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Playing The Villain
by Nate Paolasso on 12/26/12 12:27:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This article was originally poseted on N4G.

The Silent Protagonist. The Brave Heroine. The Sarcastic Anti-hero. The Regular Guy. All of these stereotypes have been portrayed in most video games. These characters are the good guys; whether you're Mario, stomping Goomba's to save Princess Peach, Nathan Drake cracking one-liners and jumping cliffs, or Ethan Mars, a normal dude who just wants to save his kid. These games are great, and being a hero is great; everyone likes the feeling of doing something noble and brave. I love the heroes that have graced my gaming life, and I can't imagine a world without them. 

There are times though, when I just want to be bad; not the kinky kind of bad either. I mean the 'get in a car in GTA IV and mow down pedestrians until I have a six star rating,' kind of bad. While this is satisfying for the moment, it's got me thinking. Why aren't there more games with the player playing as a villain? Not an anti-hero such as Kratos or John Marston. I don't mean some sort of karma bar either, like in inFamous or Fallout. A full blown dastardly, malicious, evil, twisted, sick bad guy. I think there are definitely some difficulties with creating this experience, but if it could be pulled off, it'd be one hell of an interesting outcome. 
Vaas
The issues I see with this are probably the same as the issues anyone sees with this. If a game puts the player in the shoes of a terrible person, then a lot of controversy will surround the actions the player performs while they're this person; which makes sense. Imagine Far Cry 3, but instead of being Jason Brody, you're Vaas: possibly one of the most villainous characters to emerge this year. Slave trader, psychopath, murder; all of these words describe who and what Vaas is. Some of the crimes that Vaas commits are extremely brutal: outright murder, burning people alive, and even torture. But, really, is it any different from being Jason Brody? I mean, I, as Jason, spent countless hours killing people in Far Cry 3. Yes, they were pirates and slave traders and probably deserved to die. But killing people is killing people. And yes, at first I was doing it to save my friends. The thought of being inside of Vaas' mind though, absolutely fascinates me. I think that is one of the big draws, for me at least, to play as a truly twisted villain. It's hard to compare this idea of being a true villain to Far Cry 3 because that was one of the games main themes. The player was supposed to question whether or not what they were doing was wrong or right, justifiable or unwarranted, real or fake; part of what made the game so great.

Another huge, unavoidable issue with being a villain is obvious. The villain, almost always, dies. Very rarely does the villain ever succeed and plunge the world into darkness. The hero wins, rescues the damsel, and conquers evil. I think that this is okay though, for some games. In games like Red Dead Redemption though, I can't imagine it ending without John Marston dying, even though I tried frantically to keep him alive. When Red Dead ended though, I didn't feel as though evil prevailed. I felt that my anti-hero had lost and that neutrality had won. Which, when all is said and done, is still not an evil ending. I've always wanted a game that ended with evil prevailing over good. Games are at their best when they conjure up strong emotions from the players, and I think it would be extremely interesting to play as a villain, or even as a hero, and have evil completely win. I'm not sure how I would feel, and to me, that's an exciting possibility. 

I want games to strive for new things. Instead of using the same old recipes, mix it up; experiment. I want them to pull on my heart strings, and make me question whether what I am doing is right or wrong. I want an experience that makes me feel angry, not because it offended me, but because it did something that was inevitable and horrible. Games are beginning to push boundaries that no other medium could ever dream of reaching. I don't know whether a game will ever do what I am imagining, or if any of this even makes sense to anyone else. I can only hope that games continue to evolve and surprise gamers everywhere.


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Comments


Alan Rimkeit
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If I have the option I always play as evil first. The best implementation of this to me was in KOTOR. Evil in that game was evil. Full on Sith. Betrayal of NPC's, murder, bribery, the whole nine yards. At no point while playing an evil character did I feel like I was a good one being shoe horned in to the role of evil. It was to the core.

Everything from moral choices to character interactions were affected up to the very end of the game. KOTOR 2 missed this for the most part, but KOTOR nailed it entirely.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Mark Taylor - No, absolutely not. It is fantasy role play, not reality.

Alan Rimkeit
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double post, need delete button.

Alan Rimkeit
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Mark, I have the ability to discern reality from fantasy. I am also not psychotic or sociopathic. Again, fantasy vs reality. People are not just black and white, but many shades of grey. But you don't know me as a person so you can't judge for yourself.

BTW, Dexter is also one of my favorite shows as well. ;-)

Other than that I see we disagree on many views of reality, politics, and I suspect religion. Such is life.

Moving on. Have a good one.

EDIT: Took out the mental health issue part of the comment. LOL That belonged in the discussion concerning Gun Violence and Video Games.

Daneel Filimonov
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Mark, I think you're taking this too far out of context. A game is meant to be entertainment, regardless of who you play or what your actions within the game are. If you can consciously differentiate moral choices within a virtual reality but uphold a positive moral view in this reality, there is nothing wrong with you. That's why it's called "Role-playing" :)

Edit: To your second response; I think people know the limits. Just because they haven't crossed it yet doesn't mean they don't know about it or it isn't there. There simply is no (or little) interest to cross such a line.

Alan Rimkeit
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"Mark Taylor
27 Dec 2012 at 2:09 pm PST

I am not against violence in games, or a bit of sexism, or taking sides in some poltical issue, but this article is about emphasizing the worst excesses in the industry. Once you go into pure evil, where does the fantasy stop, murder, torture, child sacrifice, rape...what is off limits"

Never play the God of War series. LOL

EDIT: Or the Postal series either. Or Bioshock. Or.....

Edward Reeseg
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@Mark Taylor - I'll have to disagree with Daneel in trying to persuade you that video games are solely a source of entertainment. I would say that video games have as much of a responsibility to their audience as any other medium when it comes to presenting intelligent content with a purpose, simply because as an interactive medium, we are able to connect with the player in a way that a novel or a film simply can't manage with their respective audiences.

That being said, I still think considering assuming the role of the villain to be taboo is incredibly narrow-minded. While I would agree that mindless, senseless violence doesn't add much to a game, there is always the possibility that a game that puts us in those shoes can tell us something very important about the human condition, simply due to our role as the antagonist. Take, for example, Jordan Magnuson's flash game "The Killer", which is meant to tackle the issue of genocide in Cambodia. During this short experience, you adopt the role of a nameless, faceless Lieutenant tasked with one duty: Forcing your captive to walk, at gunpoint, to the fields in which they're to be killed. There is only one button that controls your actions (that being the space button, which makes you move forward, forcing your captive forward as well), and this fact really hammers home not only the terrible situation of the captive, but also the hopelessness of the Lieutenant. You don't have any choice in the matter; you've been given a task, and you're meant to execute it. At the end of it all, when you reach the fields, you do have the option to fire into the sky, rather than at your captive. However, the exposition at the end of the game then informs you that Lieutenants who failed in their duties were killed, themselves.

Could this message of hopelessness and a vicious cycle of murder have been sent with the player in the role of some hero that's rescuing captives? Possibly, but the message most certainly wouldn't have been as impactful. The role of the villain definitely has its place in our medium, and not merely as a way for us to experience being a super-ultra bad guy (though this could also have some merit). Shying away from this fact, and trying to act like the role of the player doesn't matter in the end, or claiming that adopting such a role is improper is taking the easy way out.

(Off Topic: If this appears in the wrong place, I apologize. This is my first reply.)

Edward Reeseg
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@Mark Taylor - While I definitely understand your concern when it comes to violent fantasies carrying over to real life, I also feel as though you're engaging in dichotomous thinking, which is entirely unnecessary. To cite the example you gave, a game that addressed the horrors of the Holocaust and the dangers of brainwashing and a mob mentality by making you play the game through the eyes of a guard in a concentration camp could make for a fascinating, and indeed enlightening, analysis of the human mind, and societal issues.

There needs to be responsibility taken when it comes to what content is portrayed, and the reasons for portraying it, but thinking of the issue as a matter of all or nothing in terms of these controversial games is a grave mistake. Was it a mistake for Milton to write the character of Satan in a relateable, and even tragic light in Paradise Lost? Could American Psycho have presented the commentary on contemporary society that it did if we weren't following Patrick Bateman closer than a more docile, innocent character? I would consider both of these men ambitious, yes, but they are also unmistakably villains, no matter how you slice it. Should such works be censored, or considered unnecessary, simply because we can't get past the idea that books, or films, or games should only follow characters with more pure intentions?

I see that you've been posting in response to many people here. I hope you aren't just presenting these views to rile people on this site up. I definitely think what you're saying has merit, but I also think you've failed to be objective in your analysis.

james sadler
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My old game dev group started working on a game using this exact idea a few years ago. There are some design tweaks that need to go into things to make sure that the game still flows properly and doesn't come off as a strictly kill fest for the sake of killing. The best villains have more to them than that. Still have the design doc and am hoping down the road my new company can spin off of the idea.

james sadler
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Really? I don't really read comics. When I was a kid I read X-Men and I'll read the occasional one for the Walking Dead or something but I typically read books. I don't really know what reading comics has to do with anything anyway.

The idea of playing a villain isn't a new idea or a inherently evil one. Like the author of this post pointed out, even the good guys kill loads of people, but because they're bad guys no one cares. Its the same dynamic people have when playing WWII games. The enemies are Nazi's so its OK. All the idea of flipping roles does is put the player in the mind of the villain and possibly give them the closer understanding of why the villain is doing whatever it is. I'm not a fan of blatant shoot em ups where the goal is just to reach a high kill count or similar, and like I said previously, to do the villain theme right one would need to tweak a lot of things to make it a playable game for the masses.

Maybe think of things this way. If one were to create a standard AAA FPS like FarCry the player goes through the game killing a bunch of enemies who are bad guys. The player gets a feeling of joy as they're righting some universal wrong. Some players might align with this and go and do something stupid in real life. Now we make the same game and put the player in the position of the villain. They kill innocent people who are neither good nor bad, but we assume they are good since they're innocent. This causes a natural conflict in the player. The player is use to killing enemies in games, but now they're killing innocent people, which is bad. Now the hero is coming after them because they're bad. They've learned repercussion. In reality the more I think about it the player would ultimately learn more about morals and values playing a villain then they would playing a hero. Yes there are those that would align with the villain and go do something stupid in real life. But if it wasn't a game it would have been a movie, or a book, or a comic, or something else.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Mark Taylor - I am 37 and I read comics. I read comics like the Walking Dead, Death the High Cost of Living, Sandman, and other intellectually stimulating comics written by award winning writers such as Neil Gaiman and Robert Kirkman.

Again, you are being extremely judgmental. Why is that?

David Brown
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The article touches on a really interesting "mode" that games could explore. (Ludumdare seems to have put this up as a theme as well, which is interesting).

My main concern with "playing the villain" is assuming up front that the player is the "bad guy". Addressing the concept of "evil" in a legitimate way would require a very skilled hand. One could argue that those who commit evil, never see themselves as villains or "evil"... or at the very least see some necessity in their actions. Of course this could be argued until the cows come home... but I do wonder how you can truly immerse a player into the role of "evil" without any control over the player's emotional or psychological state. When a player picks up a controller they will have some preformed thoughts on what "right" or "wrong" is, and these of course will differ with each player who picks up the controller. Forcing a player to kill, lie, cheat, steal, betray etc... may seriously resonate with some, while at the same time falling flat, or feeling contrived to others.

It's possible that such an experience can be designed around difficult "choices"... and many games already play with these issues, but any decent character will have some "end goal" in mind. And moving towards such an end goal may ultimately have the protagonist feel as a "hero" regardless of them killing those who oppose them ("good guys" do this in games too).

At any rate, interesting point to raise, I just wonder if the concept of evil is truly explorable in a game, because it's one of those "relative" quantities that is understood as something slightly differently by each person.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Mark Taylor - Do you have an issue with people playing evil in games?

Evan Combs
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Fight Club would be good inspiration as to how to do this I think. Durden is by all means evil, but there is a philosophically interesting motive behind him with good intentions. Not every villain has to be the Joker. Some, most, have a logic behind their means. In order to get the person playing on board, you have to get them to buy into that logic. By then though you are basically turning the villain into the hero.

I don't really see how you could easily do a game where you play a psychopath and appeal to the mass audience. In my opinion these types of games would have to lean heavily on the choices to allow the player to give the villain their personality in order to get people to really buy into being the villain. In other words, let the player choose what kind of villain they are.

David Brown
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@ Mark Taylor

Cool story bro. Did you even read half of the posts here before responding? If you'd like to talk with the grown-ups please take the tin foil hat off. You are on Gamasutra, white-knighting some ill-informed campaign against all media based "evil -- scaaaary" is not only ineffective, but a complete waste of time. The article calls on the issue of allowing players to walk in a villain's shoes... it's a valid concept, and one that could bring real depth and understanding to gaming as an artform if it's taken seriously.

It can be argued that evil (in the classical sense) doesn't exist. You could perhaps define it as having views that are damaging to society as a whole.... but then you'd have to ask yourself which "society" do you use as a base? Without wanting to get too political here... take a look at Sharia law. Those who practice it see benefits, those who call for it do as well..... while others who do not prescribe to those ideas see it as wrong and harmful. Who's right? Who's to say? You? Me?

If you don't feel the role of the villain should be explored, that is a valid stance, and you should elaborate because you might have something useful to share. But carpet-bombing a thread with tin-foil troll-ery is inane... period. Also please stop throwing out the names of deranged individuals as if you have some understanding of mental illness that none of us can comprehend. Talk less, listen more. If you have a real point, I'd love to hear it.

Daneel Filimonov
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Perhaps the games industry is the wrong industry for you Mark. If you can't handle the thought of someone playing a villain and immediately jump to idealistic conclusions about what is right and wrong, then perhaps I suggest you pull out your head from down under and educate yourself on what it is you are preaching against. The "issue" of evil in games is as vapor as the "issue" of gay marriage (protip: it's not an issue at all, but a matter of opinion). So let bygones be bygones and cut the circle-jerking.

Alan Rimkeit
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Mark, do you know you are an extremely demeaning person?

k s
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I love playing villains in games, not sick child murders but rather like Fable's evil player character or Overlord's Overlord character. I've always favored taking the less traveled path and playing as a "bad guy". I always found the good guys far too righteous for my tastes and to be honest I identified more with the villains in stories/TV shows/movies/games growing up then heroes.

A few examples:
I always liked Crang and Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles better then the turtles themselves.
I play Brother of Nod in C&C 1 & 2, Scrin in 3 & Kane's Wrath, Soviets in Red Alert 1 -3.
I prefered Silver Thorn in an Aussie show I watched as a kid called Girl from Tomorrow/Tomorrow's End.
I chose the dark side in KOTOR 1 & 2.
I was evil in Fable 1 -3.
I liked the aliens in the War of the Worlds TV series but didn't care much for the human team.
I went for domination in Overlord 1 & 2.
I played Martian in Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds.
I never played humans in Conquest Earth.

Basically I've always sided with the so called "wrong" side. Games that let me indulge this personality quark have always resonated with me and I tend to always finish them too.

Alan Rimkeit
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@Mark Taylor - How totally judgmental of you.

k s
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@Mark in the Red Alert games the soviets are the "bad guys", I don't actually think they were actually evil. The game representation is not actually an accurate representation of the real regime or political philosophy.
While I do indulging my "dark side" in games I don't attack anyone in the real world nor do I advocate it either. Villains in fiction have always been much more interesting and entertaining to play then the heroes!

k s
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@Mark I'm not here to debate your views on your religion.

I can tell the difference between fiction and reality and I accept we all have a dark side and instead of bottling it up I release it in a safe place where no one suffers. We all have a potential for "bad" behavior but those of us without some form of brain defect know better then to act upon it.

I noticed at a young age that what some call evil is not really evil but rather opposed to their view. Did you note I said "I love playing villains in games, not sick child murders but rather like Fable's evil player character or Overlord's Overlord character", that is not the same as enjoying the past time of the Green River Killer. I know the NPCs in games suffer no pain, fear, or death, they are simply simulations nothing more. I never went around killing the kids in Fallout 1 & 2 even though I could and it wasn't cause of the in game consequences but because I had no interest in simulating that. I've never had a desire to play the dreadful game Custer's Revenge (I'm not interested in simulating rape).

Playing the bad guys in games does not make someone evil nor does it imply said person has a desire to do real world evil. I don't enjoy violence or inflicting suffering on others in the real world. A good example is at a past job a mentally ill guy was stacking a girl I worked with and after the boss told him to stay out of the store he came back with a knife with the intent to kill the manager. When I heard the sounds of a scuffle I came to see what was happening and it turned out 3 police officers were beating this guy into submission (he struck one of the cops btw). Instead of standing around watching the cops beat this guy like my co-workers I just went back to work, I wasn't interested in watching real violence or this guy suffering (even though he brought it on himself).

Again playing games as a villain does not mean I have any desire to hurt any real people anywhere!

Luis Guimaraes
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I have this fantasy of throwing colored birds at green pigs with a slingshot... me and 100 million other people. And to ride a lava river jumping on a raft made of skulls. And run in a maze picking and eating candy while chased by ghosts.

Luis Guimaraes
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Boring... Answer is no, I don't play boring games.

Luis Guimaraes
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Do you play games for their theming? That's... escapist.
I play games for their challenge, and you described an awful one.

Luis Guimaraes
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So your premise is that because you think game worlds are real, then automatically everybody else does...

Luis Guimaraes
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You've been pretty convincing in making yourself an example for the argument that people are insane. I believe now. Stay away from violent games.

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k s
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@Joshua are you suggesting there is something wrong with not being interested in watching someone else be beaten? Most people seem to enjoy watching such things for some reason (why do you think sports are so popular?) but I get no such pleasure from it and am puzzled why others are. This guy was asking for it, through threats of violence, intent to commit violence, and striking a cop but I did not find his "punishment" entertaining nor interesting.
Again I am to this day puzzled as to why 90+% humans enjoy watching their own kind suffer (needlessly or otherwise). Behavior like this is in part why I have no faith in humanity, the sheer lack of intelligence in the vast majority of the population is another part but I'm digressing.

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Adam Bishop
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I know you've specified a specific kind of villain here, but I wonder how many of the games we play already basically put us in the role of the villain. You mention Red Dead Redemption, and I think that game does a good job of showing the ambiguity of whether what Marston is doing is "good" or not.

But what about, for example, the Uncharted games? Isn't Nathan Drake a pretty awful guy? He's killed hundreds (thousands?) of people over the course of three games and his motivation is basically to find riches (and adventure). There's no particularly good justification for what he does. The game portrays him as the "good guy" because he's charming and looks out for his friends, but he's not really a good guy, is he? He may not be especially sadistic, but he guiltlessly kills scores of people so that he can find treasure. Not exactly a stellar individual.

Alan Rimkeit
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I guess you can put Indiana Jones in that category as well then. And Han Solo, not to mention scads of popular anti-hero's.

Kenneth Blaney
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I'm rather surprised that Prototype didn't make the list here. The main character in that series is pretty much the exact idea of "regular guy turned evil by his circumstances". A point about narrative failing that I usually bring up is that part way through Prototype I actually started rooting against the player character.

Luis Guimaraes
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I just want to be neutral.

Kenneth Blaney
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So when asked, "Will you accept this quest to save the world?" you choose "No"?

Luis Guimaraes
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The question should be "will you accept this quest to save the world, again, like in the previous game, and the one before that, and the one before that one, the one before, and the one before, and the other 50 before that one...?".

http://tinyurl.com/bojjuee

Craig Jensen
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@Mark Taylor:

I can't tell if you are trolling because you believe what you are saying or because you believe the opposite. Basically, you are not really conveying any information except that you are a troll.

If your desire is not to be a troll, post less often and with less hyperbole. This might actually result in meaningful discussion.

TC Weidner
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One man's hero is another villain, perspective can play a huge role. I always wanted to make a game in which the player goes through the game thinking he is on the side of right, plays the whole game justifying all his actions because hey; he's the good guy. Upon the ending just as you get to finish up the game, you get just a little bit more of the story revealed, and it becomes apparent your arent the good guy after all, You are in fact the antithesis of everything you thought you were.

I know it been done before with varying success, but I like the whole idea of how just a few facts withheld or twisted can change the whole perspective of what we think we "know".

Remember if we would of lost the Revolutionary war, Washington would of been little more than a footnote a little known traitor and terrorist. Its all perspective.

Luis Guimaraes
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Like in Shadow Of The Colossus.

Alan Rimkeit
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@TC Weidner - That premise of moral choices and personal perspective is a great one. Keep it to yourself from now on. ;)

Nick McKergow
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Dark Souls did this. Though both perspectives seem to be valid. A lot of people still argue over what the the real "Good" or "Bad" ending is.

Carl Chavez
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I just read about the history of Columbine survivor Mark Taylor. If you are that Mark Taylor, then I do sympathize with you. If you are not, then whoever you are should not be using his name as a pseudonym because you're making him look silly.

Either way, trolling Gamasutra's comments to espouse your point of view is not really going to help matters. What you should do is state your points in a blog post and keep the subject related to video games and what you believe their deleterious effects upon human minds are. You have the right to do so, and Gamasutra gives you the tools to do so. It's the "good" thing to do, it will allow you to make your point of view more detailed without all of the emotional baggage you're including, and it will allow you to defend your point of view from those who disagree. What you're doing right now by trolling is making those who disagree with you more set in your ways.

Luis Guimaraes
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Or maybe it's neither, just a coincidence, because there is a Mark Taylor that comments on Gamasutra for a while already:

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/182336/Twitter_hashtag_1Reason
Why_exposes_sexism_in_game_industry.php

Alan Rimkeit
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BTW, just wanted to thank Nate Paolasso for the mentally and emotionally stimulating article. It is very well written. With that I am out of this thread as it is now a troll fest. We tried to have a meaningful discussion but that did not work out so well this time around.

Nate Paolasso
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You're very welcome. It is disappointing that it turned into mostly trolling, but at least some people posted legitimate, thought provoking comments. Thanks for reading!

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David Brown
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@ Joshua O.

Interesting response. And you bring up a great point.... "Is there a reason to glorify evil things?"

I'm with you on this one.... adding in bad-guy actions just for the sake of it, without actually adding consequences or reactions to these actions is a huge waste... and would make a game ring quite hollow. GTA's have come up many times in this thread.... I used to love GTA (the first one), after that the games never really captured me. Many people disagree with me of course, and that's totally ok... but I found the games missed a huge opportunity to comment on social norms, the justice system and the mind of a criminal -- which always struck me as a downer because the game engine was so ripe to explore all of these things.

But to play the devil's advocate for a moment... I would like to voice the idea that media is not responsible for an individual's well being. That's all on them. We're all wired up slightly differently, we all understand the world in different ways and we all seek meaning in things in our own way. Media is media, what you do with it after you consume it.....is of course up to you. Education and exploring meaningful issues with people is far more important in allowing them to relate to the world and to seek the meaning behind various messages that are crossing their paths. Britney and Lara Croft were sex symbols of their day... but never once did I assume that all women should be like them, or that they should be emulated. Blaming media sources for not making intentions clear falls short of the true issue..... these darker sides of humanity have existed far longer than newspaper, books, TV and pop music. These parts of us are here for a reason, and they're not going anywhere. All the better to learn about them, experience them in a safe environment, and go about your day.... not insulating yourself from something you can never hope to truly insulate yourself from.

Anyways, glad to see some interesting points coming up in this thread. Thanks Josh!

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David Brown
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@Mark Taylor

Now we're talking. I would have to side with you that games like the later GTA's put an excess of violence for the sake of violence in their games. I'm personally a fan of the exploration of "evil" in videogames to get players out of their comfort zone, and to perhaps try to see what's going on with individuals who are suffering mental illnesses, or simply have beliefs which directly contradict the player's own beliefs. I should likely have stated that up front. Violence for the hell of it... isn't something that enriches games, it just gives them an artificial "edgy" feeling to provide individuals a way to "rebel" against social norms. I don't enjoy games like these, and I don't play them... but many people do and they may have their own reasons for it. Games (and media) will always be made with this flavour, because human angst will always exist -- we are an ever changing social species. Education of our kids, and being involved in what media they consume and ensuring that you encourage them to draw their own conclusions on what it all means is likely a far more effective measure to prevent tragedy. I disagree that games themselves cause individuals to get more violent..... video game fanatics like myself (read: nerds :P) rarely hurt others. I would like to see non-biased studies on this though, as it's an issue that needs to be tested over a large audience to draw real conclusions.

@Joshua O.

You make a great point that in a venue such as this, many will want evil explored for the large-impact benefit it could bring to players' understanding of the human condition and also the depth it could bring to the artform of video games. I disagree with you regarding video games and their ability to create violent tendencies in players. I have no hard evidence, as far as I'm aware no sufficient study has ever been performed.... so I respect your stance (and Mark's) on the other side of the line. That being said, people on large don't always seek out deep meaning or intellectual pursuits with regards to media consumption or new ideas -- and this is where I advocate education and involvement above all other things. If parents/guardians/community members/peers are involved in teaching kids to discern fact from opinion, and the ability to form their own opinions on media/ideas being presented to them... we'd all be better off. No amount of virtual torture, gunfire, killing, terrorism or what-have-you will negatively impact an individual if they can tell it's not real, and can read real messages from what they are observing.

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Josh Bycer
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Interesting piece, I also tend to favor playing the bad guy on my first run of any game with a moral slider. The reason for me is that I'm curious to see how the designers will take it. For instance one of my favorite examples of it would be Spider Man: Web of Shadows. Going completely evil in that game made the story more interesting compared to just watching Spider Man save the day as normal.

I also think it's interesting is that so far the only examples of games where you are the bad guy are ether in multiplayer games, or if the game has a cartoonish or comical slant ex: Evil Genius, Overlord, Dungeon Keeper. If you look at games that tend to be serious that have morality choices, being evil usually doesn't resonate in the player's actions or the character comes off more as a jerk then evil.

One of my least favorite examples was from Bioshock, with how the second you killed a little sister that automatically painted you as an evil genocidal mad man hellbent on taking over the Earth.

I think the problem with writing "good" evil stories, is how do you make the main character someone the player wants to play as without turning it into an anti-hero story? A few years ago I started thinking of a story with the bad guy as the main character, but no matter how I took this character it still ended up as him being an anti-hero.

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Evan Combs
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The anti-hero problem was what I kept running into when I was doing thought experiments on how best to go about this. I do think it is possible to do it without it turning into an anti-hero story, especially if you make the main character have multiple personalities in which case it would make sense that at times you would lose control of the character, but it would be highly difficult to do it in a way that really engages a large audience.

Ultimately it is all about logic, and getting the player to buy into the screwed up logic that it takes to be a true villain. While games that have you play as a rebel or something may technically put you in the shoes of a villain, it is only a relativistic villain. You are only a villain to one side of the story, to the other side you are a freedom fighter. In which case I have a hard time classifying that as being a villain. In order to be a true villain I believe your motivation needs to be more selfish, and you need to have a willingness to do whatever it takes. In Star Wars the Sith are villains not because they are trying to overturn the established government, but because they are trying to overturn it to gain personal power to rule over the galaxy as they believe they are superior. Not because they view the government as oppressive.

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Daniel Accardi
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Hey Nate! Good post.

I think you hit it on the head with your reference to Far Cry 3. The reason that it's not common to play as a villain is that opposing the villain can collapse the thematics of the game. It's kind of like the "Deckard is/not a replicant!" debate from Blade Runner - the story only has real value if Deckard is a human being, who can be confused for a replicant due to a learned amorality. By the same token, teaching most people to improve their moral standards couldn't be done by offering an example of an evil, self-described villain; the real value comes from undermining a perceived hero, who believes his or her actions are good, right and justifiable.

As for games that attempt it - maybe no game has really gotten to it yet, but as for books and television, maybe A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) is what you're looking for? Not necessarily an "evil wins!" situation, but more a reminder that people will never stop scratching each other's eyes out to claw their way to the top of the heap, even (and especially) when we expect them to have learned better. I find the Elder Scrolls games have sort of addressed things in a similar way; the way the Civil War is treated in Skyrim, for instance, makes you feel like you've chosen wrongly, no matter which way you go.

The discussion has gotten a bit out of hand, but thanks for writing the post!
--Dan

Jonathan Adams
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Always a good topic, but one which I think should be fleshed out a lot more due to its controversial nature. Depicting evil, or any other moral perspective, cannot be examined without context. Evil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon is not the same as evil in a WWII reenactment is not the same as evil in something like Silence of the Lambs. Realism, consequences, perspective, and emotional content vastly alter the feel, reaction, and possibly the value. The motives of the designers and the expected motives of the audience are huge factors; a game that glorifies genocide versus a game that teaches the horrors of genocide, for example. Things like feedback (screams of horror vs. chipset sounds), immediate consequences (twitching body vs. turning into a coin), long-term consequences (starving orphaned children vs. timed respawn), character motive (malicious serial killer vs. amoral goal-seeker), etc. etc. etc. all vastly affect the nature of a game.

There is the motive of the player for playing an evil character. Sometimes people want to play an antagonist (which usually is a villain) because antagonists generally have more agency than protagonists do. Evil gets to act, while good usually has to react, and that can be frustrating. When good chooses to act, it usually ends up feeling self-righteous and merely a different kind of evil. Sometimes people play evil because they specifically want to understand the evil without having to do harmful acts - this is a major motive for people to watch plays such as Richard III, or games like Train - and understanding is often a good first step to prevention. Sometimes people play evil for catharsis, which helps them to keep their real behavior in check.

Of course, there are people who make games with malicious intentions, and there are people who play games who are malicious, and enjoy them for malicious reasons (though this still gets them away from actual malicious acts). Someone could indeed make a game about playing a racist murderer, and do so because they like the idea rather than because they wanted to teach how horrible it is, and someone who enjoys the idea of actual racist murder can use such a game, even if it's intended to be educational and not malicious, to get their malicious jollies (though they're still hurting pixels instead of people). This, however, can be said of any sort of media. Someone could get the same from youtube videos, major movies, various religious media, an hour of photoshopping, or writing poetry.

The actual play of evil is not something you can make many assumptions about. Individuals play a wide variety of evil characters for a wide variety of reasons. Kind, gentle, loving people may play horribly-twisted monsters in games, and people who belong behind bars may well play paragons of virtue.

Kevin Fishburne
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Briefly: It was painful to read this thread. I haven't seen a troll fed so well since my Usenet days on dial-up. Holy shit.

@David Brown (http://gamasutra.com/blogs/NatePaolasso/20121226/184111/Playing_T
he_Villain.php#comment182094) Agreed that the amount of deviant/cruel behavior in a game and the quality of the game have no relationship and yes, the media is absolutely not responsible for what crazy people do. We as consumers of media are responsible however for which media outlets are successful. Moralize with your wallet and right to free speech. Legislation--the last resort--restricts the freedoms of all for the sins of a few.

I think the best way to facilitate the player acting as the villain may be through sandbox style play rather than macro-story driven play. As has been mentioned here there are many problems that arise by "forcing" the player into a villainous role, so simply let them choose. Without the heavy-handed story a rich and believable simulation will need to be in place so that all actions are met with sensible results. There should be realistic pros and cons according to physics and the culture of the game's societies. This will give players tangible reasons choose their path, with perhaps neither one being more or less rewarding than the other.

As with all art forms, I don't think artists should be constrained as long as the creation of their work brings no harm to people or animals. I didn't always feel this way, but after much reflection and research feel that unrestrained creative freedom is essential to our happiness and advancement as a species. If someone wants to release a game that lets you shoot up a school on the same day as a real-life school shooting, so be it. They might never sell another game, but the call should be theirs to make. Media outlets exist because we pay them to. If they produce torture-porn, rape-simulators, etc., it is because they are viable products. If you object then vote with your wallet and speech, or move to Saudi Arabia.

David Brown
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@Kevin F.

Could not have said it better myself.

Also in regards to your sandbox model for the exploration of evil in video games... that's a great idea. It allows the player to test the reaction of the world in response to various decisions. That may be the only way to pull it off without the protagonist having to have a serious mental illness.

Christian Kulenkampff
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@Nate: Great article! I think developers should explore ambivalent characters even more than evil characters in video games.

@Kevin: While I agree with you that art should be "free", I am unsure about when media hurts (and when art hurts). Hate speech and propaganda do hurt. Many countries ban hate speech. Aren't games, that really _glorify_ violence, hate speech against humans? Content that _glorifies_ rape and torture of children, women and men is hate speech against those. I think we "as a community" should prohibit content that obviously wants to incite hate and malicious behavior against fellow humans. Of course there are subjective differences between individual recipients, this is why there should be at least age based access and case specific assessment. Our civilization is constantly changing this is why we also have to constantly reevaluate our standards for assessing content and also former bans.

Christian Kulenkampff
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@Mark: Because of your previous posts, I hereby explicitly distance myself from you.

There are differences between glorification, incitement, titillation, simulation, exploitation etc. In most countries child porn is primarily prohibited, because of the _victims_. Germany also prohibits virtual depiction, but I think in USA virtual depiction is not prohibited.

Wether content incites damaging behavior is decided by social consensus, because the reception of content is relative to socialization and neural processes we cannot understand yet. In a perfect world everybody would be able to perfectly separate between virtuality, incitement and reality. In such a world there would be no need for any restriction. Of course we don't live in such a world (and probably never will), this is why we need some restrictions. Violence and torture are part of humanity and will always facinate people. This facination mostly is just that, a fascination without even the glimpse of an idea to commit such gruesome acts, manifestations of our fears. Art may and should experiment with these fears and facinations to make us understand ourselves, our species and history.

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Christian Kulenkampff
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The judges are part of the social consensus and laws (should) imply some kind of morale.
(obsolete due to edit)

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Christian Kulenkampff
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I think I didn't make myself clear enough: I am sure content that enables humans to experiment with unjustified violence and other dark aspects of humanity without hurting or inciting to hurt other people (in real life) is useful (for self-awareness, recreational purposes etc.). Artistic or not, games and other media allow us to explore/enjoy our dark sides (especially facination for calamities and ferocities) without hurting somebody and without the exploitation of real life calamaties. I believe that most even very violent games don't incite hatred.

Christian Kulenkampff
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@Mark: How do they decide if content incites hatred in your country? And if you are unhappy with the decision making process, what would you propose for such assessments?

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Christian Kulenkampff
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@Joschua: Of course, cultural products influence us. The question is does cruel content make us cruel? And even if so, aren't we as adults allowed to consume/disseminate (to other adults) noisome content (at least to a certain degree)?

Adventures and dangerous undertakings will always facinate us. All cultures have so many stories that deal with violence, death and heroism builtin. Should we abandon this as "illminded" and create a world, that doesn't know violence and death?

There will always be some children that burn puppies, jump from cliffs with an umbrella or even kill each other. In my opinion we have to accept that and live with this "dark" side in all of us. Violent video games are just a result of this desire to understand, experience and cope with these feelings. There will always be content that is not appropriate for children so we have to protect them. But this does not mean we should all live in a children's world.

Christian Kulenkampff
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@Mark: Do you really think adult media is one of the main reasons for this grievance? As far as I experienced unhappiness is the root of all evil. So it is unhappiness we should fight. "Burglary, mugging, theft and murder - the basics of gangsterism" are part of our very nature, it is only natural we want to deal with them in a ludic way. You can play "cops and robbers" in a very over the top blood spraying fashion and it is still no incitement.

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Jeremie Sinic
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Being evil in games is very much a question of context I think. I don't feel evil running over pedestrians in Carmaggedon at all, however gruesome the action is. On the other hand, I felt not so heroic when bombing "terrorists" plantations with a F117 in Jungle Strike (sorry for the old reference).


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