Feeling guilt in video games

Why do we seem to lack the emotion of 'guilt' when playing video games?

More often than not, video games which offer paroxysms of violence never allow for the player to feel a sense of “guilt”.

Take the absurdly popular franchise Call of Duty over the course of the millions upon billions of perpetual cliched significant events which occur in Call of Duty, for example the death of a key character, of which the player is to blame. The protagonist simply dusts himself off, and continues onward.

Whereas, in reality the average moral person would suffer from extreme bouts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and be constantly riddled with guilt if someone of great importance, be it positive or negative, direct or indirect, was killed by their hand. Why is that?

I am the first person to defend the argument that video games do not cause violence, in any circumstance. Let that be blatantly clear. I believe no guilt is felt, because there are no repercussions. In video games, if someone dies you either fail and restart, lose a number of points or receive a negative/positive ending (depending on your personal definition of positive/negative) But you always have the ability to restart. You can always, as they say, “have another go at it” There are no permanent opposite reactions, to your actions, ever.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

But reality is to the contrary, every action made, even the most minute or insignificant has permanent reactions, say for example, you find a coin sitting innocently on the sidewalk, you could pick it up and claim it as your own. It is just a coin, you will probably lose it, but hey, you may find some use for it. But by picking up that single coin, some starving homeless individual who may have found that coin, could miss out on a meal. Of course that is a ludicrous example, without any doubt, but the dichotomy between video games and reality is quite similar to that.

The player could murder someone and depart from the crime scene without any investigation or scrupulous detective work. The player need not concern themselves with the possible effect this murder may have on the victim’s friends, family or other acquaintances. In Grand Theft Auto, the player can mow down an entire path of innocent citizens whilst singing along to Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

But should the player, in reality mow down that group of people, providing the player is morally sound, he/she would realise that it is not merely the victims who suffer, it is every branch of the tree which suffers. The guilt would then set in, the player would feel abhorrent, ignominious at the fact that not only is their life over, the lives of potentially hundreds are also.

Could you imagine if, for example, after each murder in Grand Theft Auto, the game forced you to watch a news broadcast of the event. The player could see the weeping families of those close to the victim, the calls for justice and vitriol thrown at the player. (I would find this intriguing at first, but eventually become bored and find a way to skip the cutscene.)

Grand Theft Auto V

There are however, video games which attempt vehemently to emulate this feeling. Such as the brilliant This War Of Mine, this game forces the player to commit acts of blatant atrocities in the name of ‘survival’ but these acts do not end after they are committed, quite to the contrary…


Presuming now that you have read the bold alert above and are prepared for what is to come, I shall digress.

There is a segment in This War Of Mine where the player comes across a benevolent elderly couple, residing in a somewhat peaceful part of a desolate world. The couple offer no resistance to any acts of aggression, the husband, if attacked will inform his wife to run and hide. Once the old man slumps to the floor and the player has looted all that he/she can carry and departed from the residence, the elderly lady does not merely vanish, or forget her husband ever existed. Not at all, if left without food the elderly lady will pass away, if left with supplies, the lady will bury her husband and sit solemnly in her chair and cry out in sorrow often. (The very same occurs if the husband survives and the wife passes away)


This War Of Mine

After the murder and the burglary, the player will return to the decrepit place of residence and his/her morale will diminish significantly. Each murder will eat away at the character, this crumbling moral will affect the rest of group, providing there is any group. Similar to reality, certain characters will react differently, depending on the groups level of hunger/morale/desensitisation. Some may comment “You did what you had to” but others may respond “How could you? You monster!“. Of course, as this is a video game, not everything is perfect, and even your own characters emotions are entirely out of your hands. You may personally have no qualms in bludgeoning a character to death, but your character may, and based on experience, probably will.

To wrap up this tautology, I shall provide a very terse summary.

We as supposed ordinary moral people do not experience the sensation of ‘guilt’ often in violent video games, simply because we are fully aware that there are no permanent consequences to our actions, we can quite literally “get away with murder”. We always have a second chance in video games, in reality such chances are very rare, essentially impossible, it entirely depends on the action.

But should we feel guilty murdering in video games? I would argue no, well in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, you cannot help but feel guilty. Albeit in eccentric violent games such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Battlefield you can still be an ordinary person, and enjoy casual genocide via a flying tank, or Kamikaze a jet into a small rural village.

Just avoid doing that in real life… Please.

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