Most of the games that we play allow us to do things that we either don't or can't do in our regular lives. Many of those things are benign. For example, NHL and NFL games give me the opportunity to place myself in the role of a major league general manager, drafting and developing talent, signing players to contracts, and things of that nature. That's not something I'll ever have the opportunity to do in real life, but it definitely is something that I'd do if I actually did have the chance. Similarly, while I may never play a big rock concert in a packed stadium, Rock Band lets me simulate the experience, and it's one I would jump at if I had the chance.
But most of the games we play put us in the shoes of characters we would never want to be. I don't imagine most of the people who've played through Fallout 3 would ever actually want to live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and I doubt that more than a few of the millions who have played Metal Gear Solid have any desire to actually try to prevent the deployment of a walking nuclear battle tank. But the reason players don't want to engage in those activities is likely because of the personal danger they would face, or the considerable disruption of their personal life.
Many of the things we do in games though are things that we simply wouldn't want to do under any circumstances. I sincerely hope that most players of Grand Theft Auto have no desire to actually run down their street shooting civilians, for example. So why do we play games that let us do things that we find objectionable? Where do we draw the line?
I think this becomes a bigger issues as games get more complex and realistic. For example, while I would be horrified at the prospect of actually running a hacienda, I still think Puerto Rico is a great board game. At the end of the day, nothing that you do in Puerto Rico really has anything to do with what the game is ostensibly about. While the game requires you to import slaves, for example, they're simply little wooden chips, and the only "work" that you make them do is placing them on the board. The game is really about math, not slavery.
But with modern games, the line is becoming increasingly blurred. What if Puerto Rico was a computer or console game with full 3D graphics with the realistic look of, say, Crysis? Even if the overall mathematical simulation going on under the hood was still the same, it wouldn't really be the same game. What if in this realistic, 3D version of Puerto Rico, where the "slaves" are not little wooden chips, but fully modelled humans, you could beat your slaves to make them produce more goods? Even though the core gameplay and objectives are still the same, I would find that extremely troubling, and I think a lot of other players would as well. Something that is relatively harmless at the abstracted level of Puerto Rico might not necessarily be when it's made more explicit.
And while I know that some people reading this will say that everything is fair game, and who cares because it's just entertainment, I think that ultimately most people would acknowledge that there are limits to what they would personally accept. For example, games that require the player to murder are often extremely popular. But how would we react to a game that tasked the player with comitting rapes? I'd be horrified, personally. Or what about a game that tasked you with simulating the murder of Matthew Shepard? Well, not only would it be objectionable, but at least here in Canada the game would almost certainly be illegal under hate crimes statutes.
As I was thinking about this issue the other day, I actually ran up against a situation in a recent game that made me stop playing because I found it objectionable. The game is Far Cry 2. Now, it's probably a bit strange to stop and point out something that I found morally objectionable after I had already spent about 15 hours in that game doing little aside from shooting people and blowing things up. And while I would like to say that all the people I killed in Far Cry were a threat to me, in retrospect there were characters that I killed who were unarmed.
The situation that made me stop was this - one of the two factions in the game had some sort of super-powered malaria medication. And the task for this mission was to destroy the medication, ostensibly to cripple the other faction. Now, in Far Cry 2, all the main missions have alternate paths. But the alternate path for this mission was simply a more elaborate way to destroy this malaria medication.
There was simply no way I could justify doing that sort of thing in a game, even "in character". Malaria infects hundreds of millions of people a year. According to the World Health Organization, it kills close to a million people a year. Children are the most frequently affected demographic. There is just no level on which I can find the continuation of one of the deadliest, most prevalent diseases in the world as "entertainment" and it certainly isn't "fun".
I understand that the goal of the mission was to prevent the opposing faction from having the drug. OK, ultimately that's not really any worse than shooting them or throwing a grenade in their truck, so if I can accept shooting them, I should be able to accept taking away their medicine. But the game did not simply task me with taking it, the game tasked me with destroying the means of producing it.
Now, my character in this game is a mercenary. Wouldn't there be a considerable black market for a super-powered malaria drug? Wouldn't I want to steal it and sell it? What about the Underground, who have been providing me with malaria medication throughout the game: wouldn't they be overjoyed if I were to pay them back by providing a strengthened medication for all the civilians they're trying to help out? If the game had simply given me the option of taking the medicine rather than destroying it, I probably would have been satisfied. But the game did not present me the option. It told me that I had to destroy the source of the medicine or I could not continue. So I turned the game off.
Ultimately, I'm not really sure where the line gets drawn. I've been thinking about this issue for quite a while now, and I don't really know in the end why I accept some things, like when I murdered an unarmed man talking on a cell phone in Far Cry 2, but not others, like rape or the destruction of malaria pills. But I do know that the line exists, and I'm interested in trying to understand why and where it exists more explicitly.