The Ethical Questions of Realism in Video Games

Video Games

When it comes to ethical questions, realism in video games is not normally a major point of discussion. Certainly there are questions of ethics surrounding video games in a multitude of areas – ranging from matters of censorship to roleplay – but ethics or realism? Really? Well, surprisingly or not so surprisingly, this is a very real issue that is only going to get deeper as time goes on.

What is Realism in Video Games?

Realism in video games is the phenomena of trying to reflect or portray reality in a video game, either through the avenues of graphics or playable mechanics. Most people associate realism with matters of graphics, especially in regards to the hyper-realism debate, but it can also be a factor of game mechanics. Getting the right sounds, the right feel, even the right rate of fire and sense of recoil on a fictional gun can all be elements of realism. Most of the time games benefit from a solid grounding in realism – or at least a feel of it – but sometimes realism can be a real issue, especially in matters of ethics.

Simulators and Ethical Responsibility

Ever played a game that claims to be a simulator or an “experience” generator? Well, those games arguably have an ethical responsibility to actually live up to that title. Sort of like how a documentary has an ethical responsibility to actually provide true and factual information, if it doesn’t do that, its value will diminish – even if the entertainment value remains constant.

Take two examples of this, the franchise-making Sim City 2000, and the more recent Change: A Homeless Survival Experience. In the case of the former, the game developer was trying to make a game in which you could build and essentially plan a city, this led to cultivating a generation of city planners who gained their passion from playing this video game, however the game has been heavily criticised for essentially only allowing players to develop cities that look and feel exactly like 90s Seattle. The cultural impact was huge, but the informative impact was fairly limited.

The Power of Intent & Representation

Now for a game like Sim City, this isn’t a big deal, but what about Change: A Homeless Survival Experience? Well, that’s the reverse problem. Change is a game where you play a homeless person – who might be homeless for any reason, poverty, addiction, disability and more – and try to survive on the street. However, it gamifies many elements of being homeless. Players can survive pretty effectively simply by picking up trash or begging. They quickly gain perks that respond to their gameplay that make them more skilled at surviving, and gain items and bits of clothing that can help them along the way, like a guitar, or a shawl that can make people take pity on you and give you more money.

While it might not sound like much, the ease with which players can access these perks and items, and the arbitrariness of many of these problems, do a fundamental disservice to the people actively portrayed in the game. If homeless people can survive just by picking up trash, then why give them money? If homeless people can find places to sleep with absolute ease, then what’s the real problem with being homeless? Many of these decisions were certainly made to increase replayability and to make the game more like a survival game than a simulator, but its choice of subject matter and how it treats the very real people who go through that is questionable. Imagine a generation whose opinion of homelessness, and the difficulties of homelessness, are informed by this video game rather than the real situations of real people?

Certainly, one could argue that one shouldn’t take your learning from a video game, but look at Sim City, heck, look at any of the hundreds of games that have had a real and long-lasting cultural impact or have directly impacted public policy on the video game industry. The fact remains that just like other media people do learn from these games, and if the game presents itself as grounded in realism, it runs a greater risk of spreading the wrong lessons that can be actively harmful.

Ethical Realism, Stereotypes and Artificial Intelligence

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking. If cultural impact and public policy impact is a major ethical concern, then surely issues like race and representation are too right? Absolutely, that is a major part of the ethical debate, touching on every single one of those issues and then some. This is a major point in modern scholarship, with academic research into interpretations of race and nationalism to matters of sexuality and inclusion. However there’s a slowly developing issue in regards to matters of Artificial Intelligence, including the currently philosophic question regarding moral considerations in how we treat AI. In short, is there the possibility that someday the abuse of an Artificial Intelligence or video-game could be related to or even constitute very real moral or legal crimes?

Given that gaming technology is always advancing, just for fun, let’s think about this. If we consider the examples provided by pop-culture via the movies Her (2013) and Robot and Frank (2012) if a person develops a meaningful relationship with an artificial assistant, could that constitute an act of infidelity in a real marriage? Or if a person commits a crime encouraged and supported by an AI, would the AI be liable for the crime of larceny, aiding and abetting, or nothing at all? And if all that sounds absurd, consider what it means for the very real people today who are creating AI girlfriends and then proceed to abuse them. And that’s before we begin to discuss the very real possibility of AI-replicas of real people being imported into software and games through AI art or other replicative software – an issue repeatedly explored through the dystopian series Black Mirror. All of these arguments hinge upon the reality or unreality of video games and other software and the responsibilities of the moral agents (us) using them.

If there’s one thing you take from this argument make it this: Ethics and realism are deeply intertwined, and for video games it is even deeper. Understanding these relationships now – and acknowledging their existence now – is going to be critical to all elements of our culture, public legislation and legal codes going forwards. The future is shaped by today, and like it or not we have an ethical responsibility for that future. So let’s work together to understand it, and make it a good one.