Monday, February 23, 2009

The Dark Side

The Lich King expansion for WoW offers players the opportunity to create a "Death Knight" character and to work as a high level assistant for the Lich King, who very much resembles Darth Vader.  The head piece that the Death Knight characters start out with, a cowl that shades part of the face resembles that worn by Darth Sidious, a Dark Lord of the Sith and perhaps the most evil of the characters in the Star Wars saga.  

In order to create a Death Knight, you must have reached a level 55 character on the realm you are playing, as Death Knights start out at level 55.  You have to give up your other character, at least while you're playing the DK, so it seems, psychologically, that you have died and been reborn as a soulless, mindless death machine.  The Lich King gives you orders to kill wantonly and without conscious, at one point ordering you to kill a number of citizens who are unarmed and who tremble and beg for their lives when you approach them, citizens who do not strike back, for the most part, when you attack, wielding your glowing, runed sword.  The Lich King "whispers" to you in the chat box should you falter or think not to strike.  No mercy, he says, when a woman with several children begs for her life.   There is no light, only dark, he whispers.  In another scenario you are ordered to spread a plague to the miners working in a nearby mine.  The more you kill, the more rewards you get, and nowhere in the game have the rewards been greater: almost every quest in the early part of the Lich King nets you a rare piece of armor. 

Prior to Lich King there had been times when I found my character doing something morally reprehensible, something I would never have done in real life:  killing animals that were bordering on extinction in real life, for example.  Of course I've never killed anyone in real life, but in the game as long as there was a narration that justified it I didn't feel so bad about it.  It's just a game, after all.  But Lich King makes you do horrific things, over and over again, and I am finding it deeply disturbing.  The only reason I'm continuing to play is because a review I read of the game suggests that something huge happens and transforms the game, making the DKs more acceptable in some way.  I'm waiting for that something to happen, but I don't think I can last much longer.  

I do have the feeling that my character is being trained to love evil and relish killing.  Since the game has strict rules, it doesn't seem as if I have a choice if I want to keep playing a DK.  Obey or die.  But it gets easier, killing the helpless citizens, especially when the rewards are great. And that's disturbing as well.  I wonder if there are other games like this with the opportunity to play such great evil, and I wonder--to what end?  I have always known that I might reach a place in this game-playing where I would not, could not go, a place where the game ceased being a game and instead seemed to be infiltrating too deeply into my core self.  This is, of course, what parents and educators have all along feared with respect to these kinds of games. It's one thing to find yourself pitted against a powerful Dark Lord, but how to play one yourself, "for fun"?  

On the other hand, isn't this what fiction writers or actors have to do to get inside the heads of serial murderers or other evil creatures?  What did Doestoevsky have to do to create a character like the amoral Stavrogin (who rapes a little girl) in The Possessed?  How about Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker?  

The question for me:  is it valuable to ask the children who play video or computer games to actually play pure, unrepentant evil?  Is it valuable to teach them to savor or enjoy killing the helpless, to laugh at their pleas to spare them?  

Or am I afraid of the darkness that I sometimes find within myself, so afraid that I don't want to enter into a game space where I have to come too close to it?  The most horrifying thing my mother ever said to me:  We are all capable of anything, Sheryl.  Anything.



  1. I haven't played a lot of video games (unless you count Tetris and Mario Brothers) and have always poo-pooed people who said that video games can make children killers but this part of WoW is really disturbing. It asks players to override their opposition to violence against the innocent, again and again. It's a sort of conditioning. We should feel uncomfortable with being rewarded for killing the helpless, laughing at their pleas, and it's disturbing that players are rewarded for overriding their own compassion/opposition to unjustifiable violence.

    This is really interesting. Re: what Amy U. said about the lesson learned from video games--that must learn to fail in order to succeed makes me think that one of the most interesting things about gaming is that if you fail you're willing to start over right away. There's no real need to beat yourself up about your failure. You just start again. (At least you do in Mario Bros. When you run out of "lives" you just start over).

  2. i must admit that while i think it is honorable of you to explore this, (someone wise really should, and in truth, i can't wait to read the end of your upcoming book on the matter) i can't and won't explore this myself. ever. i don't even like R rated movies because they stick to my bones for too long afterward.

    i am also well aware that it is entirely different for you, a fully grown woman with a perspective on life, a developed sense of morals/ethics, and an awareness that real consequences grow from real actions, then it might be for the young ones. They are often surrounded by this violence for hours on end, to the exclusion, often times, of anything that might balance it, like engaging in sports, learning a musical instrument, even playing a game of tag with the neighborhood kids. i, for one, am worried about the effect these games will have, both physically and emotionally, on our next generation.

  3. I have in my mind that games like these are like Star Wars--good versus evil, light versus dark. It never occurred to me that players could take on the dark side and use it themselves. I don't know why it surprises me. It just seems like we shouldn't encourage children--or anyone, for that matter--to be a part of the "dark" side. Maybe kids don't see it that way. Maybe it really it just a chance to further your character and win a lot of rewards. But I'm not sure which is more disturbing to me personally: being rewarded and encouraged to participate in needless killing, or the desensitization to it as such.