HOW EVIL SHOULD A VIDEO GAME ALLOW YOU TO BE?
POSTED BY SIMON PARKIN
It was Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, Véra who rescued the manuscript of “Lolita” from a back-yard incinerator at Cornell University. Beset by doubt over the book’s subject matter, Nabokov hoped to burn the novel before it reached the public. Likewise, the American literary critic George Steiner had second thoughts on the publication of his 1981 novella, “The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.,” in which Adolf Hitler survives the Second World War and is given the opportunity to defend his crimes. Steiner had the book recalled and pulped.
The question of whether—or to what extent—literature should allow readers into the minds of terrorists, murderers, and abusers both fictional and historical is one that continues to trouble authors. But if video-game creators share such qualms it hasn’t stopped the production, in the course of the past forty years, of games that ask players to march in the boots of legions of despots and criminals, both petty and major. Long-time video-game players are guilty of innumerable virtual crimes, from minor indiscretions like jaywalking, in Atari’s Frogger, and smoking indoors, in Metal Gear Solid, to more serious outrages like driving under the influence, in Grand Theft Auto; gunning down an airport filled with civilians, in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II; and full-scale genocide in Sid Meier’s Civilization series.
A 2011 Supreme Court ruling recognized that video games, like other forms of art and entertainment, are protected by the First Amendment as a form of speech. “For better or worse,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the decision, “our society has long regarded many depictions of killing and maiming as suitable features of popular entertainment.” As such, Rockstar, the developer of Grand Theft Auto V, the latest entry in the long-running series, which was released today, could include a prolonged interactive depiction of torture without fear of censorship. Nevertheless, the “24”-esque scene, which requires players to rotate the game controller’s sticks in order to tug out the victim’s teeth with pliers, has inspired debate—not only over its artistic merit but also over whether such distressing interactions have any place in video games.
Two examples of the ethical imperative for good design:
The first has to do with the crash of Air France Flight 447, in which an apparent software feedback error led to the death of 228 passengers and crew. From the article:
A feature designed to make things better for pilots has unintentionally made it harder for them to monitor colleagues in stressful situations.
The second involves the design of control systems for the US Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft systems. There are a number of ethics concerns surrounding the use of drone targeting systems, but this article focuses on the need for user-appropriate design.