Psychogaming: Morality and Potential Space

Videogames are often portrayed in mainstream Western culture as low-brow, gratuitiously violent, and corrosive to our youth. As a discipline, psychology has been particularly interested in establishing a link between violent behavior and gaming (e.g., Bartholow, Bushman, & Sestir, 2007; Carnagey, Anderson, & Bushman, 2007; Sheese & Graziano, 2005) — with some notable exceptions (e.g., Kutner & Olson, 2008) — despite the fact that the link is consistently hard to find (Ferguson, 2008). This general attitude of condescension and distaste toward videogames is beginning to shift; as casual entries like “Angry Birds” (2009) become ubiquitous, the divide between gamers and non-gamers grows murkier. Nevertheless, the idea of games-as-art is rarely part of the cultural dialogue. (In fact, Roger Ebert [2010a] famously declared that videogames could “never be art,” a statement he later retracted [2010b] owing to the fact that he had never once played a videogame.)

Many games are indeed low-brow and gratuitously violent (though still fun to play and often worthy of discussion on an artistic level; see recent examples such as “Bayonetta” [2010], “Bulletstorm” [2011], and “Gears of War 3” [2011]), but many others offer powerful and even transformative experiences. The interactive aspect of gaming, that the artwork is something one “plays,” provides opportunity not only for rich and thought-provoking content, but more importantly allows psychological mechanisms and conflicts to be activated and explored in vivo during the play session.

Take, for example, the complex moral decision-making demanded in the new Ubisoft game “I Am Alive” (2012). This game — which in many ways aspires to be an interactive version of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalytic novel “The Road” (2006) — puts you in the shoes of a man who has returned to his hometown in the wake of a cataclysmic event that has decimated the population and left the world crumbling and covered in dust.

Throughout your traversing of the fictional city of Haventon, you must carefully manage limited resources of found items such as water, pain pills, and rat meat in order to maintain your health and stamina as you search for your lost wife and child. At several points, you come across fellow survivors who are destitute and in need of supplies to survive. The game offers few concrete incentives to guide how you negotiate these interactions. Offering your supplies yields no material advantage other than an extra “retry,” which is a negligible reward; instead, you must make a choice based on personal morality. Should you give up important resources that may save your own life later in order to save a stranger’s life now? Consequently, you are also free to draw your gun (which often has no bullets, but the other characters in the game don’t know that) and rob survivors of the few supplies they have. The only consequence of such an action is whether or not you’ll be able to look yourself in the mirror afterward.

Perhaps the most memorable moment in my playthrough of “I Am Alive” came when, while searching abandoned subway tunnels for food, I accidentally stumbled across two men who had a young couple imprisoned in a cage. As the men threateningly told me to “walk away,” the prisoners begged for my help, saying that their captors were cannibals. The bloody human remains lying in the corner nearby confirmed their accusation. I knew that saving the couple would not help me win the game; in fact, I would have to use at least one or two valuable bullets to free them, and even then they may require further food or supplies to be stabilized. Though the game would not punish me for sacrificing them, I felt compelled to intervene. I attempted to intimidate the cannibals by pulling out my gun, and when they rushed at me I was forced to kill them both. I freed the prisoners and gave them medicine. They thanked me, offering no concrete reward. As I left the area, I heard one say, “I was starting to think there were no good people left in the world.” I didn’t regret my decision.

What drove me to act conscientiously in a virtual world with no real consequences? Perhaps being engrossed in the experience allowed me to transfer preexisting models of justice and relatedness to the computer-generated characters of the game, as if they were real. But this would suggest that I play games as myself, and treat the game world as I treat the real world. Intuitively I know that this cannot be the case.

Rather, I believe that a certain awareness of the artificiality of the setting allowed me to “play” in a different sense of the word. The virtual world of Haventon acted as a kind of potential space (Winnicott, 1971/2005), not fully belonging to either my intrapsychic reality or objective reality. I did not have full omnipotent control over the game world, but I had far more control and flexibility than in the real world — after all, in the game I could always restart from an earlier point if I disliked the outcome. In this potential space, I was free to explore the consequences of my wishes, fantasies, and impulses, knowing that they were real enough to be felt, but unreal enough so as not to become overwhelming. Playing the game was living one of many possible realities, motivated by some configuration of my internal dynamics. Saving the prisoners did not represent what I would do if I were really in that situation, but it allowed me to explore an altruistic fantasy of what I would like to do, and then experience the emotional and material sequelae of my actions. Similarly, I might have played with the selfish fantasy of leaving the couple to their wretched fate, or the sadistic fantasy of murdering the captors but then refusing to unlock the prisoners’ cage.

This process of working through possible realities is particularly well-suited to the interactivity of videogames. Of course, not every game has room for the player to pursue genuine insight and emotional experience, but “I Am Alive” is also not an anomaly. “Heavy Rain” (2010) is another game interested in the moral and emotional consequences of decision-making, including one especially intense sequence (spoiler alert) in which you must decide if you will shoot a man you have never met in order to save your son. I did, and felt nauseous afterward.

“Angry Birds” (2009). Developed by Rovio Mobile, published by Chillingo and Rovio Mobile.
Bartholow, B. D., Bushman, B. J., & Sestir, M. A. (2006). Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: Behavioral and event-related brain potential data. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(4), 532-539. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2005.08.006
“Bayonetta” (2010). Developed by Platinum Games, published by Sega.
“Bulletstorm” (2011). Developed by People Can Fly and Epic Games, published by Electronic Arts.
Carnagey, N. L., Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2007). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(3), 489-496. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.003
Ebert, R. (2010a). Video games can never be art. Roger Ebert’s Journal. Retrieved from
Ebert, R. (2010b). Okay, kids, play on my lawn. Roger Ebert’s Journal. Retrieved from
Ferguson, C. J. (2008). The school shooting/violent video game link: Causal relationship or moral panic? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 5, 25-37. doi:10.1002/jip
“Gears of War 3” (2011). Developd by Epic Games, published by Microsoft Studios.
“Heavy Rain” (2010). Developed by Quantic Dream, published by Sony Computer Entertainment.
“I Am Alive” (2012). Developed by Ubisoft Shanghai, published by Ubisoft.
Kutner, L. & Olson, C. K. (2008). Grand Theft Childhood. New York: Simon & Schuster.
McCarthy, C. (2006). The Road. New York: Knopf.
Sheese, B. E., & Graziano, W. G. (2005). Deciding to defect: The effects of video-game violence on cooperative behavior. Psychological Science, 16(5), 354-358.
Winnicott, D. W. (2005). Playing and Reality. London: Routledge. (Original work published 1971)


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