Is it Okay to Drop Virtual Nuclear Bombs?

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This is probably a ridiculous question, but whatever: Is it immoral to do immoral things in a video game?

Here’s the thing. I have a genuine concern about ultra-violent games, particularly immersive first-person shooters that reward the most ghastly behavior and casual mass-killing. I know this view isn’t popular among Internet-types, but I do worry that spending hours training yourself mentally to slaughter without care must have some deleterious effect on one’s sense of right and wrong. But I don’t know.

But let’s look at a different genre of game. Pretty much the only computer games I ever play, with very few exceptions, are games from the Civilization franchise. (I have not yet been able to make heads or tails of Beyond Earth, but I will try again sometime.) In all of the Civ games I’ve ever played (which go back to Civ III), nuclear weapons can eventually be attained and used against rival empires.

I have always felt very uneasy about them. Which is completely absurd! I seem to have no problem massacring legions of an opponent’s military units or laying waste to its cities, but I always feel like dropping The Bomb on them is somehow crossing a line.

Actually, I do sometimes have a compunction about military action in Civ games. When I first got into them, I always tried very hard to win through things like culture and building alliances. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I’m not by nature very aggressive, that I avoid conflict, and I fear that attempts to militarily win the game will wind up just embarrassing me in front of the other emperors. But it also comes from a genuine loathing of war and violence on principle.

Maybe that’s silly. These are pixels and lines of code, not real humans. But that’s just as true for the pixels and lines of code in something like Call of Duty.

That’s not a perfect comparison, though, because my worry about first-person shooters is, again, that they serve as a kind of training and conditioning for violence by way of a simulation of reality, of a first-person perspective. It’s “you” doing the killing, as opposed to a little digital sprite on a map grid.

But to turn it back again, in Civ you’re not simulating the experience of the soldier on the ground who’s doing the shooting, but you are simulating the person making the decisions about who will try and kill whom. Maybe it’s a conditioning of another kind. It’s not conditioning you to lust for blood and violence at your own hand, or to crave the sensations of blasting away at someone’s body, but maybe it conditions you to no longer see people as a collective of individuals, but as data points on a map, as resources or obstructions to resources. I guess it could be argued that these are both dehumanizing in their own way.

And maybe that’s why using nuclear weapons in Civ games bothers me. Now, I have and do use them. I usually eventually accept the terms of the game I’m playing, and bombs away. But I always feel weird about it.

If there’s a parallel to the dehumanizing effects of immersive first-person shooters and bird’s-eye-view strategy games, I don’t for a second think they’re equal. I do suspect (I don’t know, I suspect) that there’s something about first-person shooters that’s visceral, that works below our consciousness, something that specifically stimulates the fight-or-flight system in our lizard brains. Strategy games, if they do anything similar, can’t possibly act on such an animalistic, atavistic level. But they might do something.

And they might say something. When I railed against the violence coolly perpetrated against women in video games (for which I got no end of hostility), I was concerned about how they could effect behavior, but I also worried about what they said about us. I didn’t like that we had an incredibly popular entertainment medium that celebrated this kind of reprehensible brutality, and I wanted us to demand better of ourselves, even our simulated selves.

So maybe that’s why I hesitate before launching those nuclear missiles in Civ. I know it’s not real, and I know I’d never use these kinds of weapons in real life if I were in a position to do so.

But I guess I’m not entirely comfortable with what it says about me, and about us, that I do use them in this game. I guess that even in a totally manufactured, fictional universe, I would like to think better of myself.

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