Years ago I watched a friend (hi Chris!) play through some of the later levels in the original Deus Ex and commented on how he was repeatedly subjecting Majestic 12 security personnel to death by natural causes, in so much as shooting them in the face would naturally cause their death. I noted that there were nonlethal ways to deal with the security on this level, such as stealth or knocking them unconscious with stun batons.
“Nah,” he said, murdering another security guard who I personally thought might have doing his job and was glum over missing his kid’s soccer game. “These guys are pretty high up in MJ-12. They have to know the kind of stuff their employer is up to. They deserve it.” (For those of you who have forgotten, MJ-12 hijinks included creating a global pandemic in order to sell the cure. Not too nice.) Apparently feeling that the victims of his progress through the game deserved their virtual fate was important to this player, and I can understand why.
In fact, psychologists have studied this phenomenon and dubbed it the “Just World Hypothesis.” When people witness someone subjected to some misfortune, they’re susceptible to suggestions that the person deserved it and thus see the misfortune as evidence of karma or justice –hence the “Just” in “Just World Hypothesis”.
A few years ago one researcher showed this effect by presenting two groups of people two versions of an interaction between a “Barbara and Jack,” a man and a woman in a relationship. ((Carli, L. (1999). Cognitive Reconstruction, Hindsight, and Reactions to Victims and Perpetrators. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 966-979.)) The stories presented to each group were identical except for the endings: in one group Jack proposed marriage to Barbara, and in the second he sexually assaulted her. Participants later filled out a survey asking them to recall the situation and those who read the story ending in sexual assault tended to remember (or rather misremember) things from the scenario and thought it more likely that Barbara engaged in risky behaviors like flirting, dressing provocatively, getting drunk, and agreeing to go back to Jack’s apartment. The author argued that people were more subject to remember things in hindsight in such a way that they matched their expectations.
On the flipside, social psychologist Marvin Lerner, who pioneered the concept of the just world hypothesis showed that people are more likely to view lottery winners as harder working students. ((Lerner, M. The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion, (New York: Plenum Press, 1980.)) So it goes both ways.
I think I see something similar in my friend who was assuming that the MJ-12 security guards he was murdering deserved it, because they “must have known.” Note that the game didn’t really provide any evidence that these fellows knew ANYTHING about their employer’s crimes; my friend just filled that part in because presumably he just wanted to shoot dudes without wrestling with any moral quandaries ((And honestly, in the context of a video game that’s hardly unusual, much less a war crime.))
Now consider the recently released first person shooter Homefront, which has you play as an freedom fighter in an America occupied by a North Korean superpower. The introduction to the game goes to great lengths to relieve you of any moral misgivings you might have about plugging away at the enemies it’s getting ready to throw at you. You see enemy soldiers not only brutalizing American civilians, but outright murdering a mother in front of her children and callously tossing corpses around. The message is clear: Hey, these guys are evil. When we give you a gun, SHOOT THEM and FEEL GOOD ABOUT IT. Doing so is just increasing the amount of justice in the world, which is something your human psyche is naturally all on board with.
Of course, the interesting thing (or, more to the point, the uninteresting thing) about Homefront is that it’s not leaving any blanks to be filled in by the just world bias. By turning it up to 11, the THQ is is making entirely sure that your natural proclivity for blaming people (i.e., the parade’s worth of North Korean soldiers you meet between each level’s start and finish) for their own misfortune (i.e., being at the wrong end of your various guns and explosives) is indulged. And while I appreciate the easy out, I think it kind of robs the game of some narrative depth. Some of my favorite gaming moments over the years have been born of difficult decisions about who to let live and who to gun down. Let me decide, act, and ruminate on those actions once the smoke clears; that will keep the game with me for longer. ((Though in full disclosure, I haven’t played Homefront; maybe it becomes subtle, but the intro video I watched sure wasn’t.))