Goodbye, newspaper stories about video gamers who love to pretend to kill, kill, kill. Hello, Wall Street Journal investigation into video gamers who love to pretend to not kill at all.
The Journal has discovered Felix the Peaceful Monk and other characters role-played by gamers who don't like bloody the hands of thee characters they play in the epic Skyrim. (Felix is played by a gamer who previously played as an arsonist-cannibal.)
And they've discovered 16-year-old Brock Soicher, who has been trying to dodge his parents' prohibition on M-rated games while posting an online video about how to get through Uncharted as a pacifist.
Why are these people doing it? The Journal asked me and others. Their basic takeaway is that it amounts to some satisfying rule-breaking. They quote young Brock: 'I guess not killing in video games is rebellious.'
All this is good. The WSJ piece is smart and well worth a read (the dot drawing of Felix is a winner).
But when the paper's reporter hit me up for comment, I started thinking about these pacifism runs in a different way. I was less focused on the inversion of gamers' assumed virtual bloodthirst — which was certainly an interesting angle — and more interested in how going on a pacifism run in a video game relate to the way we live our lives outside of video games.
They couldn't use this in the Journal, but chew on this bit that I e-mailed to their reporter last week, after we did a phone interview for the piece:
Gamers use games as essentially safe laboratories for a form of life experimentation.
You can role-play various behaviours, as you might not be so bold to do in your normal life. It's a more extreme version of the personality role-playing we do when we go on a first date, comment on a message board, try to sound wittier on Twitter, etc.
But in games, you do this within the context of a system, since games are all systems. And because of that you can explore the consequences.
We are often tempted to tweak systems in real life — to cheat on a test or our taxes, to follow but then modify a diet — but only in video games can we trust that the mathematics of the program will actually show us consequences of trying to shortcut those systems.
The interesting thing about pacifism runs, to me, is that it's a case of people doing whatever the opposite of cheating the system is. They're making their lives harder — they're doing the virtual version of fasting for Ramadan or taking a vow of celibacy — and they're doing this wilfully to see what happens.
They're inviting and even role-playing a tougher life for themselves and then attempting to derive pleasure from that. Weird and fascinating!
Thanks, WSJ for giving me some food for thought and drawing that out of me: Human beings like to break systems. Games are our safest way to try.
Videogamers Embark on Nonkilling Spree [The Wall Street Journal]