When my brain breaks, one of the things I do to focus my energy is pull out and dust off ancient video games. I recall, for example, playing Fallout and seeing the opportunity to say things I would never actually say in real life, and do things I would never actually do to people. “I came here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum.” I’ve also journeyed to hell and back, seeking to find myself among the city of lost people, the city of doors. Recently, I journeyed through the Forgotten Realms, seeking to slay the father within, a Lord of Murder. Gamers of a certain generation, say between 30 and 40, know exactly which games I was talking about. But, let’s not talk about games, exactly. Let’s talk about players. In games, the player is a sociopath, and often a psychopath.
A psychopath doesn’t have a conscience. If he lies to you so he can steal your money, he won’t feel any moral qualms, though he may pretend to. He may observe others and then act the way they do so he’s not “found out,” Tompkins says.
A sociopath typically has a conscience, but it’s weak. He may know that taking your money is wrong, and he might feel some guilt or remorse, but that won’t stop his behavior.
Both lack empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand how they feel. But a psychopath has less regard for others, says Aaron Kipnis, PhD, author of The Midas Complex. Someone with this personality type sees others as objects he can use for his own benefit.
Presumably, my heroine was a Swashbuckling rogue, able to go toe-to-toe with anyone for a good cause. Alas, I know it is all an act, and the dark forces are always welling up inside of her, because every time a dialog tree opened, there were options that were so far out of character that they should have been imaginary. At any moment, I, the person behind the curtain, could swoop in and change everything about myself, and flip out on everyone, cast away all my old allies and embrace the darkness. At some point during the game, I am less interested in the narrative of the many, many, many quests as I am in the rewards of the quest. I am pushing through the tasks and gaming the system to get the best reward in the quest or the roleplay outcome I desire. Ultimately, the game world becomes a flat matte upon which I push my little sprites through. The people inside the map, the communities and histories and futures there, exist only as they shape my journey, and I shape them intentionally to garner the reward that I desire in the outcome. The people in the world are not there for their own sake, but for mine. I am the powerful force that moves through the realms, blessing and cursing all that I survey. And, there is no moment where options and responses are off the table. Ultimately, every step of the journey is a series of calculated maneuvers to acquire power, prestige, etc.
If goodness and evil exist in the world, and they are wrestling inside of us, they become a sort of habit. People who do good tend to get in the habit of doing good. This pattern starts early, and continues on into adulthood. THe same is true of evil. To break the habit, and break the pattern is a challenge with which everyone in society struggles. In the games, though, there is no struggle. There is no genuine peril to choosing one path or another. THe only peril is generally minor quest rewards, and the emotionally-disconnected player can sit back in a chair and calculate the best thing to say or do, or quickly skim an on-line tutorial about the game, and pause and think. The path is always a choice. There is never a flowing gestural expression of self. Player agency, always, and in this the lie of agency.
Most of our decisions are made by the habit of our decisions. Empathy and sympathy and human emotion will overwhelm the realm of conscious reason, conscience, etc. Only to a sociopath or a psychopath or something quite like one is life a “game.”
When I do play video games, I often get depressed. I’ve noticed this as I get older that video games mostly make me sad, even as I am drawn to them from time to time to bring out my own sadness. I feel disconnected, opportunistic, and like I have to try hard to be what I want, instead of just living in a moment, flowing through a moment, breathing and smiling. I miss the world, but I enjoy the game from time to time. It is interesting to pull the mind into the place where sociopaths live, to take from it what their stories are.