In my previous post, NightRun Like Skyrim, I shared a quite extraordinary personal experience of enhanced physical ability that I directly attribute to “learning” acquired through play of the new and very popular computer/video game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In that case, I found myself behaving in a new and unpredictable way which I found quite mind-blowing. But if that change could happen so easily, subconsciously, and unobtrusively—I wasn’t even aware it was possible until it happened—what other new “skills” might I (or someone else) be learning from Skyrim and other such games that are less socially positive?
Many studies have been done concluding that violence in video games, tv, and film can affect the thoughts, behaviours and attitudes of people who play or view them. Having the ability to participate as a character in a story, as with an avatar like in Skyrim, intensifies the experience and increases aggressive behaviour if the game is a violent one (Fischer, Kastenmuller, & Greitmeyer, 2009). Of course most studies like this are quite contrived. Participants—often university students—might do one task, and then their responses are measured on a second task, or in a different environment, or the intensity of responses is picked up by electrodes attached to the skull. Whatever. And I’ve always thought, “Yeah, it’s probably true that violence in films or games can increase violent tendencies,” but I haven’t lost any sleep over the idea. I never really thought about participatory media, in particular, as a way of “learning” violent or anti-social behaviour much until now. But there’s something about the visceral, subjective experience of actually gauging my own responses that wins over generalized laboratory studies for me any time.
Skyrim is rated R-13 for “violence and offensive language”. I don’t know about the offensive language—I haven’t noticed any—but the rating seems to be about right for violence level, and I can well imagine computer saavy kids who love games being into this one at 11 or 12, and parents easily turning a blind eye. It’s not so much the violence in the game that concerns me—ok, so your sword gets blood on it when you slash at a snarling wolf, giant frostbite spider, or attacking bandit--but the morals and ethics are another story. Right from the start, you are encouraged by your first [temporary] guide to simply help yourself to assorted armaments, armour, foodstuffs and potions as you find and fight your way out of Helgen Keep (the opening “quest”). It appears in the game that for the most part, you can take what you can get and kill anybody who gets in your way. In the towns of Skyrim it’s different: you’re reminded that if you “take” it is stealing and it is important to not get caught or you will be arrested. You are not taught that it’s wrong to steal, just that it’s wrong to get caught! Indeed, you can, over the course of the game, increase your lockpicking, pickpocketing, and thieving skills to become an expert at these arts.
Now it seems to me that any game that glorifies fighting skills, sneaking skills, thieving skills, and the like, a game in which you participate as a character free to make choices and decisions about what to do and how to do it at every juncture (it truly is an amazing game!), and that you get more “loot” and complete more quests if you are a better fighter, thief, pickpocket, and/or mage—the Buddhist philosophy wouldn’t get you through the first quest—is bound to install some rather ego-inflating it’s-all-about-me meta-programs in your brain if played very much. And along with that, a “belief” that if you can take something, you should.
I don't plan to stop playing the game, but I am planning to stay aware of the insidiousness of the Skyrim ethics. And I wonder about the kids, especially, and vulnerable adults who are really, seriously into their avatar persona in whatever games they play, and find themselves pulling aspects of their avatar and the avatar's world into their own personal lives.
I dunno. As they say, this is a curly one.