Technology: November 2009 Archives

Modern gaming

10 November 2009

Some 25 years ago, I played a game called Elite on the BBC Micro. Some people still go a bit misty-eyed over it, recalling happy days when spaceships that looked like coathangers were the bleeding-edge in terms of computer game realism. The game picked up a lot of fans because, unlike others on the Beeb, such as the venerable Chuckie Egg (a bit like Donkey Kong but with a chicken, or a duck, or something), it was fairly open-ended. There was no plot as such that guides many of today's more filmic experiences.

And it let you go bad. The trouble with Elite was that, being based on trading stuff and avoiding the odd raid from space pirates, it could get a bit dull. So, to liven stuff up, it was tempting to turn to drugs running and vandalism. This, naturally, did not make you all that popular with the police in the game who would try to blow you and your ship out of the sky if you happened by their space station. That was unless you got your retaliation in first. One trick was to arm up with lots of firepower on the back of the ship in a space station, leave and then hover just outside. After a few minutes, another ship, presumably with innocent passengers aboard, would try to leave. But with an overarmed ship, all you had to do was blast away and then keep blasting because the game's logic had the police ships camped up inside the space station.

You could keep going for hours because the game wasn't programmed to deal with this scenario. But the novelty soon wears off and it's time to cut and run. I honestly can't remember if my in-game character ever survived the ensuing onslaught but I vaguely remember that, if you knew what you were doing, you could make to the point where you could transfer to another system where there might not be a bounty on your head.

As I recall, I don't think Elite ever stirred up scare stories about encouraging kids and teenagers to do evil. But, the mixture of weaponry (for self-defence you understand) and a slightly more freeform game structure than usual meant the choice was there.

Fast forward 25 years and we have a fairly transparent publicity stunt by a games developer turning into one more call to get nasty games banned. Ahead of the launch but in good enough time to let the opprobrium build up, some game sites posted footage of the 'nasty level' in Modern Warfare 2, in which your character attempts to curry favour with a bunch of Russian terrorists by gunning down civilians in an airport terminal only to be despatched as an infiltrator at the end. This, apparently, is an optional level that, being optional, is not critical to the game other than its role as atrocity exhibition to secure headlines. I have to say that it worked a treat although it begs the question of what the next games developer will do. (Has anyone done Spanish Inquisition - The Torquemada Years yet? It has two levels to complete: the repression of conversos, Moriscos, Protes...it has three levels...)

The difference, and only difference, lies in the level of realism. It's one thing to shoot up a glowing coathanger. Stepping over the bloody body of a victim you've just (albeit virtually) shot in the back is a very different experience. But which is worse? Genocides often rely on one ruling elite convincing their populace that The Other is not human. It's not really killing at all because they are beneath you. If you look at the nasty level and think "that really is quite sick" then I think the game has done very little to damage your sense of morality.

It's very easy to think banning is the right thing to do when you see the sub-Beavis & Butthead comments under some of the videos ("lol, they blew up the elevator", "I want to see how you can blow a head with a rifle", ffnn, ffnn, hurr hurr). But most people know the difference between the world of a game and reality. You need to watch out for those who don't but the presence of video games don't make them any more or less dangerous: these are people for whom society has no meaning anyway.

The most disturbing comment I saw though, and more than a couple of times was "There is no such thing as in-game morals". I could see the point: I took advantage of that aspect of computing gaming playing Elite. But, there are parts of gaming that do leak into real life, particularly in massively multiplayer games where forms of money now change hands. Blowing away a friend in a deathmatch repeatedly has no knock-on consequences other than bruised egos if they're the ones who keep staring down the barrel of a rocketlauncher. But there are more subtle problems that are starting to emerge where in-game actions have real-world consequences, if only minor for the moment. For example, social engineering outside the game itself has been used to cheat World of Warcraft players out of their in-game money. No in-game morals? That's not a situation that's likely to hold up much longer.