essay, video games

Bit by Bit

There is an ant on my desk. Was. As I was sitting here trying to get my thoughts in order, I noticed him. They, the other ants, have been getting into my room somehow. I’ve sprayed a few times and stopped bringing in food. Yet, they still manage to get into the room and, as it seems, up on my desk. This one seems alone though. Seemed, that is. He was walking around, looking for food. As I’ve done so many times before, I killed another ant. I used my finger and a paper towel. One quick movement and he was dead. There wasn’t much to it, ending his little ant life.

Still, here it is several minutes later and I am thinking about him, about his life. Maybe he had an ant life, an ant wife, maybe some little any babies. Okay. Probably not. But still, I was thinking about how causally I reached out and, without much effort, snuffed out a life. Wasn’t much of a life, small little thing that he was. Probably was just going to call his other ant friends over given time. They’d try to root out any sugar I had in the room, on the floor. Hidden in the carpet, there could an ant invasion. Or would be, had I not just killed him. It was all pretty easy.

I’ve often wondered if I am a serial killer. Not the actual person, but the status. A label. One they give to the person that has killed lots and lots of people. The one the news labels with three word names along with with a body count. Later, it’s an honorific. To the killer, I mean. To the news, to the people talking, it’s a title. The Something Something Killer. There is always a clever name, some witty news-speak for the name and actions. All that’s later though. What’s important now is how many people I’ve killed. That number is what I am interested in right now.

It’s has to be pretty high. Thousands. Millions. Potentially billions. And billions. A Very Large Number. Has to be. I’ve sliced and diced. Welded knifes, blades. Swords. Guns. Missiles. Lighting. Fire. Spells. You name it, I’ve probably used it in some manner to wipe out or otherwise take down some enemy, some foe. Sometimes, it’s not even foes. It might just be people on the street. Some pedestrians are in the wrong place at the wrong time and they die. Happens all the time. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. And by rain I mean death.

It’s really easy too. I just reach out and press a button. Maybe I move  stick some. Maybe press a series of keys. That done, a hand reaches out on a screen and strangles a women, a man, some beast. Doesn’t even really matter. They had to die. They were in the way. Maybe they weren’t even in the way. Maybe just looked at me wrong, or didn’t look at my right. All rationalizations are excuses in this. They died, I didn’t. Pretty easy. Pretty simple. After all, it’s just a game right?

Everything stays in the “magic cycle”, right? I might sneak in some emotions or feelings via the ‘simulation gap’ but I don’t take anything out with me, right? I mean, nothing can change me while playing the game. It’s just a game. It’s can’t affect me. Any death I see is just some pixels fading into another set of pixels. Nothing but a flash of light. Some optical illusion. Nothing really happened when I shot all those men. Those women. Those children. They weren’t innocent. They were trying to kill me. They were trying to harm me. What nerve. They practically deserved it.

I can build up any number of reasons why killing in a video game is important. I want the high score. I want to out-compete someone else. I want to get into the next area. I want to beat the game. I want something. The problem is that each reason, if you have not noticed before, is that all start with “I”. They all relate to me in that I must take an action to end theirs. In either premeditated or retaliation, I must strike. In all things, I must be complicit. I must volunteer, press the buttons, execute the move and person.

I know I’m not the only person who wonders what is lost, what is replaced, what might be overwritten. Numerous studies ponder the effects of violent media on people, on children. Does it make them less violent? More violent? More likely to get violent? Less likely? I don’t have those answers but I wonder. What is it that causes me to press onward in a game? What is it that doesn’t even notice that the bodies are bleeding and the I managed to knock the head off an opponent in the game? Have I grown too accustomed to violent displays? Do they not phase me anymore?

The perfect test, if I were to construct it, would be to put me in a situation where I have all the power. Just like in a video game, I would have the options to make any choice I want. In order to do anything, I would have only to make the action. Once that was settled, the next step would be to put something in my way. Some little thing. Nothing too important, but something small and preferable defenseless. Some little nuisance that I would have to make a choice about. Let it be… an ant. I would have to chose, out of all my options, what to do about this little creature. Do I act out? Do I let it go? Do a re-direct it somewhere else? Do I re-connect it with its family? Do I move it over? Find it a home? Kill it?

What I chose would say something about me. Maybe it prove that video games have taught me something. Maybe it would let all the arguments be settled over this simple example. This test would be the proof of all time. When given the power of life and death over something, even something virtual, what does humanity do? What should I do? What would you do?

Damn you little ant.