The Virtue of Guilt in Modern Video Gaming

by The guy who cut the trolley's brake lines on April 27, 2017 - 11:56pm

“The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn't real, so why should you care?”(Yager, 2012) This uncomfortable line presents itself during loading screens of the game Spec Ops: The Line as it progresses towards its inevitable conclusion. This discomforting message seeks to remind the player of one very important thing: You are not a passive observer, you are in control and you are responsible. While news outlets may often lay blame towards video games for a growing acceptance of violence, they often seem to forget that it is the lax nature taken towards the subject matter of video games that allow for the actions present in them to not have their full gravity realized. Using a virtue ethical perspective, this article aims to show that players of video games hold the responsibility to maintain critical thought while utilizing this form of media. This will be done primarily through a case study of the video game Spec Ops: The Line and an analysis of players as an active force for change in gaming.(Yager, 2012)


Spec Ops: The Line is a game that follows the standard military shooter game trope almost to a tee. It diverges in the fact that after it tells players to shoot people in large action set pieces, it then forces them to take a look at what they have done. It makes the player ask themselves if it was really a moral thing to do despite it just being a game, therefore putting the player's virtues into question. The most prominent of these sequences occurs when the player's squad arrives at a military check point. The game's protagonists come to the conclusion that the only way they can progress forward is by using a mortar to fire white phosphorus shells (white phosphorus burns human skin on contact) at the checkpoint to eliminate the threat. To use this mortar the player is brought to face a thermal screen that reduces their targets' appearances to white blips on the screen. This exact format can be seen in many other modern military games and is indeed based off of real world military technologies that help dissociate from the fact that behind the screen there are real people. Spec Ops: The Line then forces you to do what other games and even reality does not force you to witness. The player then has to walk through the checkpoint they just bombed and witness the grotesque horrors and the cries for help as soldiers burn. This alone is enough to make a player question whether their behavior in this medium is truly virtues; however, the game seeks to challenge the core ideas a player may hold playing any game, not just a military shooter (Keogh, 2013). Near the end of the mortar segment there appears a cluster of white dots of the screen, to a seasoned player this presents itself as a golden opportunity. The game does not even tell the player anything yet a common reaction is for them to instinctively feel proud of themselves to hit so many “targets” with one shot. This cluster of blips is later shown to be a group of civilians taking refugee from the conflict, with the center of the group displaying the charred corpses of a mother clutching her child pictured above (Croshaw, 2012). This shocking realization then forces the player to recognize their vice; self-aggrandisement. As the game continues it only serves to drive this point further down the players throat as the it tells player that there is only one path forward and that it is the right action to take. The aftermath of these actions exposes the flaws evident in the games instructions and therefore demonstrates to the player that they are at fault since they did not take the time to act with virtue and question what they were told to do. Spec Ops The Line wishes to remind player just how much power they wield and the responsibility that comes with it.(Yager, 2012)


Players are never truly at the whim of a game, they always have the power to decide where it goes. It can even be said that a game can only exist when a person chooses to play it. After all when a game is not being played it is just a series of rules and constraints and therefore only becomes something more when it receives an agent: the player. Players through their virtues hold so much power over games themselves that they can even force already existing games to change themselves to promote virtues. This can be seen through the popular role playing game World of Warcraft. During this games early years it featured a way to play against other players in the game. This feature allowed players to test their skills against other players and was widely praised among its player base. The developers saw the popularity in this mechanic and decided to implement a system of rewards for defeating other players. When this system was introduced a problem arose. Players were no longer playing for friendly competition, but were instead encouraged to fight each other to be able to receive rewards therefore commending the vice of greed. So great was this encouragement that players no longer sought to compete with the virtue of honor against other players. This development in the game lead players to abandon it. So large was the number of people leaving, that the developers had to take notice of it and quickly rectify there mistake so that all interactions between players would promote virtues behavior.(Sicart, 2005)


“You are still a good person” (Yager, 2012) is another message that appears near the end of Spec ops: The Line's campaign after the player has committed a number of horrible atrocities to get to that point. This can be viewed as just a way for the game to make player feel worse for following along and indeed directly contributing to these terrible actions. This message also serves to help players remember that what they do in a game is not always right. The player should be aware of this fact so as to help maintain proper virtues within themselves. Modern video games can no longer be looked at as morally void mediums. They must consist of players who actively think about what they are implicating themselves in no matter how inconsequential the actions may feel. For once one can clearly define the virtues and vices that a game posses, the player may be able to use the game to better understand themselves (Yager, 2012).





Blizzard, World of Warcraft, Blizzard 2005


Croshaw, Ben Yahtzee. "Crossing Spec Ops: The Line." The Escapist. The Escapist, 17 July 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2017


Keogh, Brendan. "Spec Ops: The Line’s conventional subversion of the military shooter." Proceedings of DiGRA 2013: DeFragging Game Studies (2013): 186-202.


Sicart, Miguel. "Game, player, ethics: A virtue ethics approach to computer games." International Review of Information Ethics 4.12 (2005): 13-18


Yager. 2012. Spec Ops: The Line. 2K Games


N/A, Stephen. "Blurring The Line: Exploring Societal Conceptions of Violence Through Spec Ops – The Line." So We Became Artists. N/A, 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.