What you play is what you do? Procedural evil and video game violence
Is it possible to perform acts of virtual evil? What would this look like? If nobody is hurt when we play a ﬁrst-person shooter and blast the heck out of our enemies, why would anyone consider such an act “violent”? In this chapter I consider this question, drawing on the relationship between ritual and play, sacred and profane, real and virtual, to try to untangle the moral implications of virtual violence. In particular, I look at “violent” acts performed in a virtual context in controversial games like the online Kuma\War series of virtual “re-enactments” of the war in Iraq; Left Behind: Eternal Forces, the PC video game; online games like New York Defender and 9/11 Survivor and especially the controversial online game Super Columbine Massacre RPG! created by Danny LeDonne in 2005. As in symbolic sacriﬁcial rites of major world religions, players of these
video games are led through a series of mimetically violent activities. However, in video games these activities are typically understood as ephemeral, inconsequential, and even entertaining. Thus, the question of whether or not we can view video game violence as ritually cathartic hinges on what video game theorist Ian Bogost (2007b) calls “procedural rhetoric” or “the practice of persuading through processes.” Building on Bogost’s notion of procedural rhetoric and addressing the problem of video game violence, I coin the term “procedural evil,” and ask if it is possible to commit evil if the deeds are “committed” only in a virtual context. After examining three related concepts of the magic circle of play – procedural rhetoric and forbidden play – I apply these notions to Super Columbine and I consider to what extent the behavior encouraged in the game might “spill over” into the real world, especially in terms of its moral implications for the player-performer. Is it possible to just “play” at evil in the form of a game?