Virtue in Gaming

I can’t go back to Imperial City.  I stole a horse.In the computer game Oblivion from the Elder Scrolls series, one of many fantasy-based games inspired by J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, you can steal. But not without consequence.Not knowing the rules as well as I should, to make up time between villages I mounted a horse to ride. Now every time I try to enter Imperial City, I am arrested. Turns out I stole the horse.Last month the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional California’s attempt to restrict the sale of violent games to minors.  Apart from the debate over what constitutes free speech, the ruling raises several other important points regarding the relevant roles of business, parents, people of faith, and others of goodwill concerned about the cultural content our children consume.First, the video game industry has been fairly diligent in giving parents tools (ratings and hardware/software) and some external controls (retailer controls over sales) to keep at least Mature-rated games from our children’s hands. When it was revealed that the controversial Grand Theft Auto series had sexually explicit “hidden content” that could be unlocked, the industry re-rated it Adults Only, resulting in virtually every retailer pulling it from their shelves. Some called for government regulation as a response to the content, but the incident actually showed that the rating system and retailers’ efforts worked to limit access of inappropriate content from the market. Can they do more? Certainly, and online retailers in particular need to, but parents have to use what has been made available to us.Second, the context of violence is as important as the degree of its explicitness. Who would suggest that Saving Private Ryan should not have been made with the visual intensity that it was? Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto are both rated Mature, but their moral universes are polar opposites. One rewards immorality, the other punishes it. Context matters. I can’t go to Imperial City because I stole a horse. It is not violence alone that is the problem, but possibly what matters more is the context of the game’s moral universe in which the gamer makes choices.Third, Justice Scalia wrote for the majority that “like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas – and even social messages.” Computer games are still developing as a story-telling form, and some even hint at the artistic potential that lies within them. Like all culture, computer games are created by people with a worldview, communicate and carry a worldview and subsequently shape their players’ worldviews. For example, one of the most lauded and philosophically-rooted games ever produced, Bioshock, will soon be releasing its third installment, called Infinite. What has made the series so successful is that it takes place “in the human heart,” as a recent review in PC Gamer suggested, and creates a virtual universe “where we are all called, sooner or later, to reckon with the consequences of our choices and actions.”

Importantly, as I have written before, the game is a critique of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.  Groups concerned with the amoral or immoral content of some games should stop complaining and start creating games that reflect The Tao (as C. S. Lewis called the shared universe of what is true, good and beautiful in his book Abolition of Man) that will shape not just the players positively but the culture at large.Video gaming is the next frontier for connecting cause and culture.  As a business, it has eclipsed film and virtually every other form of entertainment, and engages its audience for hours at a stretch. Just as strong narrative storytelling is emerging in games, you see the hints of cause awareness and, uniquely, cause engagement in the games. Clapham is working now with several clients on partnerships with the largest gaming companies in the world to explore the nexus of cause and culture.  This is the next frontier for using culture to motivate and incentivize doing good in the real world – making “goodness fashionable,” as Clapham member Hannah More challenged the cultural leaders of her day, which included not stealing horses.