Checkpoint: Playing the bad guy

In certain situations, playing as an evil person can be fascinating, as you get inside the mind of a sociopath or a terrorist. It’s a learning experience, but not an experience that turns people into Nazis or terrorists. (JaseCurtis/Flickr)

When I was a child, my dad never let me be “evil” in video games. I was always a Jedi, never a Sith, and I was always the savior of the wasteland, never its doom. Since then, I have spent dozens of hours as a manipulator, a murderer and a tyrant, but I know today that I am all the better for it. In this column, I hope to explain the benefits of playing the bad guy. 

The main reason that my dad never let me be the bad guy is that he always wanted me to feel like I was on the right side of history, but people don’t learn to be moral or bad people through video games any more than they learn to be good or bad from sports or paintings.

In certain situations, playing as an evil person can be fascinating, as you get inside the mind of a sociopath or a terrorist. It’s a learning experience, but not an experience that turns people into Nazis or terrorists.

This gets back to the now largely discredited idea that video games cause violence or violent tendencies in people. If you follow that logic, you might conclude that playing as a Sith in “Knights of the Old Republic” will make you a disciple of the galactic empire. In reality, playing as a bad guy in a video game won’t make you evil any more than playing as Superman will give you the power to fly and shoot heat beams out of your eyes.

So now let’s look at a real world example of how attempting to make things about good and bad can create First Amendment issues. Recently, Electronic Arts, or EA, made a significant artistic decision regarding their reboot of “Medal of Honor.” In response to complaints from the US Army, mixed-in with threats to ban the video game from stores on military bases, EA changed the name of one of the factions in multiplayer from “Taliban” to “OpFor,” or “opposing force.” 

The game doesn’t espouse the values of the Taliban, nor is the difference between the two sides anything but cosmetic. Regardless, the publisher caved under pressure, backed by the idea that including the Taliban in the game, which advertises its “realism” in almost all of its promotional material, is somehow wrong or immoral.

In the end, it didn’t even matter, because the game was still banned from stores in military bases. Attempting to impose our moral values on works of art, including video games, can lead to nothing but censorship.

This column’s getting a little too serious for my taste, so let me explain what I find to be the most compelling aspect about playing as a bad guy: being evil in a video game is fun. Let’s face it, being a good guy in video games, when you’re already probably trying to be a decent person in real life, is boring. We have all had fantasies about power and what we would do with it, so what’s the harm in a power fantasy, which is basically what playing as the bad guy is?

People are thrilled by shows like “Breaking Bad” and movies like “Goodfellas,” so why are video games under special scrutiny just because they’re an interactive experience? I suspect that it is mainly because video games are still considered the new theme in the entertainment industry, which makes them an easy scapegoat for all the problems that the world faces today. 

The irony is that the attempt to censor or ban video games that let you play the bad guy only create more interest in them; the forbidden fruits of the gaming world. When I went back and played through those games that I was forbidden to touch as a child, I realized that it wasn’t even that big of a deal.

If my father had realized that about 12 years ago, it would have saved us both a lot of trouble.


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.