The Banality of Evil in Video Games

According to Hannah Arent, the concept of the banality of evil is rooted in the logic that “in totalitarian states, bureaucrats are alienated within the whole machinery of the state, performing activities that lead to atrocities by blindly following the orders of the political apparatus that does not allow, nor provide, any feedback: “He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.” (Sicart, 2009)

Miguel Sicart’s article The Banality of Simulated Evil discusses the Arent’s concept in the context of virtual environments, namely video games, where the players’ decisions are ultimately scripted in the game code, giving the programmer complete control over the environment.  Sicart argues that the banality of evil is “determined by the necessity to keep a system running without discussing the moral nature of the orders received, rather than guided by evil intention” (Sicart, 2009).  It is easy to apply this political theory to video games.

Essentially, the gamer is placed into a situation where he or she does not receive moral feedback about any actions taken within the world of the game.  “In this context,” Sicart argues, “desensitization could be defined as the crisis of ethical tools that agents have to evaluate their conduct” (Sicart, 2009).  This is true in the case of the controversial Columbine High School video game.  In the game, players are cast as a hybridization of the two aggressors from the real-life tragedy, and are instructed to buy weapons and approach the school.  They receive no moral feedback on the purchase of weapons.  Then, when they are presented with a fellow student member, or other individual on school grounds, the player’s only options are to kill the person who just approached them, or forfeit the game.  Most players choose to kill the individual with whom they are presented.  It is rumored that the only way to win this game is to kill every person on school grounds, but are players who win evil?

On the other hand, Sicart presents the type of situation that may be brought about by playing a game such as Mass Effect 3.  Games fitting into this second type “taunt players with ethical decision-making; understood as choosing between two or three options of varied ethical alignments, from good to neutral to evil” (Sicart, 2009).  Mass Effect presents these players with decisions like this through all three of the games in their series, with each subsequent game recording the saves from the past games and using those to determine the settings for the current game.  This means that players were led to believe that their decisions had repercussions in the world of the game, and that they did receive moral feedback.  However, as Sicart argues, “These types of ethical game designs are fundamentally flawed because their alleged ethical simulation is placed dominantly in the procedural gradient: ‘evil’ is not understood as a dominant semantic condition but a procedural one–it is a state in the machine.  Thus the ethical agents are not required to use their ethical values as agents” (Sicart, 2009).  This becomes painfully obvious in the ending of the game (*****MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!*****) when all of the choices the player makes in the game amount to which color explosion he or she will see when the universe drastically changes.  “It is then,” according to Sicart, “a process similar to the banality of evil concept: agents are deprived of their ethical capacities in favor of a procedural external system that will evaluate their choices” (Sicart, 2009) and code them into a colorful explosion of light that engulfs the Normandy.  So much for choice.

Sicart, M. The Banality of simulated evil. Ethics and information technology, 3, 191-202.

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