How many people have you killed? How many animals have you slaughtered? How many planes have you shot down? Aliens have you murdered? Anthropomorphic-turtles have you bopped?

Are you … evil?

Videogames are violent affairs. No gamer can deny he’s committed hundreds of awful acts that in normal society would have him captured, maimed or killed in retaliation. Not that all violent acts are evil, but it’s safe to assume at least someone would be upset that his loved one was not coming home from the battlefield. Players never really think about the consequences of their virtual violence, and that is by design.

In most games, the player assumes the role of the hero. Even though he may kill countless enemies, these enemies are usually evil characters (be they zombies or Koopa-Troopas). A commonly held axiom in game design is people don’t want to think about the morality of their actions while playing, they just want to be entertained. The plethora of WWII games released in the midst of, what is to some, a morally questionable war in Iraq suddenly makes sense. Nazis are bad, everyone can agree. Playing games like these doesn’t make the player feel as if he’s doing something wrong.

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But as gaming has grown as an art form, game designers have stopped ignoring humanity’s darker nature. Nowadays, people who want to take a vacation to the Dark side don’t have to look any further than their nearest GameStop. In any number of games, there are evil endings, evil dialogue options and evil characters to explore.

But what does playing an evil character in a videogame say about the player? Do these games offer insight into the psyche of the average gamer, or is it just meaningless play, psychologically speaking?

In 1971, the Stanford psychology department conducted a special experiment in its basement. The experiment, later known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in order to find a way to alleviate discord in its prison system. Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who signs his emails “ZIM,” ran an ad in a local paper advertising for participants in a “prison simulation.” He received 75 applications and hand-picked the 24 subjects he deemed the most stable and emotionally healthy. Half of these were randomly picked to be prison guards, and the other half were to be the prisoners. These lucky few were then mock-arrested, mock-hand-cuffed and mock-thrown in jail.

The guards, dressed in para-military khakis and armed with wooden batons, exercised control over the prisoners with increasingly sadistic methods. Some of the prisoners bore the ill treatment and their dress-like muslin uniforms silently, while others rebelled both vocally and physically. After several prisoners experienced extreme depression and anxiety, as well as psychosomatic rashes, just two days into their incarceration, they were excused from the experiment. Hmm, you’d think that was a clue that the situation had escalated to something very sinister, but ZIM continued the experiment with alternates.

The great Stanford Prison Experiment was eventually shut down after only six days – it was originally planned to last two weeks. A female research assistant performed a scheduled interview of the participants and was appalled at the conditions. She convinced ZIM that even he, acting as superintendent of the prison, had become an intimate participant in the simulation and his behavior was degrading like the sadistic guards.

Even though it ended early, ZIM claimed the experiment proved his hypothesis. Extreme situations such as incarceration can turn otherwise normal and healthy people into sadistic tormenters or pliable cows. These people aren’t inherently evil; it is the circumstances which can push a person to commit evil acts.

In order to test this idea, ZIM had to create an elaborate fictional world. The subjects chosen to be prisoners were picked up at their homes by actual police officers, brought down to the station for an accurate booking for armed robbery and even deloused. The guards were told to refer to the prisoners only by the numbers stitched on their muslin smocks. The prisoners were forced to wear panty hose on their heads to de-individualize them by removing any details that hair color or length might lend. This kind of illusion was important. Any sense that what the prisoners were experiencing was contrived and their reactions would have been disingenuous. The world ZIM created was intensely real.

As computer technology improves and gives developers the chance to create more vivid environments, so does the ability for game designers to fabricate more compelling and lifelike worlds. After running around in Gears of War, it’s difficult to readjust to the real world of my crappy Brooklyn apartment. But graphics are only part of the experience. Characters, story and, most of all, player choices are what makes a game feel real. It’s all in the details, as ZIM knew.

Given where we are on the technology curve, can a game simulate reality to the point where it is an accurate test of human behavior? Or more importantly, if given a moral choice in a game, do our actions portray how we would react if given that choice in our daily lives? It’s easy to say, after reading about the Stanford Prison experiment, “Bah, I’d never do that.” And that assumption could be correct. Only about a third of the guards in the simulation actually exhibited sadistic tendencies. The results of the Milgram experiments, however, cannot be denied so easily.

Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist and high school classmate of Dr. Zimbardo, conducted several similar experiments from 1961 to 1964. The subjects were told they were participating in a study testing the effect of electric shocks on learning. A subject and the victim (who portrayed another subject but was actually a confederate) were given slips of paper to determine which would be the teacher or the student. In fact, both slips of paper read “teacher” but the confederate always acted as if he received the student slip.

The confederate and the subject were placed in separate rooms, but were able to communicate. The teacher was given a sample electric shock of about 45 volts and instructed to teach the confederate a series of word pairs. Each time the confederate got an answer wrong, the teacher was supposed to deliver an electric shock. When the confederate continued to give wrong answers, the voltage would gradually be increased to 450 volts, a potentially fatal level. In truth, the confederate wasn’t being shocked, but pretended as though he had by screaming in pain and banging on the walls.

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Milgram informally polled his colleagues and students as to what percentage of subjects would administer the final, fatal level of shocks. Their estimates topped out at 1 or 2 percent. And many subjects did express desire to end the experiment, but they were instructed to continue four times by the experimenters. The experiment was only halted if the subject still would not continue after the four commands, or if the subject had administered the 450-volt shock three times in succession. Shockingly, 60-65 percent of all the subjects gave the final shocks, despite their reluctance. Over half of the people tested would potentially kill another person just because they were told to do so.

The implications of Milgram’s study are far-reaching. People, when placed in a situation demanding obedience, can commit acts they know to be wrong or evil. But what’s even more interesting is a follow-up experiment conducted in Europe in 2006 testing a subject’s willingness to administer shocks to a virtual victim. In this new scenario, the subject was explicitly aware that both the shocks and the virtual person were not real, yet the experiment duplicated almost exactly the same results as Milgram’s original study.

These results mean a lot to gaming. According to Milgram, most people would willingly hurt another person just because they were told. The follow-up tells us it makes no difference if the person hurt is real or virtual. Suddenly, all those people I ran over in GTA and all those guys I teabagged in competitive FPSes make me feel a little dirtier. If placed in that situation, would I teabag a guy I had just shot?

The idea, then, that videogames can be a somewhat accurate test of the human psyche seems to be true. What does it mean in a game like Knights of the Old Republic, where the player can choose either the Dark or the Light side of the force to master? Is every person who plays as a Dark Jedi also evil in his non-gaming endeavors?

Gamers seem to fall into three categories. There are the noble players, those with a more neutral outlook and those who are just plain bad. Before discussing evil, though, it’s important to define what exactly evil is. A succinct definition of evil, first written by F. E. Katz in his book Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil is any act that “deliberately deprives innocent people of their humanity.” That just about covers everything from murdering grandmothers to stealing lunch money.

Despite the temptations of evil in games, most players follow the good path. Some express their guilt or disdain for having once chosen to do an evil act in game. Player Revan1 states the sentiment succinctly, “It makes me feel horrible to cut down someone who didn’t deserve it or be nasty to my party members for no reason. Even their reactions to my Dark side choices pricks my conscience.” This is echoed throughout the internet, the breadth of bad feelings associated with killing major characters or cheating good NPCs in games seems to be fairly constant. If players do choose evil, they regret it with great emotion.

Sometimes gamers are neutral on the morality present in the game, but want to play evil just to experience more content. These players usually play through the game once as a good character, then switch to evil the next time through. Occasionally, it’ll be to explore the role of an evil character, to take a dip in the evil wading pool.

One of the criticisms of the Stanford Prison Experiment was the guards and the prisoners were merely roleplaying. For example, the prisoners referred to the most sadistic guard as “John Wayne.” After the experiment, he admitted that he was actually emulating a character from the film Cool Hand Luke. In addition, a prison consultant for the experiment, Carlo Prescott, an ex-con, has written in The Stanford Daily that Zimbardo actively encouraged the sadistic behavior exhibited by the guards. While the accusation may not be true, there is a clear difference between choosing to roleplay evil as opposed to committing genuine sadistic acts. Therefore, it’s hard to claim that players who only play evil as a replay are inherently malevolent or corrupt.

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In the search for true evil, I discovered a man known as Mordred. Taking his name from the traditional Arthurian villain, Mordred told me he only played villainous characters. To him, it wasn’t a challenge or a task, he merely chose the dialogue or actions he felt he would say or do. “The first time [playing through] is always how I, personally, would react in that situation, and I always end up evil at the end. No surprise to me, though,” he said. He was the only gamer who admitted to having sadistic tendencies outside of the game. “I like to torture and manipulate in real life as well as in videogames. If I lived during the middle ages, I would have definitely been busy as an interrogator for some despot king. I’m a sadist by nature, and I enjoy inflicting pain. Luckily, my wife is a masochist.” Yikes.

Still, there are gamers who think the evil options written into games like Knights of the Old Republic aren’t diabolic enough. The complaint is the dialogue for evil characters is actually more like being an annoying prick rather than a truly wicked individual. Finishing a quest to save someone’s daughter only to demand outrageous payment from the father isn’t really that evil. As Mordred puts it, “I seriously doubt Vader ever ripped off a plate from a widow, and I can’t imagine that Palpatine would have bothered threatening a group of hunters inside a Tattooine hunting lodge.” Playing a scheming and truly threatening villain within the framework of one story is nearly impossible.

David Gaider, Lead Writer of Bioware’s upcoming Dragon Age, is applying his theories to his game. “What most players seem to demand is not just to be evil but to be intelligent evil … which is the sort of thing that requires long-term plans rather than short-term actions, which is very hard to telegraph to the player without using outright exposition.” That’s a very hard thing to design without the entire game being about playing an evil character.

The traditional result is the designated evil option ends up being petty or mean instead of dastardly. Occasionally, however, players are given a chance to truly embrace their darker selves. One oft-cited example in Knights of the Old Republic involves two of your companions who are introduced as dear friends, Mission and Zaalbar. At one point, because Zaalbar owes the main character a Wookie life-debt, you can manipulate him into murdering his friend, the adolescent Mission. The motivation to harm a character because the player dislikes her is an enormously evil deed. But the Mission-Zaalbar story is an exception that proves the rule: It’s hard to let players be evil without substantially altering the plot.

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In multiplayer games, however, the capacity for true evil is endless. The supposed victim of game violence in multiplayer games isn’t just a binary construct, it’s controlled by another human. One player’s actions can very directly affect another person. Competitive games like FPSes or even organized PVP in MMOGs doesn’t enter into our estimations of evil, because participation in these games implies a social contract. Red agrees to shoot Blue, and vice versa.

But killing weaker players in MMOGs, commonly called ganking or griefing, is real evil exacted on other humans. Here, the part of the evil definition where one “deliberately deprives innocent people of their humanity” comes into play. The act of killing a low-level avatar offers no reward in most games. The only motivation for griefing is to deprive the other player of his freedom.

Even though there are similarities between social psychology experiments like those designed by Milgram and Zimbardo and modern videogames, the two were made for very different purposes. The experiments were created in controlled environments to test specific ideas. Games are a form of entertainment, albeit a complex and interactive one. But the concept that the way people play videogames is a measure of their character is a very compelling one.

It’s interesting to examine our relationship with good and evil in the context of a videogame. Would I demand extra payment for rescuing a lost boy? Would I kill a prostitute to get back the money I just paid her? Would I turn to the Dark side if I could? These are questions I can’t answer in the real world, and games that enable such reflection should be lauded instead of vilified.

Am I evil? I don’t know, but the fact I can get closer to the answer in a world with a reset button is anything but.

Greg Tito is a playwright and standup comic residing in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently splitting time between World of Warcraft, a new D&D 3rd edition campaign and finishing one of his many uncompleted writing projects. He also blogs semi-regularly at http://onlyzuul.blogspot.com/.

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