes like Lord of the Flies, Emmert says, referring to the classic William Golding novel about boys who become stranded on an island. Without adult supervision, the kids create their own barbaric culture. “You take people, remove them from society, put them in a world where there are no rules, then everything goes haywire,” he says. “That’s what happens in an online world, where this is no real punishment. Everybody wants to find out what it’s like to break the rules. It’s a fascination we have. Games like Grand Theft Auto allow people to express sides of themselves they would otherwise keep hidden.”

© 2004 Dean Takahashi

About the author: Dean Takahashi is a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury News and author of Opening the Xbox: Inside Microsoft’s Plan to Unleash an Entertainment Revolution. This article is an excerpt of a longer piece which originally appeared in Gamestar magazine; it is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

Also in You Are What You Play

  1. You Are What You Play: Part 1
  2. You Are What You Play: Part 2

View the entire series