halo video game

Real Life Ethics in a Virtual World

In Addiction, Culture, Life Issues, Tech by John Allen

Does what happens in Halo stay in Halo?

Halo is a hugely successful video game franchise that has captured the imaginations of millions of people since the first installment was launched in November 2001. It draws players into a virtual world with an elaborate storyline and never-ending battles with the future of humanity at stake. Welcome to the world of combat gaming.

But why, one wonders, is such vivid, graphic, deadly activity so popular? In a recent letter to Christianity Today, a man explained that he and his wife “bought an Xbox 360 so that we could spend more time playing with our adult sons. We play Halo 3, shooting each other for hours. Granted, it seems odd to celebrate our unity with simulated carnage, but it works because we know the difference between reality and play. We mix molehills with mountains when we assume that reasonable people easily confuse the two.”

Odd indeed, but are the distinctions between reality and play really that easy to draw? And if it is okay to blow people up in Halo, is it also okay to develop romantic or other emotionally laden relationships in a virtual world?

Frank Emanuel is an Ottawa pastor and theologian with touchstones in the gaming world. “The main problem I see is one of abstraction of identity,” he says. “Virtual environments provide a feeling of anonymity that allows individuals to act in ways they never would outside of that environment. Sometimes this carries into the ‘real’ world. But usually, folks are pretty good at living compartmentalized lives. After all we’ve taught them to compartmentalize their faith life, home life and work life already.

“So this problem isn’t necessarily a new one. But it is especially attractive because it is a more honest way to keep life compartmentalized. In the game I can be a murderous SOB, kill, rape, laugh at the misfortunes of others—live out base desires—while at the same time imagining myself as a normal, even upstanding, citizen outside of the game.”

This abstraction can be dehumanizing. People who “hook up” in the gaming world may go on to meet in person. What may be even scarier, says Emanuel, is that “virtual environments have also allowed for virtual sexual encounters where there is no physical contact.”

As Emanuel sees it, video games have a specific group of problems associated with them. “First there is the reality that the gaming audience has gotten older. This means the content has ‘matured,’ and that what gets into the hands of less ‘mature’ gamers potentially allows them to enact quite perverse scenarios.”

A second problem is addiction. “I personally don’t play a lot of video games simply because I love to escape, and it is too easy for me to get addicted to a game and rob my family, church and friends of my time. In the virtual world ‘real’ time is unimportant.”

But a third problem is even more disturbing to the theologian in Emanuel. He observes that the games are “storied environments,” and that we now have “virtual communities that craft a narrative, in which the individual participates, that gives a false sense of meaning to their lives.”

Some of this, he says, “represents the failure of the church to convey what is arguably the greatest story ever told as a compelling narrative of meaning. But it is hard to compete with the selfish worlds of abstraction that video games create.”

The article above was featured in the special July/August 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.

John Allen
John Allen is a writer.
John Allen
John Allen is a writer.