Do Gamers Secretly Want to be Criminals?

Today, I watched my fiancé frantically call debit card companies, her parents and various other hotlines as her wallet was stolen on the way home, bag zipped, wallet secure, or so we wrongfully assumed. It got me thinking about how shocking it is when it happens: I’ve been mugged five times in London, and assaulted on two of those occasions. It was horrifying, scary and I never saw London the same way again. Yet, why does that shock me when I’m perfectly fine with stealing people’s silverware in Oblivion, or stealing cars in GTA IV?

Human beings, by nature, are fascinated by crime and morally unjust acts. It’s not because we’re all secretly unbalanced and hell-bent on violence, crime and the destruction of the socio-political machine that is, at the moment, ticking over rather unsoundly. Jungian analysis of this behaviour would tell us it’s a suppressed "shadow": the element of our subconscious that governs phobias, fears, and all the binary opposites to our morals that conjure the monsters we see as we suffer nightmares when the sun goes down.

Challenge a child not to take a cookie from the cookie jar, and I think the classic playground chant will tell you more efficiently than logic who’s going to have their hand in said jar when you walk back into the kitchen fifteen minutes later. Challenge a gamer with a flash car, surrounded by police but the knowledge that you can so bomb it down the freeway, hide out for ten seconds and then spray it red to sell it for gun money, and there’s a 99% chance they’ll shoot the cops into cover, then jump in the flash vehicle and haul ass down the road.

The only frustrating element of crime in videogames is the occasional mistake. I didn’t mean to hit someone with my axe in Fable II, but now they all think I did, and I’m stuck. Recently while playing through Oblivion, I got frustrated with someone who wouldn’t give me the information I needed, and stabbed them with my sword, thinking no harm done. Wrong. Guards turned up, I panicked, ran out the door and the game autosaves, leaving me to replay the last two hours of the game because I lost my temper. Why was I so motivated?

Then there’s the odd glitch that drives me to the point where my in-game avatar becomes a criminal from poorly thought-out game design. Bethesda, when I’m shopping in Fallout 3, and I notice a nice bit of scrap metal between me and the shopkeeper, don’t let me steal it because my crosshair was one pixel away from speaking to the proprietor of the establishment. The whole "accidental theft" problem is a nightmare: in Oblivion you can hold the block button and mash the action key in order to calm down someone you’ve accidentally struck with a weapon or spell. But there’s no way to excuse theft, and as just as this seems when comparing the situation to real life, somehow I don’t think I’d be able to stab someone and simply go "sorry mate, I’ll just hold my knife in front of my face and talk to you until you realise I’m Jesus personified."

So why are we so fascinated with crime? Whilst writing a long feature on EVE Online recently for the very site you’re reading now, I thought about the pirate players in space who literally logged on just to wait at stargates, jam people’s ship equipment, blow up their ships, then hold them to ransom, killing their actual pilot (and the source of all their years of skill training) if they don’t comply. It’s sick, but there’s a thrill to be had. Look at Han Solo, Goodfellas; even FireFly was a series based on a bunch of traders who stole, shot and wrangled their way through space, as noble as their intentions may or may not have been. Final Fantasy VII‘s protagonists were part of a rebel militia, who acted against the tyrannical government by killing and attacking soldiers who never even saw the orders they carried out. Who’s the criminal, the evil mastermind, or the person that shoots them "for the greater good"?


Hitman is a good example, as you’re essentially paid nauseating amounts of money to quietly remove people from this plane of existence, but he only ever stops to question his own moral compass once he gets a job in a church. But we’re dancing around the issue here and ignoring the facts: petty criminals, murderers and nutcases alike are having their crimes blamed on videogames. Only today was a man accused of murder, stabbing the boyfriend of the woman he loved eighty-four times before fleeing back to Germany and denying any involvement with the incident.

What’s interesting about this? Well, the man met this couple on a forum for Advance Wars, and instantly the Metro (free newspaper here in London) came up with the "fair" headline of "’Obsessed’ German gamer stabbed Briton to death." Why the involvement of the word gamer? Why, but of course! Advance Wars is all about stabbing people in Nottingham! No, wait, no it’s not. But other games have stabbing in them, don’t they? Aha! GOTCHA!

See? It’s absurd. But there’s a clear difference between pondering why gamers enjoy crime-related games, and then pondering why gamers enjoy game-related crime. I know shedloads of people who loved GTA IV, but not a single one of them mugs people, steals cars or anything similar. Off the top of my head, the only person inspired by that title to commit the crime the game is named after was a young child who stole his parents car to go and visit his grandmother. Hardly a million-dollar coke deal, then.

Games do indeed involve crime, and I don’t think immersion is worth the effort if you can’t do wrong as well as right, but it is curious how much glee we get from our various wrongdoings, even if it is farting at passers-by in Albion.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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