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Machiavelli move over. In computer gaming, morality is for whimps!

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Thursday, 11 March 2004

A few years back I read a computer game review by an anti-war demonstrator of the Vietnam era. This reviewer was distressed that, playing as a special forces squad member, he had accidentally shot a virtual Vietnam villager. He thought the virtual man was Viet Cong. Get real! (As we computer gamers say.) The Vietnam War was certainly a distressing event in the real world but computer games are a world of their own with their own morality. Most computer gamers would napalm the village just to see whether the result was “cool”.

A few years after the special forces game came out, Microprose released the game F-117A which permitted players to embark on an entertaining “black-ops” mission to further American foreign policy through the use of violence. The player had to sneak into the airspace of a country with which America was not at war and destroy an inconvenient installation (perhaps a radar station). If the player avoided detection the American government could “plausibly deny” any involvement. But if the player was shot down, the result was an international incident. These days, America does not seem to be troubled by the issue of deniability, but I seriously doubt whether that attitude change had anything to do with the game.

My point is this: social commentators, Professors of Sociology (and others who should be allowed out sometimes) wring their hands over what they see as the increasing violence of computer games, much as they agonise over violence in television. They have just as much reason – that is to say, no reason at all – to agonise over ethics in computer strategy games.


One series of games in which morality is an impediment is Civilisation, including Civilization III (Firaxis Games) released in late 2001. The player nurses a civilisation from the dawn of history into the space age. The game, based on cities, is managed through a map on the screen, showing cities, roads, military units, your civilisation's cultural borders and so on. It starts with a settler and a worker: former capable of founding a city, the latter of developing terrain. Early in a game of Civilisation III your civilisation is weak and is well-advised to stay out of conflicts with other, computer-run, civilisations. Later in the game the attitude becomes more “are you talking to me?”

By the time you have taken over a few of your neighbours (they were in the way, alright!?) you are past caring what the other civilisations think of you. This means you are ready to indulge in particularly nasty diplomatic maneuvers. For example, you can do a peace deal by which the civilisation you have been hammering cedes its outlying cities – then you attack despite your peace deal, taking over the remaining cities. By carefully choosing your enemies it is also possible to spark off a world war. Fun! For those who really want to get their virtual hands dirty, the version of Civilisation III I have been playing of late has a few extra frills, including the option of switching to a Fascist government, which lets you build concentration camps. Those extras are particularly effective at keeping your computer population submissive.

Most computer games, in fact, are set up to encourage players not only to be violent, but also to be nasty. In one of the latest games in the Total War series (EA Games), I started as the King of Denmark (Lawso I) and ended up conquering all of Western Europe, plus Scandinavia, chunks of Eastern Europe and, oh yes, all the Southern Mediterranean coast up to Egypt. Any revolts against my authority in remote provinces were crushed and prisoners massacred to encourage obedience from the remainder. In computer gaming, national self-determination is for wimps. Sure, I could have simply stayed in Denmark and encouraged peace and understanding between nations – but I would almost certainly have been invaded.

Does any of this violence, not to say bastardry, translate to the real world? Of course not. Or to put it another way, it translates into the real world just as much as screen violence does. And on that last point I do not care what the social scientists say. I occasionally play “shoot out” with my five-year-old son, using imaginary guns, but neither of us is likely to run amok anytime soon. For that matter even if, by any miracle, I should become Prime Minister, it is equally unlikely I would be able or allowed to invade, say, New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. Apart from the resulting diplomatic fallout Australia would not get much more for its trouble than a host of subsidy-demanding Kiwis. Best not to go there …

The attitude of “anything goes” changes when game players (who are getting smarter) go on-line to play other people through the net. In fact, online gaming in which real people play other real people is an enormous industry in its own right. It is also a moral half-way house between computer gaming, where other players don’t matter, and the real world where real police may come calling.

In online computer gaming there is nothing to stop you stabbing players in the back (so to speak) but they tend to take it personally. Within the game they plot their revenge, perhaps aided by other disgruntled players. One of the most popular online games is a fantasy called Everquest, where players take on Lord of the Rings-style characters and roam around the virtual landscape in sufficient numbers to give the game a real-world feel. One odd result has been the occasional virtual serial killer – players who have been in the game for some time, killing new players the moment they find them. This is nasty, but hardly illegal. A solution would be for established players to band together and hunt down the serial killers.


Should we then start wringing our hands about a loss of morality in these ever-expanding number of virtual worlds, or even moan over the way grown men waste their time? Nope! passively watching Neighbours or Days of our Lives is wasting time, and may give you a skewed idea of family relationships. Some of the more recent Hollywood blockbusters are a stupendous waste of time. Computer games are at least interactive – players have to think! – and they have even less effect than TV on our real-world notions about how we should live our lives.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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