I killed a man last night. I shot him three times. I aimed for the head but hit his shoulder. He staggered. I aimed again. I shot him in the chest. He fell backwards, I shot him again, this time in the stomach.
Of course, I didn’t do any of this in real life. I did it in the 2022 third-person shooter Sniper Elite 5. (As you may have guessed, I am not very good at it.) Video games are big business. The sector’s revenues dwarfed those of the movie industry even before the pandemic. And war games are a big part of that business. The 1962 game Spacewar!, devised and created at MIT, and which has a good claim to be the world’s first video game, was, as the title suggests, about war, as are many of today’s biggest-selling games.
For many years, the UK games industry has complained that its economic, cultural and commercial heft has not brought with it greater respect. But things are changing: video game soundtracks are the topic of devoted programming on both BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, while the medium is regularly discussed on the nation’s flagship cultural programmes. And now video games are the subject of a new exhibition, War Games, at the Imperial War Museum in London.
But as panellists at an IWM event I chaired recently asked: is it ethical to spend one’s evenings or weekends pretending to shoot people?
The gaming industry itself has always had an uneasy relationship with these questions, preferring either to invent fictional alien races for players to shoot at or, failing that, to set their games during the second world war, because it’s generally understood that any complex ethical concerns about violence can be put to one side if the people you’re shooting work for the Third Reich. But as games become more and more realistic, even that becomes more and more uncomfortable.
To the extent that science can ever be said to be “settled”, the science on violence in video games is settled: there is no link between playing violent video games and violent behaviour. Yet the belief that there is a link persists, I suspect, because a lot of people have an intuitive moral sense that what you do in a video game says something about you. In “choice-based” video games, where you have the option to help your friends and allies or to behave callously towards them, I pick helpful and compassionate options because, as silly as it sounds, I recoil from unnecessary cruelty even to virtual people.
Video games, like immersive theatre, stand out from other cultural forms. While a novelist or film-maker can hope that they will present a certain perspective to the viewer or reader, the designer of an immersive play or a video game actually has the power to put a gun in your hand and make you pull the trigger. Similarly, the video game developed by the FT gives you a far more immediate sense of what it is like to battle a cyber attack than any article or interview about the experience can.
And in the real and serious world of actual “war games” — the exercises performed by defence strategists to assess vulnerabilities and measure how well teams respond to threats — their effectiveness and utility hinges on the idea that what you do in a game actually tells us something about what kind of person you are in real life. We can draw conclusions about the impact of cyber operations on the risk of nuclear exchange because we believe that how participants react in an organised war game tells us something about how they would react in a real military conflict.
Of course, most video games are not a lot like real military conflict. Kenny Duffy, a Falklands war veteran, once described his experiences as “90 per cent boredom and 10 per cent sheer terror”, which is hardly an experience that most game designers are aiming for. That said, a 55-minute strategic exercise has little in the way of boredom either.
Ultimately, as anyone who has had the misfortune to play a board game with a poorly matched couple can attest, how you behave in a fictional scenario does say something about how you behave in real life. While creating a war game may have no greater ethical implications than creating a war film, we can and should make judgments about my weekday sniping, just as we would make judgments about someone who spends every evening watching Platoon over and over again.
The ubiquity and economic success of the video game industry mean it is, belatedly, being taken seriously as an object of study. But that success and influence mean that gaming — and gamers — have to learn to live with a greater and more intense form of scrutiny and self-reflection.
Stephen Bush is an associate editor and columnist at the Financial Times. He writes a daily newsletter, Inside Politics, charting the course of politics and policy in the United Kingdom, and a wide-ranging weekly column.