February 6th, 2006

Why is it, when we get the chance to take care of something, all we want to do is destroy it?

A few months back, when I first bought Nintendogs, I spent some time skipping around like a giddy school girl, showing it off to my (male, semi-gamer) friends. They were all impressed; they even made cuteness noises (Aww!) — that is, for the first thirty seconds. Then they were stabbing my puppy with the stylus, demanding that he die. Die, puppy, they were saying. Die.

Okay, first of all, my puppy’s name is Pupcake, not puppy. Let’s not be rude. Second of all, why does everything turn into killing? Is there something about cuteness that makes us feel rage? Can we not stand the irresistable appeal of those adorable puppy eyes?

Even when we take cuteness out of the picture though, the tendency toward carnage still sticks around. The Sims is a perfect example. What’s more fun: constructing a happy, well-balanced, successful life for you simulated friends, or building a house with no windows or doors and lighting a fire? We all know where that one’s going…

Video games are defined by interactivity, and interactivity is defined by control. Control, in turn, can be used either — if you like — for good or for evil. So why does evil keep winning out?

It’s not like we always break the rules in hopes of causing destruction. For the most part, we do what we should: we want to do well, to win. But for some reason sims inspire the opposite reaction. Here, we have the highest level of interactivity, the highest level of control. And what do we do with it? Inflict VG pain. Because we are VG sadists.

Maybe it’s because, in simulators, we identify less with the avatars on screen. Or maybe these games just reveal the innate sadism in interactivity — the ability to dominate a situation of thing – itself. Playfully petting a puppy: that might involve interactivity in a sense, but it’s not until you break the rules and try and hit it in the head with a frisbee (Sorry, Pupcake!) that you’ve really asserted your independent will as both gamer and master.

Tags: Blog

38 Responses to ““I Wish I Could Poke your Little Doggy Eyes Out”: Interactivity and Sadism”

  1. Brummbar Says:

    First!

    My favorite example of this kind of thing is the class of young’uns given copies of Rollercoaster Tycoon by a schoolteacher to encourage creativity and ease with computers (because kids sure need help with the latter…)

    The teacher examined their results and was horrified to find that every single kid, even the meek ones, had built a Death-o-Coaster designed to fling hapless passengers to their doom.

    As a Pagan, I’m not surprised by this. Nature is red – blood red, as is that part of it which resides in us. Cruelty is part of us… consider all the jokes and funny scenes we laugh at which involve someone getting hurt.

    All aboard the Death-o-Coaster!

    That guy across the street just fall on his ass! Didja see that? LOL!

    Take THAT, Nintendog! (stab stab)

    “God… is not a vegetarian.”
    Lady Sylvia Marsh in Lair of the White Worm

  2. FerrousBuller Says:

    I’ve actually long felt that freeform games like the Sims and Nintendogs – games where there is no stated purpose, no way to “win” – function as a kind of interactive personality test. [Indeed, maybe we need a new term for such “goalless games,” which sounds like an oxymoron – how can it still be a game if there are no victory conditions?] Namely, given free reign to treat your virtual subjects with impunity – rather than having to worry about losing because you mistreated them – how do you behave? In a moral vacuum, where your actions have no lasting implications, what do you do?

    I’ve found that virtual sadism isn’t universal among gamers. There are some of us – myself included – who are disquieted by the notion of tormenting our virtual creations simply because we can. Don’t get me wrong: I am all about the violence in FPSs, RPGs, strategy games, etc. But in those games, violence is a means to an end. Furthermore, conflict in those games is usually between evenly matched adversaries; after all, games are boring if there’s no challenge. But in the Sims, violence and torture exist solely to sate the gamers’ sadistic impulses; and the Sims themselves are helpless to resist or fight back against the player.

    Maybe I have no sadistic impulses; maybe I’m just too afraid to vent them that way; maybe I just prefer playing the good guy, even in a game like the Sims. All I know is it disturbs me to think of trapping a Sim just to watch them die.

    No, they aren’t “real” people. But neither are the characters in a movie: they’re just actors playing make-believe. Yet we find scenes of torture in films disturbing, even though we know it’s all fake; why shouldn’t we be disturbed by it in games?

    So when you talk about “we are VG sadists,” I’m not among your ranks – for better or for worse.

  3. Bonnie Says:

    Brummbar, when/where did this Death-o-Coaster in the classroom thing go down? Just curious (in a sadistic way, of course) about the details.

    Ferrous, valid point, some people aren’t like this. But, I have to admit, I have never met (in RL) any gamers who fit the mold you do. Also, I wonder if there isn’t something contradictory about enjoying violence in one arena (say an FPS) but not another (like a sim). I suppose, when you’ve been charged to care for something, there is an element of responsibility, guilt, or maybe just kindness. Personally, I’m nasty to my sims, but I adore the crap out of my puppies. If they ever ran away… Oh the sad faces that would result.

  4. Duncan Says:

    This is a classic moral dilemma. Ferrous touched on it with his comments of morality in a vacuum. What do we do when there are no consequences for our actions. Actually… the game takes it further. To use Brummbar’s example, lets look at creating death coasters. I’ve done this, my brother has done this. My wife… has not. But she has looked on and giggled with the rest of us.

    Rollercoaster Tycoon not only gives you a playground with no consequences, it gives you a huge amount of freedom. We have no connection to the characters. Sure, they all have names, but not one gets a funeral or an obituary when they die after one of your humorously constructed rides. There will be no police or regulations officers showing up to shut down your park. There won’t even be little pixel-protesters waving signs and singing songs. No one really gets hurt and there is no consequence.

    There is also no need to learn anything. People do not build Death-o-Coasters in real life because of the consequences. They don’t build them because it takes a freaking long time to learn how. Then, once you know the engineering, you have to design, build and test (you wouldn't want it to accidentally be fun and harmless, would you?), and finally lure the hapless folk onto the ride of their lives (or deaths). It’s a butt-load of work.

    Ok, I’m being sarcastic, but there is actually a point to it. It doesn’t make sense that someone would be able to do all that without learning about people, without learning about risks. Without bringing some form of humanity to the situation. There simply isn’t enough vacuum in real life to execute something like that. At least not often.

    The only place that the weird world of game sadism (which is a lot like the satirical world of bond-style super-villianism) crosses into real life is with zealotry and terrorism (oops, I dropped the T-Bomb). And, if you look a little closer, most terrorism is spawned in very tightly controlled places. Terrorists surround themselves with a moral vacuum so that they are not affected by humanity, and that makes doing horrible acts easier.

    Remove the faces, remove the learning curve, remove the timeline. Make the setup easy, the rewards instant, and the payoff painless and mess-free. It’s humorous death in a game, or a movie. Or it can be something darker. Context is everything.

    And now, a (semi) relevant movie quote:
    “But, you’ve also bested my Spaniard which means you must have studied. And in studying, you must have learned that man is mortal so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.” "”The Princess Bride

  5. Bonnie Says:

    Speaking of moral vacuums, my mind has gone back to the same place it always does (sex, duh). When I was in high school, there was a similar question making the girl-giggling-in-a-bathroom rounds, namely if you could have one day to be as slutty as you wanted, a day that would then get erased, what would you do? I answered… Okay, you can guess how I answered. All my female friends were appalled. Had it been a group of guys though, there wouldn’t have been any hestitation. Heck, you would never even ask that question of a group of guys. The answer would be too obvious.

    Which brings up another point that you mention, Duncan: gender differences. Is VG sadism (or just leaping to evil in a moral vacuum) a male trait? My first reaction is to add the disclaimer that of course, any such tendency wouldn’t be innate, but built in through cultural expectations of masculinity, but, as has been mentioned, what makes these games interesting is that you do what you do when no one, absolutely no one, is watching. So do we keep our social conditioning even when we’re on our own? Or it just the way things are?

  6. FerrousBuller Says:

    “But, I have to admit, I have never met (in RL) any gamers who fit the mold you do.”

    That’s because they broke the mold when I came out, baby! They were all like, “Hell with this – not making that mistake again!” 8-D

    “Also, I wonder if there isn't something contradictory about enjoying violence in one arena (say an FPS) but not another (like a sim).”

    It’s a point I’ve tried to make elsewhere, about the contextual relevance and purpose of violence in gaming. In the pieces about videogame violence I’ve seen you write, you’ve tended to focus on the issue of “enforcing your will against another” by exploring themes of sadism, pain / pleasure, power dynamics, etc. While I agree that’s an isssue, I don’t think it explains the totality of videogame violence. [And I’m not saying you’ve argued it’s an all-encompassing theory either; just that it’s the only one I’ve seen you discuss.]

    For me – and, I suspect, most gamers – gaming is a contest of wills and a test of skills: the game provides me with challenges and obstacles to overcome, be they virtual or human. Violence is the most frequent means by which one overcomes obstacles in videogames, but it’s certainly not the only one: e.g., in platformers, it’s speed, agility, reflexes, and jump distance which usually wins the day; in racing games, it’s about driving skill. I don’t enjoy videogame violence for violence’s sake, for the sheer sadistic joy of it; I enjoy it because it is the means by which I demonstrate my skill in a particular game. If I crow about a headshot, it’s because I proved my skill with a sniper rifle, not because I enjoyed splattering some n00b’s brains all over the street. Though I might not take the time to explain that while taunting him. :-)

    This, incidentally, is something I think Jack Thompson and every other person who protests videogame violence utterly miss: that for most of us, it isn’t the violence we enjoy (which gets passe on its own pretty quick), it’s triumphing over the games’ challenges – the sense of accomplishment that imparts. [And for those people who do enjoy virtual sadism – hell, it wasn’t the game which made them that way.]

    In short: God mode is boring; invincibility is dull; simply pushing people down because you can and they can’t resist is just bullying. There’s no skill, no style, no proof of one’s abilities in it. Maybe I’m the exception to the norm, but I don’t think so. Why else would so many gamers ask for advice on how to beat a game without resorting to cheating?

  7. FerrousBuller Says:

    “Had it been a group of guys though, there wouldn't have been any hestitation. Heck, you would never even ask that question of a group of guys. The answer would be too obvious.”

    Gee, that’s a pretty sexist oversimplification, don’t you think? Surprisingly insensitive of you, Bonnie! ;-) Not all guys are man-sluts, any more than every girl is a virginal princess – and thank God for that! How boring would life be if that were true? Sure, there are demographic tendencies within both genders, shaped by social expectations, physiological differences, evolution, and whatever else goes into making us who we are. But you have to make allowances for the variances, too: statistically speaking, you can presume any given person is straight, but you have to be aware you might be wrong, too. Probability can mean bugger-all when dealing with an actual permutation.

    But I think what’s really at the heart of this matter is one’s internal moral compass vs. externally imposed societal morals. Some argue that our internal compasses are quite weak and that we’d regress to savagery without society’s firm hand to guide us (a la “Lord of the Flies”); while others argue that it’s our basic innate decency (or lack thereof) which makes us who we are and externally imposed morals (in the form of laws, social norms, etc.) have a relatively weak effect.

    Regardless of what you believe, in a game like the Sims, where the external pressures to do “good” are removed, it is the gamer’s moral compass alone which guides their actions. When there is no longer any real penalty for being “evil” – and no overt reward for being “good” – it gives the gamer a chance to revel in their own unsuppressed nature.

    And man, you people are some sick bastards, aren’t you? :-)

  8. Sam Kelly Says:

    I’m with Ferris, violence in itself is boring – it’s all about skill, control, and accomplishment. (Then again, so is sex.) In fact, Raph Koster on pattern-matching says it best, for me.

    I’d suggest part of the reason people tend towards violence with virtual entities is not just because it doesn’t matter, but because they can’t give working feedback in the same way a real dog or a real human could. I assume the little Sims scream and show pain, but it still doesn’t have the same immediacy or relevance, and the disconnect between “looks and behaves alive” and “I can’t empathize with its pain” is seductive, compelling. Gaming turns us all into psychopaths that way.

  9. Brummbar Says:

    When I was in high school, there was a similar question making the girl-giggling-in-a-bathroom rounds, namely if you could have one day to be as slutty as you wanted, a day that would then get erased, what would you do? I answered"¦ Okay, you can guess how I answered.

    Oh no you don’t. Out with it!

    As for the Death-o-Coaster, I’ll check my old links and bookmarks. It was some grade school on the East Coast of the USA.

    Of course, this scene is repeated all the time. My own mother used to give my brother and I model cars instead of “war toys” as if that would change what little boys are. After seeing the umpteenth refighting of the Matchbox-Hot Wheels war on the living room floor, she got the message. It was toy soldiers after that.

  10. Bonnie Says:

    Ferrous and Sam, interesting point, that violence is about skill and challenge more than violence. My question to you then is, if it’s really the skill that’s important, why introduce pseudo-realistic violence. Doesn’t that seem like a reward, in some way? In which case, wouldn’t violence in and of itself have an appeal? What I mean to say is, if it’s just skill, why represent achieved skill through violence? Why blow off someone’s head instead of just a target?

    “Gee, that's a pretty sexist oversimplification, don't you think? Surprisingly insensitive of you, Bonnie! ;-)”
    Yes, it’s definitely an oversimplification (for the sake of effect in this case). And yes, not all men are man-sluts. But, you must admit, if you asked that question of a group of men, you could well get laughed at. It’s more about what we expect men to say then what they actually would.

    “Out with it!”
    Let me keep some of my secrets :-). Suffice to say I’m no “virginal princess”…

    “Of course, this scene is repeated all the time.”
    Very few people seem to think of giving violent toys to girls (or taking them away, for that matter), but when my younger brother was born I know we went through the same “no guns, no blood” rules. Funny thing is, he’s never been a violent kid (and now he’s an RPG addict). Me, on the other hand, I made my Barbies inact crazy scenes of destruction – damsels in distress who die wonderfully horrible deaths. Hmm, I’m starting to see why Ferrous is calling us sick… :-)

  11. FerrousBuller Says:

    “My question to you then is, if it's really the skill that's important, why introduce pseudo-realistic violence. Doesn't that seem like a reward, in some way?”

    There are doubtless those who get off violence and gore for violence and gore’s own sake. Certainly it’s hard to view, say, the fatalities in the Mortal Kombat games as anything more than your brutally nasty reward for finishing off your opponent in a vicious manner.

    But I think the most commonly cited reason is immersion: when a videogame is simulating violence – even the scifi violence of, say, Unreal Tournament – we have certain expectations about what happens; when those expectations aren’t met, it leaves us unsatisfied. And obviously, games can take a wide range of approaches to how they deal with violence: some FPSs are almost completely bloodless, while others revel in their own virtual goriness. But they all need to create their own worldview and remain consistent to it.

    Same thing with, say, war movies: even if they’ve never been in real combat, your average moviegoer realizes that Saving Private Ryan is a lot closer to the real thing than G.I. Joe. :-) How violence is depicted affects how seriously you can take it and how you respond to it.

    Or take football: it’s an inherently violent sport and I don’t doubt a lot of its appeal has to do with that. But are people there simply to watch to see burly men slam into each other repeatedly; or are they watching it for the competition between two (ideally equally matched) teams? I would argue, again, it’s the latter, though the former has its appeal too.

    Now, why do we like violence in the first place? That’s a little beyond the scope of a humble blog posting… :-)

    “But, you must admit, if you asked that question of a group of men, you could well get laughed at. It's more about what we expect men to say then what they actually would.”

    An interesting test, I think, would be to see how men responded as a group vs. privately to such a question; i.e., what do they say when they don’t fear the censure of other men? :-) It also depends on how you phrase the question too.

    “Me, on the other hand, I made my Barbies inact crazy scenes of destruction – damsels in distress who die wonderfully horrible deaths.”

    Apparently, you’re not the only Barbie destroyer out there. :-)

  12. MD² Says:

    “So why does evil keep winning out?”

    Which, in a recent discussion, brought forth the question: “why would it be evil to destroy what doesn’t even exist in the first place ?”. But I won’t venture into that snake pit…

    I’ve been thinking about your point for a few hours now. In my case, I only happen to do that kind of things to test the virtual construction I’m in. How far does it stretch ? What have I been allowed to do, and how ? What am I not allowed to do, and why ? (Which reminds I still need to find myself an american copy of Fallout 2… stupid european censure policy suppressing [not replacing, suppressing] all children from the game because they could be killed… what’s the value of a moral action if you can’t do wrong anyway ? Which may be the point actually: the displays of sadism may be what give it’s value to the creative/protective outbreaks…) I don’t really happen to care for the characters I kill because, they’re just that, characters, and I just have to reload to find them back on feet and in perfect health. Ad libidum till I can’t improvise any new pattern that happens to work in the structure.

    But then not everyone is like me a bordering sociopath. So, does others players I know seem to derive pleasure from those sadistic fits ? Well yes, obviously. Quite some of them, actually, of both sexes. Is it related to cuteness/powerlessness of the victim ? I’m really not sure. Obvisously they can do it because the “victims” are powerless, and they do it because they can… but it doesn’t say much more than that. Why did so many people spammed the atom bomb function in Lemmings ? Why do some players suicide their avatars in creative ways (this last one could, and I’m pretty sure in a good number of cases does, fit the accomplishment explaination after all… without invalidating the sadism one, I know… the Virtua Fighter player may alos enjoy some Mortal Kombat from time to time) ? When does it stop being sadism and start being the projection of self-destructive impulses ?

    Mmmmhh… my weak, punny mind needs some more time.

    “Had it been a group of guys though, there wouldn't have been any hestitation.”

    Who are you kidding ? Bravado doesn’t imply honesty or lack of timidity, as I’m sure you know. -_^

    “That guy across the street just fall on his ass! Didja see that? LOL!”

    Never understood what’s fun with those… I mean I considered a pretty big sadist by some (the biggest laugh I’m known to ever have was when I learned the bullets used to kill the condemned students of the Tien An Men demonstration had been factured to the families) but when I laugh it’s because it’s so horrible I wouldn’t bear it any other way, not because I find the actual pain involved fun… which too often seems to be partly (no, I won’t venture into bergsonian territory either) the case in those look-he-fell-lol for most people.

  13. FerrousBuller Says:

    Since we’re gettin’ all metaphysical here: is sadism still sadism if the victim (in this case, the Sim) is incapable of feeling real pain? Sure, they can pantomime it pretty good, but in the end, when it’s all make-believe in a virtual world where no one is actually harmed, does it still count? To me, this is part of what distinguishes videogame violence from real-world – or even fictional – violence: the impermanence of it. Death and violence are such transient things in games – nothing more than number readouts on a health bar, with resurrection just a respawn or reload away – that trying to compare them to the real thing seems almost laughable to me. Could you imagine trying to relate World War II in terms of chess? Even in fiction, there are permanent consequences: dead characters usually stay dead.

    Unless they’re superheroes: then I’d say there’s about a 50/50 chance of them staying dead for any measurable length of time. :-)

    “Sex without consequences” isn’t sex anymore: it’s some artifical construct which doesn’t actually exist. In the real world, there are always physical and emotional consequences to sex, like ripples on water. So while it’s amusing to discuss hypothetical “as slutty as you wanna be without consequences” scenarios, ultimately it’s nothing more than a diverting mental exercise (and, maybe, a way of defining your personal views on sex). You might as well wish for a respawn function in real life.

    Though depending on your religious views and thoughts on reincarnation, maybe there already is… :-)

  14. Brummbar Says:

    I think I have a copy of Fallout 2 here somewhere…

  15. Scott Jon Siegel Says:

    Ah yes, the death-o-coasters. I’ve made a few of those in my day. The best part is when the game counts up the ‘injuries,’ and the accident ultimately affects the success of your entire amusement park.

    Teehee, *crash*

    As for lighting Sims on fire, I had a damn hard time trying to do it in Sims 2. The walls would never come together, and the Sims kept trying to put the fires out. I guess they actually cared for their puny, virtual lives. Oh well. -sj

  16. Stephen Says:

    I had a great time with Roller Coaster Tycoon. Though it was one of the last rides I constructed in my first park, I too built a death-coaster. I named it Moron Mountain, after the sims who thought “free” was such a great deal that they would always be lined up to take a ride. Oh, I also deleted the bathrooms.

    I was never able to bring myself to make Sims in The Sims to be hurt or to hurt each other, though. I had more connection to those guys, I suppose, than to the sims in Roller Coaster Tycoon.

  17. Duncan Says:

    A couple of more points in VG Sadism first:
    This topic has been around since the very first sim game I’ve ever seen. The first ones were flight sims. I remember learning to fly in the sim world so that I could create more dramatic crashes, destroying what I could. I remember building cities in Sim City 2000 (and in Caesar II) just so I could unleash riots and other forms of destruction. Actually… Will Wright found that people WANTED the disasters in the game so that they could do just that. And rebuild. It added a level to the game that was not there before. Create and destroy, then create again. It’s a common cycle in life itself, so seeing it mirrored in a game should not be shocking. As players, we have to play God, crating both good and sometimes bad, so we can create more good.

    As for your questions, Bonnie, about gender roles and VG Sadism:
    Women have a genetic and societal disposition towards the social interactions of people. They are genetically better at language, which leads to communication and social problem solving. Societally, they have more training in these areas than men because of lingering gender bias and upbringing.

    Men, on the other hand, tend to be spatial. Due to hormonal shaping early on (ah, testosterone and brain damage) we look at things from a far more physical view. We see how things interact, as opposed to people. We are socially trained to be insensitive, shallow, and interested in the visual.

    Keep in mind that I am using very broad strokes to paint my picture. No person (or at least, very few) actually fall into these stereotypes. By the stereotypes exist because they reflect the consciousness of society. They are the ideal that the mass human consciousness holds to, whether the individual parts do or not.

    Anyway, being that women tend towards social interaction, they would then tend towards relating to virtual situations more easily than men. Men look for physical reactions to games and one of the few ways you can get that is through wanton destruction. Whereas women would see to the characters (however two dimensional) and look to work on social interactions. I think that you would see the moral corruption in a vacuum leak out there.

    Both might experience it, but on different fronts. Men would light the Sims house on fire, and laugh as they burn. Women might tend towards setting up relationships and then rearranging them through careful manipulation and suggestion. Both can be destructive, but the statistics would hint at where each gender would tend to aim their killing blow.

    Up until recently, the level of social manipulation and destruction available in games was nearly non-existent. There simply was no way to socially engineer the downfall of the characters before you. This is changing, and I think that it might open some doors into the human psyche that we haven’t seen much exploration into.

    In essence (for those of you who have slogged through all that, and just want the meat of it), women tend towards the social. This makes them more sensitive to the moral because what is moral is deeply rooted in who we are and how we interact with other people. Given that, I think that women would be less prone to wanton destruction and sadism (even in a virtual world) when the result is a purely physical and visual reward. Men, on the other hand are wired to love that kind of thing. Women, though, might be more prone to destructive social manipulation, given the chance.

  18. Brummbar Says:

    I’m with the above poster who remarked that if no actual suffering or other consequences are involved, we’re going to have to call it something other than “sadism.”

    A person who gleefully slays rollercoaster riders, Sims or even cwute widdle puppies in Nintendogs but who does not (and would not) harm real, living creatures just for fun is not a “sadist.”

    As for in-game behavior, someone should mention Richard Garriott’s famous Ultima 4 computer RPG. My fellow ancient gamers will remember how this was first received – a game where you were scored on ethics (or lack thereof) and rewarded/punished accordingly? A game – an RPG, no less – where you couldn’t just attack people and loot every location on the map? A game where you were expected to let weakened, defeated monsters retreat with their lives? A game which actually tracked how much money you gave to beggars? Incroyable! (That’s for MD2)

    Once the whining and moaning died down, of course, we gamers came to see what Garriott was doing and how refreshing – no, daring – it was. You hear of this or that game being “revolutionary” but U4’s Virtue system really was. The game is now considered a classic and one of the best RPGs ever made.

  19. Bonnie Says:

    Is sadism still sadism when no one is actually feeling pain?: that, my friends, is indeed the question:-). First off, I would warn against getting hung up on the negative connotations our society gives to the idea of sadism. Sadism, at its root, is enjoying the pain of others – for better or for worse, no judgement calls necessary. Second, acting sadistically in one (or even many) situations doesn’t necessarily make you a sadist.

    But back to whether sadism is sadism without pain. There are two ways to look at it, one that hinges the definition on the state of the recipient, the other on the state of the inflictor. So, in the first sense, no, VG “sadism” is not real sadism, because the “victim” feels no real pain, whether physical or emotional. But, if you turn to look at the person inflicting pain, as in the second sense, you see that they act as if the VG character were experiencing pain. So, from their end, it is sadism.

    Personally, since the player is real and the character is not, I tend to take her/his end of things as the truer one than the characters. But that’s not to say that both sides can’t be true at the same time.

  20. FerrousBuller Says:

    “But, if you turn to look at the person inflicting pain, as in the second sense, you see that they act as if the VG character were experiencing pain. So, from their end, it is sadism.”

    Well, my point was: if the player knows that his or her virtual “victim” isn’t real and that no actual pain is suffered, then what they do isn’t sadistic (again, from the player’s perspective) – or is it? Does the average player suspend disbelief long enough to pretend he or she is inflicting “real” pain on the game’s denizens? There is, after all, a difference between enjoying destruction and enjoying inflicting pain. And in a game, if a gamer considers virtual people no more real than virtual furniture (or a mannequin), then they may not distinguish between the two when destroying both. E.g., did you simply regard your Barbie dolls as pieces of plastic which burned good; or did you anthropomorphize them when you destroyed them, pretending you could hear their shreiks of anguish as they burned? [If so: how much therapy have you had? ;-]

    Cybersex isn’t real sex, but it does stimulate some of the same parts of the brain; likewise, virtual sadism isn’t real sadism, but it does stimulate the same parts of the brain…or does it? I’m not aware of any studies on the matter – are you, Bonnie?

    One final comment: ask your average boxer or martial artist if they enjoy hurting people and I suspect they’d be offended by the implication. Such sports aren’t about hurting your opponent, they’re about winning the game, usually by scoring more points. [The cinematic knockout is the exception to the norm, I’m given to understand.] Yes, you use what most of us consider violent means to compete, but it’s a controlled atmosphere of violence, which is why I keep emphasizing violence as a means to an end. To suggest they do it because they like inflicting pain would be like suggesting someone becomes a soldier because he wants to kill people: both are demeaning and insulting. I’m sure there are sadists drawn to such sports (and the military), but there are also plenty of rules in place to govern matches (and combat), which among other things prevent people from succumbing to whatever sadistic impulses they feel. Usually you only run into problems when those rules are abrogated or ignored.

    [But I’m coming dangerously close to political commentary with that one, so I’ll stop now.]

  21. Brummbar Says:

    FB, I’ve boxed and yes, it’s about mastery of a martial art and not simply hitting people.

    Also, knockouts are rare. It does happen, but more because your opponent screwed up and didn’t guard his head than because you throw a mean right hook.

  22. Sam Kelly Says:

    From Bonnie, “What I mean to say is, if it's just skill, why represent achieved skill through violence? Why blow off someone's head instead of just a target?”

    Mm, that is an interesting question (and of course Ferrous is right, there -are- some people who enjoy violence for its own sake, and no judgment here, either). I think the answer’s a level of abstraction up, though. Shooting at targets on a range isn’t fundamentally different from shooting at random virtual people in a virtual range, but if you’re going to work within a fiction then you need people-type targets, preferably ones that behave like people.

    On another level, there’s also the immediate visual reward of the blood splashes, the patterns and the bright colours.

  23. Bonnie Says:

    Ferrous, I understand what you’re saying about violence with another purpose – be it skill, sport, necessity – not necessarily being sadistic. I think in the cases initially described here though (of course our conversation has gone tons of other places since :-), sadism really is the purpose. You don’t need skill/sportsmanship to harm a puppy (in theory at least – in Nintendogs it’s impossible) or send sims to their death. Of course, I see your larger point that lumping all game violence (or real violence) together is a dangerous oversimplification.

    Sam, I agree with you about the abstraction, and needing to work within a fiction. That brings up other questions though, like why do w, as people, want a fiction to follow? Or, on a more basic level, why, if we need a fiction, does it have to be a violent one? The same game skills – like accuracy, speed, etc. – could be tested through non-violence heuristics.

  24. FerrousBuller Says:

    Bonnie: obviously, I got a bit tangential from your original case of virtual puppy torture – but then, so did you with your “why demonstrate skill through violence?” question. :-)

    So getting back to the original point: as you say, sadism is enjoying the pain or suffering of others. It can refer to physical and/or mental anguish; and be either active or passive (i.e., inflicting the pain yourself or simply observing it). In the case of videogame sadism, given that we know videogame animals and NPCs aren’t “real” – and thus can’t feel real pain – I think whether a particular act qualifies as sadism depends a lot on the mindset of the gamer “inflicting” it: e.g., do they view their target as a “victim” or merely an object? Do they pretend their target is actually suffering or are they merely testing the limits of the gameworld? When you build a sand castle and stomp it into oblivion, do you imagine the denizens fleeing in terror from your mighty feet or do you just like the way the sand squishes between your toes? :-)

    And obviously, the answers vary from person to person. So I don’t think there’s a convenient catch-all answer to the topic of videogame sadism, beyond: “Yes, it exists, but it isn’t a cut-n-dried question to answer.” Which, of course, is why we’ve spent so much time talking about it. :-)

    Some of it depends on your personal definition of sadism, too. If you think laughing at Wil E. Coyote cartoons is sadistic and I don’t (or vice versa), we’re obviously gonna disagree on where to set the bar of videogame sadism.

    [All this presumes that your target is AI-controlled, not another human-controlled avatar, which changes things, obviously. E.g., IMHO, griefing is a form of bullying and bullying is inherently sadistic – usually mild, but sadistic nonetheless. But that’s a tangent for another time… :-]

  25. Bonnie Says:

    Hey Ferrous, I think you’re right both that our definitions of sadism differ, and that there isn’t just one answer here. The disagreement is the fun (and the point) :-).

  26. MD² Says:

    Yup, but are you a sadist because you enjoy knowing pain has been inflicted, or because you enjoy the process of inflicting pain ? I’d say generally both. Virtual sadism allows you to get the process going without the need for a real victim and, as long as you can suspend disbelief, it is satisfaying enough I guess.

    On another notice, I used “factured” instead of “charged” in my previous post.
    Shoot me.

  27. Brummbar Says:

    *bang*

    As the resident Ancient Gamer, I should at least make one metion of Exidy’s 1976 arcade game Death Race. You know: violence, public controversy and all that.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Race

    Also, Bonnie, I have been unable to track down the link to the Death-o-Coaster story. Alas.

  28. MD² Says:

    Thanks, the Death Race entry made interesting reading.

  29. Bonnie Says:

    Hmm, makes me think of the key chain Scott had for his car keys: “So many pedestrians, so little time” – which was funny until he was buying lunch from a girl who had recently been run down by a car…

  30. shannon Says:

    Awww! My real life dog’s name is Pupcake. She’s a Jack-Russell Chihuahua mix, much more fun than any computer dog!

  31. Bonnie Says:

    Adorable! I got the name from a little kid’s, Strawberry Shortcake birthday card, so I won’t claim any original credit. How about you?

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