Necessary Evils – Exploring Player-Controlled Villainy

Published: April 30, 2016 1:00 PM /


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Hello, TechRaptor readers. Although I had originally planned to write this article independent of any others here, I’ve decided to alter my original plan a bit and build a bit on the “Video Games Make Heroes, Not Criminals” article written by Kindra Pring. Her piece focused on gaming as a way to indulge people’s desires and fantasies of heroism. My view is going to be a bit … darker, as we take a look at villainy and why it's equally as important as heroism for gamers of any stripe.

The spikier the armor, the cooler the character. It's science.
The spikier the armor, the cooler the character. It's science.

I’ve always been fascinated with villains. Movies, TV, games, you name it. Villains can absolutely makeor break a story. Whether it’s the scenery-chewing melodrama of Ricardo Montalbán in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the tortured fallen heroes of Breaking Bad and The Shield, or the comically inept Dr. Evil, the bad guys always resonated with me more than whatever bland hero is put on the screen in front of us. Bad guys are just cooler.

This fascination with evil also carries over to gaming. Whatever game I’m playing, I’ll nearly always choose to play the most evil character or faction I can get my hands on. In Warhammer 40,000, it’s the Dark Eldar (sorry, Chaos, you got beat out by drugged-out BDSM space elves). In Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, it’s the vast, shambling hordes of the undead and their not-sparkly Vampire Count masters. And when looking at the various Warmahordes factions I’ll be covering in a future review, the barbaric Skorne and and zombie pirates of Cryx have definitely caught my eye.

What is it that draws players to the darkness and away from the light? That depends on who you ask. One of the major reasons for doing so is related directly to game mechanics. Often times the bad guys will have cooler guns, sharper swords, and spikier equipment. Going down the path of evil often times is simple mathematics, and min-max players view the choice as simply a matter of utilizing (or abusing) the systems set in place by the designers as the most efficient method of winning. Any thematic or lore implications in their decisions are secondary at best.

When playing Warhammer 40,000, for example, I highly enjoy zipping around the table with the fastest units in the game, ignore pretty much every piece of terrain that may pose a problem for my opponent, and ignore their high armor and toughness with highly precise and agonizing weaponry. Any Tyranid player who’s seen their giant monsters be gunned down by a pair of Venoms or an Imperial player watching their tanks explode after a few heat lance shots to their rear can attest to this.

Other players (myself included) view the choice as a change of pace from their everyday lives. Being the bad guy opens up a myriad number of choices and decisions that are simply unavailable in the real world, either due to limitations set forth by the laws of physics and nature, the laws of society, or one’s personal morals and ethics. I would never brutally enslave a living person for my own ends, force someone to fight to the death in a rigged match for my personal amusement, or horrifically torture and disfigure another living thing simply to enjoy their suffering and anguish. Yet my Dark Eldar simply call this “Tuesday” in the Dark City of Commoragh.

Image courtesy of Games Workshop
"Torture Tuesdays" are a big deal in the Dark City.

This points to the crux of the issue at hand: escapism. Gaming, whether video or tabletop, gives everyday people a chance to do things they wouldn’t do in their everyday lives, for good or ill. Either because there aren’t hordes of power-armored and heavily mutated lackeys of dark and ancient gods to righteously exterminate anywhere around, or because you are simply not a swashbuckling privateer on the high seas, or any number of reasons why you and I simply do not live in a video or tabletop game world. Playing as the villain gives you a chance to work out your frustrations on anyone stupid enough to get in your way in a manner that won’t affect anything in the real world. Nobody is going to arrest you for killing all the NPCs in a town, or for hauling off a herd of humans to the fighting pits of Commoragh, or for raising legions of the dead to do your bidding. The biggest real-world danger presented by gaming is to your wallet, not your freedom and livelihood.

Now that we’ve gotten the fun stuff out of the way, it’s time to look at the other side of the coin: what playing as the villain does not mean. Being the bad guy in a game, whatever game it may be, simply does not correlate to being a bad or immoral person in real life whatsoever. Regardless of whatever moral panics may come about, a definitive link between the two has not been established.

For the last sixty-odd years, any new major entertainment medium has faced scrutiny and backlash from moralistic busy-bodies. Whether it’s comic books in the 1950s, role-playing games and heavy metal music in the 1970s and 1980, or video games to this very day, there have been hordes of self-righteous nannies in problem glasses (oddly enough) ready to decry the popular entertainment medium of the day as a gateway to immoral and dangerous behavior, whether it’s true or not.

Jack Chick tract
This is what people in the 1980s actually believed.

The most famous example would be the great Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Groups such as Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) sprung up, televangelists held up various rulebooks while delivering fiery sermons about the evils of gaming (while passing around the collection plate), tearful mothers blamed Dungeons and Dragons on their children’s suicides, and news shows like 60 Minutes decried the moral decay of the generation’s youth.

All of it was found to be utter nonsense and is looked back on with amused befuddlement by gamers today. After the various news stories and rumors were debunked, after people realized that the Player’s Handbook didn’t teach kids to shoot fireballs from their hands, the entire affair died down to a smoldering pile of coals that occasionally flares up, as it did after the Columbine massacre, the Anders Behring Breivik assault, and now in the form of “online harassment” and professional victims.

As I mentioned previously, there has never been any established link between violent games and violent behavior. In fact, multiple studies have proved the opposite. In a recent study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, researchers found that “bad” behavior in games actually leads to more moral people. The theory behind this is that gaming acts as a sandbox for people to indulge in and test various behaviors in a safe and harmless environment. While gamers of all stripes can attest to this, it’s nice to have some solid evidence to back up our “lived experiences”. (As an aside, I really hate that term, even if it does fit particularly well here.) It’s also nice to see researchers telling muckrakers, charlatans, and busybodies to stop asking about violent video games, as they have more pressing issues to look into.

What does this mean for you, the average gamer? Simple: whatever side of the morality coin you choose to play your games on has no bearing whatsoever on you as a person. Playing as the Germans in Flames of War does not make you a Nazi. Quicksaving your Skyrim playthrough to butcher townsfolk does not make you Charles Manson. Leading a pack of surgically mutilated and enhanced slaves and monstrosities in a raid against a helpless farming community does not make you a Dark Eldar Haemonculus. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, or use your hobbies as a way to guilt you into changing yourself for their liking, is not someone to be taken seriously or trusted. Pick up your dice or controller and hack away, safe and comfortable in the knowledge that you understand the difference between fiction and reality better than those who claim otherwise.

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| Former Staff Writer

Former Staff Writer