Do Fantasy Worlds (Indirectly) Reinforce Racism?

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(photo credit to chief-orc on deviantart)

I’ve written two other entries about how video games and fantasy games deal with race issues. I’ve also written a well received entry on racism in America (in the real world). But in today’s entry, I want to discuss the ways in which our media can reinforce our tendency to stereotype. Specifically, how might fantasy tropes be guilty of this. What do you think of when someone says she is playing a dwarf, or another friend says he wants to play an elf?

If you grew up like me, reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons, you probably have some specific traits in mind for these characters. The dwarf is stubborn, fond of drinking ale or strong drinks. She is greedy, tough, single minded, and gruff in action and words. Few people play sickly, weak dwarfs. They are the embodiment of a kind of grit in fantasy worlds, and they are fond of caves and beards and are basically short Vikings who live underground and think only about precious metals and battling goblins or something.

The elf is taciturn, or at least somehow noble and aloof. Elves have a timelessness to them in fantasy worlds, which makes them graceful and elegant; they take the long view on life, because they live VERY long lives (perhaps forever, depending on the setting). They are bound to nature. Elves are naturally good with a bow, capable of sliding down stairs on shields due to their agility. However, they are also a bit arrogant, as they think other races are beneath them.

There are other common fantasy races, like the inventive gnomes, the bloodthirsty orcs, the mischievous halflings (ie hobbits). More disturbingly, there are evil versions of many of these races, such as the drow elves, who are separated from the other elves by having darker skin. Subtle. Of course, they couldn’t be a reference to Africans, because they have white hair. So it’s totally not racist.

Possibly a Drow?
Possibly a Drow?

But seriously, even if we set aside the fact that elves that supposedly live underground have evolved or somehow been given dark skin (underground…where there is no sunlight!), their evil is a character trait of the entire race. If you look them up in the D&D monsters manual, they are evil. Most are lawful evil, so at least they have rules!

Later editions of games like D&D often got rid of these limitations, including the idea that only humans can be paladins, or holy warriors. However, for those of us who grew up with the idea that all drow are evil, or all orcs are monsters, or even that halflings like to eat and are lazy, these easy categories almost certainly affected our worldviews. Certain groups (races) have character traits that are common to all of the members of the group. Or at least, the exceptions to this are so rare that when they happen they are quite remarkable (Drizzt Do’Urden, a drow ranger, rejects the evil of his race and becomes a hero of the Forgotten Realms, for example).

Sometimes, after you had played a game like this, or read too many books that copied Tolkien, you started to look for these alternatives. You might decide to play a dwarf who hates alcohol and loves goblins, or an elf with an inferiority complex. But this too reinforced the tropes. What made these characters interesting is their contrast from the normal.

Interestingly, when I first read Tolkien as a teenager, I thought the humans were the worst. I liked the dwarfs and the elves, and even the hobbits. When the Return of the King ends, and the elves leave Middle Earth forever, I was upset. The Fourth Age would be the Age of Humans, Tolkien explained, but it would be a world of industry and not magic. Everything that I loved about Middle Earth would be ruined by humans, who bred like rabbits and had few redeeming qualities.

There’s something satisfying about knowing exactly what you are dealing with, and humans are unpredictable. Some are good; some are bad. Some are charitable; some are greedy. Some are intellectual and rational; some are emotional and irrational (this contrast of rational and emotional is something I now reject; but as a teenager it felt right).

Psychologists call this cognitive ease, and it happens in cases where we’ve heard the same thing repeated so often that we simply take it as a given. Having it challenged is difficult for us to process. It strains our minds, so to speak, and thus we tend to avoid such challenges. Yes, this applies to political and religious views too, but that’s a separate discussion.

This cognitive ease that we use when dealing with fantasy tropes regarding race can easily transfer to our real lives, especially since we (rather colloquially, and erroneously) use the word ‘race’ to describe different ethnicities, and even different physical traits.  How could a teenager, who learns that different races have different character traits, not transfer that to the ‘races’ in real life?

I’m certainly not arguing that people who read fantasy books or play fantasy games are somehow more racist. In fact, I’ve said elsewhere that exploring different characters can heighten our empathy for people different from ourselves. A good group (including a good GM!) can use fantasy tropes in order to overcome prejudice and discrimination. In fact, I often think of this as a sign of a mature group–when the players look for empathy rather than reinforcement of stereotypes. Still, there is often good and bad in most of our habits, and the bad in this case is one we should avoid, assuming it isn’t too late.

What do you think?

Millennials Are Alright (But Not Really!)

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It’s easy to look at the generations that come after you and judge them in negative ways. In fact, it’s so easy that every single generation does it. In the 5th century BCE, the playwright Aristophanes complained that the youth of his day learned all the wrong lessons in life: “You will be persuaded also to regard as splendid everything that is shameful and as shameful everything that is honourable; in a word, you will wallow in degeneracy.” His own generation had proper manners: “they would not have dared, before those older than themselves, to have taken a radish, an aniseed or a leaf of parsley, and much less eat fish or thrushes or cross their legs.”

These corrupt young whippersnappers and their excessive radish eating!

The context for these comments helps paint a picture. When Aristophanes was young, the city-state of Athens had helped drive off the Persians and developed an empire. They were the dominant force of their world. But all that went away after the rival city-state of Sparta defeated Athens. Why had this happened, people like Aristophanes wondered? The answer was simple—the youth of today were not as good as his own generation had been.

One thing worth noting is that among the youth that Aristophanes was calling out as useless was a young man that people called Plato (which could be a nickname, since it refers to a misshapen nose). Plato is widely considered to be the most important figure in all of European philosophy. One of Plato’s students, Aristotle, had not yet been born when Aristophanes wrote the words above, but he would be another critically important figure in intellectual history. In other words, Aristophanes was wrong. The kids were alright. They just really liked radishes.

Today we see the same kind of complaints, about Millennials who feel entitled to a living wage (how dare they!?) and complain about the tens of thousands of dollars in student debt they accrue while going to college (they borrowed it! No one forced them!). And so on. There are dozens of articles complaining about Millennials out there. I’m not going to link to any of them; you know how to find them, if you want.

I remember the same sort of complaints about my generation, known as Gen X. We were lazy, cynical, apathetic, spoiled, and so on. We didn’t care about politics. We didn’t care about anything. We listened to shoe-gazing music and our cultural icons dared the world to “entertain us”.

Of course there were articles about how we would do nothing, and civilization was in decline, and where had all the country’s values gone…and so on. So we created the internet, as you know it, and social media, and helped push for a more pluralistic society. We played a huge role in electing the first Black President, an idea that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. That’s not to say we are perfect. We could be held at least partly responsible for rising college prices, lack of employer loyalty (we famously switch jobs a lot! So perhaps we aren’t worthy of such loyalty) and whatever other modern day problems you want to lay at our feet (but at least for now, please include the Baby Boomers as co-conspirators!).

Lumping a group of people who happen to be a certain age into a group labeled ‘Generation’ is a bit of a silly idea, but it isn’t a new one. What happens is that each generation looks at the youth and decides “They aren’t doing what I did!” For various psychological and sociological reasons, we tend to look for the positives in ourselves and the negatives in others. As a result, you’ll see plenty of people posting macros on FB that basically state “If kids today were spanked, like I was, they’d be much better people!” Almost every person I’ve ever seen post those words should be careful about the stones they throw. I know them, and they are not great examples of the benefits of corporal punishment.

But let’s set aside the fact that hating on the next generation is a historical given, and look at why it is so problematic in this particular case. Many older Americans seem completely unaware of just how privileged they have been. Baby Boomers, and even Gen Xers, who complain about younger people wanting to raise the minimum wage or have free access to college, really should think back to all of the advantages that they had. When you say that a minimum wage job isn’t meant to be a living wage job, you miss a few important facts.

First, the President responsible for implementing the minimum wage (FDR) specifically said that all full time workers were entitled to a living wage. Opponents of raising the minimum wage like to point out that the first minimum wage was only 25 cents an hour, which is nowhere near $15 an hour in real dollars (meaning adjusted for inflation). However, that misses the point. There were many political reasons why the first amount was what it was, but the spirit of the push for a minimum wage, by the person who pushed for it, was that would allow a living wage. When people today say that you aren’t supposed to live on minimum wage, that’s their view, but not the view of Roosevelt when he created it as part of the New Deal.

Second, minimum wage jobs are no longer for teenagers, or at least are no longer filled by teenagers alone. In fact, most of the people who would be affected by raising the minimum wage are over 20. This links to a third issue, which is that the minimum wage when Baby Boomers were making it at 20 years old went a lot further than it does today. In the 70s, there was less expectation that both men and women would be working, and many people were able to go to college while working minimum wage jobs without having to take out loans. Today’s students can’t do that; college prices are way too high. Also, in the 70s, getting that degree almost guaranteed you a decent job, while today’s students almost have to have one in order to get anywhere in their careers. However, having a college degree does not guarantee you a job at all, much less a good one. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, for most people (which means you have to have it to have a chance, but it doesn’t necessarily give you what you want).

The result is a generation that is looking at crippling debt before they even get a chance to start their career, which is likely going to take years to get going properly and will constantly be undermined by student loan payments. Meanwhile, they are being told that they must save up over a million dollars before they retire and that social security won’t be there for them (I think it will, but that’s what they are told). Job security? Nope. Pensions? Seriously? Oh, and many of their elders want to lower or get rid of the security nets that might help those young people who fall through the cracks. Scary world.

So when you tell Millennials that if they don’t like what they are paid, they should change jobs, you are living in a world that is long gone. Job fluidity is down 15% in many places, compared to 1980. Moving to another state is impossibly expensive for low income people. For the average American, the idea of simply switching jobs when you are unhappy just isn’t realistic. They had a hard enough time finding the job they currently have. They can’t risk losing it. Many of the people living around me in rural Ohio are dwelling in locations where the median household income is less than $30k a year. You’ll note that this is the exact figure that a new minimum wage of $15/hour would give someone if he or she worked 40 hours a week. A family, with children, making less than $30k a year has very little chance to save up enough money to move to another state, even if there were real opportunities for improved employment (which there often aren’t).

So today’s youth are caught in a strange trap. They are told that minimum wage jobs are not meant to be real jobs. To avoid them, they have to go to college. But going to college puts them in debt and does not necessarily give them a job of any sort, much less a good one. Instead, it is a necessary step in having someone look at your application, alongside tens or hundreds of other similarly qualified people desperate to get their feet in the door. Oh, and they have to make these decisions before they even turn 20, which science has shown is before our brains are fully developed for good decision making. And when they do make a choice, no matter which one is made, they are blamed if that choice does not work out for them. Lose-Lose for them. As a bonus, they get to read articles about how terrible they are and see those lucky friends of theirs on Facebook who somehow did find a good job. It’s enough to raise depression and drug use rates!

I was a college student in the 1990s. I’m a college professor in 2016. Today’s students aren’t worse; nor are they better. What they are is frustrated, and they have every right to be frustrated. They really have inherited a world that is worse than the one that those of us 35 or over faced. Recognize that, and stop cheering every time you see another article condemning a whole generation of people that have problems you never had. And before you yell at them to get off your lawn, let them have a few seconds to capture the Pokemon that’s sitting next to your water feature, which might be the only good thing that happens to them that day.

Racism Never Went Away

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This week, the U.S. experienced a series of tragedies that once again remind us of the horrible racism that still exists in America. Well, most of us are reminded of it. Unfortunately, a few people seem to think that these racial tensions are new. Some blame President Obama for fanning the flames, which is a bit like blaming women for catcalling because they have the audacity to walk down the street. President Obama has been subject to racism since before he even entered office. He’s been caricatured as a monkey, accused of being a secret traitor to our country, and even charged with being behind all of our mass shootings, as some nefarious plot to get rid of guns. Meanwhile, more guns are being sold during his Presidency than ever before, and if he were a Muslim spy, he would be pretty terrible at it, considering the relative lack of success that such terrorists have had during his Presidency. But this post isn’t about our President. It’s about racism, and the fact that it never went away and thus was never brought back.

Look, as a white male, I’ve never been the target of racism or sexism. I don’t know what that feels like; I can’t even imagine it, because that would require living every day with the knowledge that you are judged for something completely out of your control. But I was born in the 1970s, in Alabama, a state with a strong reputation of historical racism. Only a few years before my birth, there were still separate water fountains labeled ‘colored’, and the notion of separate but equal facilities was in full swing. A little over ten years before I was born, George Wallace, the Alabama governor, literally stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in an attempt to block segregation. Many people think of the 1960s as the height of racial tensions, and to some degree that is right. But it didn’t end after that. Things didn’t suddenly become equal in this country.

Here’s a few highlight reminders of the tense moments that have occurred in my lifetime (I was born in 1974). Boston had flares of violent protests in its attempts to desegregate the schools and the busing in the city in the mid to late 70s. In 1978, in Houston, a riot occurred during a protest of the police killing a Hispanic man, the tipping point in existing conflicts between the city police and the Hispanic community. In 1980, Miami, riots started after an African American man was beaten to death while being arrested. 1992 saw serious riots in LA after the Rodney King verdict, where officers were acquitted after beating an African American man (on film). The 2001 Cincinnati Riots took place over racial profiling and discrimination. In 2009, riots took place in Oakland, CA, after African American, Oscar Grant, was fatally shot by a transit police officer.

I’ll stop there, because you are likely familiar with the Baltimore Riots, the Ferguson Riots, and the latest incidents of violence that have arisen over racial tensions. Also, these are the ones that people want to blame on renewed racism, whatever that means. But as you can see above, it never went away. And here’s the part that you might not like: it’s our fault, and by ‘our’ I mean White Americans who just aren’t paying attention.

We are the ones who laugh uncomfortably when black comedians tell us about “driving while being black”. We are the ones who listen to Dave Chappelle talk about his white friend, Chip, and how he can smoke pot in front of cops with no consequences, and then think “that’s clever!” But worst of all, we are the ones who talk about being ‘colorblind’ or how we ‘don’t see color’.

I’ve been there, myself. As a teenager, I remember saying that I didn’t think of people in racial terms at all. I thought this was the enlightened viewpoint-our society was post-racial! Yay! Oh, sure, older people were still racists. I could hear it in the things they said. But not my generation. We were going to be the first non-racist Americans. I was well-intentioned, I suppose, in my own way, but incredibly naïve. This didn’t help anything. Sure, I was better than the outright racists in some ways, but I was still ignoring the persistent inequalities that were happening all around me. I went to a private school through sixth grade. In my time there, I saw two African American students, one of whom was the son of Pittsburgh Steeler legend John Stallworth. He stayed in my class for about a year, until his dad decided that this might be giving him a skewed view of the world. The other stayed about 3 years before switching schools. In my hometown of Huntsville, AL, the high school that I attended, in the SE quadrant, had almost no black students, while the one in the NW quadrant had a majority. The city was basically segregated, not by law, but in practice. I hear it still is.

So, it was pretty easy to be colorblind when I hardly ever had to interact with POCs. When I moved north, to Ohio, I heard people accuse my home state of being racist. As I just noted, this is a fair criticism, in many ways. However, it seemed problematic when I looked around and realized that 95% of the people in my community were white, and only 1% (seriously) were black. In cities like Cleveland, you can literally draw lines down streets that separate white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods, in part due to the failures of the Fair Housing Act.

If you look at the actual stats, you’ll find a huge disparity in how POCs are treated by the police, both in terms of ticketing and, as we’ve recently seen, violent confrontations. Whether Black Americans are 9 times more likely to be shot by police or 21 times more likely, the numbers are shocking.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t new. It isn’t getting better, or if it is, it’s not getting better fast enough. We have a systemic racism problem in this country, and our black President isn’t the source of the problem. Racism never went away. If it seems different today compared to ten or twenty years ago, that’s because the news is covering it more (in part, thanks to protesters, but also thanks to video capture devices). Also, depending on your age, you might have been less aware of the news and general social realities a decade or two ago. These injustices were happening when you were a child, and every year of your life, whether you noticed them or not.

None of this means that you, in particular, caused these problems. However, it does mean that we all need to do a better job of changing the system. More importantly, if these issues seem new to you, then you need to do a better job of listening to what minorities are telling you. When Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock tell us a joke about how black Americans are treated differently than white Americans, it’s OK that you laugh at that joke. But when your nervous laughter is over, it’s time to think about what they’ve said and realize that these jokes shouldn’t exist at all. Comedians often channel their most painful moments into something that teaches us about the world. Let’s learn the lessons, and let’s change the system. How do we do that? We can start by listening to the people who are experiencing the injustices. Don’t get defensive; don’t point out that you aren’t the problem. Listen and learn. We have to understand the problem before we can fix it, and that will require hearing some painful truths, about our society, and about ourselves. It’s time to stop being blind and start seeing again.

Stop Excluding Persons of Color from Fantasy Games in the Name of “Realism”

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In a previous post, I discussed how Valkyria Chronicles does an exceptional job of dealing with race issues via alt-history. In that post, I also mentioned the infamous controversy around Resident Evil 5, which depicted African zombies. Many people find the former example to be a sensitive way to deal with a very difficult racial issue, while the REV approach is often seen as problematic at best.

This led me to wonder about how race is depicted in video games in general. This is a huge topic, and it’s something I’d like to explore for several posts, but I want to start with a basic observation about the ‘realism’ argument for race in games. There are some people (and I won’t link to them because I don’t want to give them any traffic) who have a problem with depicting persons of color (POCs) in fantasy video games. The argument is often similar to the ones made against having women be warriors or have the same strength caps as men—realism.

There certainly have been games that tried to inject a bit of realism in gender differences by giving men higher strength caps. Some of the old SSI Goldbox games come to mind. These games were based on the D&D editions of their time, which had separate caps on stats for men and women. The result is that most of your fighter types in those games have to be men, if you want the best bonuses. Some of those games compensated by giving women higher charisma caps, I guess on the grounds that women are more attractive than men, even though charisma is not the same as attractiveness. I seem to recall a few giving women higher wisdom caps as the compensation, but I could be misremembering. In any case, the goal was to reflect some sort of biological reality. Whether that’s needed in fantasy games could be the subject of another post (in my view, these caps are silly), but I want to stick to the race issue for now.

If you go to almost any article that shows a particular fantasy character being reimagined as a POC, you’ll see comments complaining about political correctness and/or lack of realism. In many cases, the people making these comments see fantasy worlds as analogs to medieval Europe, which in turn they see as exclusively white.

There are two problems with this argument. The first is historical. Turns out there definitely were POCs in Europe, even in the Middle Ages, and many were prominent members of society. Yes, for historical reasons, most people were white, but people of all sorts of ethnicity and background lived in Europe, even back in Roman times.

But I think the second problem is more important, which is that the realism argument is silly from the start. The idea of race is a social construct. At one point, Irish people were considered a separate race in the U.S., and the idea of race being akin to culture is fairly new. The article linked in the previous sentence shows how difficult it is to say what ‘white culture’ would even mean. For racists, it likely means whatever views they currently hold as acceptable, but again this shows how artificial the whole thing is.

I do not mean to suggest that we should therefore be colorblind or that race does not matter. Even if it is a social construct, it still matters, and it has real effects on people. Ignoring that does no one any favors. But it does mean that racial distinctions are largely created, and we can examine history to see how and why. In fantasy worlds, with completely different histories than our own, who knows what would or would not be constructed. What we can say with confidence is that racial divisions, as we know them today, are not historical necessities. So fantasy worlds don’t have to make them. There’s nothing necessarily realistic about including them in a made up world.

Perhaps the realist will now counter by admitting that race is a construct but still insisting that there are evolutionary reasons for skin color. Darker skin is found in Africa because of the climate, where people needed a way to resist the effects of the sun. Lighter skin in Northern Europe comes from the longer winters and colder days, which led to less sun exposure (and the blue eye mutation, I guess!). Let’s assume this is not a way to re-introduce race, but is a sincere attempt at maintaining willing suspension of disbelief in a fantasy setting.

I still don’t buy it. If your fantasy world has magic, with flight, teleportation, or even just dragon riding or other means of conveyance that would far surpass our own medieval methods, then people in your world can migrate with ease. Unless all of these things are very new, no one is stuck in a particular climate or subject to the same rules of our own world.

None of this means that you can’t have critical ethnic differences, culture clashes, etc. in your fantasy world. These kinds of things will happen. But the separation of people based solely on physical features of the sort that we today identify with the term ‘race’ are historically isolated in our own world. They aren’t necessary for realism in a fantasy world. So the creators of those worlds can and should be able to present their denizens in whatever way they wish. If the creators want to have a world where physical differences have led to unfair prejudices, that’s fine. But they don’t have to have that, especially not in the name of realism.

Games are a form of entertainment. More people being able to enjoy that entertainment is a good thing, and part of the beauty of roleplaying games is that you get to explore different aspects of our world in a sandbox where the consequences do not affect you outside the game. Many people like to use this opportunity to play a different version of themselves. They still want to relate to their character though, which means they should have a choice of what gender they want to play, and what physical characteristics they want to have. There is no reason to limit these options.

Furthermore, people like to see themselves represented in games. If you are African American, and even fantasy games suggest that you don’t exist, or that only white people matter, that’s more than just frustrating. It undermines your status as a person. There’s simply no good reason for fantasy worlds to do this. More inclusiveness in fantasy-based games means more people enjoying the amazing worlds that fantasy writers can create.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about the more obvious analog to racism in fantasy worlds, which is really about species (elves, goblins, humans, etc.) and sub-species (High Elves, Sylvan Elves, etc.). Race is not really a formal biological term anymore.

Do Video Games Cause Violence? I have no idea

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(Image from GTA V appears courtesy of Rockstar Games and is used for commentary purposes through Fair Use)

A FB comment on my previous blog, about choice making in video games, led me to wonder more about how games create habits in those that play them, which led to the inevitable question of whether video games influence our morality. This has been a sore subject among gamers for many years, with critics like Jack Thompson accusing gaming of creating violent youth. Countries like Australia have actively censored violent games, such as the GTA series, as a way of protecting citizens from their influence.

In my opinion, there is not yet enough evidence about the effects that video games can have on those who play them. However, I do want to explore some of the common mistakes that people make when they think about this issue. The first one I’d like to tackle involves the nature of causality, which is misunderstood by most people.

Causality is very complicated. The philosopher David Hume famously proposed that causality is not something that exists per se, empirically speaking, but is rather a kind of connection that we perceive between events. In other words, we see one event tends to follow from another, and we assign causality between the two. In some cases, that has good, predictive value. If we carefully test these connections, using proper controls and experiments, duplicating results to ensure accuracy, while remaining aware of the possibility that we could still be wrong, then we can learn about connections among the phenomena in our world. We call such explorations ‘science’. It’s a methodology of study, and it is especially well suited to looking at “hard” connections in the world. For example, it doesn’t take many trials of throwing pure sodium into water before you realize that this is a volatile combination! (that’s a fancy way of saying things blow up!)

Soft connections, however, are trickier to affirm and test. When social scientists do experiments, they rarely find perfect connections that would allow them to say that X definitely causes Y under Z conditions. They might say it usually does, or even that it almost always does, but there are almost always exceptions. So, we know that being abused as a child can lead to a host of problems as an adult, and yet there are some people who overcome their upbringing and do not exhibit those behaviors. Citing such exceptions does not disprove the connection; it simply reminds us that it isn’t a perfect connection. There are exceptions.

I’m oversimplifying a bit for the sake of being concise; but my main point is that causality does not work in the kind of precise ways that many people seem to think that it does. Consider the connection between smoking and cancer, which is basically a physical/chemical causality. Almost everyone now realizes that smoking causes lung cancer, among other potentially life threatening problems. However, less than 10% of lifetime smokers will get lung cancer. So there are many, many examples of people who smoke all their lives and do not get lung cancer. Does this mean that the causal connection is a myth? Of course not. That same link I used to cite the 10% claim will also tell you that you are over 20 times more likely to get lung cancer if you are a smoker. In other words, it greatly increases your chances of getting lung cancer. There is a strong causal connection there.

OK, so how does this apply to violence and video games? At the very least, it means that if someone is worried about a causal connection here, citing the fact that you’ve played Grand Theft Auto and never murdered anyone is a pretty terrible counter argument. It’s just as terrible, in its own way, as the news stories that like to point out that a particular mass shooter enjoyed playing video games. Anecdotes are not data. We can’t use a single instance to prove causality, especially when dealing with human behavior.

So how can we figure out this issue? We need good experiments. I have not read all of the research on this subject. In one sense, there’s a lot to read, but in another, there really aren’t many research projects on this that are very good. I have to examine research as part of my job (though, as a philosopher, I don’t have to do this nearly as much as my colleagues in the sciences). It’s almost comically easy to spot experimental flaws in much of the research done on this issue.

What won’t help is knee jerk reaction to such studies. If the studies suggest that certain video games might contribute to violent tendencies, then shouting back with #notallgamers doesn’t really help. Obviously, most video gamers don’t go and murder people. Most people aren’t murderers, period. But causality is a tricky thing, and we need to be careful in assessing causal claims. We also need to be aware that most social causality is the result of multiple causes, not a single one. If a correlation is found (again, correlation isn’t causation!), instead of being overly defensive, perhaps gamers should try to help find out why this correlation exists, and what, if anything can be done about it.

In the meantime, I’ll answer such questions the way I always have. Do video games create habits in the people who play them? Probably. Do video games in and of themselves make people commit violent crimes? Probably not. Could some video games produce habits that make us more susceptible to problematic activities? That strikes me as very possible. But let’s do some science first, and find out!

How Valkyria Chronicles exposes the Holocaust

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A friend on FB recently linked to this blog post, written by Nadia Oxford, which looks at how the game Valkyria Chronicles examines racism in the context of WW2. Technically, the game takes place in an alternate world, but the similarities with WW2 are unmistakable, right down to the Anti-Semitism. The game does not shy away from this issue. Instead, it provides an alternate people, the Darcsen, which essentially represent the Jewish people. However, in VC, the Darcsen are dark-haired, blue-eyed people that are an amalgam of different real world ethnicities. By changing the culture a bit, the game is able to look at a very dark time in human history without becoming so realistic that it becomes problematic…maybe.

One of the issues Oxford raises is the question of whether it’s acceptable for a Japanese game to explore this theme. While Japan took part in WW2, they were in a different theatre of war, and the history of Jewish persecution does not really affect them (directly or indirectly). This could have been disastrous. Remember that not too long ago, one of the Resident Evil games (also from Japan) got in trouble due to its portrayal of Africans. While people disagreed on whether the game was outright racist, people on both sides of the debate realized that Japanese developers were unlikely to fully understand the history of racism towards Africans in European and American culture. Does the same thing happen in Valkyria Chronicles?

I’m not really in a position to answer that as well as Oxford is, since she comes from a Jewish heritage and I do not. As a white male in a country that privileges both things, I have never had to live as a member of an oppressed group. So I would not presume to know what that’s like and whether the game handles this in a sensitive way. So I will defer to her on this. Oxford finds the examination refreshing. Here’s why:

“First, the Darcsens aren’t martyrs. They’re people. While we do see a glimpse of some confined in concentration camps, and while those camps are subsequently liquefied to hide evidence of the atrocities going on within, the Darcsens are more than sallow faces peering over spartan wooden bunkers. They’re miners, soldiers, scientists, and engineers. You meet them. You interact with them. One of the game’s main characters, the soft-spoken Isara, is a Darcsen. She makes your tank go. She is, therefore, amazing.

Second — and this is important — Darcsens aren’t a tool that’s tossed around to make it clear that the bad guys are bad, and the good guys are good. The Darcsens are universally reviled, even by your own god damn soldiers. There is actually a status detriment, “Darcsen hater,” that causes afflicted soldiers to fuck up on the battlefield if any comrades in their vicinity are Darcsens. They’re so put-off, so disgusted, they can’t aim straight. These are the good guys.

Third, the Darcsens are a very close-knit group. The opposite of the “Darcsen hater” detriment is the “Darcsen bond” buff, which causes Darcsens in close proximity to each other to fight harder. If you’re a Jew, this is relatable on a holy-shit level. Though Jews still have big internal issues with racism (again, not all Jews are white), there’s a bond between Tribe members that’s indescribable.” –Nadia Oxford

Let’s look at these points. The first one is really important. The key to dealing with race issues in a thoughtful way is to constantly humanize everyone involved, really on both sides. This is how points one and two relate to each other. The Darcsens are right there in your army, serving alongside the bigots in your own unit. One of them is a childhood friend…effectively, your little sister! As the commander of the unit, you have to balance out the fact that your little sister is part of a persecuted ethnicity, while also recognizing that the people who exhibit the racist behavior toward them have learned this behavior through their own upbringing.

And it doesn’t feel heavy handed; it feels complex, which is what racism is. When someone says “I can’t be racist; I have black friends,” we are tempted to laugh at how naïve that statement is. It ignores the fact that stereotypes can persist even when we interact with members of a group. After all, sexists get married too, but they can still be sexist! The people in Valkyria Chronicles have been raised in the midst of propaganda that demonizes an entire people. It makes it easier to ignore the terrible atrocities that happen to them right under their noses. This is very similar to what happened in Nazi Germany. After the war, many Germans claimed that they did not know the Holocaust was happening, even though they lived near it. In many cases, they did not want to know.

The game shows how easy it is to turn on a group of outsiders when you are looking for a scapegoat. The Darcsen are accused of being ‘bad luck’, as if their very presence is an abomination. The first scene where this is presented was shocking to me. Again, the target was my little sister (in the game). I imagined what this would mean if someone attacked my own sister in this way, and I was really upset. I didn’t like these people, and they were under my command. But this moment only sets up important lessons that play out later in the conflict. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a great game (and available on Steam, if you don’t want to play the console version).

The third point that Oxford notes is one that is harder for me to grasp, again because I am not a member of a persecuted minority. We all have groups that make us feel like part of a community, but the game captures the fact that persecuted groups have a different sense of pride—a bond that is immeasurably important to its members. They are an instant family of sorts, even when they first meet each other, because they know a deep truth about each other.

Again, I will defer to Oxford on how well the game captures all of these things, but I’m amazed that this game, with it’s gorgeous color-pencil cel-shaded graphics, and its often cutesy tone and music, is nevertheless able to capture the essence of the Holocaust so well. It also teaches important lessons about our common humanity. That’s what good art should do, and Valkyria Chronicles is good art.

Do the Parameters of Video Games Absolve us of Moral Responsibility in Them?

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The January 2016 issue of Ethics and Information Technology has an article by Christopher Bartel that examines the issue of free will in video games. Bartel basically argues that even if the constraints of a videogame limit your free will in certain ways, you can still be held morally responsible for your actions in the game, if you still wanted to do them. In other words, even if the game forces you to commit a certain action, that in itself does not excuse you, morally, at least in cases where you want to do the action anyway.

It’s an interesting distinction, and one that has me wondering where it does or does not apply. Consider the very controversial scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In this scene, which can be skipped at no penalty to the player, you join Russian nationalists who are committing an act of terrorism at an international airport. It’s a gruesome scene, as the terrorists murder innocent people, and you must pretend to go along with this in order to pass the mission. Technically, you do not have to kill any of the civilians, but you also cannot stop the attack (without failing the mission).

Bartel discusses this scene in his paper, as an example of a no-win situation, morally speaking. Many players are uncomfortable with the mission because there is no way to make a morally good choice. However, since the game’s own parameters are what prevent the player from acting morally, one could argue that the player is not really responsible. If you simply stand there and do nothing, you will pass the mission without killing any innocents. This may make you uncomfortable, psychologically, but that was the point of the mission, according to the designers (see the link above). By not engaging in the brutal behavior, you’ve taken the best option you can in the context of the game (well, the best option might be to skip this level!).

But suppose you go along with the terrorists and murder the bystanders. They aren’t real people; they are video game representations. Still, if you feel a certain joy in partaking in a murder simulator, could you be said to be engaging in immoral behavior?

Following Harry Frankfurt’s view that there is a difference between being determined to act and being willing to act, Bartel suggests that the latter may be the important part, morally speaking. In other words, there may be situations where the outcome is pre-determined. There is nothing we can do to stop it. In the deterministic sense, we are not really responsible for such events. They happen regardless of what we actually do. But such acts could happen either with our will or against our will. As an obvious example, we will all die some day. This is determined. There are even cases where we know death is coming and cannot change it. However, how we react to this inevitability does say something about us. If someone we know is dying, and we are unhappy about it, this is different, at least psychologically, from being happy about it. The results are the same either way, but how we view it does say something about our character.

What it says exactly is a complex question, and depends greatly on the context. We might be happy that a loved one dies because we are glad that they are no longer suffering, or we might be happy because they were mean to us, or because they left us money. The first reason seems virtuous to some degree, while the other two are less so, and may even verge into vices if taken far enough.

Let’s take this back to video games now. In the Modern Warfare 2 example, you cannot stop the attack. But suppose you aid the terrorists and start shooting at the civilians. What does this say about you? Well, it depends on why you are doing it. Perhaps it’s just a game to you, and you think this is just how the game works. In other words, you’ve divorced yourself from seeing it as anything more than an active movie of sorts. You aren’t taking joy in murder as such, but rather in playing the game well. Maybe you are roleplaying. Your character is a spy, trying to infiltrate this group. Maybe you are trying to think of the greater good here, in some utilitarian way. I’m not a big fan of utilitarianism, but at least this would have some sort of morality behind the motive…I guess.

But suppose you just think it’s fun to murder people. Then your actions reflect something about your character here. And it’s not good (do I have to say that???).

The issue of whether video games cause violence or create bad habits is very complicated, much more than most people realize. Studies done on this are often flawed, and there really aren’t enough of them to make conclusions in either direction. But I think how people act in simulations can say something about who they are in real life. The problem is determining what it says exactly. I have no way of knowing why you are killing civilians in games like Modern Warfare 2, or GTAV. Even if you tell me, I can’t really get into the psychology of why you are doing something.

Still, I do think that there are ways that people can play video games that do expose them as being unvirtuous to some degree or another. The fact that some video gamers might be bad people won’t surprise anyone who has actually played any games online, especially if you have voice chat on. But Bartel’s article is more about the psychology behind our actions, as it manifests in relatively deterministic worlds. It’s an interesting question and one that will definitely have me rethinking my actions and motives as I play games in the future.

Pillars of Eternity and Abuse of the Power of Nobility

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“All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” — Lord Acton

Like my other post on Pillars of Eternity, this will contain a specific example from the game, and is thus a spoiler. In such examples, I avoid using the main quest line. It’s possible that you will not follow this side quest, but it is rather easy to find and start. So be warned that you if you want to play the game without spoilers you should not read any further. This incident occurs in and around the village of Dyrford.

The setup for the quest is that a noble lord and his daughter were passing through the village on the way to a city. The lord says that he is hoping to find someone for his daughter to marry. Unfortunately, she has gone missing, and he suspects that she has been kidnapped. I immediately offer to help, of course, but as I ask around, I notice a few things are not adding up.

First, the noble is taking a rather circuitous route to his destination. There are easier paths, though this one is less likely to draw attention. The people in the village all dislike this lord very much and don’t really want to help me find the girl. The man’s servant doesn’t seem to know much about the girl, despite claiming that he’s been in service to the lord for years.

Further investigation finds that she seems to have run away rather than being kidnapped. However, the people that helped her seem a bit fishy too. Something is way off in this situation. The details are kind of fun, so I won’t spoil them, but eventually you learn that the girl in question is not the man’s daughter at all. She’s his niece, and (TRIGGER WARNING…seriously!), she’s pregnant with his child. Apparently, the lord’s own wife is unable to have a viable child (all of her children are hollowborn, which means they lack souls). In a last ditch effort to procreate, he forces himself on his own niece.

It’s a disgusting act, and as the player character, you are given the option of helping her enact revenge on the noble lord and thus expose the corruption of the noble class or stopping this plot. The revenge path has a high cost on everyone involved and will likely leave the young girl permanently broken (at best!). However, you are told that it will serve as a blow against the elite who abuse their power.

Of course, there are other ways you can deal with this problem. I chose to wipe the unfortunate girl’s memories and deal with her uncle myself. This seemed preferable to sacrificing her in the name of revenge. Still, I can’t help but wonder if hiding the truth from her was the right move. I sent her to a chapel, hoping that the priests there could help her start a new life. I wonder what will become of this poor woman.

These are the kind of quests that haunt you even after you complete them, and they are a big part of what makes Pillars of Eternity such an interesting game, if a bit dark at times.

Pillars of Eternity uses the Trolley Problem

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In a previous post I mentioned that I really like how Obsidian Entertainment approaches ethics in their game, Pillars of Eternity. However, they are not content to rest on an excellent virtue ethics system that tracks how your character reacts to situations. They also present you with moral dilemmas that are often quite difficult to solve, or at least make you consider which choice is the right one.

Before I give a specific example, I need to point out that this post will contain spoilers for a particular quest in the game. It is not the main quest; so you might not even find this quest. However, it is not overly difficult to find. It takes place in Defiance Bay, in Act 2. So once you have finished with that area, then you can read this post (or if you don’t mind a spoiler for one side quest).

I won’t spoil the details that get you to this point, but it turns out that an acting troupe is luring various citizens into joining them in order to essentially create a snuff fil….err, play. In other words, they literally kill these people on stage in front of an audience. The underground theater’s patron is a lord in the city. When you confront him, he points out that he cannot help himself. He has a perverse desire to see people die. He is ashamed of it, but it is just who he is. In order to keep his desires in check, he tries to select people that will not be missed, or who are not particularly good people in the first place. Moreover, he tells you, he donates a lot of money to charities in order to balance out his wrongdoing. If you destroy him, those people will no longer be helped.

It’s a classic dilemma—a version of a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem presents a situation where a trolley driver looks ahead on the tracks and sees that there are five people stuck in some way to the main track. Luckily, there is an emergency side track that goes around these five people. The driver need only push a button to switch tracks. Unfortunately, there is a single person trapped on the side track. The question is: should he push the button?

Most people say that pushing the button is at least morally permissible. Some say that he should push the button and would be wrong not to do so. The calculation in either case is basically utilitarian. Killing one person is better than killing five.

Now consider another case. A world class surgeon has five patients in need of various transplants. They will die without them. The doctor has a separate patient who is perfectly healthy and has all of the organs needed by the other five patients. Assume that the doctor is so good that the surgery is (effectively) 100% likely to succeed. Should the surgeon be allowed to sacrifice the patient in order to save the other five?

Here, most people will say that the surgeon may not do this. Some people will say that the healthy patient could volunteer to die for the other five, but many people do not find even this acceptable. In any case, our intuition is that the surgeon cannot simply take the patient’s life.

Why doesn’t utilitarianism prevail here? Many answers have been suggested. Philipa Foote says that the difference between the two cases involves killing versus letting die. Killing five people in the trolley example is worse than letting five people die in the surgeon example. Judith Thompson, on the other hand, says the difference lies in rights versus utility. In the surgeon example, we would be violating the healthy patient’s rights by killing him or her. The five other people have no right to the healthy person’s organs. Of course, the single person on the train track also has the right not to be hit by a train. Unfortunately, in the trolley example, rights get violated either way, so you fall back on utility. Violating one person’s rights is better than violating five; the lesser of two evils, so to speak. However, in the surgeon case, rights can be respected, so they should be. In Thompson’s terminology, “rights trump utility.”

Whatever solution you prefer (even if it’s some other solution!), Pillars of Eternity is offering us a similar choice. We are asked to consider whether the good that the nobleman does somehow makes up for the lives that he is taking. If we are purely utilitarian, we might argue that he does so much good for the city that the loss of a few lives is outweighed by the good done. If we are deontologists (explained a bit in the second paragraph of this post), or if we simply believe that rights are inviolable, we might argue that rights should never be ignored in this way, no matter what good may come of it.

What’s interesting is that PoE gives us this option. You get to choose which approach to ethics you (or your character) prefers to take. Of course, in real life, you might just kill the guy, take all of his stuff, and donate it to the needy. Solve both problems! But that misses the point of the thought experiment. Besides, this example takes place in a fantasy world where some people literally have the power to cure the insane impulses of other people by using mind magic. If you want to break the example, just ask Obsidian why they don’t let one your characters simply fix the nobleman so we can have the best of everything!

But that would be unrealistic.

Pillars of Eternity and Obsidian’s Wonderful Use of Virtue Ethics

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For the last several years, one of the better companies for producing both inventive and nostalgic RPGs is Obsidian Entertainment. Many of their games have taken existing properties and created sequels that took them a bit further (e.g. Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout: New Vegas). Last year, however, Obsidian released a game based on an IP that it created, called Pillars of Eternity (PoE). PoE began as a Kickstarter project, which I funded because it looked incredible and I like the company. It’s a throwback in design to the Infinity Engine games (like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale), but with many new features.

One of these features is the traits system, which assigns your character values to various character traits that they have exhibited through conversations that they’ve had with different people and factions in the game. It’s a wonderful system because it reflects a moral theory that I’ve mentioned before in this blog—virtue ethics. What makes PoE’s take on virtue ethics great is that it assigns numerical values to various qualities that you’ve exhibited, and then other people in the world will hear about your reputation and act accordingly.

An example might help! I am playing as a druid character (you have a party of six characters, but one is the main character, i.e. the character you are playing). She is a good person, very helpful and mostly honest. If there is a conflict between producing good and honesty, she will choose to produce good. Those do happen in the game, but for the most part, she has been able to be honest. As a result, she has an ‘honesty’ score of 3.

This means that when I am first meeting a new NPC in the world, I am sometimes given the option of using my honesty trait to convince them that I’ll do what I say. Characters in the world will react to me accordingly, saying things like “They say you are an honest person. So I think I can trust you.” This really helps with immersion, of course, but it also has in game benefits. By being trustworthy, I am told things I might not otherwise find out. Of course, there are other characters that will not like me because I am so honest. They will know that I am unlikely to lie on their behalf, and this could make them wary to give me certain tasks.

The system that incorporates all of this is not perfect. I cannot always tell which option will be seen as the benevolent one (my highest trait at 4 right now). I try to do good, but you aren’t told which option will raise benevolence or honesty or any other trait. Still, you can get pretty close. I would prefer a system where you are told which option matches which trait. That way I can be sure that I am choosing the one my character can do. This might undermine immersion though; so I understand why it isn’t present. Maybe there could be a setting to make this visible of invisible, allowing players to choose. I can, of course, go online and find this information, but I don’t want to pause my game during every conversation in order to look at walkthrus, which often have spoilers.

Overall, though, the system feels about right. There are many traits. My character is seen as slightly stoic, but mostly passionate. She’s clever. She even has a one in ‘deceptive’, probably from the times where I chose benevolence over honesty. If you play a different way, you can get traits like ‘aggressive’. I don’t know all of the traits that might be seen as more negative. I assume there is a malevolent trait to counter benevolent. Perhaps I’ll play the game again and see how that goes.

But it’s a big game; one of those epic, sprawling RPGs that you remember companies like Bioware and Black Isle making. Obsidian is a continuation of an approach to RPGs that makes you feel like you really are playing a video game version of a roleplaying campaign. The characters have distinct personalities and issues they wish to resolve. Some of them are unlikable (I’m looking at you Durance! I do not like you!). Others are simply exotic, in the sense that they represent ways of thinking that reflect the fact that they come from non-human cultures. For example, one of my favorite characters prefers eating raw meat. She’s on a journey to find the reincarnated form of a village elder that died several years earlier.

There are factions that you can find favor with or who might become enemies. There are entire new cultures to learn about; different approaches to magic, psionics, even chanting (bard-like abilities). I’m glad games like this are still being made. The inclusion of a virtue ethics approach to morality helps me see the world as a living place, where my actions and my value (or my character’s values anyway!) matter. I’d love to see other developers extend this idea further.

Let me know if there are other games that use a similar system. I’d love to hear about them.