Character Engineering

I was reading this light article on chess (thanks to Arts and Letters Daily) and it occurred to me that even though chess is loosely based on the idea of going to war (sacrificing pawns, protecting the king etc.), people hardly ever complain that chess is bad for people or bad for society. In fact, unlike with many violent video and computer games, parents celebrate when they get their kids to go to chess club.

I expect that part of the reason chess is so inoffensive is that what representation of violence it contains is very stylised and abstract. You don\‘t – unless you\‘re playing wizard chess – get to hear the squelch as a pawn dies, (or is captured), the explosions as a castle goes down, or the screams of the queen.

On the other hand, violent video games tend to delight in such things: we see the terror on the face of the enemy guard as our vampire warrior mounts and bites him, blood flying, we see Lara Croft\‘s struggles as she drowns, or screams as she falls yet again, and are treated to the cheers of the crowd and exuberant \“KO!\” of the referee as our signature move dispatches an opponent. It is these features of video games that have led writers like Dave Grossman to suggest that they violentize their players, making it easier for them to overcome psychological barriers to violence in real life, in the same way that US Army training helps soldiers to overcome psychological barriers to killing.

More on that point: You might wonder whether US soldiers really feel any barriers to killing, especially in situations where they\‘re frightened and defending their fellow soldiers, but it turns out that soldiers throughout the history of gun warfare have failed to fire at the enemy, even after being ordered to, even when their own lives and the lives of their comrades and loved ones have depended on it. The majority of people, in that situation, fire a little over the heads of their enemies. (Grossman argues that this is in part due to the natural tendency of human beings, and other mammals, to prefer to settle disputes through posturing and dominance behaviour, rather than killing.)

Anyway, the idea behind this part of US Army training is simple: you gradually make the simulated killing in training more and more similar to real killing. For example, you start out learning to shoot targets that are circular discs with bulls-eyes in the middle. Then you progress to people shaped boards, 3D dummies, moving 3D dummies etc. The training has been very successful, and a higher percentage of US soldiers now shoot people when they\‘re ordered too.

You don\‘t have to be Dave Grossman to wonder whether computer games have a similar effect on the psychology of the player, and whether dissolving an individual\‘s (or an army of first world teenagers\’) barriers against violence and killing can lead to more violence and killing in real life. And maybe they do, and it does, and maybe not.

But if they do, and it does – if it really is true that computer games can shape the characters of their players – one ought to wonder whether that power couldn\‘t be used for good. I don\‘t mean that we should produce \“good citizen\” video games, in which we get rewarded for helping kittens down from trees, giving to Oxfam and giving up smoking. That computer game would require a little too much will-power. And it would be boring. But there are more interesting and focused kinds of character engineering. For example, some people are bad at detecting possible threats and hazards in their environments. Martial arts teachers sometimes encourage their students to develop zanshin – a kind of awareness of and attentiveness to the environment around one, particularly possible threats. And some us could sheepishly claim to have deficient charcters in this respect, to have perfected a kind of anti-zanshin: an environmental obliviousness so blanketing that even a potential mugger might have a hard time getting noticed. But perhaps zanshin is the kind of desirable quality that could be developed in a highly realistic and graphic computer game. Imagine your character going about everyday life: travelling to work, going out on a date, going for a run at night, hanging out with friends, going on a road-trip… He or she encounters or at least passes all kinds of situations: other runners who follow him for part of his route, kerb-crawlers, do-gooders, panhandlers, muggers, over zealous police officers, people in parked cars, angry people who think you ran through their wet cement, drunk drivers, loose dogs, fighting couples, car accidents….getting into a physical fight with everyone is bad, and only lands you in gaol. But failing to recognise warning signs and allowing oneself to be led into a dangerous situation leads to graphic main character death (or at least, loss of Health.) In effect, the game is designed to sensitise you to certain kinds of risk. And if the simulation was realistic enough, might that not also effect your behaviour in real life?

Of course, if it worked, it might affect you for the worse – it might turn you into a Post-Traumatic Stress-like aflictee who can\‘t sleep, or sit in a restaurant with your back to the window. And if the data on which the game was built was faulty, it might sensitise one to the wrong kinds of things. But it wouldn\‘t have to go horribly wrong…

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