"Be at war withyour vices;at peace withyour neighbors,and let everynew year find you a better man."—Benjamin Franklin
Pssst! Come over here — I have a confession to make.
I like to drive over pedestrians.
I also like to slaughter innocent villagers, traffic in steroids, drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol, and insult government officials.
That doesn't make me a bad person, does it? Even if I'm doing it all from the comfort of my gaming room, while playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Fable, Blitz: The League, The Bard's Tale, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2?
As with so many things, it depends on whom you're asking. The governors of Illinois, New York, and California (not to mention a certain potential Democratic presidential candidate) might fear for my soul, even though I'm generally an upstanding citizen with no bigger blemish on my record than a speeding ticket. I'm sure anti-games advocate Jack Thompson thinks I'm on a CARTA bus headed straight for hell.
But I don't care. I love games that let me be as bad (or, conversely, as good) as I wanna be. My animal avatar in Black and White 2 makes King Kong look like a Boy Scout. I love that games have evolved into an interactive funhouse mirror, where it's possible to explore the darker recesses of your soul, grappling with morality and doing things you'd never dream of actually doing — like taking a bat to someone's kneecaps.
In the real world, there are generally consequences for that sort of vice-laden, antisocial behavior — unpleasant side effects that range from raging hangovers and speeding tickets to social ostracism and jail time. There are consequences for such behavior in the video game world, too, but they're a lot more, well, manageable. I can deal with having an extra star added to my notoriety level or horns sprouting from my digital avatar's suddenly creepy-looking head, in no small part because I can hit the "off" button and walk away any time I please.
As far back as the days of Aristotle and Aristophanes, wags and malcontents were using theater and literature — far less controversial and ridiculed art forms than video games — to project and lampoon society's vices. Back then, intellectuals called it catharsis and lauded its role in keeping the social fabric intact. (Go stack the body count in The Iliad up against Spartan: Total Warrior. I dare you.) Today, the pundits that pass for intellectuals are more likely to decry vice-riddled video games as poison to our social psyche. You can play the differentiation game, arguing that plays and books are passive mediums. But the fact that games make you an active participant instead of an idle spectator not only amps the sense of complicity, opening up all sorts of opportunities for soul-searching — it also strengthens the power of the catharsis.
I find that bad days can be cathartically cleansed quite nicely by checking a few cars off the overpass in Burnout Revenge — nobody actually dies, nobody's maimed, and my insurance rates don't blast through the roof. I also groove on a game like Blitz: The League, an M-rater that absolutely revels in vice — you can't expect to win the championship, get the stadium deal, and stick it to that corrupt mayor unless your players engage in dirty, bone-breaking hits. But since I've never seen an actual NFL player finish a play by removing his helmet and bashing an opponent senseless with it (as Lawrence Taylor's cheap-shot artist does in Blitz) I recognize that what I'm playing is an especially venomous satire, not a reflection of reality. Well, except for the performance-enhancing drugs and the prostitutes, that is.
(One of my great pleasures is testing behavior boundaries in games — for instance, turning the gun on allies or NPCs just to see if the game designers were detail-oriented enough to allow for the possibility. Having security ramp up and shut me down in a classic game like Star Trek Voyage: Elite Force is always more than worth the reload.)
Yes, I know what's rattling through some of your heads. Spare me, if you would, the Holy Joe Lieberman argument that blasting at cops in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City makes me that much more likely to pack heat and disrespect authority in my everyday life. If that games-to-real-life tautology held even an ounce of water, my lane-penetration skillz in NBA Live 06 would have me wearing a Timberwolves uniform and pulling down a six-figure salary.
Unlike a certain rapper du jour/video game "star," I'm not among those who believe that everyone's psychologically equipped to handle the privilege of giving vent to their lesser angels in a virtual playground. Certainly not young kids, who have yet to fully develop the ability to discern the difference between reality and imagination, let alone right and wrong. That's where that social framework comes in — that and some old-fashioned parental involvement. Anyone remember that?
So go ahead: flip on your Playstation 2 and indulge your inner vice-roy. Not only will you feel better, you might learn something about yourself. You might be surprised to find yourself — gasp! — having fun.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have some pedestrians I'd like to pancake.
Aaron R. Conklin's campaign for vice president begins today — look out, Dick Cheney. Vote for him at firstname.lastname@example.org.