If you’ve never been hit in the face, you’re not really prepared for when someone does it, much less when it’s a fist instead of an open-palmed slap. There’s a sort of misfire that happens in your brain acknowledging that you’ve just been struck in the face, something that sends a hot flame down your arms and clenches your own fists, an immediate message telling you to fight back because now it’s on.
That went through me in a span of seconds. And I did exactly what I want to do in that situation, which was… nothing at all. My hands relaxed from fists. I didn’t throw a punch. I stood and stared at the person who had just struck me.
This might be a surprise to some of you (and it is definitely being shared out of context), but it might especially come as a surprise compared to the way that I play MMOs. In those games, I am a viciously violent little bastard. Which means it’s time to talk about the way our behaviors in MMOs don’t mirror what we do in real life as well as the ways in which they do.
Fiction, for anyone unfamiliar with the concept, is entirely a speculative category. And video games are fiction with a strong element of audience participation.
Here’s the thing about human impulses: For whatever reason, we seem to have been built primed and ready to desire violence as something to witness upon our enemies and irritations. Movies and novels alone are replete with examples of stories wherein the good guy is able to witness violence upon the bad guy, and people like that. The Jedi get to slice up stormtroopers without ever having to feel bad about it because they’re the good guys vs. the bad guys.
As I’m someone who recognizes this as an unrealistic scenario, it might seem odd that I’m willing to engage with this stuff. In real life, I dislike violence. I don’t want to be violent toward others, even when it would be justified in self-defense. But that’s the difference between fiction and reality.
The usual point raised here is that in some way fiction is like training for reality. But I don’t see it that way. Enjoying violent video games is the opposite of training yourself to be violent in the real world; it’s catharsis, subsuming those violent impulses and practicing that emotional state without having to ever deal with it in real life. You might find violence distasteful in the real world, but you still have that impulse because you’re human.
I’m not going to pretend to know why we’re hard-wired to like violence, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. It does seem to just be a part of the human condition. But redirecting those impulses to clusters of polygons means that you’re free of that impulse when it comes to actual interactions. You can essentially put on a violent hat, get the sympathetic rush, and then leave it behind without causing actual harm.
Until you get online. And that’s when things get a bit messy.
There’s a lot of discussion of people who play EVE Online and the assumption that everyone who does so must be a vicious, sadistic jerk who loves nothing more than visiting misery upon other human beings. And that’s definitely wrong, even if that’s the sort of player CCP long spent marketing campaigns courting. But there’s a difference between using games to enact violence against digital foes and real people.
And this isn’t just about PvP. Sociopathy is not a prerequisite for finding PvP fun. You don’t have to be a wild jerk to play Overwatch and have fun shooting the other players on the other team, since that’s literally the way you win in the game. You have to do that in order to play.
But to not just shoot the other side but take a great deal of joy in emoting on someone’s corpse and seeking out one player in particular to humiliate as much as you possibly can? Well… that’s starting to move in a different direction, isn’t it?
The thing about single-player games is that no matter how you choose to play them, you are always interacting with nothing more than fictional constructs. You may feel as if the characters are so well-written or just fundamentally sympathetic that interacting violently is antithetical to you, but at the end of the day the characters in Undertale aren’t real. Any degree of cruelty is just a cruelty simulation.
But when it comes to an online game, you are dealing with actual people. The person on the receiving end is a person, full stop. It’s a different environment. And as we have seen time and again, the way you behave toward other people on the internet is the way you behave toward people when you have a lessened sense of consequence.
Does PvP make you a jerk? No. But does seeking out games with open PvP so that you can ruin the day of low-level characters just for giggles make you a jerk? Also no… but it does indicate something about the person you want to be when you have the opportunity.
It’s hard to always unpack some of these elements because it’s easy to get caught up in where the line gets drawn. If you really like economic PvP, for example, it’s easy to start wondering if this is saying something about who you are – especially when I just said that yes, this stuff does indicate parts of who you are when you feel like you can do things with a greater degree of impunity.
But at the end of the day, I think even that might be overextending the lessons you can learn. Video games in general and MMOs in particular are ways of getting impulses out of your system. They’re fictional. You may have some very strong ideas about fairness in economic policies in the real world, but you still have that urge to be prosperous and powerful, so you put that into place when you’re playing a video game and then put it down otherwise.
And that’s good and healthy. It doesn’t mean that you’re trying to hurt people – just the opposite – and it gives you an outlet for impulses you don’t want to indulge in otherwise. Certainly there are people who use these things as a cover or a mechanism for indulging in nastiness, but it’s not an automatic correlation.
If you’re thinking that this feels a bit contradictory, that’s because it can’t help but be that way. We’re talking about things that are broadcasts from the parts of our brains that we might not always be proud of. I’d sure like it if my brain didn’t get a dopamine hit out of fictional violence, but there’s not much I can do about that other than make sure it’s being directed and dealt with in ways that don’t actually hurt anyone.
But that’s kind of the point of video games, after all. We get to explore these ideas and wishes in a way that remains resolutely fictional and unreal. Sure, there are story reasons for all of it, but no matter how many Imperial soldiers I cut down in Final Fantasy XIV, I haven’t hurt any real people. That’s a decent compromise.